I Didn’t Know I’d “Opted Out,” I thought I was just living my life.
It turns out I was part of a large cohort of women who ‘opted out’ of their intense, challenging, and time-consuming work lives, giving up high-powered jobs to stay home and take care of their children. Most of these women were younger than me in 2003, when New York Times’ writer Lisa Belkin initially wrote her story about those of us who made that choice.
Young women facing this choice in 2013 are concerned they’re going to lose too much if they give up their paying jobs. If you read the two articles and the comments beneath the stories, you’ll find that 20-somethings nowadays have learned a harsh lesson from our voracious times, which is that they should not give up their paycheck, no matter what.
That’s not the message I would have liked for them to have received, any more than I received the message my mother hoped I would from the 1977 book about role expectations and injustices against women, The Women’s Room, by Marilyn French, which I read as an adolescent while my mother railed against men.
Instead, I wish women today could truly believe they would be highly valued no matter what choice they make; I want all women to be valued for our simple humanity, rather than our earning power. Sadly, this hope isn’t realistic in a world where personal values are shaped by market forces.
The Consequences of Not Making Money
According to her updated article of August 11, 2013, in which Belkin returns to the subject, this was a pivotal, life-changing decision we made, producing some negative, and some positive, outcomes.
For those marriages that didn’t make it, it turns out that staying home and taking care of your children is seen, from the spouse’s perspective, as a holiday from The Real World.
If you leave your paying job entirely, it turns out, these spouses—many of whom were raised during the aftermath of the war between the sexes that was feminism, as were their wives—lose respect for you, get jealous of your ‘time off,’ and find some way to undermine your efforts, now that you are considered less of a person because you stay home.
This phenomenon, of highly-paid or, at the very least, ambitious and motivated, women giving up their corporate-style work lives to stay home and take care of their children is, realistically, a challenge to everything we in the 1970s and ’80s were told to revere. By the middle-1980s, women were not only strongly encouraged to work, we were told that without a career (not a mere 9-5 job you could jettison easily, but a True Calling) we would most likely never live up to our formidable social, intellectual and economic potential. It turns out women are powerhouses of ability.
Now, if you live in a home with children, and you’re not slovenly, you work. You work damned hard most of the time. Once or twice, I’d ask my spouse to take more than a day off to devote solely to ‘the home,’ which, according to him, almost drove him around the bend, because being at home with children of any age is more than physically challenging; it’s mentally challenging, particularly when your children are not fun to be with.
The Downside to This Situation Looks A Lot Like Being Taken for Granted
Any man who resents you for not working (outside the home) is missing the point of what it means to be a caretaker, and doesn’t understand the worth of volunteering—cause that’s what you are, from an economic standpoint: a volunteer in the home.
The underlying prejudice anyone who devalues caretaking comes with is, “This requires no special license, certificate, or permit; therefore, this is easy, anyone can do it.” Therefore, it’s not worth very much, in an economic sense. Because we link personal ‘worth’ with economic ‘worth,’ those who take care of others, who essentially volunteer their time, are also not ‘worth’ very much.
Having been many things on the continuum of life, from university educator to Chief Bottle Washer of my own company to Head of Laundry Facilitation and Procurement Expert at home, I beg to differ. Your prejudice betrays a) your lack of experience as a caretaker of others’ (often irrational and whiny) needs, as well as b) your imbrication in a soul-less economic system that devalues humanity in general and is destroying the planet. A little harsh? I urge you to take care of something properly, and see how that works out for you; it requires more selflessness than you’re bargaining on. If it seems easy to you, you’re doing it wrong.
What Was I Thinking?
Approximately 10 years ago, I stopped working full-time for three specific reasons. The first had to do with my daughter, who, at the age of 14, experienced a classic adolescent crisis, and required full-time attention. This included me watching her like a hawk so that she didn’t fall into the hands of her Evil Friends who threatened to turn her into a drug addict. Since I am not kidding, I leave you to judge me harshly, but from our perspective at the time, with her friends no longer attending school, dropping out, turning to crime, etc., we saw Disaster Looming.
