Recently, an interviewer for JAM magazine asked me, "Which phrases do you over-use the most?"
My answer: "Cry me a fucking river" and "The world should have my problems."
Indeed. The reason I haven't posted a blog since the New Year has been that I've been consumed writing my latest book, which, I'm happy to report, is turning out to be every bit as agonizing, soul-crushing, and demented as my other three.
I've also been on the road. A lot. You'd think I'd have blogged about this, but no. The whole point of traveling, these days, has largely been to avoid writing. But among the top ironies and headline-worthy events: I recently went to Luxembourg, where I visited an exhibition on poverty. Yes, you read that correctly. It seems the tiny nation is so full of, well, luxe, that it felt compelled to put poverty -- past and present -- on display in its city museum.
As icky as this sounds at first, the exhibition actually had merit. First, it showed how, up until the turn of the last century, Luxembourg looked pretty much like the worst slums on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. "Just hold on a minute there," it seemed to be saying to all the bankers and well-heeled Luxembourgians (?) who now hurry through its boutique-lined streets. "Check your sense of entitlement at the door. Not so long ago, you were all sleeping six to a bed -- or on the floor with the rats. Your forefathers were starving."
Its comparisons of monthly salaries between day-laborers in developing nations, the President of the United States, and Prince Charles were also illuminating and sobering (and enough to make you want to take a polo mallet to all those commemorative plates for Will and Kate's Royal Wedding). So were its displays on its drug-treatment centers for the homeless. Amazing what you can do when you're a tiny country with a lot of wealth that you haven't frittered away on a mismanaged war or subprime mortgages.
Smartass that I am, I'd entered the exhibition primed to make derogatory remarks; instead, I found myself thinking that it wouldn't be a half-bad export: a bit of high-brow consciousness raising for Masters of the Universe everywhere.
Continuing my procrastination, I also had the great pleasure of hosting three fabulous, teenaged nephews on a whirlwind, Short-Attention Span Tour of Europe. Four countries in two weeks. How truly American. But I taught the boys how to say "Auntie Susie needs a cocktail" in Spanish, French, and Italian, so we were pretty much good to go. Rome, Barcelona, Paris: we hit 'em all. With the skyrocketing Swiss franc, I shit thee not: it was actually cheaper to fly to all three of these cities on Easyjet than to eat dinner in Geneva.
Once, years ago, I'd gotten it into my head to lead a group of high school students through the British Isles for three weeks. I'd had the idea that it was crucial for American kids to see the world beyond our borders (plus, I was a starving writer: Hey, a free trip to England!) But by the time I got back to America, I told my friends, "If I ever volunteer to lead teenagers through a foreign country ever again, put me in a straightjacket."
Well, this time, no jacket was required. Seeing my phenomenal nephews respond to the works of Bernini, Gaudi, the ancient Romans, and Da Vinci was amazing. So was watching their world-views and their sensitivities dilate. Best yet, however, was accompanying them to do extensive research for my foundation, the Susan Jane Gilman Institute of Advanced Gelato Studies. I will write more about the Susan Jane Gilman Institute of Advanced Gelato Studies later on, but suffice to say that its mission is global -- and globally important (who doesn't like ice cream?). Its cutting edge research, which is often both quantitative and comparative, is required up to three or four times daily in certain cities, and you would not believe how demanding it is. I cannot for the life of me imagine why those bastards at the National Science Foundation have yet to award me a grant.
So this, in short is why I haven't been blogging. Cry me a fucking river, indeed -- but thanks, readers, for sticking with me.
Ah, ‘tis the season for holiday travel. And I, for one, am greatly looking forward to the new, full-body pat-downs at airport security. You want to run a metal-detector over my nether parts? Please, be my guest. While you’re at it, feel free to rifle through my toiletry bag and dismantle my laptop. A strip-search? Sure, go right ahead. Knock yourself out.
Combining highly invasive security measures with the odd grope is just fine by me. I’m one of the most anxious fliers in recorded history. Though I take planes frequently, they make me incredibly nervous – and bring out my very worst behavior. I become rude and needy and compulsive and insane. I am not proud of this.
But being an air passenger is a total relinquishment of control. Is anybody out there really okay with this?
Whenever I fly, I experience an overwhelming urge to make everything around me as pre-measured and processed as one of those little airline meals.
Maybe it’s because a friend of mine was killed on Pan Am Flight 103. Maybe it’s because I knew people in the Trade Towers and on the planes on September 11th. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer – and thus capable of imagining limitless catastrophes. Maybe I’m just a nutjob.
