Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Coming to America ... Again.

I booked my flights today. I'm going home at the beginning of March for two weeks. That's my lot. Leaving the UK for a two-week fest of washing the crust of Britishness off my skin, of ridding my mind forever of having to adjust one minute to the mindset of an obdurate Italian in Rome and the next to the haggle of a merchant in Madrid trying to make an extra buck out of a sheister deal, or having to explain to my anti-French management why the French are revolting on this particular day over that particular matter. In fact, the closest thing to a 'furrner' I'll see in the US will probably be a Mexican.

I come from a rural community in what Joe McCain described as socialist, communist Northern Virginia. Therefore, according to one McCain surrogate during the recent campaign, I am not a 'real Virginian', even though my mother's family came over to the colony in the mid-Seventeenth Century because the founding father of my tribe reckoned he valued his head on his shoulders more than he valued giving it up for his King. So the King lost his head, whilst my ancestor kept his - and successive generations of his descendants have been losing theirs over some sort of fiasco ever since.

We were the sole Catholic family in a rural community of Protestants, who varied in number from moderate Methodists to raving Holy Rollers, the likes of which would make Sarah Palin look liberal. We stood out like sore thumbs. Our parents were products of the Great Depression, who came of age under Roosevelt, just in time to go into the Second World War, having sacrificed education in order to contribute to the family coffers. In those days, if you were old enough to stand up and string a sentence together, you were old enough to earn your keep. All that, instilled in them a desire for their children to better themselves, and so we were raised with the aim of attending and finishing university.

I can't remember a time when I didn't like to read. In fact, I can't remember a time when I couldn't read. I certainly knew how when I started first grade at the local Catholic school, so I assume that, in her spare time, my mother must have taught me. I certainly didn't learn it from Miss Connie on Romper Room. I do know that the earstwhile novice nun who had charge of the entry class at St John's wrung her hands endlessly over the fact that I could read and had learned to do so in a manner which was 'all wrong'. That was the first of many disagreements I was to have with the Catholic Church in my life.

The thing about reading was that it taught me that there was a world outside the confines of a farming community. It taught me about life in the past in varied and foreign parts of the world, and it carried on teaching me about current life in those parts. By the time I'd reached high school, I'd also developed a penchant for foreign languages. But I didn't learn Spanish and French only to conjugate verbs. Somehow, I was able to use those verbs, those nouns and the adjectives describing them according to gender, to make sentences and communicate. In short, I could speak other languages.

By the time I left for university, I was aching to spread my wings outside my home community. A year abroad convinced me that I could never settle in the US, could never live with Americans. I felt more at home in Mediterranean Europe, I felt I'd been born in the wrong country at the wrong time. After teaching for four years, I met and married a Brit and settled in the southeast of England -close enough to the Med to make annual excursions, NOT of the package tour variety, a duty. I lived here happily enough, I worked with languages and kept abreast of politics on both sides of the Pond. Living here, I learned that, at least on the Continent, it never mattered what an elected Head of State got up to behind closed doors and with whom, as long as the electorate perceived that he ran the country well. I learned also that, for the most part, people in Europe were world-weary and cynical regarding their own politicians, electing someone because he or she was better than the next person, but - at the end of the day- only out for himself or herself.

All this time, I despaired of Americans, especially during the Nineties when I saw the resurgence of the Republican Party under the aegis of Newt Gingrich, a snarling, ugly, aggressive bunch of rednecks, preaching the doctrine of the right thinly disguised by the 'praise-the-Lord-and-pass-the-ammunition' brand of fervently born-again Christians from the backwoods and foothills of the Deep South. Something was familiar about this type, and then I remembered. These were the nasty little boys who spat through the gates of the Catholic school at the uniformed 'snappers' (so-called because we ate only fish on Fridays) as they passed by on the way to the bus stop, and then five years later steamed up the windows of their rattletraps on a Friday night while they tried to convince you to let them venture a finger or something else inside your Catholic panties before puking on your shoes. These were the homecoming queens who'd graduated with a degree in soccer mommery and tutted their tongues in hypocritical pity at any of their gender who dared to differ in anyway from their preconceived attitudes.