Reason Number Two: An hour commute in each direction while my child was deconstructing meant I was unlikely to get home until 7 p.m. or later. With an adolescent in crisis, a commute looks foolish. If you think your drive is bad while sitting in traffic, consider what it feels like to sit in traffic, imagining the worst when you get home.
Reason Number Three: This reason is also known as The Straw That Broke This Camel’s Back. Remember what happened to the economy after 2001, 9/11, and the Bush Regime changed all our expectations? If you don’t, I do. Women my age do. I was newly on the job market in 2002, after finishing my doctorate in a subject that doomed me to work at the low end of the academic food chain. That already-minimal market closed down, with the same banging, clanging sounds you hear during the opening credits of Get Smart from the ’60s. That market has yet to reopen fully, and we’re now 12 years on.
In sum, there were strong reasons for me to bow out of a marketplace that wasn’t exactly thriving at that particular moment in time.
Who Saw This Coming?
Backing up all the way to the idealism of the 1970s, when feminism hit hard, the story we were told by our teary-eyed mothers was some version of “Your generation is so lucky. You can have it all.”
Well, guess what? It turns out that when our mothers said that, they didn’t know what they were talking about, because they had no practical experience with ‘having it all.’ The closest you came in those days was to work, rather desperately and sadly at some fairly low-wage paying job until you were lucky enough to be rescued by your Knight In Shining Armor. Until that miracle occurred, you were haunted by the fear of lonely solitude, sharing cans of tuna with your cats in your waning years. Most of Jane Austen’s plots revolve around this fear.
But if you found your Knight, society strongly expected that you would stop working to raise kids, clean out your refrigerator on a weekly basis, and take care of the grandparents as they slipped into senility.
What’s Different Now?
The major thing that really changed between my mother’s generation and mine was America’s attitude about women working outside the home. It became more than acceptable for women to work in an office or elsewhere; in fact, a man’s reaction to a woman working an outside job seems to me to be a marker of what generation he was born in. If he’s all gung-ho for you to work outside the house, that’s either because his mother worked (rare for those men who are older than me); or he sees you as a way to relieve some of the financial pressure. And realistically, two incomes are better, in many ways, than one.
Except when you have kids.
Just in case no generation ever figures this out, and you only have me to tell you, children kind of do require some full-time attention every now and then. Does it make a woman less of a person, less of an individual, to care for, to take care of, others?
Does the brain physically atrophy when you don’t spend all day in meetings, behind the keyboard of this computer, or on a phone, making deals? Yes, I know: Raising children and cleaning up slop all day is significantly less attractive than starring in your own Broadway show, but are you less of a human being for doing so?
There’s A Lot Wrong With Us
I think there are some very serious things wrong with American society, or perhaps Western society in general, when we devalue someone who takes care of other people. What, caretaking is only a real occupation if you’re a doctor or a nurse? Come on. The dream of the 1970s feminist movement promised choices, but in fact, if we devalue the choices people make, what have we actually accomplished as a society?
A truly savvy person understands that we are all in this very leaky boat together, and recognizes that there are important, protective values associated with nurturing, caretaking, and giving something without a price tag attached. I worry about a society which honestly believes a woman is less-than, one-down, if she isn’t getting paid to work, just as my mother’s generation deplored the fact of women’s devaluation if they didn’t produce children. This pendulum swing is so much of a cultural 180˚, it would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.
Lost in the middle of this kind of elitist cultural debate, of course, are all the families who cannot afford for either parent to go without a job. My childhood was like that; my mother had to work, until, as fate would have it, she was ‘lucky’ enough to find a man who could support us. This is part of why I know how much is at stake, both when women are forced to work and when women are forced to stay home.
Marriages fall apart due to cultural expectations that rely on such vagaries as changes in collective beliefs that then influence the individual. If you’re swept up in the larger collective forces shaping our lives, all you can do is find a way to navigate that terrain. Less judgementalism and more gratitude and understanding in the face of social reality would be helpful, it seems to me.