But the instant I book a flight, I start obsessing: Is my seat on an aisle? If not, what happens if I get hemmed in by a sleeping passenger beside me? I could pee in my pants or die of a blood clot. In the event of an emergency evacuation, I’ll be trapped. I'll either lose my legs or burn to death in the fuselage. I start trying to finagle ways to get a seat in the bulkhead. But the bulkhead tends to attract families with screaming, inconsolable children. Last time I had a bulkhead seat during Christmas break, it was like flying in a 767-foot tube of birth control. Half a dozen toddlers shrieked for the entire nine-hour trip. If the flight attendants could’ve offered in-flight vasectomies, trust me: they would’ve had takers.
Invariably, I get an aisle seat. But then, I start worrying about deep-vein thrombosis. And so, EVERY DAY UNTIL I’M SCHEDULED TO FLY, I CHECK THE SEATING CHART ON THE INTERNET TO SEE IF THE SEAT BESIDE ME REMAINS EMPTY. If not, I fanatically start trying to switch my selection so that I can eek out some extra legroom.
Relatives are out of work. Children are dying of AIDS and dehydration. There’s cholera in Haiti, economic unrest in Portugal and Greece, nuclear material being developed in Iran and North Korea, sex trafficking, trapped coal miners, climate change. But from the way I carry on about my fucking seat assignment, you’d think the fate of the world depended on it.
And I haven’t even gotten to the airport yet. Following the dictum “It’s better to be hanging out than freaking out,” I always arrive at least two hours early to steady my nerves. I linger at the security check-points, too, eying other passengers and second-guessing the security staff’s vigilance. Inexplicably, I also need to be the first person on the plane. And so, this holiday season you’ll see me. As soon as the announcement is made that a flight is ready to start boarding First Class passengers only, I’ll be that asshole who plants herself directly in front of the boarding gate even though she’s clearly booked in economy. I’ll be wearing yoga pants and Crocks, for Chrissake; I’ll have brought my own snacks. “Seat 46J” will be plainly visible on my boarding card, but I’ll stand there anyway hoping to pass as a Global Elite Member.
Of course, I’m even worse when there’s open, “general” seating. In Europe, the Amazing Bob and I often take Easyjet – not unlike Southwest Airlines in the USA -- where you board according to when you’ve checked in, then grab any seat.
I believe it is imperative to nab the Exit Row.
Last time we flew Easyjet, we were the first ones at the gate. Yet an announcement was made that people with “special needs” – i.e. passengers with disabilities, pregnant women, and the elderly – were to be given priority. I practically had a seizure. All these limpers and waddlers got to board ahead of me, and they took FOR-EVER. Finally, Group One was told we could proceed. Many of the “special needs” passengers, I noticed, were still taking their time on the tarmac, so I strode past them, hopped nimbly up the gangway, and claimed the row with the comforting escape hatch and extra-extra legroom. Only once I settled in did I realize that my husband was no longer beside me. He didn’t arrive for another 10 minutes, in fact, well after everyone else had boarded. And oddly, he seemed upset.
“What’s wrong?” I said. “Look! I got us the exit row!” “Yeah,” he said, “And you pushed past three pregnant women and a paraplegic in the process.” “But pregnant women and paralytics aren’t even allowed in the Exit Row,” I said. “How is that even relevant?” Bob stared at me. “From hereon in, I’m going to give you a report card on your traveler behavior,” he said.
My husband knows me all too well. If there’s anything I love even more than being the first one on an airplane, getting an exit row, or a strip search, it’s grades. They are so reassuring.
Unfortunately, my husband told me that as an air passenger, I’ve been averaging a “D.” But this means there’s room for improvement – and as we all know by now, I’m a gal who likes her room.
And so, I stretched out my legs, donned my noise-canceling headphones, inflated my terry-cloth neck-pillow, and arranged my People magazines, lip balm, booties, granola bars, ear plugs, antacid, water bottle, Ipod, and aspirin carefully in the seat pocket in front of me. After takeoff, I pried my fingers from their death-grip on my husband’s forearm and exhaled. “Relax,” I said. “It’s all good.”
Once I’m airborne, it seems, I’m perfectly fine.
But until then, apologies to everyone – and happy holidays. Perhaps I’ll see you in the line for airport security. I’ll be that lunatic who’s cutting in front of you.
This month, Frank McCourt would've turned 80. This blog is in his honor.
Recently, I went to Ireland to honor my late, great mentor and high school English teacher, Frank McCourt. As you may know, Frank McCourt taught in the New York City public school system for 30 thankless years, then wrote a little international bestseller about his childhood in Limerick called Angela’s Ashes.
Although he became one of the most celebrated authors on the planet, the denizens of Limerick were not always quick to embrace him. His memoir of devastating poverty was slanderous, they protested – real Limerick wasn’t like that at all– he’d maligned them, he had! But no matter. Now there’s an “Angela’s Ashes Walking Tour” that ranks #4 of the top ten things to do in town.
And just a few months ago, the city’s movers and shakers unveiled a bronze bust of Frank in his honor outside his former primary school.
