Thursday, April 9, 2009

To See Ourselves as Others See Us

Now that the President's safely ensconced in the White House after that rock star tour of Europe, I've had some time to think and reflect about this visit, what it means to me as an expat living abroad and what it should mean to the American people and the people of Europe and the world as a whole.

Crikey, doesn't that sound grandiose? Well, as I've always fancied myself as a bit of an unsung social commentator, pray allow me to undulge myself a bit; because I think I'm well-positioned to comment on our view of ourselves in the world and the way other people see us, as best exemplified by the Scots' poet Robert Burns:-

O would some power
The gift to give us
To see ourselves
As others see us

Of course, Burns was talking about seeing a louse on the neck of a high-born lady in church, which - I suppose - gives a whole new meaning to the concept of nit-picking; but in a way, that's how we, the United States, and - in particular - Americans have been perceived for virtually the whole of the past quarter century: sort of like the louse on the face of the planet (especially during the last 8 years) and, whilst sometimes that's been a fairly just criticism, sometimes it's been pretty crass on the part of the observer.

I feel qualified in being able to offer these comments because I've lived as an American in Europe for the past 28 years and have been visiting Europe for lengthy periods of time off and on since 1974; and it's interesting to note how Americans have been perceived over that period of time.

When I first became acquainted with Europe - Spain, in particular - I was amongst the first mass hoardes of American university students to take advantage of the 'junior year abroad' schemes launched in the 1970s. Basically, you spent your junior year at a European university (usually one with some sort of affiliation with your alma mater at home, and you enjoyed a taste of student life (and study) abroad. The concept was a godsend for language students, who got the opportunity to put their linguistic skills to the test. I was one of those students, and we were mostly female.

It was also the time of cheap student travel (railcards, books about doing Europe on a dollar a day and youth hostels). Most of all, if done properly, travel was safe. As those hoardes of American language students tended to be studying French, Spanish or Italian, our presence in those countries as well, was manna from heaven - especially for the Spanish and Italian boys of our own ages. The Catholic Church held repressive sway over societies in those countries 30 years ago (especially in Spain), and nice Italian and Spanish girls who were potential wife material were strictly sexual no-go areas. For the Latin equivalent of fraternity boys with little money, that meant sex education was either finding a discreet older woman or forking out in the local red light district and praying you didn't get the clap.

American girls were clean, interesting, amusing and we had the Pill. We wanted to experience a summer of Latin love and they gave the gift that kept on giving. Booty for booty. The girlfriends understood, the whores took a holiday, and it was considered a status symbol for a local lothario to enter a disco to the throbbing beat of Eurovision pop with an americana on his arm.

Sometimes, when you got past the sex, you could really connect verbally and intellectually. These were men who'd been raised to talk to the women they were expected to court and marry like lesser children, as though they were people so intellectually stale that they couldn't be spoken to in any other manner. After all, eventually they would be expected to stay at home and mind the babies while the man in question was ensconced with a proper mistress; in the meantime, these girls took a break by the seaside with their mammas and we were the 'mistresses in training.'

Sex aside, you talked. They asked you questions about America, as they'd been fed a diet of all Americans being cowboys living in New York riding horses down Hollywood Boulevard and walking like John Wayne. They wanted to know about the government - I arrived in Spain the summer of Nixon's resignation, and I watched the speech at 2AM in the morning at a friend's house. The Spaniards couldn't understand how a President - in their understanding, a whole government - could resign and another President take the helm so effortlessly and without bloodshed. They asked about political parties, about elections, about what we did for amusement, what we ate, how we partied, what books we read. About everything they couldn't and wouldn't dream about conversing with their girlfriends. We never wondered why, ourselves, we just enjoyed the experience; because for some of us, it would be the only experience we would ever have of cultures different to our own.

In those days, there were no MacDonalds or Burger Kings to be seen in any of the major cities. You ate the food the Europeans ate. You used public transport. You walked. You immersed yourselves in their culture and you came away better for it.

Of course, the Ugly American was rearing his head even then. I recall two girls travelling with our group during that summer of 1974 - sisters who resembled natural versions of Bo Derek in 10.

They insisted on speaking in English and they spoke loudly to everyone, believing that if you spoke to a foreigner loudly in English, they would somehow understand. They spoke to the local people as if they were servants there to do their bidding. One girl left a pair of shoes in the hotel where we stayed in Madrid. When the concierge called our lodging in Salamanca to ask if she wanted them to send the shoes to her by post, she snapped back at the man, who was only trying to help.

'Just ditch them. I'll buy another pair here.'

And this was in a country at a time when you could and did take shoes to the local zapatero to be mended until they couldn't be mended anymore.

Four years later, I returned to Spain to finish my master's degree. That would have been two years into the term of Jimmy Carter. Already, the mood was changing there. Franco had died and the king was proving a liberal sort. I re-connected with an old beau, who'd since married and fathered a son. The wife was awaiting the birth of number 2 and they'd recently moved into a charming little pied-a-terre in one of the side streets in the fashionable area of Salamanca.

So, effectively, I became, for that summer at least, his first maitresse-en-titre. Again, it was good sex and intellectual stimulation. In the afterglow, we could discuss the repercussions of Ford pardoning Nixon on the 1976 election, Franco's death and the King's swing to the left, Jimmy Carter and the welfare state ... and the growing sense of anti-Americanism evidenced by all the graffiti'd slogans bearing various versions of 'Yankees, go home!'

Since 1981, I've lived in the UK as the wife of a British civil servant. I came here an Anglophile, something which most educated people in Virginia claim to be. After all, we were and are the Old Dominion, the only colony loyal to the King during the English civil war, the first colony. We'd given England the first American wife (Pocahontas) and the first woman to be elected to Parliament (Nancy Astor). That we were also the first colony to bite the hand that fed us could be easily forgiven. After all, I'd been at the University of Virginia in 1976 when the Queen visited. Virginians were practically no their knees begging to be taken back into the fold. (We're the natural snobs of the United States, according to my husband).