I have long thought that feminists fought for women’s rights in the 1960s and ’70s, but did they actually fight for women’s freedom? At the time, I know they honestly believed they were paving the way to freedom from the tyranny of the home, as it was lived by far too many women throughout history. Yet we have only come so far; true freedom eludes us.
Even as a teenager, it was my perception that real freedom meant you’d have real choices; that men and women should be able to do what we want with our lives, whatever that is. My idealistic dream was never going to be attainable, though.
You know why?
Because economics determines choices, not ‘free will’ or any social movement, no matter how well-meaning. The utopian women who pioneered feminism and women’s rights in the 1960s and ’70s are now aging, dying out, but their daughters and grand-daughters now cope with economic realities at a peculiar, mind-bending time in society, when social expectations have changed dramatically, in a way my mother and my grandmother, both of whom worked, could not have foreseen.
Some women who ‘opted out’ now have the audacity to want to “opt back in,” as The New York Times’ article states. How realistic this is remains to be seen. We are not only older; our perspectives have changed after a decade or more of caretaking. Our values are different, as one would expect. We’re not as rapacious as we used to be. The combination of time and—please God—wisdom, has altered our need or desire for ‘moremoremore’ we were taught we were supposed to want back in the Gordon Gecko Greed-is-Good ’80s.
The economic realities of Marxism will always trump Feminism’s idealism in the real world, but tell that to the millions of men and women fighting each other right now over whose ‘turn’ it is to change the baby’s diaper. Consider instead the market forces that compel you into having this argument in the first place. Consider letting go of the ideals, idealization, and romanticism of your ‘rights,’ and take into account that the person who stays home, or receives the paycheck, is less important than the ability to work as a team, fighting the good fight against larger market forces that will always prevail over human rights, if we let them.
The only escape from market forces and their necessary outcome, consumerism, is to really opt out. Get off the grid. Live simply. Make do with less, and be happy about it. Grow your own peas. And put the person who is willing to take care of folding socks and wipe the baby’s dribbling chin on a pedestal, because it’s highly unlikely you could afford to hire someone to do it for you; but if you can afford it, why not go on a real holiday and quit bitching about who has it easier or harder in your marriage?
There: In this one short article, we have solved most divorces. All it takes is a change in attitude, and some gratitude. Everyone pulls together, no one is blamed, and the person who gives up their job is valued for their non-material, but nonetheless necessary contributions to the family and to society.
Could you live with those values? Or do you need to attach a price tag to everything done for you? If so, consider paying the person who stays at home what s/he’s worth in the economic marketplace. If corporations value volunteerism, shouldn’t you?
Here’s a good recipe I made up tonight, and since it has no real name, I have given it the name I think is most appropriate for the way I live, which is to cobble stuff together and hope for the best.
During the important process of naming it, I tried ‘leftover soup’, but that was too boring. It makes you think you’re getting something that should have been thrown away two days ago; ‘steak soup’—too grand; it’s got some steak in it, but not much; ‘spaghetti sauce soup’—too weird; you shouldn’t mix your food forms when creating a recipe name. For example, when I hear ‘baked potato soup’ my culinary toes curl.
My daughter, upon seeing the picture of the soup taken with my iPhone-wannabe, dubbed it Maggot Soup, but that’s just mean. She’s always been dubious about my cooking. I don’t know why. She’s still alive, after all.
This particular soup sums up my approach to cooking on a day like today, when it’s cold and grey, I have no desire to go out to buy ingredients, and I have plenty of compatible-enough ingredients waiting for some imagination on my part. This is not as difficult as it sounds. You just have to know what likes to be with what, and for how long they can tolerate each other’s company.
So here goes. Try this idea when you’re stuck with leftovers (but not just any leftover; the ingredients have to at least have something to offer each other, otherwise you really will end up with Maggot Soup).