Clouds of volcanic ash were still threatening Irish airspace at the time of the ceremony, but luckily, the Amazing Bob and I and our friend Maureen (another student of Frank’s) and all the other guests were able to make it. Appropriately, the mayor spoke at the unveiling, along with the dean of the University of Limerick, Frank’s phenomenal wife, Ellen, and his three beloved, wickedly witty brothers. (“Our mother Angela is saying to that volcano: ‘You want ashes? I’ll give you fuckin’ ashes’,” announced Alfie.)
The rain stopped, the crowds applauded wildly outside Leamy Primary School Gallery, and to everyone’s great relief, the bust not only looked like Frank at his handsomest, but captured his sly look of bemusement.
Then, the partying began in earnest. Drinks all around! Buffet! Speeches! And biggest of all: Music and singing! Frank’s nearest and dearest came to the mike to perform ballads, Irish folk songs, pop hits. It was astonishing to see how easily the culture tapped into itself.
When was the last time I’d been among a group of people who could provide their own live entertainment for hours and hours? Possibly not since I was 12, watching the boys in my seventh grade class hold a spitting contest off the balcony during Lloyd Goldfarb’s bar mitzvah.
The Irish know how to party around their grief with more gusto, skill, and eloquence than any other culture I’ve encountered.
I’ve been to Ireland several times. The first time, I was a student, sleeping on the floor of Maureen’s bed-sit, where we had to burn peat in a tiny stove in order to keep warm, and the bathroom down the hall had a meter: hot water cost 25p a shower. Unemployment was 25%, and the country was hemorrhaging its young people. A few years later, I returned to find the Celtic tiger revving up its engine: suddenly, there was a new Writers’ Museum in Dublin, the renovated Temple Bar district, and more than sausage and chips on the menus.
Now, 15 years later, the country is falling on hard times again, but an outsider wouldn't know it. In the past decade, Dublin has transformed almost as much as Shanghai – whole districts of gleaming glass architecture have sprung up to such an extent that parts of the city are unrecognizable. A futuristic silver needle soars over the entire skyline at the top of O’Connell Street. Fusion restaurants, private clubs, fancy boutiques, arts complexes…Dublin now no longer reminds me of 19th century Manchester but of another great phoenix of a city: Berlin.
And the Limerick of Angela’s Ashes? While it ain’t exactly a boomtown, someone has definitely taken a paint brush to it. The slums of Frank’s childhood have become a charming little neighborhood -- the tenements of his old lane replaced by single-family homes with tiny lawns and flower boxes. The only commemoration of the McCourt family in evidence is at the old neighborhood pub, which has touchingly replaced its “Men” and “Women” bathroom signs with the words “Frank” and “Angela.”
When I saw this, I wept. “You’re crying over a bathroom door?” Maureen chided as we made our way through our teacher’s old stomping grounds.
Yeah. For all the changes it has undergone, Ireland’s most marked characteristic, for me, still, remains this: an inspiring sadness.
It’s a country steeped in melancholy, in a palpable, lyrical grief. This is what struck me about Ireland more than anything else the first time I visited – and continues to strike me each time I go back. The Irish understand suffering and loss first-hand; their culture is saturated with mourning, with the understanding that bad things can happen – and have happened -- to good people.
And instead of turning away from the terrible beauty and sorrow of this, they’ve embraced it, celebrated it, channeled it into art – into amazing music and literature. And they continue to do so. It’s living. It’s on their tongues and fingertips. It’s grabbing the microphone in the banquet room at the Strand Hotel in Limerick on a rainy Thursday evening.
All of this may sound facile, but remember: I’m American. Despite the big Irish population in my homeland, mine is not a country that in almost any way, shape, or form accepts pain. Smile! we order. Lighten up, big fella. Jeez, don’t be such a downer.
We almost pathologically refuse to accept the fact that sometimes, shit happens: If you’re poor, sick, or old in America, we tend to believe it’s your own damn fault. Our peculiar, adolescent mix of Puritanism, individualism, and optimism has bred a national conviction that if you just hit upon the right combination of lifestyle choices – if you just work hard enough, take enough vitamins and antioxidants, exercise, don’t smoke, invest wisely, attend a certain church, vote a certain way, buy the right, groovy shit, and behave -- you can outwit tragedy. If you don’t, well, that’s not just life. You, personally, have somehow failed to be clever and industrious enough.
This is why we Yanks are so suspect of universal health care, welfare, unemployment insurance, or any other policy that stands to benefit the common good in some big and basic way.
