The bride's second disappointment
I am afraid that I must eat my words over geographical competence. I am writing this blog in Buffalo, New York State, where I am at a conference on “Genealogies of the Humanities” at the university there. No – I wasn’t entirely sure either quite what the title meant, but as it turned out my paper on how the definition of “the humanities” changed in nineteenth-century England seemed to fit the bill well enough. And there have been some great contributions on a range of topics from the role of animals in the humanities to how “Oriental Studies” became an independent subject in nineteenth-century Germany.
The truth is before I left I hadn’t completely checked out where Buffalo was. I knew that it was in the West of New York State, but I hadn’t exactly grasped that it was on the Great Lakes, just 20 minutes from Canada and right next to Niagara Falls. In fact, when I arrived at the airport and found the signs saying “Buffalo-Niagara” I had a slight panic that I was at the wrong place. A bit like being at Bristol Parkway when you want to be at Bristol Temple Meads, but less easily rectifiable.
I’m always a bit of a sucker for natural wonders (unlike painting and buildings, you don’t actually need to KNOW anything to enjoy them). So once I had realised that I really was in the right place, I decided that I would visit the Falls before I came home – even if it meant missing a little bit of the conference. It was gob-smacking.
My Buffalo friends, who were complicit in this short exercise of truancy, recommended we went to the Canadian side of the Falls – although it did entail a certain nerve-wracking anxiety about whether the US border control would let me back in again. The United States section is not only much less impressive in water terms. It is also tawdry beyond belief: rows of cheap hotels, casinos and parking lots.
As if to emphasise the political and cultural difference, the Canadian side is parkland, with a reassuringly old-fashioned 1950s municipal gardens feel to it. Best of all, the tourist industry has resisted the temptation to provide button-pushing, hi-tech fun (“re-create the experience of falling over the edge in a barrel . . “ and the like). It just concentrates on letting you see the waterfall. One option, if you have more time than we did, is to take a boat trip along the bottom of the cascade (in a boat known, appropriately enough, as “The Maid of the Mist”). We took the quicker option.
From the end of the nineteenth-century on, tunnels and shaft were dug through the rock, so that visitors could get really close to the water, from all kinds of unexpected angles. The best bit was taking an elevator down to the lower river level and coming out, literally, behind the falling water, which thundered down in sheets just a couple of metres in front of you. The tunnels were decorated with some quaint photographs of earlier visitors obviously having an excellent times: from Marilyn Monroe through JFK (separate trip, it seems) to Princess Di and the kids.
Oscar Wilde dismissed the whole thing as “the bride’s second disappointment” (with a wry nod to the area’s popularity as a honeymoon destination). Maybe I’m easily pleased, but for me it was one of those sights that didn’t actually disappoint at all. Grand Canyon next stop?