Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Ugly American Abroad

Here's something I was thinking about today as I double parked on a busy street (which everyone does in Israel as a normal course of running errands)--how living in another country can illuminate aspects of one's character that might go unnoticed or unexpressed in one's home country. For me, this has not always been to the good. For instance, when I lived in Munich, Germany for two years, I found myself unexpectedly flouting what I considered good, normal, civilized behavior. I played music too loudly late at night. I left the door of the apartment building propped open in winter for friends. I jaywalked in all sorts of heavy traffic. I turned my car on in cold weather, leaving it empty and blowing exhaust for long minutes, before finally climbing into its warmth and driving off. Why the uncivilized behavior, the childish flouting of politeness? I suppose because I found Germany a stifling place, convention bound, and conformist. Often, Germans, who have no shyness in such manners, would point out the error of my ways. Sometimes I felt abashed, but there were times, I thumbed my nose.

While some of my behavior was troubling, in retrospect, I find some comfort. I really do admire the clich├ęd un-convention of the US. I really do admire those who color outside the lines. I’m sure the Munich I experienced is not one everyone found, and I’m sure not all Germans are as hidebound as the ones I normally encountered.

In fact, there WERE some wild nights at local bars, and if you’ve never seen a half-drunk middle-aged man polka at 3AM in green lederhosen, well, you’ve never seen real weirdness.

Probably I contributed a bit (although I’ll defend myself by saying my rudeness really was on the margin) to the reputation of Americans abroad as ‘oafs.’ Of course, Europeans have long considered Americans boorish. A 1878 New York Times article reports that Europeans consider us a “rare combination of vulgarians and toadies; that they are arch-pretenders and wretched snobs; that they are ridiculously anxious to pass for what they are not in culture, breeding, and nationality; that they are, in a word, precisely the kind of folk that any person of common sense and common delicacy would be mortified to meet.” I love that.

And here’s a fabulous poem along the same lines by Molly Peacock, originally published in The Paris Review in 1986. If you want to read it later, it's also on The Poetry Foundation website.

A Hot Day In Agrigento
         - Molly Peacock

Temples look like discarded alphabets.
We loved lying in their shadows lazily
deciphering and resting and laying bets

on what they really were for. Easily
caught by fantasy, we no longer cared
why they were there, just that they were. Happy

to sit down and drink the water we shared
(having lugged our plastic bottle, and hats,
and camera, through the human dung bared

right there in the sun—where else could you get
relief with no toilets?) we guzzled it down
and splashed it on our arms, hands, legs, and necks.

A girl in dirty, expensive clothes found
us with the bottle and asked us for some.
I said no. As she left, a gagging smell wound

its way out from the bottle’s damp lung.
I’ve often been asked to give what I’ve saved,
but under the temple I said no, numbed

against the girl, like one of those bridesmaids
who kept her oil in the Bible story
and was safe for the night. I’d hated those maids

until I became one in my story,
the shape of the character I’d searched for
surprising me as the temples did: See

how golden but pocked they’ve become, nor
are they quite decipherable anymore,
at least to those who forget what they’re for,

which is worship, the greed of prayer.
“So that’s who you are,” my friend said. “Thirsty?”
With him I drank, not quite the maid in the story,

but in her shadow, like letters at rest
in new words on a palimpsest.

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