Although America has been generous internationally at times, domestically? Not so much. Even today, we Americans still believe that we’re each in this alone. We're taught as children that we're masters of our own destiny: We can grow up to be president, or the next Bill Gates, or the next Warren Buffet. The flip side of this is that if we don’t, we have no one to blame but ourselves. And so, if our neighbors are down-and-out, we write things on the internet like: “Why should I bail out some lazy-ass welfare mom who took on a mortgage she couldn’t possibly afford?” “I don’t want my tax dollars subsidizing health insurance for some lowlife.” “Get a job and quit whining, scumbag.”
Our lack of empathy and imagination is stunning. While he was alive, even Frank McCourt had a few such remarks directed his way. At one of his readings for Angela’s Ashes that I attended in Washington, D.C., a woman asked him, “Weren’t you ever mad and frustrated that your mother didn’t just get up off her bed and get a job?”
It was one of the only times I saw Frank get angry. “Are you a mother?” he shot back. “How many children have you lost? If you buried one child, then another, then another, how sure are you that you’d be able to ‘just get up out of bed’?”
To be fair, Angela’s Ashes doesn’t portray Limerick as a hotbed of humanitarianism, either. The Church, the schools, the local charities…even distant family members appear criminal in their indifference, negligence, hypocrisy, and snobbery towards the McCourt’s.
But great art requires both outrage and compassion. And Ireland – far more than America -- breeds both. Certainly, Frank had them. “What James Joyce did for Dublin, Frank McCourt did for Limerick,” a speaker said at the unveiling. He wasn’t being hyperbolic. He was simply stating fact.
Bill Bryson once noted: “No country has given the world more incomparable literature per head of population than Ireland.” Given its painful history, its indomitable culture, and its unique, elegiac tenderness, I can’t say I’m surprised.
Confession: until this week, whenever I visited Germany, I felt a little queasy. Even as I laughed with German friends, raised a beer, and feasted on strudel, part of me was on red-alert, one eye on the door, my heart thumping nervously.
The first time I ever set foot in Deutschland was 1987. I went to visit my friend Eckehardt, a beautiful West German man who’d helped rescue me in China a few months before. Eckehardt was one of the kindest, most heroic people I’d ever met. Yet I couldn’t stand to be in his homeland. Everything– the linden trees, the brightly-painted medieval houses, the lively beer gardens – struck me as sinister, suspect, and unforgivably unfair.
What had happened inside those historic buildings, I kept wondering. Where did those train tracks lead? Every time an old man or woman walked by, my mind began reeling: “What were you doing 45 years ago? Which of my relatives were you helping to murder?”
After two days, I had to high-tail it out.
Since then, I’ve returned to Germany a half-dozen times. Though my uneasiness lingers, each visit has gotten easier. First, the demographics have changed. It’s now 65 years since WWII ended. A sizeable portion of German grandparents have been born after the war.
And I’ve changed too. I have family members who refuse to set foot in Germany. One won’t even change planes in Frankfort Airport. I completely understand this. But as a post-war baby, I’ve had the luxury of developing hopefulness and idealism. And I’ve decided that I don’t want the Nazis to have the last word.
I want my generation of Germans and Jews to write a better, next chapter.
I’m not saying we should ever forget – or forgive – the Holocaust. But we’ve all been impacted by the genocide. We’re all aware of the Evil. So let’s follow it up with Good. Let’s be able to tell our children that once, Germany committed unspeakable atrocities against the Jews – but now, just decades later, look: descendents of both Nazis and their victims are hanging out together in nightclubs, collaborating on world aid projects, and building beautiful museums together. While people are capable of monstrousness, we are also capable of extraordinary humanity. We have the capacity for both. Never forget either.
And so, I go to Germany and engage. I stroll along its rivers, joke with its locals, visit its museums. Maybe I’m naïve. But, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once said: The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
And few cities, it seems to me, have more first-rate intelligence right now than Berlin. It used to be East vs. West. Now it’s a brilliant union of contradictions, a metropolitan Janus looking both backwards and forwards.
Berlin today is quirky and dynamic, filled with innovative new glass architecture, graffiti art, museums, night clubs, and cutting edge-fabulosity. Sometimes, there doesn’t seem to be a citizen anywhere over 35. Even the older people are hip, riding their bicycles, recycling their trash, going to film festivals. Everyone seems to have the funky sneakers, the little Scandinavian eyeglasses, the ethnic scarves.
Yet it’s a city of scar tissue. Berlin doesn’t shy away from its hideous history for a minute. Memorials to the Holocaust and the Cold War are everywhere. It has literally embedded the directive “Never Forget” into its sidewalks. Brass cobblestones dot the city streets, naming the individuals who were arrested, deported, and murdered by the Nazis there.
There’s the new Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The Jewish Center at the Neue Synagogue.” Track 17. Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Daniel Libeskind’s Judisches Museum. (Yes, in some ways, the very concept of a Jewish Museum is icky and unnerving – it seems to reduce Judaism to a specimen. But what’s the alternative?) There’s the extensive “Topography of Terror” exhibit documenting in painstaking detail the rise of the Nazis and their extermination machinery.
