I’m reading this very entertaining book in an attempt to understand why my interactions with French people are almost always overwhelmingly negative. The slightly haughty Frenchman, the openly contemptuous Frenchman, the Frenchman who is straight-up ENRAGED at my very existence – I’ve dealt with the entire range. I know, too, that it’s not me ( hey, I LIKE French stuff! ), and that it’s not because I’m an American, because this has come up in conversation with Peruvians, Swedes .. even Australians, the jolliest, friendliest people on Earth, will usually have a story about a disagreeable Gallic encounter.
Chapters include “The French are uncommonly rude”, “Paris is the European Capitol of canine excreta, The French are uniquely tolerant of Adultery”, and of course, “The archetypical Frenchman wears a beret and striped shirt and rides a bicycle festooned with onions”.
In Trieste, there is nothing between the Alps and the Mediterranean, and even the local news and gossip reflect this extraordinary Contiguity. On a street two minutes’ walk from the center of town, an old lady adopted a sweet little puppy looking in the garbage for food, and not until several months later did she realize it was a wolf. A young goat, having come too far off the mountain, had no other escape route but to throw himself into the sea, right there in the heart of the city, and several times the papers have run stories about Slovenian bears that have come to the edge of town to snack in local chicken coops. In Trieste, the industrial area backs up to a wilderness canyon called Rosandra, with sixth-degree cliffs, and that gorge takes you to the border in a half hour’s walk. That’s where the no-man’s-land is marked by my inn with the iron bar; a place typical of the Cold War, still intact, where thirty years ago soldiers from the now defunct Yugoslavia used to stop in for couple of rounds of unauthorized drinking with the Italian tax police.
Once, during the Jewish feast of Purim, in which getting drunk is a licit activity, a Jerusalemite rabbi whose family was originally from my area gave me the best definition of my Heimat (home). “When a Triestian sits at the head of a dock and looks out at the sunset with a good bottle of wine in hand, well, that is prayer, great and blessed prayer.” And if you pay close attention in those moments, he added, “the sea bristles with pleasure, the brass on the Karst turns to velvet, and women look at you with bursting desire. And the master of the universe, caressing his beard, says to you with satisfaction, and just a pinch of envy, ‘my lads, you’ve got the better of me yet again.'” In other words, the magnificence of the place resides in its unique contiguity with antithetical situations. Seeing is believing. The distance between a mooring berth and the opera house is fifty yards, between your boat and a tavern less than thirty.
I am proudly attached to this shoreline of mine, where I have dreamed up all my departures. There are nights, especially autumn nights, where the breeze kicks up, the air turns to glass, and the ferries to Istanbul weigh their anchors to pass in front of the freshly snowcapped Alps, when I really do have the sensation that God envies us mixed-blood bastards perched between worlds on this fabulous precipice. Standing at the head of a pier, without moving an inch, we can see Europe and Turkey, imagine the islands of Ulysses and the beer halls of Prague, where Bohumil Hrabal looked for his passengers; make out, among the ribbing of the surrounding hills, the front of the Great War, which intertwines with the Iron Curtain; sniff the warehouses of Serene Venice, packed full of goods from the East, and at the same time the wild smells of the wild steppes beyond the Danube. In the mid-1980s, when a Bavarian Chancellor landed with his helicopter on one of these piers, he said, “Unglaublich” (incredible), because such was the synthesis of the different worlds.
“STUPID, STUPID. Americans are stupid. America is stupid. A stupid, stupid country made stupid by stupid, stupid people.” I particularly remember that because of the nine stupids. It was said over a dinner table by a professional woman, a clever, clever, clever woman. Hardback educated, bespokely traveled, liberally humane, worked in the arts. I can’t remember Specifically why she said it, what evidence of New World idiocy triggered the trope. Nor do I remember what the reaction was, but I don’t need to remember. It would have been a nodded and muttered agreement. Even from me. I’ve heard this cock crow so often I don’t even feel guilt for not wringing its neck.
