“James” had not been a international traveller. He had never been to Europe until he visited France for the first time at age 29. Subsequently, he would find himself in various encounters with other Americans in Europe.
“We’re from L.A.,” she said. “My husband works in Paris, and we’re on vacation. He had to go to the States for a time by himself. I thought the boys would like to see Normandy.” She concluded as one of her sons gestured restlessly that he wanted to sit on her lap and she waved a hand trying to dissuade him.
Having enrolled online before we went to the U.S., upon returning to the U.K. on Saturday I was allowed to join the U.K.’s Registered Traveller scheme. It enables some non-EU passport holders to enter the country through immigration e-gates at international U.K. airports, as well as the Paris, Brussels and Lille Eurostar terminals. No more filling out a landing card.
To do so, I had to mention it to the young woman border agent – on seeing her I thought she rather resembled singer Leona Lewis – who happened to be processing me. She knew what I meant immediately. She followed by asking for my invitation letter.
I handed it over. She scrutinized it and questioned me further. I passed muster. She concluded the formalities, “That’s fine. Let me get you a membership card.”
In 2006, the U.S. State Department helped organize a mass evacuation of U.S. citizens from Lebanon during the Hezbollah-Israel war. However, currently, there seems no similar urgency on the part of the U.S. to evacuate a far smaller number of U.S. citizens from Yemen. Lawsuits have even been filed challenging the government’s not doing so.
As of April 11, this is what the Department of State has to say:
The page continues in sharing how Americans can perhaps leave courtesy of “third party” assistance, such as India’s:
Needing a haircut, I decided to take an hour or two away from the computer yesterday morning. We’re still new in the area, and I ventured into a barber shop I’d been to once before. My cutter this time was not who’d cut my hair previously, but I recalled he had been there trimming someone else the last time.
He seemed around my age. Initially he was soft-spoken and I detected “oddly” accented. Also appearing to be somewhat (in my book, as part that heritage myself) “Mediterranean,” I suspected he might not be from these shores.
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.
The U.K.’s Independent newspaper reports a poll of “11,000 people” surveyed in “24 cities around the world” found that “a British accent is the most attractive accent in the world”:
More than a quarter of respondents preferred a UK accent with people in Paris, New York and Sydney the most keen, The Time Out Global Dating Survey found.
My wife has regularly joked to me that when we are in the U.S., she gets the feeling many people are not actually listening to the content of what she is saying, but are instead just listening to her saying it. ;-)
Black British screenwriter and director Amma Asante jumped in on CNN yesterday in defense of actor Benedict Cumberbatch. He’d used the word “colo(u)red” on a U.S. TV talk show. She feels the anger directed at him for saying it is missing the point:
Opinion: Cumberbatch misspoke — now let’s get over it and fight real prejudice
Two countries separated by a common language. To understand Cumberbatch’s employing it requires first remembering that he’s not an American. It is now a decidedly “old-fashioned” word here in Britain, yes; but it is not unheard of coming very occasionally from younger whites (like Cumberbatch), although it’s far more likely to be uttered by one born before “1945.”
An older person I know had straight-faced congratulated me this way upon Obama’s election in 2008: “You have a coloured president now. America’s so much more open-minded. It’s wonderful.” Based on the contexts, as I’ve heard it, it is used as synonymous with “black.” Although it could certainly be tossed out as a slur or a put down, that’s not how I’ve (mostly) heard it said.
But how we internalize others’ descriptions of our race or ethnic background is intensely personal of course. I am not black and I would not presume to speak for anyone else as to how they interpret any description leveled at themselves. That said, the language issue raised there led me to recall a vivid, personal experience.
On our way out of church this morning, the priest asked me, “And where are you from?”
He may merely have been asking where I was from in the U.K. It wasn’t our “regular” church. Nonetheless, I was startled.
I thought: Gee, do I look like I’m not from here? I’m sure, to some extent, I don’t.
As we shook hands, I replied, “I’m from New York originally.”
The look on his face indicated that answer was a surprise. I suppose he had indeed figured I was going to say Bristol or something.
But I often don’t know how to answer that question. I was born in New York City, and when asked where I’m from that’s my initial answer. I grew up on Long Island, in Suffolk County; but most Europeans haven’t a clue where Suffolk County is, and they usually associate “Long Island” either with the Hamptons or The Great Gatsby. And, here in England, there is a Suffolk county too – the “original” Suffolk, of course.
I’ve also spent much more of my adult life outside of the U.S. than inside of it. But I always feel American, and like a New Yorker. And I even still feel like a Long Islander – even though I have for years had no ties to Long Island whatsoever.