How rude an awakening it was to find that, as politically correct as the English became over the decade (and the British embraced 'political correctness' with the zeal of a convert), Americans were the only ethnic group which could be targeted pejoratively and not be expected to take offence. In fact, if they did take offence, the British would roll their eyes upwards and mutter something to the effect that Americans either didn't have a sense of humour or Americans didn't understand irony.

Nicholas Ridley, one of Thatcher's Cabintet ministers, made an off-the-cuff remark about the Germans and had to resign immediately. Thatcher, herself, regularly insulted the French, who insulted her back; and apologies were forever criss-crossing the Channel from her to Mitterand and vice versa.

The UK's top television programme, Eastenders, broadcast a week of episodes from Ireland, depicting the main character's Irish relatives as slovenly, drunken and sharing a house with pigs and the BBC was shamed into apologising to the Irish community which inhabits a swathe of North London. Jokes about Asians, Italians and West Indians were simply not tolerated.

Yet British television personalities such as Jeremy Clarkson and Jo Brand pumped out diatribes about the stupidity of Americans.

Brand (no relation to Russell but just as crass): 'I'm not saying Americans are stupid but ...'

The BBC, whose charter alleges it should at all times remain fair, balanced and impartial, is about as fair, balanced and impartial as Fox News in its depiction of America as backward, socially gauche, uber-religious, right-wing and redneck. The BBC welcomed the arrival of Bush 43 as proof positive of their depiction of Americans being intellectually and morally inferior. In fact, in a memo leaked a few years ago, the long-time BBC American correspondent, Justin Webb, was roundly reprimanded by his bosses for giving too positive a depiction of America and Americans - never mind the fact that Webb had been based in the States for donkey's years, lived amongst the people and sent his children to American public schools. He, more than anyone, had seen a positive image of America. But he was prohibited from reporting it.

And there I was, a one-woman trumpeter for the opposite impression, working solidly as a linguist, employed by various companies solely for the purpose of communicating with their French, Italian and Spanish clientele, simply because the British (like the Americans, like the Canadians ... hell, like ALL English-speaking people) can't be bothered to learn another language for communications purposes. There was always a poorly-concealed element of surprise when some important bod would visit and I'd be called into the inner sanctum to be introduced to Big Boss, for whom I'd spoken to the office in Rome on a regular basis.

The first question was always: 'Are you Canadian then?' (As if my colonial accent were somehow part of the Commonwealth, that could be excused.)

When I would deny this, then came the ultimate plaintive cry of disappointment: 'But you're American! How and where did you learn to speak those languages!'

I honestly had one such honcho remark: 'But Americans are supposed to be stupid! You're not supposed to know where Europe is, much less speak any of its languages.'

My reply was that the British certainly knew where Europe was and still couldn't speak any of their languages.

But then, as I said, Bush 43 reinforced Europe's view of America and Americans. He was the only person I'd ever heard of who could turn a collective nation from hero to zero in less than five minutes, with the cowboy 'dead or alive' mentality that ensued in the wake of 9/11. Cowboy parlances of 'smokin' Bin Laden' out, telling the rest of the world that they were either with us or against us, denying US citizens basic rights and ignoring the Constitution and the Geneva Convention to set up a cabal of tyranny and torture and all in the name of freedom, (never mind, coming across as an inarticulate dolt), all this impinged upon Europe's view of America as a proselytising, right-wingnut, praise-God-and-pass-the-ammunition Christian fundamentalist nation. For the first time in my life, I knew American expats who started claiming to be Canadian, although I never did.

And on the US side, to the forefront, Bush and his neocon cronies encouraged a vituperatively negative view, on our parts, of Europe and Europeans, particularly the French and the Germans. 'Freedom fries' was the most ridiculous stunt of all, as was some neocon's published assessment of the French as 'cheese-eating appeasers'. Even some of my relatives bought into this rhetoric.

Listen, try telling a cousin, whose only experiences of foreign travel have been the odd day trip to Canada and Tijuana and Caribbean cruises here and there, that the French are the world's arch-pragmatists, that they - like any good country should - look after their own first and to hell with anyone else, that they promote their own interests, and if that means collaborating with a pariah of the Middle East to obtain cheap raw materials for France, so be it.

Try telling that same relative that Germany is still on a massive guilt trip (and in some cases, denial) about World War II and their part in the Holocaust, that - conversely - there's a groundswell of right-wing politicos on the move there, especially since immigration from the old Eastern bloc has been permitted, that Germany is reluctant to engage its troops, only recently permitted by NATO to be stationed abroad after sixty years, in any aggressive campaign.

Try telling a relative that a lot of viewpoints of the US stem from jealousy and ignorance, just as many viewpoints from the US do as well.

It's like preaching to a wall. It makes me think, sadly, of an incident which occurred when I was teaching in Virginia in the late Seventies. I was teaching first year French to a group of Eighth Graders, and I had a huge map of France on the wall. One morning, one of the brighter little girls called me over to the map.

'Miss,' she chirped, curiously. 'How long would it take to drive to France?'

I held back my astonisment long enough to tell her that because the Atlantic Ocean separated us from France, you couldn't drive. You could only reach France by air or sea.

'There's no interstate?' She asked.

I couldn't answer. She simply didn't understand the geographical concept.

That kid would be about 43 now. I wonder if she's ever found out where France is. Probably not. But she's probably relieved that Americans can't just get in an SUV and drive to a land that regularly spawns a bunch of cheese-eating appeasers.

Plus ca change ...

No comments:

Post a Comment