Among the educated, enlightened, expensive middle classes of Europe, this is a received wisdom. A given. Stronger in some countries, like France, less so somewhere like Germany, but overall the Old World patronizes America for being a big, dumb, fat, belligerent child. The intellectuals, the movers and the makers and the creators, the dinner-party establishments of people who count, are united in the belief – no, the knowledge – that Americans are stupid, crass, ignorant, soulless, naive oafs without attention, irony, or intellect. These same people will use every comforting, clever, ingenious American invention, will demand America’s medicine, wear its clothes, eat its food, drink its drink, go to its cinema, love its music, thank God for its expertise in a hundred disciplines, and will all adore New York. More than that, more shaming and hypocritical than that, these are people who collectively owe their nations’ and their personal freedom to American intervention and protection in wars, both hot and cold. Who, whether they credit it or not, also owe their concepts of freedom, equality, and civil rights in no small part to America. Of course, they will also sign collective letters accusing America of being a fascist, totalitarian, racist state.
Enough. Enough, enough, enough of this convivial rant, this collectively confirming bigotry. The nasty laugh of little togetherness, or Euro-liberal insecurity. It’s embarrassing, infectious, and belittling. Look at that European snapshot of America. It is so unlike the country I have known for 30 years. Not just a caricature, but a travesty, an invention. Even on the most cursory observation, the intellectual European view of the New World is a homemade, Old World effigy that suits some internal purpose. The belittling, the discounting, the mocking of Americans is not about them at all. It’s about us, back here on the ancient, classical, civilized continent. Well, how stupid can America actually be? On the international list of the world’s best universities, 14 of the top 20 are American. Four are British. Of the top 100, only 4 are French, and Heidelberg is one of 4 that creeps in for the Germans. America has won 338 Nobel Prizes. The U.K., 119. France, 59. America has more Nobel Prizes than Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and Russia combined. Of course, Nobel Prizes aren’t everything, and America’s aren’t all for inventing Prozac or refining oil. It has 22 Peace Prizes, 12 for literature. (T. S. Eliot is shared with the Brits.)
And are Americans emotionally dim, naive, irony-free? Do you imagine the society that produced Dorothy Parker and Lenny Bruce doesn’t understand irony? It was an American who said that political satire died when they awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger. It’s not irony that America lacks; it’s cynicism. In Europe, that arid sneer out of which nothing is grown or made is often mistaken for the creative scalpel of irony. And what about vulgarity? Americans are innately, sniggeringly vulgar. What, vulgar like Henry James or Eleanor Roosevelt or Cole Porter, or the Mormons? Again, it’s a question of definitions. What Americans value and strive for is straight talking, plain saying. They don’t go in for ambiguity or dissembling, the etiquette of hidden meaning, the skill of the socially polite lie. The French in particular confuse unadorned direct language with a lack of culture or intellectual elegance. It was Camus who sniffily said that only in America could you be a novelist without being an intellectual. There is a belief that America has no cultural depth or critical seriousness. Well, you only have to walk into an American bookshop to realize that is wildly wrong and willfully blind. What about Mark Twain, or jazz, or Abstract Expressionism?
What is so contrary about Europe’s liberal antipathy to America is that any visiting Venusian anthropologist would see with the merest cursory glance that America and Europe are far more similar than they are different. The threads of the Old World are woven into the New. America is Europe’s greatest invention. That’s not to exclude the contribution to America that has come from around the globe, but it is built out of Europe’s ideas, Europe’s understanding, aesthetic, morality, assumptions, and laws. From the way it sets a table to the chairs it sits on, to the rhythms of its poetry and the scales of its music, the meter of its aspirations and its laws, its markets, its prejudices and neuroses. The conventions and the breadth of America’s reason are European.
This isn’t a claim for ownership, or for credit. But America didn’t arrive by chance. It wasn’t a ship that lost its way. It wasn’t coincidence or happenstance. America grew tall out of the cramping ache of old Europe. – A.A.Gill
” In San Sebastian, Spain, my soon-to-be husband and I drank cold beers at an outdoor cafe, watching children speed through an open square on scooters and bicycles, yelling as their parents drank nearby. ‘ This is what it’ll be like when we have kids, ‘ I thought.
I was wrong – so very, very wrong. Because in Los Angeles, and in the United States in general, we don’t have gorgeous town squares where parents sip beer and nibble on Manchego and jamon iberico while their offspring frolic nearby. We have Gymboree and Jump ’n Jammin, corporate kiddie warehouses designed to amuse screeching, pushing, crying children and to incite suicidal ideation in their parents. That’s what you see clouding the faces of those parents at The Little Gym and Pump It Up, standing around awkwardly in their fucking socks with their hands stuffed in their pockets. They’re thinking about death’s sweet embrace, and the alternative: spending the balance of their days on Earth watching kids shove each other in some padded, primary-colored purgatory.
