Accents

Yesterday’s post was pretty serious. And maybe too heavy – even bordering on depressing. How about something lighter? :-)

A few years ago, I shared an office when I was working in a London college. Once I answered a colleague’s phone when she’d been away from her desk. On the other end was a woman she knew (but I didn’t) from another part of the university.

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I chatted with the caller briefly, took a message (we always did that for each other), and thought nothing of it. When my colleague returned, I told her, and she proceeded to return the call. Perfectly routine.

After they’d exchanged greetings, from the other side of the room I heard several “uh, huhs” out of my officemate. I glanced at her. Grinning while speaking, she looked back at me as she remarked, “Oh, yes, he’s American.” There was a pause from her end of the conversation, followed by a renewed smile my way. She added, “Yes, he is. Sorry.”

When my officemate got off the phone moments later, she said, “She asked who was that who answered the phone? I told her, and she said she thought you had the sexiest accent and asked if you are married. I told her you are.”

I replied, jokingly, and hyper-exaggerating my American accent in the deepest – and handsomest – verbal tones I could summon up, “Why, yes, I’ve been told before I have a sexy accent.”

We had a good laugh. Sometimes, it doesn’t take much to make your day, does it? Happy Thursday! ;-)

When “I’ll Write Soon” Meant Actually Writing

CNN quoting first lady Michelle Obama in Beijing earlier this week, praising studying abroad as “citizen diplomacy”:

“I’m here today because I know that our future depends on connections like these among young people like you across the globe,” the first lady told an audience composed of Chinese and international students at Peking University.

“We believe that relationships between nations aren’t just about relationships between governments or leaders — they’re about relationships between people, particularly young people.”

She points out also that:

“You don’t need to get on a plane to be a citizen diplomat,” she said. “If you have an Internet connection in your home, school or library, within seconds you can be transported anywhere in the world and meet people on every continent.”

CNN notes that the first lady said she had never considered studying abroad. Yet she omits there that pre-internet “citizen diplomacy” had never been a choice between only study abroad or doing nothing. Apparently, she didn’t do this?

True, I suspect the internet must have largely undermined this among younger people today. But even if she has forgotten ye olden days, us other “older” folks vaguely remember them. Pre-internet, pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, there was something called “pen pals.”

Gather ’round, young people, and I will share a small memory of decades ago. There was once a time teens and young adults wrote letters, usually long-hand, and on paper, to each other in distant lands. Usually they had found each other by registering their name, address and country, and interests, at agencies that facilitated pairing them up so they could get to know each other that way.

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When one of them wrote a letter, he or she would head for the local post office, and mail it. About a week or so later, their “friend” in a foreign country would find their foreign postal service had left it in the mailbox, or had slid it through the letterbox. After opening that letter and reading it, he or she would then compose a letter in response, go to the local foreign post office or postbox, and mail that letter.

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Such exchanges sometimes went on for years. “Pen pals” might also send each other photos (that were taken by cameras, using film; but that is a subject for another recalling ye olden days blog post), cassettes (again, for another post), (printed) books, (printed) newspapers, (printed) magazines, and even remember each other’s birthdays (using paper cards). They might eventually talk on the (landline) telephone, and perhaps, on very rare occasions, have even someday met in person. :-)

Russians

Currently Russians constitute one of the largest immigrant groups to the U.S. Today’s influx began with the first arrivals following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991-1992. At that same time, the sons and daughters of new, post-Soviet Russian privilege, also began appearing in American universities….

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In September 1994, in a University of Long Island (ULI) building hallway, we meet Lena:

Running the gauntlet of students clogging the corridor, new MBA student Lena harrumphed as she strode by. “Bonjour! Isabelle, who numbered these rooms? They make no sense!”

Still overcoming their own Cold War mistrust, Americans are not quite sure yet what to make of these Russian students. Blonde, statuesque, brimming with enthusiasm, and certainly not bashful, Lena dominates every gathering. Both being new international students, she and Isabelle gravitate to each other, becoming unlikely chums.

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In far off Moscow, Lena’s father is in some sort of a business partnership with Lena’s newly Brooklyn-resident uncle. With Lena a graduate student at this expensive American school, obviously her father is doing well financially. Yet Lena is maddeningly vague on details, so Isabelle and Lena’s other non-Russian friends have little real idea how her family has so much money.

And having money clearly suits Lena very well:

“You know,” Lena teased, “I think we should all fly to Paris for New Year’s Eve. We will stay with Isabelle in her huge house on the Champs-Elysées! Ooh, la, la!”

