Friday, 7 November 2008

True Confessions

I have a confession to make...I used to feel a little embarrassed at times to be an American. Let me explain: While waiting in line for lunch at the Musee d'Orsay last week a woman came around the corner, took one look at the line and exclaimed in her obnoxiously loud American accent, 'OH MY GOD! You have GOT to be kidding me! There are this many people in line and they have ONE checker? You'd think they could get another person up here to check people out!" Never mind that there was only one cash register. Never mind everyone else in the line was waiting patiently and calmly and didn't seem to be bothered. After about 2 minutes of waiting she slammed her full tray down on the closest clear space (right on top of the ice cream cooler so no one could now open said ice cream cooler) and stormed off making her exasperation widely known. A couple of minutes later the man in front of us said, "Are you Americans?" Oh no, I thought. Here it comes. I felt like a turtle wishing I could shrink back into my shell. "Yes," I hesitantly replied. Ended up he was an American as well. He shared the woman's sentiment, but was much quieter and more polite about it. I said, "You know. It's just not a value here. Speed, efficiency. It's not like they look at this line and think, 'Another cash register and cashier up here would really reduce the long lines and help move more people through here, but we just don't have the resources for that right now.' No, they don't mind the long lines. They don't even notice. Efficiency just isn't a value. Especially when it comes to dining." He nodded and chuckled. We had a nice chat. Still I left that experience feeling that I couldn't really blame Europeans who tend to think that we are loud, brash, selfish, and narrow minded in the sense we think it all ought to be done like it's done in America and everyone must hold the same cultural values that we do and are inferior if they don't. It embarrasses me.

Lately though, I'm feeling a lot more proud to be an American. A lot less embarrassed about the 'way we are.' Not so afraid to admit I am one.

I've been thinking through, for example, the whole introductions/neighbors/friendliness issue. The boys have been in school for 9 weeks and I only know 2 mom's names. Scott has met ONE person at the office, and only because he made it a point to introduce himself. That guy being a pretty high-up executive it's unlikely he'll turn into a friend. So the search for colleagues continues. At first I was really confused. Then I learned a little more about the 'regular' way to do things in the English culture. I had a few conversations with English friends and a few other American expats. I tried doing it their way which feels really false. Then I began to consider why in the world I value making friends so quickly and introductions so quickly. I remembered what sort of people I'm from. I come from Pioneers. Frontiersmen. The sort of folks that built community or didn't survive. They needed barns built. They needed someone to help them have their babies. They braved the elements. Famine. Disease. Warfare. They left the comfort of their known worlds and ventured west. In search of land and a dream. They had only each other--their families and those in the general vicinity. I said this to an English friend and followed it with, "perhaps if I had been born and raised on the East Coast I might fit in here a little better." She disagreed. She reminded me that all Americans are descended in some way or another from folks who left the comfort of their known worlds and ventured to the unknown in search of a better life for themselves and their children.

Making friends is in my blood. My bones. My marrow! It's who I am. It's part of the American way of life. Block parties. PTAs. Babysitting co-ops and neighborhood associations. Happy hour after work with friends and co-workers. Meals brought to new neighbors or friends having new babies or when folks have died.

I'll figure out this new British culture. I'm making friends and there are some GREAT folks in my life here. But harboring embarrassment? Nah. Not anymore. Loud disrespectful folks do come from America sometimes. They aren't the definition of all it means to be an American though. So I'm not going to let them make me feel ashamed.

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