And what protects most of us from such dark thoughts? Lager. Vodka. Pilsner. Tequila. But do they dispense alcohol at these godforsaken amusement centers? Of course not. Because just as American children are not meant to cartwheel through non-commercial public spaces paved with unfriendly cobblestones, troublingly devoid of Apple stores and Panda Expresses, American parents are not meant to pour alcohol down their throats in the company of children. As a result, American parents rarely have the chance to enjoy themselves in adult ways, away from home, with loose talk and salty cured meats and booze in the mix. If your kids are there and you don’t feel demeaned and edgy, there’s something wrong. If you’re not agitated and overwhelmed by the pointlessness of human existence, if your hair looks combed and you’re still wearing your shoes and you’re making eye contact with another adult who isn’t talking about bad teachers and potty mishaps, if your ears aren’t ringing and you don’t have the urge to strangle someone? You’re a shitty parent, basically.
I’ve been home ( “home” — increasingly, an idea ) for two weeks now. Summer vacation is well and truly over. Two and a half months. Some countries I’d been to before, Germany, Italy, Greece, Spain .. some I hadn’t, Turkey, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Albania. Also, I went to Gibraltar ( “why on earth would you go there?”, people in Spain said. “Because I thought it’d be weird”, I said. And it was, it was ), which is a British Overseas Territory. I’m not sure if that means that, technically, I went to Great Britain too.
Istanbul, Turkey : new and old, a big, modern city, but still very much the showplace, glittering jewel, of the Ottoman Empire. Famously, the bridge between east and west – half of the city is in Europe, half in Asia.
In travel writing ( I read a lot of it, although I’m making an effort to live vicariously through books and blogs less and actually, uh, travel more ), a common theme is spontaneity – ” leave your return date open ” ” don’t book hotels ahead of time ” ” throw out your guide book and just walk the streets ” ( the core message often being something like ” don’t be a tourist, be a traveler, and seek the authentic “ – whatever THAT means ).
While I have a more extemporaneous travel style than a lot of people, I call bullshit, especially when it comes to research. Why would you not want to know as much as possible about the place you’re going to visit? Which leads me to the giant rookie mistake I made with Turkey – I went to a country in which 99% of the population identifies as Muslim during July, the month of Ramadan, the most important holiday in Islam. Totally clueless, me.
Most of the important tourist stuff was open ( believe me, you want to see these amazing places, like this ), but the Hammams, Turkish baths, were closed, as well as a lot of the cooler restaurants, museums, post offices ( yeah, I still send postcards, a lot ). Add huge crowds to that – something I fully expected, traveling to a major tourist destination in the summertime, but couldn’t help getting a little bummed out by ( not all places were crowded, mind you – when I went to the gigantic and awesome Istanbul Military Museum, I was the only person there ) . Throw in, as well, the weather. One of the reasons I took this trip was to escape the famously unpleasant summer in New Orleans, but here I found myself in a place even hotter than that.
Oh, so, the purpose of this post : Istanbul contains some of the biggest and most famous mosques in all of Islam, and every neighborhood has at least one as well, and every one of these mosques has a muezzin who sings the adhan, or call to prayer, five times daily. In some smaller Turkish cities and towns I visited, you can hear one muezzin at a time, which becomes routine. In a huge city, though, you’re within earshot of 2 or 3 at the same time, which makes a crazy sound – more than once, I stood in the street, transfixed. Here’s a recording I made in the Sultanahmet district.
Dueling Mosques, Istanbul
One evening, I went up to a hotel rooftop garden to get a beer and watch the sun set on the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. ( there’s the uniqueness of Turkey – I don’t think a visit to any other Islamic country would result in a sentence containing the words ‘beer’ and ‘mosque’ ).
I was walking past, up some steps, when this little guy started screeching at me – I squeezed off two pictures, real quick, and then his mom, a full-sized monkey, grabbed my arm, bounced off me, grabbed the kid, and took off down the cliff.
Enver Hoxha pyramid, Tirana, Albania : I joined various European graffiti kids in climbing this fantastically ugly structure today. If you’re from a first-world country, America, Japan, Sweden etc., it seems crazy that these crumbling vestiges of Communism aren’t surrounded by fences, patrolled by cops or soldiers. It’s steeper than it looks in the picture – if I’d have slipped, I would have hurt myself, severely. Wheeee!