Germany’s brutality and culpability are presented unflinchingly: Jews didn’t “die” in the concentration camps. They weren’t “killed” or “exterminated.” Plaques read bluntly: “Murdered by poison gas.” No euphemizing in that.
At several sites, a clear analysis is given of the circumstances that enabled Hitler to come to power: a combination of terrible economic times, endemic racism, and a trumped-up fear of Socialists and Communists – all of which the Nazis exploited. When they seized power illegally in 1933, they insisted they were doing this to “save” the homeland from “dangerous socialists” – their name for the legitimate, democratically elected government at the time.
Bombed-out churches, bullet-holed buildings, and open spaces have been left standing as they were in 1945, looming as a constant reminder. Even the Neue Nationalgalerie, filled with modern art, displays black-and-white reproductions of paintings that were seized by the Nazis as “degenerate art,” then burned or auctioned off.
Add to this Checkpoint Charlie. The Stasi Museum, the Stasi prison, the DDR Museum, and “The Story of Berlin” -- which includes a guided tour of a nuclear fallout shelter – and it’s almost a little much.
It’s almost, dare I say, overkill?
But that’s exactly appropriate.
The Holocaust, as a friend of mine reminded me in Berlin, was uniquely evil – a systematic, state-sponsored genocide that was meticulously designed and implemented for years with industrial efficiency across borders against a peaceful, helpless minority. “The reminders should be overwhelming,” she says. “It should never be easy to witness.”
Even so, Berlin’s mea culpa impressed me. Let’s face it: genocide has happened before and elsewhere. While the Holocaust may be the definitive evil, plenty of other atrocities have been committed throughout history. Yet few countries have ever owned up to their crimes the way that Germany has.
In Berlin, I didn’t find myself looking around anxiously, wondering What happened here? Are the people aware? Are they even sorry? The city itself makes it clear: Everything happened here. Yes, the people know. And wow, are we ever sorry.
For the first time in Germany, I felt something like hope.
Two days later, however I returned home. A book review I’d recorded for America’s National Public Radio had aired on “All Things Considered” while I was away. The book was The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama. I’d begun the review by comparing the strengths of this biography to those of the President. Both, I said, seemed “even-handed, eloquent, and beautifully packaged.” That was it. One sentence. The rest of my critique was mixed.
The first response I received was titled: Jobama Rectum Sniffer. It called our President “a treasonous n***ger,” told me to get my head out of his ass, and ended: “Safeguard the Constitution, Strive for the Death of all Domestic Marxists.” Another read: “You’re an idiot.” On the NPR website, I was called a “drooling liberal” who should invest in sturdy “knee pads.”
I then read that threats against lawmakers had increased threefold this year. I read the speeches being made by far-right pundits and politicians calling Obama a radical socialist. I read about the Tea Party protestors.
I reflected upon everything I’d just seen in Berlin.
So I’m back in the USA again, prostituting myself again for the brand-new, gorgeous, shiny, highly-affordable paperback version of Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven (please buy it, please buy it! –there, required shameless subliminal plug done) and what do I find myself doing all day? Math.
To my great horror, I have been living abroad long enough now that my brain is starting to slide into some distinctly alarming European numerical marshiness. For example, when I’m paying the bill in restaurants here, I’m forgetting to tip! I am a former waitress who used to run her tushie off in a cocktail bar, yet I’ve gotten so accustomed to service being included in the bill in Europe (where, perhaps not coincidently, the service is generally – how do I put this diplomatically? – I don’t – it sucks) that I tend to forget it’s not included here. Friends glare at me after I’ve ponied up for the check: Aren’t you going to leave a tip? “Oh my god, yes,” I say with embarrassment.
Then I realize, I need to calculate it. And I’ve forgotten how. What’s seventeen percent – is that what we leave? What’s twenty? Do we still double the tax?
And then there’s the exchange rate, and the shoe sizes here, which aren’t “36’s” and “39”’s but simply sixes and nines – and the fact that liquids are no longer measured in deciliters but good, old-fashioned, nonsensical ounces. In the supermarkets, I find myself converting pounds into kilos – the exact reverse of what I do back in Switzerland.
But the biggest challenge, strangely, is the weather. Suddenly, I’m no longer in a world that’s measured in centigrade. It’s disconcerting. I only just got used to it back in Switzerland – I’ve mastered the conversion formula in my head -- F= C x 9/5 + 32 -- yet now I've returned to Fahrenheit and don’t have to do the calculations?
Well, all I can say to this is Hallelujah. Yes, Fahrenheit makes no sense. Yes, the USA should get with the program and join the rest of the world in using the metric system. Culturally, geopolitically, and mathematically, I get this. And while we’re at it: Enough with calling baseball “The World Series” too, when so little of the rest of world plays it and only American teams participate. And enough with abbreviating dates by writing MONTH/day/year when everybody else does it DAY/Month/year, which is infinitely less confusing. Would it kill us to conform just a little?
