Confronting National Stereotypes

Yesterday, I had a terrible headache which virtually incapacitated me all day. I’m not 100 percent my old self yet, but I finally feel a bit better this morning. I can at least function. (When I get a headache, I can become very ill.)

While I was waiting for the pain to subside, I stumbled on this on Twitter from the Matador Network. It’s an entertaining travel and international site, which (full disclosure) also follows me on Twitter. I thought it was worth a blog post:

Twitter screen capture.
Twitter screen capture.

The tweets that went back in response were about what you might expect. However, one of them included an old canard. It’s hard to tell if the tweeter, apparently a man, was joking; he may well have been trying to be lighthearted. The sixth tweet down: it’s about women who (apparently use too much) perfume and don’t shave (under their arms):

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“It is America. Everyone goes to university!”

The first two novels laid the groundwork. As they are an ongoing tale (although could be read as stand alone books) with most of the same characters, writing them I’m naturally with them for years – literally – watching them change. And I’ve said before that, given their ages, that some of them even feel at times sorta like adult kids of my own.

Who’s my favorite? I’m not saying: What “parent” would ever answer that? They are by now so distinctive in my mind I think of each of them are pretty remarkable (in both good and not so good ways), and I can’t honestly say any one of them is “my favorite.”

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a classroom with a teacher.
Free Stock Photo: Illustration of a classroom with a teacher.

In Distances, “Béatrice” will finally visit the United States. She won’t be going to New York or other tourist spots, though, only to New England. She’ll see one part of New England in particular:

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Spinning Out Of Control

I’m sure some of you reading this were born in the late 1980s and 1990s. The era of which I write about in the novels is therefore in a real sense “history” to you. It pre-dates either your consciousness of the wider world…. or even your birth itself! ;-)

Strasbourg, France. Home of the European Parliament. [Photo by me, 1996.]
Strasbourg, France. Home of the European Parliament. [Photo by me, 1996.]

It’s trite to point out that one can’t hope to begin to understand the present without understanding the past; yet it’s absolutely true. And trying to appreciate the human outlook of any “past” is a vital aspect of that effort. This article in Die Zeit about Germany’s attitude and approach to the world since 1989 could in large measure apply elsewhere in Europe as well as to the U.S.A.:

A quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin Wall … we’ve woken up and it feels like a bad dream….

….Crisis has become the new normal. The years between 1990 and now were the exception.

The psychological repercussions of this fundamentally new situation on Europe’s political elites are both brutal and curious at the same time. Those aged 45 to 65 currently in positions of power have only known growing prosperity, freedom and cultural sophistication. They were, and to a large extent still are, predisposed to exert themselves only modestly, act responsibly and expect that they could enjoy the fruits of their labor. And suddenly history has unceremoniously grabbed them by the scruff of the neck. Do we really need to fight now? More than ever? And what does our cardiologist have to say?

I’m sharing that article and writing this post because that piece hit me hard. I fall into the “early part” of that age group; but I was certainly not “powerful” in 1989. (Nor am I now!) Speaking here only for myself, of course, I also vividly recall the post-fall of the Berlin Wall atmosphere: it fills my novels and is meant to do so.

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Will The Office Chair Help?

Finally, I have a proper desk chair! It was a surprise from someone close to me, who ordered it to arrive on Saturday morning. And it’s perfect:

My new office chair! [Photo by me, 2015.]
My new office chair! [Photo by me, 2015.]

I’m told now that there is no excuse if the third novel isn’t absolutely magnificent. ;-)

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When Social Media Turns Ugly

If you are reading this, you may be on social media yourself too – with a blog, a Twitter account, Instagram, etc. Recently, some “guy” I’d never encountered before evidently took umbrage with my voicing my opinion on too many U.S. study abroad students’ immature behaviors. Regular visitors here also know I attribute those primarily to overzealous parenting coupled with inexperience with legal alcohol; but apparently “he” thought attacking me on Twitter personally would get a reaction.

Free Stock Photo: Bright colored computer mice.
Free Stock Photo: Bright colored computer mice.

I yawned: I’ve seen much worse. When you put yourself out there publicly in even the smallest way, you have to expect criticisms and even degrees of nastiness. We all know it comes with the territory.

