Plane Courtesy

Back on Friday, we were on British Airways, which we almost always fly internationally (save for Ryanair). This flight was on a 777; that’s what BA uses to Newark (although they are supposed to be using Dreamliners too, I believe). I still don’t like that aircraft; but I will admit this one was a better cabin experience than many previous 777 flights. image The flight (in comparison to, uh, others) was relatively uneventful. One exception was finding ourselves upgraded to premium economy. The other was, less happily, discovering ourselves sitting behind a late twenties/ early thirties, American couple.

Yes, we all have our off moments. Still, this was all too much to have possibly been a mere series of coincidences. Please pardon me as I get this off my chest. ;-)

The male half of the couple was seemingly one of those people who “things just happen to.” Somehow he dislodged/ broke the plastic cover enveloping the outer leg of his aisle seat. Using his laptop, he almost sent a drink flying as well. The cabin service director at one point also announced that an iPhone had been found in a lavatory. Guess whose it was?

Sitting in front of me, his companion apparently inhabited her own, shall we say, “plane of reality.” She proceeded to recline her seat (in premium seats recline pretty far) for nearly the whole flight, including during meals. Yeh, why have perhaps an ounce of consideration for the person behind her? Indeed, did she even notice there was someone behind her?

More ridiculous, mid-flight, to reach her seat after having used the lavatory, of course he didn’t stand up and let her pass; she decided to climb over him. Naturally in grabbing the back of her seat to seek extra balance for this gymnastics move, she managed to shake and push back her already reclined seat even farther – so much so that it clipped and nearly knocked over an open bottle of water I had on my tray. I’d think nothing of behavior like that from an eight year old. But from an adult?

Twice her pillow also slid back to us after she’d gradually pushed it brainlessly between their seats. Once is an accident. After the second time, instead of shoving it back again between their seats, I just left it on the floor. She displayed no obvious interest, or concern, about it having vanished.

After landing, as we stood waiting to disembark, I glimpsed the dim-looking and self-absorbed expression on her face: it reminded me a little too much of a certain study abroad U.S. student who has been seen a great deal since late 2007. It all clicked. Suddenly, everything that had gone on before made more sense. ;-)

We’d met up in London a little more than a week earlier with an Alaska college friend of mine and his wife during their first visit to the British capital. Over lunch, he noted that he thought the people-watching is absolutely amazing. His wife (whom we did not know before then, and now do) agreed enthusiastically, and added that she couldn’t get over the incredible variety of shoes seen on the women. At that, my wife grinned and concurred with her wholeheartedly.

We may wish we could get to know some of those people we all “watch.” Then there are others we actually do encounter whom we really wish would keep their distance. And the more distantly, the damn better. :-)

Quick Take 8: (Our Leading Lady) “Isabelle”

While the story begins inside of James’s mind, without Isabelle there is no novel. On that September Thursday in 1994, she is the first character to speak. She breaks the ice….


Walking into her University of Long Island (ULI) Western Civilization class for the first time, Isabelle scopes out the seating. On one side of the room, several American girls – who seem already to know each other – are spread out and talking. On the other side, she spots a good-looking, apparently slightly older guy, sitting quietly by himself.

He seems to be skimming a book. Isabelle sees him glance up at her, and she thinks he appears embarrassed for a second – almost as if he had hoped she had not seen him looking at her. Noticing the empty desk in front of him, she guesses he wouldn’t be unhappy if she sat there.

She smiles lightly as she heads toward that desk. After reaching it, sitting and organizing herself, she decides to spin around and have a chat with him. Irritated also that her roommate is proving not nearly as friendly as she had thought an American girl would be, Isabelle decides to open by unburdening herself. She sighs and grumbles:

“I am tired already. I don’t like my roommate. She is sooooo difficult.”

But his immediate reaction, while pleasant, is oddly restrained and not the outgoing one she had expected. Maybe he’s just shy? She introduces herself.

He’s James, he replies, and follows with a weak effort at humor about not being confused with a famous secret agent character. Names now exchanged, and she explaining also that she’s French, as they talk she feels he is slowly becoming more at ease. And that is what she wants.

She had been born and raised outside of Lorient, Brittany, not far from France’s Atlantic coast. All of her life the U.S. has been an overarching and powerful presence looming over the horizon figuratively as well as literally. Indeed American soldiers in their millions had of course also been in France fighting Hitler’s vicious soldiers fifty years before during World War Two, and her older relations – her grandmother especially – had shared with her tales about those Americans they had encountered.