But Fahrenheit? That’s where I say we hold the line.
You see, I’m a writer. And for a writer, there is no more beautiful system of temperature measurement than Fahrenheit. Kelvin -- which I learned all about in science class in high school then promptly forgot –is based on absolute zero. Absolutes are no good for a writer. There’s no vagueness, no poetry with Kelvin. Boo Kelvin.
And Celsius? Yes, it’s functional, it’s logical, it’s nearly universal. Surely, it seems like the way to go. But c’mon. It’s pretentious. Celsius t prides itself on being a decile system of measurement – oh, you should hear the Europeans go on about it. And yet, it’s actually oblique and un-evocative. I mean, the difference between 20 and 23 degrees Celsius is the difference between whether you should wear a jacket or leave it at home. But who really gets this? And how can one of the hottest days on record somewhere be, say, 46? Forty-six? That’s the best you can do to inspire shock and awe? Please.
Fahrenheit, on the other hand – sweet, ridiculous Fahrenheit -- is messy. Some German guy invented it by sticking a thermometer in salty ice water, then just frozen water, then under his armpit -- thus imposing what’s at best a quasi-rational measurement system on the entire physical world. How typically human: arrogant, confusing, and slightly misguided. This is the stuff of real literature. What’s more, with Fahrenheit, if it’s broiling outside, you’re in the triple-digits, and if it suddenly turns freezing, the mercury will drop a whopping 70 degrees. It’s gradated and extreme, with a vast capacity for both nuance and hyperbole. With uptight, snooty little Celsius, you simply sweat at 35 degrees, shiver at five. How unexpressive. Give me Fahrenheit any day. There’s so much more to work with.
And so, here on book tour, I’m going to take a break, turn on the Weather Channel, and watch the local weather forecast in rapture. Then I’ll call (not ring up) my friends on my cell phone (not my mobile), drink a pint (not a liter) of water, and make sure to tip my waitress. It’s 29 degrees F here in Providence, Rhode Island this morning – and I couldn’t be happier.
Ah, once again, it seems, I’ve pissed off the Brits.
Recently, my husband, the Amazing Bob, and I went to London. From Geneva, it’s an hour-long flight, followed by an eternity stuck in rush-hour traffic. Yet as our voluptuous British taxi jerked and crawled through the streets, we were dazzled. Before us stood Buckingham Palace.
“Hey look,” I giggled, “it’s Lizzie and Phil’s place.”
Of course, I was kidding. Bob gave a little laugh. But our cab driver cleared his throat and glared at me viciously in the rear-view mirror.
England may be the birthplace of Monty Python, Fry and Laurie, Eddie Izzard, “Blackadder,” “Absolutely Fabulous,” and much of the most brilliant and irreverent comedy of the past fifty years. Yet even in the honking, headache-inducing congestion of London, it seems that one must never refer to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip as “Lizzie and Phil.”
As an American abroad, I’m generally very conscientious about not perpetuating the negative stereotypes associated with us. I speak softly, avoid wearing tank tops and shorts, say “please” in the native languages, and never complain about no ice in my Coke. But the one habit I can’t seem to shake is treating the aristocracy like regular people.
If Bob and I visit a 19th century palace of the former Baron Von So-and-So, I find myself wise-cracking, “Hey, check out the crib.” If we’re ushered reverently into some rococo tomb of Great King Austerbottom, I’ll whisper to Bob: So, like, what was up with this guy? And if I see a picture of Prince Charles? I can’t help it. “Hey, look,” I’ll grin. “It’s Chuckie!”
Let’s be fair: the English themselves are guilty of nicknames, too: “Princess Di” and “Fergie,” for starters. In their tabloids, Michael Jackson was gleefully rechristened “Wacko Jacko,” Madonna is "Madge"; Paul McCartney, “Mac,” David Beckham, "Becks."
But those who are to the realm born? That’s different.
Of course, in the States, if some foreigner called President Obama “Barry,” I probably wouldn’t be thrilled, either. But in general, we Yankees view and use nicknames with extreme generosity.
Nicknaming someone implies that you’re close enough to dispense with formalities. Sure, it can be patronizing. But it can also be a profound expression of affection. Among American men in particular, nicknames are often an ironic sign of respect. Giving another guy a moniker – be it “Otter” or “Snoop Dog” -- in a fraternal setting confers acceptance and camaraderie.