6-8 cups of homemade broth. Mine was made from leftover (frozen) Thanksgiving turkey, a large lamb bone, vegetables, and herbs. Then this is strained, everything but the broth is tossed, et voila, you have homemade broth to do with what you will.
Broth goes well with certain things that want to be thrown into it. One of the things that won’t mind being thrown into broth is a half-bag (or so) of leftover navy beans (or other white bean). I had a half-bag from some stupid earlier recipe which didn’t require an entire bag of beans. So I left this half-bag (approximately one cup of white beans) to soak overnight until they plumped up, and mixed them into the simmering broth this morning.
Then, there was the approximately 2 cups of thick organic spaghetti sauce leftover from a few days ago, which wanted to become an Italian-inspired wedding soup (or minestrone), but didn’t quite know how to pull it off. This was comprised of chopped up and then sautéed chicken-mozzarella sausage; whole organic sun-dried tomatoes in oil and herbs; a jar of organic heirloom tomato sauce, one cup of some red wine or other (doesn’t matter what, really), plus sliced shallots and garlic sautéed gently along with the sausages, and lots of virgin olive oil to sauté in.
At the end of the spaghetti-sauce-making process, which takes somewhere between a half-hour and hour (let’s call it 45 minutes to stew properly, so all the flavours become friendly) you might end up with a very thick sauce indeed, and if you haven’t made sufficient pasta, you can count on left-over sauce. There’s always too much to throw away and not enough to bother making more pasta for.
So you throw this conglomeration into your stock with the beans, and let them all simmer together while the beans soften. This will take awhile; probably a few hours, since we’re not going anywhere, it’s cold out, and where are you rushing to, anyway? You could throw in a bay leaf if you like, but if you’re using leftovers that were adequately seasoned, you probably won’t have to add any new seasoning to this soup. It will be very flavourful on its own.
At this point in my soup-making process I had a decision to make, but it wasn’t difficult. I had a leftover grilled steak bone with plenty of meat remaining from an enormous 22 oz. T-bone steak dinner. I had had the foresight to include in my doggy bag the steamed spinach and leftover oven-seared potatoes as well (restaurants serve way too much food a lot of the time), and so, after chopping the leftover steak and throwing it and the entire bone into the soup, the vegetables followed, giving the soup some necessary greenery (and a little more starch to thicken it).
At the point when the soup starts to thicken and the beans soften, you can add approximately 1-2 cups of elbow macaroni (I had, inexplicably, two mostly-empty boxes with a cup of macaroni each sitting in my pantry). You let these simmer until they’re done, about 20 minutes or so (any more and they get mushy) and then you eat the soup, which should be done by now, with grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese on top.
If the soup becomes too thick, just add more broth to it.
The soup is now divine, but it only attained this state of perfection because it comes from a long line of previously cooked food, all of which could have been thrown away, but was instead rescued and put to work.
So here are the real ingredients:
- 6-8 cups broth
- Tomatoes, herbs, red wine, chicken-mozzarella sausage (chopped and sautéed), a jar of heirloom tomato sauce, all cooked together, leaving you with a thick sauce or paste, if you will.
- Cooked and seasoned T-bone steak, the meat cut into pieces, bone included for added flavour and because there’s still meat attached to the bone, but the only way to get to it is to let it simmer in the pot.
- One cup steamed spinach, drained, obviously.
- One half-cup (or more, if you like) oven-roasted vegetables (I had potatoes, although you could easily use green beans, chopped up asparagus, anything that will hold up over hours of simmering and won’t become mush).
- One cup (approximately) dried navy beans, soaked overnight and drained.
- One to two cups (approximately) elbow macaroni pasta noodles.
- As much grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese as you like on top.
