Monday, June 14, 2010

Silence is Golden

Today I make a solemn vow: I will no longer get into discussions about the US with my French or other non-American friends. Naturally, I will continue to bitch and moan about various things that are going on back home with friends from the Old Country. But I can no longer stand taking on the highly implausible role of Defender of Old Glory.

For reasons that are beyond my analytical capacities, it seems that many extraordinary, intelligent, and wonderful people over here can only relate to America as a media concept. It is as if the US is not simply across the ocean, but on a different planet. This probably sounds cranky, and it is, but after 10 years of this, I’m tired. I thought it would end with Obama’s election, but no. People still seem to think that life is somehow totally different in America, as if the laws of physics, not to mention common humanity, just don’t apply there.

I suppose I could blame it all on Desperate Housewives. Or Friends. Or any of the dozens of American television series that Europeans tend to confuse with documentaries. “That’s fiction,” I try to point out. “It’s escapist, even for us. Listen, I was a single woman in New York for many years and I can guarantee you, Sex in the City is Fantasy Land.” But they don’t want to believe me. My own French husband was brutally disappointed the first time he came with to New York City (in winter) and most women were wearing…down parkas and sensible shoes.

It all started the other night when the husband of a dear friend informed me that the Deepwater disaster in the Gulf of Mexico was a result of an American penchant for bad risk management. Apparently, he once took a bus from Newark Airport to Manhattan and was traumatized by the sorry state of the Lincoln Tunnel. He is convinced there will be some terrible disaster there before the decade is out. From this experience he deduced that we are a wildly reckless people and that something like the BP disaster was bound to happen. I admit, this was after several rounds of pastis. But still! “Are you implying,” I slurred, “that the Gulf spill is the fault of the American people?” In short, yes he was. The shady dealings on the part of BP and the regulatory agencies involved democratically elected politicians, ergo, it’s the voter’s fault. “That’s cruel!” I gasped. “People on the Louisiana coast are losing their livelihoods, the environment is destroyed, people are suffering.” Then I heard myself say: “Don’t Americans have the right to suffer?!”

I should have stopped there, but I went on to embarrass myself for the umpteenth time, leaving my friend’s place feeling like an idiot. What made me do it? I’m hardly a flag-waving patriot. I griped about the US all the time when I lived there. But I didn’t leave because I hated the place, I just needed to explore my obsession with France and ended up living here. I still love my country, warts and all, and feel the need to defend it from unkind assaults. It’s weird how that happens when you are overseas. I remember seeing Jane Fonda on a French talk show years ago. Knowing that she leans to the left, the host and guests felt free to air their grievances about the US and its inhabitants. At first she laughed politely, but after a while, Jane—yes, Hanoi Jane—got her dander up and started defending the American people. She said something to the effect of “hey, wait a minute, you can criticize the government, but please keep in mind that Americans are generally nice people and don’t mean anyone any harm.” Thanks, Jane.

And so I have decided to stop. From here on, when these kinds of conversations erupt, I will simply nod my head and try to look as vapid as Carrie on Sex in the City. My lips are sealed.