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Americans Make The Movies (And At Times, We’re Really Sorry)

I’ve spent much of the last 25 years often as the (only) American in the room – be it with family, friends, or workplace colleagues. As you know if you visit here regularly, I’ve now also spent several years writing novels in which I’ve created characters sourced from some of my (especially early) “travel” and “expat” experiences. They are full of types of people I’ve encountered, and even cherished, and what I’ve seen here in Europe.

I can’t begin to list the nationalities I’ve met in just London: nearly every European country; Africans from Egypt and Morocco all the way to South Africa; Afro-Caribbeans; Middle Easterners; Indians; Chinese; other Asians; Canadians; Australians; New Zealanders; Brazilians; even a few other South Americans. And all the religions: not only Christians of course, but Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims. It feels like a far more “diverse” city than even New York.

I will always remember a Pakistani student, right after 9/11. He offered me personal condolences. He flat out called the attackers “terrorists”: no qualifications, no hesitation.

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In Our Chalet

Insofar as writing for the third volume is concerned, this ski holiday has been nearly a disaster. This week, I’ve gotten barely a couple of pages done: honestly less than one decent regular day’s work. However, we’re also having a great time – and, in a sense, I’m getting LOTS of new material I can use once home in England and comfortably at my desk.

The chalet owner is a Belgian, well-spoken in English, and reminds us of something of a cross between a pleasant Gerard Depardieu and my (mischievous glint in the eye) novelist uncle. As you don’t know my uncle, that comparison’s incomplete, but naturally I’ll explain more. ;-)

At breakfast, the owner confirms dinner is acceptable each night. (If anyone objects, the chef will do something else for them.) This morning, as her similarly aged English half was sitting at their table, he asked the 30ish, Scottish, female half who was at the bar getting coffee for herself, “Are you okay with the menu for tonight?” She approved quietly. He followed up by asking playfully, “And your lover? Does he approve it too?”

Her husband at their table next to us turned around to me, embarrassed, smiling, shaking his head. Seeing her expression as she walked back to their table, my wife told me afterwards that her face was bright red as she too embarrassingly grinned.

I'm taking pics of food now. A dessert. [Photo by me, 2015.]
I’m taking pics of food now. A dessert. [Photo by me, 2015.]
The owner has told me he used to own an art gallery in Belgium. In the last decade, he has redone what had been a shabby, old chalet. His booming, friendly voice can easily be heard singing or laughing during the day. (We even heard him outside while we were taking a walk our first day.) When I asked him if his chef was French, he joked, “French? No! He’s Belgian too.”

Evenings, they’re assisted by a Polish woman in her early twenties. She speaks French very well (at first we thought she was French until she told us her background), and English passably. The owner clearly relies heavily on her, but she also admits, though, to being a bit accident-prone. “I’ve broken so many wine glasses,” she once laughed to us from behind the bar.

Yes, welcome to France.

The church in the center of La Clusaz. Note the distant skiers on the slope to the left of the steeple, and the gondolas to the right. [Photo by me, 2015.]
The church in the center of La Clusaz. Note the distant skiers on the slope to the left of the steeple, and the gondolas to the right. [Photo by me, 2015.]
The chalet has 14 rooms. The guests so far have been mostly French. But there have been of course some other English-speakers besides ourselves and that English/Scottish couple.

Another, older, Scottish woman, unfortunately took quite a tumble skiing her first day and badly damaged a knee. That ended her skiing week. The other night (her last night), just before dinner, the owner concocted her a drink on the house.

“It’s terrible, she fall on her first day,” he remarked seriously to us. He then winked as he strolled off carrying the sympathetic, surprise glass to her table. “I try to make her feel a bit better.”

Hope you’ve been having a good Thursday, wherever you are. :-)

No Hugging, Please, We’re French

It has become the hug cringed at around the world. The Lebanese news site Naharnet has a nice summation of what went, uh, wrong:

….The towering John Kerry was meters from Hollande, striding fast, when he first opened his arms.

In turn, the French leader stretched out his, clasping Kerry’s hands. Kerry pulled him into a brief hug to his right, at which time Hollande appeared to go back in for “la bise”. [The kisses to cheeks.]

