So I'm back in the USA for two weeks for business, pleasure, and -- that purgatory of food products -- turkey. I'm here to give thanks, inflict myself on my relatives, record the audio version of my upcoming book, and, real American that I am (take that, Sarah Palin), I am here to shop. But perhaps more than anything else, I am here to talk. Returning to the Motherland means fourteen days of nonstop yakking. We Americans, I've discovered -- especially us Noo Yawkahs -- never shut the fuck up -- and I for one, can't get enough of it.
Admittedly, when the Amazing Bob and I first moved to Geneva in 2002, I couldn't unpack my suitcases quickly enough and begin shedding my red-white-and-blue skin. Oh, how I wanted to assimilate, to become a cultured, erudite, sophisticated European!
(Amazingly, all I thought I needed to to achieve this was the French I vaguely remembered from high school, which enabled me to perform such awe-inspiring cultural feats as ordering grilled cheese sandwiches and observing that "the house, she is big" and "the cat, she is brown." I had no idea that everything about me - my energy, the way I grinned at nothing in particular, how I gaited down the street swinging my arms, and sat in a voluptuous sprawl, and guilelessly poured out my heart to strangers on trains -- would mark me, from 100 yards away, excusez-moi, from 100 meters, as one of those Damn Yankees.)
At that moment in time, I was mortified to be an American: our culture seemed to be nothing but a big, plastic, supersized mall full of fast food, trashy television, and obese, gun-nut, Bible-thumping yokels (oh, keep your pants on, obese, gun-nut-Bible thumping yokels -- this blog isn't over yet) The Europeans, on the other hand, had classical architecture, fine wines, and seven weeks of vacation; in France, chefs and intellectual philosophers were considered to be rock stars. We'd spawned Bill O'Reilly, they had Alain Ducaisse. (note: have fun with my spelling y'all. It's notoriously bad).
And so, for my first year abroad, I balked at speaking English or identifying myself as American. Granted, the combination of Sept. 11th and the subsequent Bush Doctrine and Iraq War had a lot to do with this, too. I was not only embarrassed, but scared. I prended un verre at the local cafes, put on full make-up and heels to go buy laundry detergent, and tried in every way to dial my volume down from an American Spinal Tap "eleven" to a whispery Swiss "three." Whenever someone European said that they hadn't realized I was American, I took this as a compliment.
And yet: Quelle surprise. After about a year of living elegantly, my perspectives began to shift. Diana Vreeland (again spelling, anyone?) once remarked that "elegance is refusal," and I began to see that the Swiss and French tended to "Just Say No" an awful lot. The flip-side of the richness of the culture around me was stinginess - plus snobbery and a certain ossified pessimism. Manners, I realized (duh) could be as fascistic as they were civilizing. Everything was done a certain way, and everything and everyone had their place. Fin. End of discussion.
Despite all that was going on in the world, I found myself missing American exuberance, our optimism, our candy-striping, sunny-faced, star-spangled Can-Do-ism. Our happy sloppiness, Our improvisation. And more than anything else, I missed our out-sized, confessional, emotional incontinence. I missed the way that Americans just talk.
We Americans don't give a shit if your great-great-great grandmother back in Dumfries once showed her ankle to a vicar, or if your name has a "von" in it, or if you went to one of the Grandes Ecoles. We don't care about your pedigree. (As far as we're concerned, pedigree is for dogs). We just want to have a conversation --even if we're, say, on a check-out line at Bed, Bath & Beyond or waiting tables at Applebee's. Hi, my name is Heather? we'll say. And I'll be your server today? And - oh, that's such a lovely necklace you have on. Did your husband here give it to you? He did? Oh, that is so sweet! (To your husband) How sweet are you? My boyfriend? You see this? Well, he's not officially my boyfriend, he's sort of, well, it's complicated -- but he just like, whatever, he got me this necklace for my birthday last week ...here, you see?...it's from Belize, where he goes scuba diving? What? It was your birthday last week, too? You're also a Sagittarius? Ohmygod. You know, there's this new book out by these identical-twin astrologers called the 'astro-twins',* and they say that this year is supposed to be totally amazing for Sagittariuses...
One shot, and we're off.
In New York City, a 60-year-old woman with hair dyed the color over overcooked-carrots and a voice like a car-wheel on a gravel driveway will come up to me in Central Park and a propos of nothing, she'll say, "Look at this, all these strollers! Twins, twins, nothin' but twins! It's like, if you have only one kid at a time anymore, it's not normal!" The UPS delivery guy asks me, "How you doin,' beautiful? You have a good day so far? You doin' some shoppin'? Yeah. Whaddya buy? Oh yeah? I just got one of those for my nephew..." The women spritzing perfume at Macy's, the clerk at the dry cleaners, the plumber at the hotel, people on buses, on park benches, at newsstands, sitting beside you on the Amtrak to D.C.: if they're not talking to someone on their cellphones, they're talkin' to you.
And I love it. Oh, do I miss this abroad: The outpouring of stories. The great, primordial ooze of personality and accents and anecdotes.
They don't do this in Europe. Maybe because they've all been at each other's throats for 3,000+ years, or because they're all living on top of one another...I don't know. But I do know that for all the crises we're facing at the moment, and for all our own shortcomings, we Americans are still an amazingly warmhearted, garrulous bunch. We're oversized puppies, really, hungry for attention and eager to connect. We're loud and proud and big, but we're friendly as hell.
And I cannot tell you what a relief this is to be around.
Or maybe I can. Do you have a minute?
*a shameless plug for my friend Ophi's book
Etiquette for an Apocalypse
5 years ago