A Cutting Experience

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.

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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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The Most Attractive Accent In The World?

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. ;-)

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Slurring Language

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.

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“And where are you from?”

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.

US Embassy London on Google. It's closed today, Sunday.
US Embassy London on Google. It’s closed today, Sunday.

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. :-)

Perceptions Of France

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:

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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.

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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.

Free Stock Photo: French flag at Arc de Triomphe.
Free Stock Photo: French flag at Arc de Triomphe.

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.

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UPDATE:
Similarly Americans are fed daily nonsense like this about Britain:

DesCrier FNC

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?

Sorry, But You Don’t Have A “Right” To Relocate Wherever You Want

Forgive a long post, but this is a complicated, emotional issue just about everywhere in the world, and can’t be addressed glibly. If you aren’t interested, click away. But please do come back another day! :-)

In the last decade of the 19th century, Italian ancestors of mine emigrated to the United States. (One was evidently about age 9, and unaccompanied by a parent.) On cramped, uncomfortable ships they traveled for weeks – from Sicily to Naples, then to Marseille, and eventually they reached New York’s Ellis Island, where admittance to the U.S. was not a certainty. They were granted entry. None ever returned to Italy. They had left behind brothers, sisters, and parents whom they never saw again.

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Santa’s Political Leanings

Always politics. Everything’s political. Now, there’s evidently a debate in the U.S. over whether Santa Claus is a Republican or a Democrat:

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Hold on. Actually, that question is immaterial until we ascertain his citizenship. Is he even a U.S. citizen?

If he is, he may be registered to vote in his last state of residency, which would prove his political leanings easily. Unless he’s an independent. It would seem his only possible place of U.S. residency might have been Alaska; there is a town outside Fairbanks named North Pole.

That’s conjecture of course. We do know he is domiciled abroad now at the North Pole. If he is a U.S. citizen, that makes him an expat.

If so, we know he enters the country only one day a year. Does he bank abroad? (Presumably he doesn’t have accounts in tax havens, like Luxembourg?) Does he regularly file U.S. income taxes, and pay taxes owed on monies earned above the yearly $100,000 or so earned income exclusion threshold?

Free Stock Photo: Illustration of Santa Claus
Free Stock Photo: Illustration of Santa Claus

And what about Mrs. Claus? Is she a U.S. citizen too? Or an alien? If the latter, does she have a U.S. Taxpayer Identification Number? And do they have minor children who were born abroad? Children born abroad to U.S. citizens are usually entitled to a U.S. passport; but the children must have been issued with a Consular Report of Birth Abroad by a U.S. embassy or consulate in the foreign country of birth.

If Santa Claus isn’t a U.S. citizen, based on competing international claims to sovereignty regarding the North Pole, Santa seems likely either of Canadian, Danish or Russian nationality. It appears he enters the U.S. and leaves outside of normal U.S. Customs and Border Protection admittance procedures. That’s bad enough, but if he’s also Russian, as we know this year there may be sanctions issues for him due to the U.S. position on Russian intervention in Ukraine. Can he continue to do business as usual in the U.S.?

So before we ask about his preferred U.S. political party, we need to know a lot more about him first.

Have a good day, wherever you are in the world. ;-)

What Country In The World Best Fits Your Personality?

It’s all settled: we’re moving to Wiltshire – about 3 hours west of London. We spent a long day yesterday traipsing around the area, looking for a house. We found one, and now have to organize the move. We’re hoping for October 17.

Tired, last night I happened to try this game. I thought I’d share the findings with you here:

What Country in the World Best Fits Your Personality? ch country in the world best fits your personality. From http://playbuzz.com. Via Facebook.
What Country in the World Best Fits Your Personality? From http://playbuzz.com. Via Facebook.

Oh, good grief. I’m not saying which country that is. Let’s just say, it doesn’t include Wiltshire.

That’s enough now. [Clap, clap] Back to work everyone. Stop messing around on the internet! ;-)

Always A Bit Of The Outsider

It’s a perennial issue. How does one best fit in when you are not from where you are? We all attack the matter in our own ways.

I try to go about my business without making a spectacle of myself. Still, one does have to open one’s mouth. The other day, when we were walking the hound, a woman fellow dog walker we’d bumped into and chatted briefly with several times recently, apparently felt confident enough to ask me where my accent was from.

On Facebook a few years ago, I posted a short video I had shot of my wife having a laugh chasing our dog around our house in Christchurch. Our hound loved to steal newly delivered mail off the floor after the letter carrier had been pushed it through the letterbox. My voice was naturally all over it.

Hearing me in the background, one of my cousins, who lived in New Jersey and whom I had not seen since I was a teenager (but with whom I had become Facebook friends), commented that I had sounded “so English.”

I commented back to her that that would have been news to my wife. “When I start speaking fast,” I joked, “she says I start to sound like Jerry Seinfeld.”

In turn my cousin came back roaring laughing – insofar as anyone can laugh loudly via Facebook, of course.

One thing I’ve learned is that most people speak “softer” here than in most of the U.S. – especially compared to New York – and I have always tried to “mimic” that. But don’t kid yourself. If you are not from somewhere originally, you will never 100 percent “fit in.”

My overall take is always to appreciate that as long as I accept I will never entirely “fit in,” that it doesn’t matter. I aim simply to try to be respectful of how others live, and not to try to impose my own standards on someone else. However they do “it” back “at home” is irrelevant: I’m not “back at home.”

Another thing to do is always to try to enjoy varied, local beverages :-)

Old Jamaica Ginger Beer. [Photo by me, 2014.]
Old Jamaica Ginger Beer. [Photo by me, 2014.]

So you know, there is NO alcohol in that, okay. It’s a pleasant soft drink that I haven’t found on a supermarket shelf in the U.S.; at least not in New York. Great to sip while writing. :-)

Have a good Tuesday, wherever you are….