“Champs-Elysées?” Isabelle laughed. “Because you own Moscow, don’t think all of us have your millions. In my place, you get to sleep in the stairs out the door. The neighbors will step over you as they go into their places!”

Lena smiled at Isabelle.

“I know,” Isabelle continued, grinning, speaking directly to Lena, “maybe we will all go to Russia to your dacha!”

On a shopping day out with Isabelle, unexpectedly Lena turns serious when chitchat between them touches on life under the communists in the former USSR. Suddenly the usually friendly and extroverted Russian turns icy cool and makes her worldview abundantly plain to her French friend: governments and ideologies are frauds and rubbish. All of them.

“Every year the holiday was the Black Sea. I would kill myself. I will not live behind a communist wall. They can take their Marx and F-off.”

In the end, all that matters is what’s in your bank account.

Yet, based on all else that she sees of Lena, Isabelle is skeptical Lena really believes that….

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See related:
Quick Take 4: “Béatrice”
Quick Take 3: “Uncle Bill”
Quick Take 2: “Valérie”
Quick Take: “Virginie”

She Had Better Not Get Less Than A “B”

Leaving aside the question of whether one Amanda Knox is guilty, let’s briefly consider a broader issue. I had noted back in December that there seem to be Americans ages 18, 19 and 20, wandering around abroad who look just like adults. Usually they speak like adults too.

However, behind the adult facade, far too many are still, emotionally, essentially little more than “spoiled children.” Their being so far behind in their maturation process is not their fault; it is America’s fault. It should be a source of U.S. national embarrassment and a cause for soul-searching, yet it prompts neither.

It all starts at least a decade before. As they are schooled, they are “adored.” They are always assured they are “special.” As the saying now goes, “Everyone gets a gold star.”

By 18, they don’t lack for “self-esteem.” In fact, often quite the opposite. They may well possess a “superiority complex.” They think an affected naivete and a (“What? Innocent me?”) grin will always serve as a – no pun intended – get out of jail free card. They are sure they are never in the wrong, never to blame for anything.

“I am a wonderful person.” Of that, they are totally convinced. “I have a voice!” they cry out. “The world just doesn’t understand what I am.” How often do we hear that?

With that mentality, many venture overseas. If you have seen Amanda Knox interviewed, or read any of her voluminous – usually opaque, often muddled, and sometimes incoherent – literary efforts, there is something disturbingly ordinary, and irritatingly familiar, about her. You know her somehow. I suspect many of us have run into “Amandas” at times over the last two generations. (And don’t think this is only about women; they are young men also.)

Too regularly, I taught them in U.S. college classes. You can spot the type almost immediately. She had better not get less than a “B,” or she’ll complain to the Dean and her parents.

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Of course, almost none of those other similarly stunted 18-21 year old Americans abroad end up going as far as also being convicted of murder. Yet given all that has been said, written, and revealed in global media about her immature behavior in Italy as a 20 year old prior to the murder, Amanda Knox is now probably the most well-known American study abroad student ever. That is nothing to be proud of as a country.

Escaping An Extended Childhood

The other day it was reported American Amanda Knox (who had been convicted in Italy of the murder of British student Meredith Kercher in Perugia in November 2007, had seen that conviction overturned in 2011, and then saw that overturning itself overturned in March 2013) had sent an email from the U.S. – via her Italian lawyers – to the appeals court in Florence. That court is expected to rule in January on the original conviction. In the email, Knox maintains her innocence, and again asserts she was mistreated by Italian authorities.

Syracuse, Sicily, street signs. [Photo by me, 2006.]

Syracuse, Sicily, street signs. [Photo by me, 2006.]

The specifics of the case, and her claims, are not the concern here. Rather, given Knox’s email, suddenly I flashed back once again to an NPR piece from March 2008, a scant five months after the murder. It addressed the issue of U.S. students in Florence, and may be worth revisiting here briefly:

Every year, tens of thousands of young Americans decide to take a year and study abroad. But in places such as Florence, Italy, reports of widespread binge drinking and rowdy behavior are increasingly causing concern….

….Many of the Americans have never traveled outside their home states before. And some turn the entire school semester into one long spring break….

What is evident about Knox is not how unique she was in Italy, but that prior to the murder it seems she was unremarkable there. As with others, she appears to have viewed her sojourn mostly as a get away from home lark. Similarly, her lifestyle seems to have been, one might say, fueled by finding herself able to enjoy alcohol legally and frequent bars and clubs for the first time…. at age 20.

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