Culturally, the U.S. is impossible to ignore also. She had learned English in school not because they spoke English in England, but because they spoke it in the U.S. Its books, TV, films, and music were everywhere. In fact many of her favorite singers are Americans – even if she can sometimes still just barely understand what they are singing about.

Everyone she knows at home has opinions about the U.S. Some are positive ones, some negative…. and some extremely negative. Virtually no one is indifferent about it.

She had grown up hearing also about Americans being like adult children in not wanting to understand the world and in believing their country is always right. Yet she has known some Americans in Paris who were lightning quick to harshly criticize their U.S. to any French who would listen. They seemed also to admire and praise France almost too much. Often they appeared to like France more than she did!

Her only first-hand U.S. experience prior to landing at JFK a few days earlier had been when her parents had taken her to Florida for a vacation when she was sixteen. Now, at 24, she has a chance to learn about it entirely on her own. As they await the professor, she explains:

“I wanted to stay for a while and I thought I could be an au pair. But my father said, ‘Non!’” She mimicked his dismissive circular right hand wave.

James asks why he had felt that way?

“Ah, he did not want me watching the children of strangers,” she went on. “My father! So I asked my parents to study in New York for a year. That they thought was better.”

Although she had missed out on being an au pair, Isabelle was genuinely amused by what she had been told of Americans’ attitudes towards those young – usually European – women hired by affluent families to look after their children for a time. Her friend, Virginie, with whom she had concocted the au pair plan, had in the end flown to America on her own – and to work in, of all places, given her name, Virginia. Nearly a year later, Virginie returned to Lorient overflowing with stories (some good, some decidedly not) about her experiences in the U.S., including about her employers…. and their “snobbishness.” She tells James lightheartedly:

“They did not want just an au pair. Oh, no, Virginie thought it was very funny they wanted a French one! They wanted to be able to tell their friends, ‘Welllll, you knooow, we have a Freeeench oh peaaaiiiiiir,’” Isabelle observed in an extravagant, apparently southern, accent.

As class finishes, she hopes he wants to chat more. He does. While walking to the student center café together, and then while relaxing there over her coffee and his soft drink, she offers more about herself and her family. James also shares more about himself, bits about the immediate area where the university is located, and a few facts about Long Island also – such as the reason for the names of some of its towns and villages:

“My family’s from Queens. You probably never heard of East Setauket. That’s where I grew up, out on the island. Electrifying, isn’t it?”

“How do you say it again? You are right, I never heard of it until now,” she laughed.

“It’s the name of an Indian tribe that lived there. Long gone now,” he explained. “Well, it’s a corruption of it. Lots of places on the island are named after Indians. If you can’t say it, it’s probably Indian.”

Isabelle smiled. “My father has a map of America before the Europeans. It has all the Indian tribes on it. Where they lived.”

“He probably knows more about the Indians than I do,” James confessed. “But if his map has the Setalcotts, I’d be shocked.”

Overall Isabelle is impressed by him. Taller than average herself, she’s pleased James is rather taller than she is. And not only is he fairly handsome, but he has nothing to say about a wife, a girlfriend, or kids.

He has never been to Europe; but he also seems an American who neither hates France, nor one who adores it to the point of ridiculous. She suspects what he wants to ask her as well, but it takes him ages to get around to it. So when finally he suggests that perhaps they could spend Saturday in Manhattan with a couple of his friends, she jumps at the chance….

See related:
Quick Take 7: “Maki”
Quick Take 6: “Mark”
Quick Take 5: “James” (Where It All Starts)
Quick Take 4: “Béatrice”
Quick Take 3: “Uncle Bill”
Quick Take 2: “Valérie”
Quick Take: “Virginie”

Quick Take 7: “Maki”

Having already met Russian MBA student Lena, during the first week of classes Isabelle stumbles on another international student….


A Spanish major, and now a senior, Japanese Maki has been at the University of Long Island (ULI) for three years. Hoping to catch the hard to catch chairperson, this first Friday of the semester Maki pops into the Foreign Languages office. The department has by now become like a second home.

Waiting, she overhears a girl she has never seen before telling Sonia, the secretary, of her roommate troubles. Shortly after, the girl vanishes into her meeting with the chairperson, and, while she is in with him, Maki quizzes Sonia about her. Satisfied that she seems okay, as she emerges from the chair’s private office Maki greets her:

“Excuse me,” Maki accosted Isabelle. “You want a new roommate? I need one. Mine had to withdraw.”