I don’t think I’ll ever not feel that way. We can move wherever in the world, but is where we are born and reared imprinted on us for life? Seems so.
Just a little “quiet reflection.” Hope you’re having a good Sunday. :-)
I like to post daily – if possible. But I took yesterday off deliberately because I wanted to have an extra ponder on this post. I also wanted to wait for this to take place, and it was larger than anyone had anticipated:
I’ve written before that I try to avoid “generalizations” here. This is a novel-writing and expat site. It is not meant to be yet another blog showcasing yet another blogger’s biased views on “politics.”
That caveat again duly shared, I’d like to offer a few observations.
In a great deal of U.S.-based coverage I’ve seen of the Paris murders of journalists at Charlie Hebdo magazine and Jewish shoppers at the kosher Hyper Cacher supermarket, reporting has seemed framed mostly in an “us” [non-Muslims] vs. “them” [Muslims] perspective. That’s not a surprise. For years I’ve been getting the sense many in U.S. media see France as a backdrop for a Woody Allen film that now also contains a terrifying and growing internal “Saudi Arabia” springing up all over the place.
As in most things, mundane realities are far more complicated and textured than reporting can manage easily to convey. French Muslims, who are now often second, third, and even fourth, generation descendants of immigrants from predominantly North Africa (where France had once been colonial overlord), are often as ordinary as other French. Many drink alcohol. Many don’t bother to get married, and have children outside of marriage – just like other French. Increasingly many are showing themselves indifferent about religion, and some are even atheists – again just like many other French.
The population of France is about 66 million. There are an estimated “5-6 million” Muslims in the country. However, there have been claims recently that that long-cited figure is probably way too high; that the number of “practicing Muslims” is now below 4 million and may be as low as around 2 million, or even less.
The French republic is built on “assimilation” of newcomers. France is also a resolutely “irreligious” state: the French Revolution was about not only freedom from aristocracy, but freedom from clericalism. One is socialized to become “French,” and keep your religion to yourself, and that is that.
So the French government is forbidden from asking about a person’s religious affiliation in a census, but agencies may ask in specific, limited circumstances. Most information about Islam is gleaned from “North African” national origin questions (i.e. Algerian or Moroccan). Yet estimating religion based on geography can be a dicey business given not everyone who has immigrated from there has been Muslim. Some were Jews and Roman Catholics.
Moreover “national origin” cannot tell us how “observant” anyone may be regarding any faith either. Born of North African immigrants into a “devout” Muslim home, former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s advisor Rachida Dati – while far more prominent than most – epitomizes an “assimilation” that is more common in France than U.S. media appears to grasp. Wikipedia details:
In September 2008, Dati announced that she was pregnant and would be a single mother. She revealed her pregnancy to a group of reporters who questioned her about mounting rumours. “I want to remain careful, because . . . I am still in the risky stage. I am 42″, she was quoted as saying. Her daughter, Zohra, was born in early 2009. As the name of the father was not revealed, many names circulated in gossip magazines….
An unmarried, single mother, who doesn’t share the name of the father of her child. That is NOT sexual behavior an imam would in any way approve of. And did she seem to care?
Clearly there are large problems. The existence of the far-right, anti-immigrant, National Front party reflects a raft of issues and disaffection among a substantial part of the French electorate. All is certainly not rosy.
But in day to day life, “assimilation” problems seem to stem not from religion nearly so much as from economic disparities, and cultural alienation due to marginalization and discrimination aimed at second and third generation children of immigrants – which perhaps makes some of them ripe for “radicalization.” For example, a 2010 study had shown that even with similar educational background and work experience, someone perceived as Muslim is much less likely to get a job interview.
Yet most Muslims are also so “assimilated” – they are teachers, lawyers, businesspeople, military and police, you name it – that if you visit France, chances are you might not be able to spot “a Muslim” on the street. On Friday, a French Huff Po writer pointed out how far more Muslims work for French security services – like policeman Ahmed Merabet, who was murdered outside of Charlie Hebdo – than Al Qaeda. Yes, there are noisy fundamentalists in some mosques, but usually they reach only small audiences: most Muslims don’t attend mosque any more than most French Catholics go to church – meaning rarely to never.
Some American media insist on portraying those murdering thugs’ take on Islam as “conquering” France. However, the norms of “France” appear to be proving much more “seductive” for most Muslims. On France 24 the other night, a commentator noted that before the 2010 ban on women wearing the “niqab” (a full face covering, which was worn by only a few thousand women), far larger numbers of Muslim Frenchwomen preferred bikinis anyway.
That comes from the “most watched” news channel in the country. The likes of that hardly helps Americans at home better understand what life is actually like over here. But, then again, is that the goal?