Kerry caught up, accepted the kiss on his right cheek, before they clasped hands again, awkwardly placing their arms around each other as they walked side by side up the stairs into the Elysee Palace.

Half-hug, half-bise, it was a moving clash of cultures….

It’s a surprise Kerry didn’t realize Hollande would be baffled. But the Secretary of State had signaled beforehand that he was going to go all “American” in terms of sympathy and give Paris “a hug.” Yet the French president obviously didn’t get what Kerry meant, or didn’t think it would be demonstrated, umm, “literally,” and so was clearly unprepared for an American-style, “Come here, pal.”

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My feeling is former president (2007-2012) Nicolas Sarkozy, who reputedly has a solid sense of “Americanisms,” might have handled it better.

One can imagine the fun media and bloggers around the world might be having now had Ségolène Royal been standing there as president instead. Then again I don’t believe that had she been that Kerry would have tried to hug her that way. Kerry was doing an “American guy thing” with Hollande – and Hollande didn’t understand it.

Younger French of both sexes – especially those who’ve been to the U.S. for any substantive length of time beyond a vacation – are more attuned to Americans’ “curious” behaviors. But middle-aged and older French men on meeting even in emotional circumstances, such as offering condolences, as a rule don’t open by hugging each other like that. French men don’t do American-style “bromance.”

Compared to Americans, the French on the whole are simply far less into demonstrative displays of physical closeness between acquaintances, even friends. But they are not alone in that. Other Europeans, including the British (of course), are similar.

Still, it was a lighthearted moment after a week and a half of at times incredible ugliness and sadness. We all needed it. It provided a badly needed chuckle.

A Danish close friend of ours, and her English husband of two years, are coming for a stay-over visit with us tonight.

We’ve known her for ages. I get kisses to both cheeks, and she lets me hug her. She even hugs me back.

However, if I ever moved to hug him, he’d probably think I’d lost my mind. Or I was going all “American” on him. A firm handshake between us men is all that’s needed. ;-)

Have a good weekend, wherever you are in the world. :-)

Brief Explanation (For Americans): Why Europe Has Anti-Hate Speech Laws

In the wake of the massive “Je Suis Charlie” rally in Paris following the murders at Charlie Hebdo magazine and the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket, we are inevitably seeing some U.S.-based media now questioning France’s commitment to free speech. Why? Because France has anti-hate speech laws. One example:

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Some background, and context, clearly appears to be necessary here.

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The Outsiders

The New York Times, being the New York Times:

Britain’s New Immigrants, From Romania and Bulgaria, Face Hostilities

I write “being the New York Times” because the piece chatters, but ultimately leads nowhere. It tells us nothing essentially new about the migration issue itself. Nor does it offer any suggestion of a way to diminish those “hostilities.”

In that article, Britain really could be any country; and Romanians and Bulgarians could be any newcomers arriving in any country. As Britain does (as every country does), Romania and Bulgaria have their borders…. and settlement laws and frontier guards empowered to decide who may enter. And most of those populaces would likely not be pleased about masses of British incomers deciding to cross “their line” and set up homes within their geographical area either.

Even though I have “permission,” I have always been self-conscious of the fact that in my working in Britain a native might not have a job. A Danish friend, married to an Englishman, and living in the U.K., has said similarly that she often reminds herself she is not British. Yet her brother-in-law is also British and married to her sister, and he is living and working now in Denmark.

Twenty-first century borders are far more formal than they have ever been, but human communities have always enforced boundaries. Whether it was an Ancient Greek “city-state” of a thousand souls setting itself apart from another similarly sized one just across a mountain, or today’s high-tech nation-state frontiers relying on biometric passports, we create them for a variety of reasons too complex and varied to begin to explore here. And, lest we forget, even within our modern countries there are uncountable gradations of “borders”: from province/ state, to county, to city, and so on, down through school catchment area all the way to, say, residents’-only street parking.

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We humans have always been an “excluding” species. Because they are not “from, or of, here,” outsiders have always faced “hostilities” simply because they are outsiders. There is no reason to believe that will ever change.