Maki is one of those students who has well-learned the inner workings of the university. She knows “the game.” Thus she has also developed a nonchalant attitude toward its sometimes petty bureaucracy:

“Housing won’t care,” Maki shrugged knowledgeably. “You’re now one less problem for them,” she added as she led Isabelle to the suite door.

Later, as they chat further, she asks her French new roommate if she would be interested in joining her for a bit of Long Island’s perhaps most popular local pastime:

Maki suggested in her flavorful, Japanese-accented English, “Hey, how about we go to the mall on Sunday?”

Isabelle wondered, “Is that where Sonia got her top she was wearing?”

“Maybe. We’ve been there lots of times.” Pointing down at them, Maki noted, “These shoes? Got them shopping with Sonia in the spring. I’ll drive. We’ll have lunch.”

“You have a car?”

Maki loves Long Island. And she finds life in the US overall much less rigid than back in Japan. She has a variety of school friends of differing backgrounds.


Indeed she has an American long-term boyfriend: Peter. Moreover not only is Maki also uncommonly tall, but her mother is also Korea-born – both contributing to making Maki a decidedly less than typical Japanese. At one point, she surprises Isabelle with her view of her homeland as well:

“Japan is not so nice if you are not all Japanese,” Maki noted. “It is not like here where everyone is different.”

But she can shift gears from serious to humorous, and vice-versa, in seconds:

Maki noticed Isabelle’s history book. “Western Civilization was not my best class,” the Japanese pronounced. “Just before the final, Peter told me, if I’m not sure, just write that Austria lost.”

And she’s a bit of a jokester also….

And that’s not an “April Fool’s….” :-)

See related:
Quick Take 6: “Mark”
Quick Take 5: “James” (Where It All Starts)
Quick Take 4: “Béatrice”
Quick Take 3: “Uncle Bill”
Quick Take 2: “Valérie”
Quick Take: “Virginie”

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.


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.


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. :-)

Language Barriers

On February 24, I noted CNN’s report on the tragic death in Rome a couple days earlier of U.S. study abroad student John Durkin. The 21 year old college junior’s body was found in a train tunnel. He had been hit and killed by a train.

He was last seen alive leaving a bar called Sloppy Sam’s. Insofar as I know, there have been no major new revelations. However, yesterday I did notice the Portland (Maine) Press Herald had reported this on February 27 (my emphasis in bold):

….Italian authorities say Durkin was struck by a train in a railroad tunnel between St. Peter’s and Trastevere train stations. The tunnel is about two miles from the bar, Sloppy Sam’s, in the opposite direction from his dormitory.

The area where the bar is located, the Piazza Campo dei Fiori, has open air markets during the day and is a popular nightspot for foreign tourists. It also has seen incidents of violence in recent years, according to press reports.

Italian newspapers reported that an image taken from a security camera near the San Pietro train station shows Durkin walking along the tracks toward the tunnel at daybreak. He was described as “staggering” but uninjured….

….Durkin went to the bar with friends who left at about 1:30 a.m. while he remained. He left at 2 a.m. when the bar closed but his movements in the four-hour window from 2 a.m. to when he appeared on the camera near the train station are not known.

Besides how he ended up wandering on the tracks, what he was doing and where he was from 2 a.m to 6 a.m. seems something Italian authorities want to find out. However, of course it is entirely possible that it may never be known.

What caught my eye also in the article is this next paragraph:

Sloppy Sam’s describes itself as “the only dedicated American bar in Rome.” It has English-speaking staff and shows American sporting events on television, according to its Facebook page….

I suppose it’s little surprise that American students new in Rome would gravitate to an “American bar.” Yet the presence of the Vatican and the millions of pilgrims who visit it, as well as all of the other Rome tourist attractions, likely contributes to English being not uncommon in the city. For instance, the Rome Metro even offers its automated, on train station announcements, in Italian and English.

Politeness dictates that you don’t reflexively assume an Italian in Rome understands English; but, by the same token, until I’m sure I never assume someone does not understand English either. That’s not to say everyone you meet in Rome speaks some English. Far from it. But in most restaurants and bars in the tourist areas, even if they don’t have signs up announcing “English spoken,” someone working there probably can manage a bit of it.

St. Peter's at dusk. [Photo by me, 2013.]

St. Peter’s at dusk. [Photo by me, 2013.]