- Green Chili Chicken Soup (fitnessfoodandwhateverelse.wordpress.com)
- Minestrone Soup of Winter (zeldalifeatthetable.wordpress.com)
- Chicken Salsa Soup (littlelotusblossom.wordpress.com)
- Classic Pasta e Fagioli Recipe (thedailymeal.com)
- Soup’s On… Tortilla Soup (azdenek.wordpress.com)
- Corn Chowder with Bacon & Cheddar (thedailymeal.com)
- Easy French Onion Soup (thedailymeal.com)
- Country Style Ham & Potato Soup Recipe (averagebetty.com)
- Italian Wedding Soup (spicecreekcatering.wordpress.com)
- Turn leftovers into a comforting turkey soup (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
America is, apparently, unique in our institution of The Diner, aka The Wayside Canteen.
According to the British, the closest they get to the diner experience is at the pub, although the only real similarity I can think of is the quality of the food.
A ‘diner’ is not, however, synonymous with ‘bad food’; it has more to do with enormous quantities of meat and potatoes served quickly, all day long. Haute cuisine it is not, of course, but with the reputation for the ‘bottomless cup of coffee’ and huge American-size portions, I suppose comfort might be implicit.
The British are as fascinated by our lowly diner as we are with their Queen, it seems, since they have begun a BBC Four Radio show discussing the history and meaning of the diner, from a cultural perspective, of course. This might sound like the highbrow version of trying to give universal meaning to a slab of meatloaf and a scoop of mashed potatoes served on a plate, swimming in brown gravy; but in fact, commentator Stephen Smith manages to ennoble the diner, giving it a place of importance in American history:
…[T]he diner is the last vestige of a vital part of the American psyche—the frontier. Like the Dodge City saloon it is a place where strangers are thrown together, where normal rules are suspended and anything can happen. And it is this crackle of potentially violent and sexual energy that have drawn so many artists to the diner, and made it not a convenient setting but an engine room of 20th century American culture.
On a more prosaic note, the British explain their obsession for American culture, and, specifically, the American diner, by providing historical facts (very helpful for my purposes, but written in British-speak, just FYI):
So why are these kerbside kitchens a landmark of US culture?
The first such establishment opened in 1872 in Providence, Rhode Island – a “night lunch wagon” to serve those who worked and played long after the restaurants had shut at 20:00.
Its mix of open-all-hours eating and cheap, homemade food proved a hit, and the formula has been repeated ever since.
Today the diner occupies a place in the American heartland. The closest British approximation is not a retro-chic replica diner where hip patrons eat gourmet burgers, but the local pub.
You can listen to an ongoing radio broadcast about the history of the American diner here, but be warned; BBC Four doesn’t leave their broadcasts up for very long, so if you’re interested, you have to listen to them now, since soon they will be gone.
Also, if you want to cook “American style”, the British have been collecting recipes for our most mundane foods, like pancakes. When I’m in the States, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how pancakes are not a global food, but they aren’t, so other cultures end up revering them and, presumably, missing them when they can’t get them in their own country. I don’t remember ever being able to get a pancake in England, actually, so maybe American-style pancakes are more important to them than I knew, and they pine for them when they can’t get them, just like I pine for bangers and mash and the occasional haggis.
Five typical diner dishes (not all fried, surprisingly):
- Pancakes with sausage
- Eggs over-easy with home fries and toast
- Cheeseburger deluxe
- Turkey club
- Meatloaf dinner
“It’s comfort food, made from recipes like Mom used to make,” says diner owner Otto Meyer (you’ll have to look at the BBC site for more from Mr. Meyer).
A cup of joe
(It can be helpful having other cultures explain our own history to us, n’est-ce pas?)
- US colloquialism for coffee
- Origin unknown, says the OED
- First recorded use in Jack Smiley’s 1941 book Hash House Lingo on the slang of roadside diners
- Other diner lingo included “dog soup” for water and “sea dust” for salt
- Why the diner is the ultimate symbol of America (BBC) (gunnyg.wordpress.com)
- The simplest haunts tell the most complex stories. (platedialogues.com)
- Frankie and Bennys a modern approach? (amzwood.wordpress.com)
- The interior of Frankie and Bennys (amzwood.wordpress.com)
- Britain’s biggest restaurant throws open its doors to 2,100 diners a night (dailymail.co.uk)
- Brad Rubin Brings Passion and Comfort to Chicago’s Eleven City Diner (prweb.com)
- Sunny Side Up (gastronomy-aficionado.com)
- Waffle House Called One of Best Crisis Response Businesses (parkercorpcomm.wordpress.com)
- Diners offer presidential candidates a taste of America (guardian.co.uk)
There was a time, which lasted far too long, when I was in denial about the impact my weight was having on my health. I used to say I was the healthiest fat person I knew. Ha. I was an idiot.