I hated them.

This was the party who pointed fingers at Bill Clinton and tried to impeach him; the Brits laughed at all this and predicted a successful impeachment. I was glad when Clinton succeeded in defying them, even gladder when his popularity soared in the aftermath. This was the party who produced Karl Rove and Dick Cheney and who foisted George W Bush on an unsuspecting nation. I had him pegged from the start. Watching the first inklings of the 2000 campaign, I was reminded of a cocky rich fraternity boy who mistook cruelty as wit, the product of a legacied father at an Ivy League university.

I hated him, and I resented the fact that, because Europeans tend to judge Americans by the leaders they choose, I was lumped into a misshapen gaggle of Americans described only by their European counterparts as 'stupid.' This happened more and more as Bush stumbled toward Iraq, to the point that most American ex-pats here started referring to themselves as 'Canadians'.

And then, something happened to me.

Still hating Bush and still deploring his invasion of Iraq (and I feel justified in the reason behind this illegal war being exposed as a lie), it proved to me to be a moment of singular epiphany. Coming home in 2003 for a visit (I was there for the infamous 'Mission Accomplished' moment), I had been in e-mail contact with a person I'd known since high school, a boy who was a close friend and fellow liberal debating partner. He and I met for a long boozy lunch and cocktails session at an old inn in Little Washington, Virginia, the same place which had hosted the wedding nuptials of Andrea Mitchell and Alan Greenspan. His politics had reverted to the right; in fact, I almost gagged a maggot when he told me that his wife wanted to have Donald Rumsfeld's babies, if she hadn't already suffered menopause (thank goodness for small mercies!). As the minutes passed and the booze flowed, John's tongue loosened. He admitted -nay confessed - liberal sympathies and tendancies. He questioned the validity of the war, he admitted to hating Bush and deploring the Patriot Act. He was angered by the curtailing of civil liberties and the disparagement of the Constitution - the contents of which had been lovingly taught to us as students by an elderly retired colonel who looked like Colonel Sanders of KFC fame.

'I've got a confession to make,' he finally said. 'I'm a liberal at heart. And I'm so glad you haven't changed at all. You know,' he continued, 'I really wanted to go out with you in high school, but I always felt you were too clever to like me like that.'

'Well,' I replied, 'I always thought you were too pretty to like me like that. But you should have asked, anyway. I may have said yes. But then, had I done so, we wouldn't be sitting here, talking this honestly to one another.'

And that was probably true. We've seen each other on every visit since. The last time I saw him, last March, he was driving around with an Obama sticker on his car. But at the end of the day, he voted for McCain. Out of fear. Out of fear that Obama would 'spread the wealth'. He suffered a 'Joe the Plumber' moment of ignorance.

But, you know, I still love John; and I'll see him next month and catch up on the gossip. I love him as much as I love my brainwashed right wingnut cousin who says that because I'm to the left I have no morals, or the other cousin who was like a brother to me, but who hasn't answered an e-mail or a phone call since the election because he, a 'born-again' Christian, supported the 'right' candidate and I didn't. I love him as much as I love my best and oldest friend Robin, who's gay and hoping someday to marry her partner so I can be matron of honour, something I'll do with enormous pride, as much as I love Ross, who fires me up with indignation at Israel's plight in the world, or Wenonah, with whom I can sit around a kitchen table and bitch about the bitchy girls we hated in high school who've since enjoyed deliciously terrible moments of bad karma.

And since the election, I can love my country again ... for the moment; because we seem to have done something right for the right reason. And if our new President can weather the storm and calm everyone down and actually achieve half of what he aims to achieve, I can love the government too - and then I will have achieved a Mark Twain moment, loving my country all of the time, and my government when it deserves it. I'm not used to this love of government. I'd forgotten how it's done, so here I go again on a learning curve. Fingers crossed.

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