The Supreme Power: United States of America
The USA is home to several of the world’s most exciting cities, some truly mind-blowing landscapes, a strong sense of regionalism, a trenchant mythology, more history than the country gives itself credit for and, arguably, some of the most approachable natives in the world.The US was fashioned from an incredibly disparate population who, with little in common apart from a desire to choose their own paths to wealth or heaven, rallied around the ennobling ideals of the Declaration of Independence to forge the richest, most inventive and most powerful country on earth.
So much of the country has been filmed, photographed, painted and written about that you need to peel back layers of representation to stop it from looking like a stage setting. This can make the country seem strangely familiar when you first encounter novelties like 24-hour shopping, bottomless cups of coffee, ‘have a nice day’, drive-thru banks, TV evangelists, cheap gasoline and newspapers tossed onto lawns. But you’d be foolish to read too much into this surface familiarity, since you only have to watch Oprah for half an hour to realize that the rituals and currents of American life are as complex, seductive and bewildering as the most alien of cultures.
A Heaven on this Planet: Switzerland
Switzerland may be neutral but it is certainly not flavourless. The fusion of German, French and Italian ingredients has formed a robust national culture, and the country’s alpine landscapes have enough zing to reinvigorate the most jaded traveller.
Goethe summed up Switzerland succinctly as a combination of ‘the colossal and the well-ordered’. You can be sure that your trains and letters will be on time. The tidy, just-so precision of Swiss towns is tempered by the lofty splendour of the landscapes that surround them.
Switzerland conjures up a fair swag of clichÃ©s: irresistible chocolates, yodelling Heidis, humourless bankers, international bureaucracies and an orderly, anally-retentive and rather bland national persona. But Harry Lime was wrong on more than one account when, in The Third Man, he said 500 years of Swiss democracy and peace had produced nothing more than the cuckoo clock. For a start, the Germans invented this monstrous timepiece; secondly, the Swiss, who are a brainy lot, have won more Nobel Prizes and registered more patents per capita than any other nation on earth.
Australia:The natural beauty
Australia’s biggest attraction is its natural beauty. The landscape varies from endless sunbaked horizons to dense tropical rainforest to chilly southern beaches. Scattered along the coasts, its cities blend a European enthusiasm for art and food with a laid-back love of sport and the outdoors.
Visitors expecting to see an opera in Sydney one night and meet Crocodile Dundee the next will have to re-think their grasp of geography in this huge country. It is this sheer vastness that gives Australia – and its diverse population – much of its character.
In cities, visitors will experience a blur of fashion-festooned boutiques and plate-clattering restaurants, then lose themselves in a long fluid moment inside a beer or wine glass. In the interior, they might be harangued by the thump of rocks under their 4WD, only to be transfixed by a slow, silent swirl of outback dust. Around the coast, they’ll take an endless breath in the depths of a rainforest, then slowly realise they have an entire beach to themselves.