Maybe there are people who can cruise through their entire life looking like the Michelin Tire guy, without at least the threat of a medicine cabinet full of pills to keep them company through their waning years. I was not one of them. At the first sign of trouble, as with most things, I ran shrieking to the canebrake, because I had no intention of dying before the age of 50 from a heart attack.
So, I mended my errant ways, got off the hard drugs—the processed sugar and other white substances put here on this earth to tempt us to madness—and started loving vegetables in a way I did not know humans could feel for legumes. Yes, of course I dropped a bunch of weight, but the best news is that I might be healthy during my remaining years, until I’m hit by a bus, when none of my efforts to reform will amount to a hill of edamame.
The point is this: even though I was in almost complete denial, I was, at the same time, extremely embarrassed. I had not always carried extra rolls. At one time, I was quite svelte, actually, and my mother, her skinny ashes now scattered to the four winds, used to remind me of this fact often. So when I read that there are women vying for Fattest Mother of the Year Award, I was, to put it mildly, aghast. What happened to shame?
I spent many years feeling ashamed of what had happened to my body, and those were years when if I’d understood what sugar and carbohydrates do to my system, if a doctor had said to me “you are now officially on track for a heart attack and diabetes,” I honestly would have paid attention… but no one did. I wish they had; I wish a doctor had smacked me upside the head and gotten my attention, but in fact, it took a long series of mishaps involving broken bones and not being able to walk for a year, to teach me that I could do better than be a lard butt for the rest of my days.
There is such an enormous premium placed on thinness in this society—it’s more than a health issue. It’s also a matter of self-esteem. I can honestly say that there were days when I didn’t want to leave my house due to my adipose tissue buildup. I was raised by a couple of relatively thin, narcissistic people who, like most in their generation, grew up ingesting whole milk, butter, eggs—all things people of my generation were taught to avoid.
When it turned out that in fact, what we should have been avoiding was the crap scientists added to perfectly good food, I think most of us started to figure out a) we’d been lied to by our parents’ generation, but that was nothing new and b) green beans taste pretty damned good if you’re going to die any minute from an embolism.
You’d be amazed how motivating being faced with a heart attack can be. For one thing, heart attacks hurt. Then there’s the Afterlife Social Stigma, which you can carry with you to the grave and beyond if you have an imagination and shame. You have to understand that in my imagination, I’m listening to gossip between the nurses after I’m dead. They’re rolling me off the hospital bed, onto the gurney, preparing to take my rotund form to the morgue. The scene goes something like this:
First nurse: (One of those thin ones you figure never ate a Snickers in desperation, not once): “Do you know what she died from?”
Second nurse: (Skinny, but she buys a box of Krispy Kremes after work every single day, the bitch): “No, what?”
First nurse: [Emits grunting noises from exertion of lifting dead weight; sighs, rolls dead weight onto gurney]: “She was only 52, and she keeled over from a heart attack!! At 52!! God, can you imagine?”
Second nurse: “Well, what do you expect? With flab around the middle? Everyone knows flab around the middle is a heart attack waiting to happen!”
And then the judging, knowing looks, the rolling eyes, the pointed reference to undue quantities of Krispy Kremes, the snide comments about my saggy breasts; the snickering. You get the picture.
Now, the women vying for the title of “World’s Fattest Fatty” apparently do not care about heart attacks, nor must they spend their time imagining nurse-vultures pecking over their bodies once they’re dead. I guess they live in the moment, because it only takes a moment to find something else to eat. Please do not send cards and letters; I know not all fat is about food, but come on. Most is.