When we saw Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square in person back in September, in the crowd my 19 year old English nephew, who had never been to Rome before, briefly ended up standing next to a couple of Italian women. They spoke little English, and my nephew speaks almost no Italian; but he does know Spanish fairly well. He said to me afterwards that they had had a laugh together babbling in bits of the three languages.

Toward the end of our week there, my nephew announced that Rome is his favorite city.

Never let a language barrier be a turn off. Italians are usually very relaxed. My experience after several visits to Rome over the years is, yes, they appreciate when you try some Italian, but they don’t really expect non-Italian visitors to know too much of it.

American Study Abroad Students … And Alcohol

Back on Saturday, CNN reported on the death of a American college junior in Rome:

A U.S. student who went missing while studying abroad in Italy was found dead inside a railroad tunnel in central Rome, police there said Saturday.

Investigators are looking into the death of John Durkin, an economics major from Rye Beach, New Hampshire. The 21-year-old attended Bates College, but was one of six students from the Maine school taking part in a study abroad program in Rome through Trinity College in Connecticut, his school said. Both colleges are working with Italian authorities….

….He’s been in Rome for a little more than a month as part of a semester-long program, according to Tom Durkin, a family spokesman.

Two days ago, he went to a bar with a group of friends and never returned, according to the spokesman, who said he left the bar alone….

We do not know exactly what happened there yet, of course, so we should not jump to conclusions. That said, whenever we hear of such tragedies, I wince. I find I cannot but think on the incredible disservice we are doing in essentially infantilizing 18-20 year old American adults when it comes to banning them from access to legal alcohol.

Yes, we are told that young man was 21 – so had reached the “21 year old” age to drink legally in the U.S. However, that would have meant he was encountering alcohol legally for the first time in Rome three years later than young Europeans around him in that bar. Even if he had drunk legally at home briefly before venturing to Europe, the legal social alcohol scene (including how to consume sensibly, with whom to engage in a bar, when to stop, etc.) would still have been very new to him; and on top of that, he finds himself ignorant of local European social signals.

Obsessed as we appear to be in the U.S. with “protecting our kids,” are we honestly preparing study abroads for “18 year old” alcohol legality outside of the U.S.? Do we not realize that American 18-20 year olds in England, France, Italy, and elsewhere, find themselves mixing with young Europeans who are familiar with legal alcohol and adult behaviors surrounding it? In compelling American 18-20 year olds at home into drinking as an “underground activity,” when they find suddenly they can consume booze “above ground” legally in places like Italy are those young Americans mature enough to handle it?


It seems not, and it is no joke. When I worked in a London university, I noticed that when it came to alcohol American study abroad undergraduates often behaved like kids let loose in a candy store without parental supervision. Effectively, we force an extended childhood on them at home, but we don’t appear to want to reflect on the dangerous ramifications of that for when they “leave the nest” and fly off to study abroad.

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.


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.

Creativity From Anger?

You may not have considered this, but it may be worth asking it of yourself. Do you find you write better when you’re feeling generally contented? Or does it come easier when you’re irritated, down, and even angry?

I suspect the latter may provide a burst of extra creativity over a short-term which likely cannot – indeed, should it? – be maintained throughout an entire work. Meaning a brief keyboard-thumping literary tantrum might be helpful … up to a point. For if you do have one, you may have also accidentally produced an outline for something which, after a good clean up (and a few deep breaths) may result in a sharp (and perhaps unexpected) story-point.


Why do I raise this? Personal experience. During mid-2013, I found myself increasingly infuriated as I became aware of fawning news coverage granted to a certain individual. For several weeks, the incessant media background noise seemed inescapable.

One morning, with Twitter open on my PC next to Word (as it usually is when I write), some tweet I saw jolted me into realizing that person’s stupid and immature behaviors years earlier provided story material. It was like the proverbial light bulb going off above my head. It was too good to pass up: I found myself weaving in a subplot revolving around the troubles caused by, uh, a tearaway, self-absorbed U.S. college student in Italy who makes life extremely unpleasant for her English roommate.

Once again, from where “fiction” sometimes comes….

An Increasingly Distant Time

Today is a terrible anniversary: 25 years ago, on December 21, 1988, Pan Am 103 was blown up in the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people.

Among the murdered were a group of Syracuse University study-abroad students returning to the U.S. As a university student myself then, Pan Am’s destruction made an inestimable impression on me. I flew Pan Am in those days, and my first visit to Europe (to France) had been earlier in the year, in January 1988.

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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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