When I was in high school, a group of guys who’d grown up together would even give each other nicknames based on embarrassing situations, personal habits, or fuck-ups. For example, they might nickname a guy “Tucks” because he suffered from hemorrhoids and had to use Tucks Anal Wipes. Then “Tucks” would morph into “Tuckie,” which they’d then abbreviate into “’Key.” You’d ask them, “Why do you call him ‘Key’ when his real name is ‘Nathan.’? Oh, it’s a long story, they’d laugh –not unkindly. And here’s the real kicker: "Key" would actually refer to himself as "Key," too, instead of Nathan. It was a badge of honor. “Key” meant he was accepted, ahem, warts and all.
(In a further an aside, do I even need to say that we women don’t do this? If our friend Amelia suffers from terrible menstrual cramps, we’d never dream of nicknaming her “Kotex.” Nor do we go around in a group saying, “I’m PP, and this is my friend we call ‘Bra Strap,’ and that’s Dip-Z, Cocktail Shaker, Donuts, and Boyhound.”)
But I digress…
Back to Lizzie and Phil.
Herein lies the rub. In America, nicknames confer intimacy and familiarity. And in this way, they are wildly democraticizing. If Prince Charles is “Chuckie,” then suddenly, you don’t really see him as the future King of England. He’s more like your next door neighbor or the guy at Home Depot. He’s “Chuckie from the block.” And this, to Americans, is not an insult. Yes, it’s a debunking of the aristocracy. But we Yankees believe that this is a good thing – a necessary correction of an antiquated, unjust order, in fact—and that being “down home” and “keeping it real” are so much better. We’re a country, after all, that maintains that anyone can grow up to be president – and in which everyone insists they “just want to be treated like everyone else.”
What’s more, we Americans consider it the ultimate compliment to say that someone’s “just an average guy, “ one of us,” an “everyman,” a “regular Joe.” Reality TV and celebrity worship aside, being mainstream in America is as good as it gets: We’ll say admiringly: they’re just all-American, apple pie.
Certainly, we insist on this in our leaders. Never mind if they can understand geopolitics, nuclear fusion, and Latin. For better or worse, they need to appear accessible, friendly, and down-to-earth, too. They should be someone we’d like to have a beer with. Do they feel our pain? Have a great homemade cookie recipe? If we do give them a nickname, are they a good sport about it? Being perceived as stuffy is the kiss of death for a politician in America. Wanna slander them? Say they speak French. Worse yet, say they’re “part of the elite.”
Which in Britain, of course, is precisely what the royals are. As Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth is above the law, a separate entity, privileged at birth simply by virtue of her royal bloodlines. She must never behave -- nor be regarded in any way -- as a “regular Josephine.”
We Americans, of course, hate this idea. We like to believe that everyone is born equal. Who cares if your great-great-grandfather was Lord Pemberton Vestige Himmelhead Pippycock? That was, like, two hundred years ago. What have you done for us lately?
And so, when I see Buckingham Palace – where the very nobility Americans rebelled against over two hundred years ago resides to this day -- I guess I can’t help it. My first impulse as a Yankee -- encoded perhaps in my cultural DNA -- is to reduce the inhabitants inside to “Lizzie and Phil” – you know, just another couple from the Rotary Club.
I mean it in jest, with playfulness and affection. (In fact, let’s be honest – nobody on earth feels as much goodwill and admiration towards the Brits as us Yanks. We’re unabashed fans). And yet, my cheekiness is also an inadvertent shot fired across a proverbial bow. It’s a little bit of Lexington and Concord all over again.
A few weeks ago, the Amazing Bob and I had the great, good fortune to go to Marrakech with some American loved ones. We spent a week in a family-run guest house in the medina. Each day, we toured Morocco like the tourists we were. The souks. The Islamic palaces. The red clay countryside: All of it was magnificent.
Since our guides were local, we also had the great, good fortune to have lunch at a Berber family’s house in the Atlas Mountains. Our guide, Mouha, also insisted on inviting all ten of us home for dinner. His very pregnant aunt prepared a feast for us at a moment’s notice. Friends arrived to join in. Fourteen of us -- Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Protestants -- American, French, Berber, and Arab -- sat around low tables in Mouha’s apartment eating couscous, drinking mint tea, and laughing together until we were nearly comatose.
Needless to say, the hospitality was stunning. Does anybody know tour guides in America or Europe who spontaneously invite 10 foreign clients home for dinner? Mouha claims, however, that such generosity is typical in Morocco.
Friendliness can be faked, but warmth can’t. And I have to say, such warmth has been bestowed on me not only in Morocco, but in every majority-Muslim country I’ve ever visited – Indonesia, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco. India (not majority, but with one of the largest Muslim populations on the planet). Even in the streets of East Jerusalem.
The everyday people I’ve encountered in these places – in restaurants, parks, post offices, guest houses, souks, and gardens -- have been nothing like the caricatures of Muslims that awaited me a week later when I arrived back home in Geneva.
By now, the world has seen the political posters. They were plastered across Switzerland leading up to a vote on Nov. 29th over whether to constitutionally ban the construction of minarets. Mind you, there are all of four mosques in the entirety of Switzerland. Only two more are slated for construction. And the Muslim population here is roughly 6% -- most from Eastern Europe.
Yet the poster showed a caricature of a woman encased in a black burqa looming ominously over a Swiss flag. The flag was punctured by black minarets in formation like missiles. The visual was scary and stark, the message unmistakable: minarets=burqas, terrorism, and war. Islam is threatening to overtake Switzerland by force, by cultural and military jihad.
The poster was courtesy of the right-wing UDC party – the same folks responsible for an immigration opposition poster that showed three white sheep booting a black sheep off the Swiss flag. Nice, right? Subtle, they ain’t.
The other politicians here pooh-poohed the minaret resolution. Most people seemed certain it wouldn’t pass. But by late Sunday afternoon, 57% of the population had voted to amend the Swiss constitution. Although voters insisted that they weren’t banning anyone from practicing Islam – just minarets themselves– Please. The message was clear: Yosef, go home.
The month that began for me in Morocco ended here in Geneva with friends and family calling in a state of disbelief:
Like the Genevoise themselves -- who heartily rejected the ban—I was dismayed by the vote. But frankly, I was surprised that people were shocked. “So what’s up with the Swiss and the minarets?” my friends in the U.S. cried. “How on earth could they pass such a hideous ban?”
Well, I’ll tell you how -- and I say this not to excuse or endorse, but simply to explain:
The Swiss passed the ban on minarets because they’re pretty much like us.
Think about it.
Right now, there aren’t many Western nations acting smitten towards Muslims. Certainly, we Americans aren’t. We are on high-alert. Are we amazed the Swiss harbor fears similar to our own?
And like American voters, the Swiss electorate is split. One bloc is rural, isolated, pious, and conservative. The other is urban, urbane, progressive, and internationally interactive. This is precisely how the vote went. The rural block voted for the ban; big cities and the international zones voted against it.
Like us, the Swiss pride themselves on religious tolerance. But this doesn’t mean they don’t resent having to make “concessions” to “outsiders” and “minorities.” It’s one thing to tolerate other faiths on paper, quite another to practice it. Hmm. Again: does this sound familiar?
If you look the reasons some Americans currently give for opposing gay marriage, you get a good dose of much of the same thinking behind the Swiss ban on minarets. The rhetorical cocktail of fear, conservatism, and nationalism is virtually the same:
We’re a Christian nation... We’re sick of politicians and big-city elitists trying to impose their agenda on us... So-called tolerance is destroying our nation...We’re taking back our country. We’ve had it with minorities trying to force their lifestyle down our throats...It’s not the norm. Things have gone too far...We want to return to good, old-fashioned values...Don’t kid yourself. We’re in a war.
Switzerland may pride itself on its shining humanitarian ideals – yet like America, it doesn’t always live up to them. Why is this shocking?
And like everyone else on the planet, the Swiss are also given to moments of misplaced vengeance. The ban of minarets was seen as a largely symbolic act: a “The buck-stops-here” sort of posturing. Yet oddly, I don’t think the voters intended it so much for Muslims in their own neighborhood, as a message to extremists, terrorists, and Muslim leaders on a global scale.
Currently, Switzerland is locking horns with Libya. The summer before last, Swiss police arrested Gaddafi’s son and daughter-in-law here for allegedly beating two employees. In retaliation, Gaddafi expelled Swiss businesses from Libya, recalled diplomats, withdrew Libyan assets from Swiss banks, and arrested two Swiss nationals. This fall, Gaddafi even proposed that the UN General Assembly dissolve Switzerland as a nation all together–divvying it up between France, Germany, and Italy.
Needless to say, the people of Switzerland are not big Gaddafi fans at the moment. Some feel the Swiss government has tried too hard to appease him. Others see Gaddafi’s actions as a direct assault on their homeland. Dissolve our country? Excusez-moi?
This likely added to the background noise during the minaret campaign. The ban was seen by some, I imagine, as a way of firing a shot across Gaddafi’s bow – or across the Swiss government’s -- or both.
Logical? No. But we Americans should know better than anyone how conflicts with one or two Muslim leaders can easily mushroom into a wholesale maligning and distrust of Islam – or how a legitimate war on fundamentalism and terrorism can make a nation go ga-ga, and act illogically and counterproductively. We should know better than anyone the follies that fear and defensiveness can spawn. Surely, we should know better than to throw up our hands in disbelief at the Swiss.
And so it goes. Just now, in the days following the minaret ban, Libya has announced that it’s sentencing the two Swiss nationals in custody to 16 months on a prison farm.
Far beyond myself, and Mouha, and the shopkeepers in the souks kindly offering tea, and the good Genevoise people hanging their heads in shame, another round has begun.