I know fat-bashing is not politically correct, and I do not expect to be forgiven, but this is not about that extra 15 lbs. you can’t get rid of no matter how hard you (or I) try. I think we can admit, this is more serious than a few extra pounds that society will never quite accept. This is pathological behavior; it’s much more than odd. Their patent denial of everything we are taught to revere in this society, all the standards women are told to aspire to, makes me wonder what motivates these women, and what we might have to accept about fat, for those standards of thinness to nudge a little bit. These women claim not to be hurting anyone, but the extent to which they are hurting themselves is disturbing, to put it mildly.
I didn’t know you could be happy being fat, or that it was something to aspire to, and I’m left wondering if they will change the face of self-acceptance, or whether they are just rather obviously in denial, avoiding their very own elephant in the room.
- After a Heart Attack – Making the Most of a Second Chance (everydayhealth.com)
- Is It GERD or a Heart Attack? (everydayhealth.com)
- What to Do When Someone Has a Heart Attack (everydayhealth.com)
- How Heart Attack Treatment Saves Lives (everydayhealth.com)
- Angina treatment ‘increases heart attack severity’ (telegraph.co.uk)
In my younger years, I came across the term ‘brutti Americani,’ which means those horrible Americans who have such a terrible reputation in the rest of the world, for good reason. If you travel, you know who I’m talking about. They’re loud and they’re proud.
I encountered this dynamic repeatedly this past summer. Summer is the worst possible time to travel, because everyone, including people who don’t know how to travel, comes out of hiding from their boring suburban lives, equipped with Rick Steves’ guidebooks and sturdy walking shoes, ready to tackle the Unknown.
The Unknown includes basic etiquette you should have learned prior to leaving home, like: adapting to dress codes, learning how to modulate one’s voice, developing the ability to share seats that don’t belong to you in a crowded airport that is not your living room; not being shocked that other countries are possibly just as, if not more, advanced technologically, than we are, and my all-time favorite Ugly-American-While-Abroad Hobby, Giving Strangers Advice, aka: Telling Others How To Live Their Lives.
These skills are all apparently a huge challenge for those who have been insulated from the world since birth. Americans are uniquely good at remaining insulated, and when we leave our front porch, we want the rest of the world to provide us with only the challenges we’re ready for. This doesn’t leave the rest of the world a lot of wiggle room to be who they are, of course, but we don’t care. We’re here on the planet, like missionaries of old, to educate Foreigners in the error of their ways, and to reform them, so they’ll come around to our way of thinking about the supremacy of shopping malls and fast food.
American brutishness takes different forms, but it boils down to a pernicious inability to fit in to the culture you find yourself in. Now, this is an attitude I utterly deplore, as I have always lived by the tenet I was taught as a child growing up overseas: you are a guest in someone else’s country, behave yourself accordingly.
How do I deplore Americans when they’re abroad? Let me count the ways.
The woman in Paris at the corner of Des Invalides on Bastille Night during the fireworks who was dressed like she was about to roll craps in Vegas. I think she honestly believed she rivalled the simple elegance of Parisian women, who, when they are well dressed, don tailored clothes that adhere to their forms, but are never flashy or shiny. The overall impression I got in Paris is that if you’re wearing glitz, for god’s sake, keep it small and low to the body, and do not shine all over like a traffic light. Or a fireworks’ show, for that matter.
Another woman, this time at my lovely hotel in Paris, informing the staff, loudly, after the televised state funeral earlier that day for seven French soldiers who had given their lives for their country in Afghanistan and Iraq, how they had no business there, and should never have gone to war in the first place.
The woman in the airport in Dublin who, when I needed to sit down in a communal area, said, loudly to her husband, “Just look at that Steven! Would you just look at that!” I had pulled a seat toward me and sat in it, and when this woman started shrieking, I looked up from filling in my customs’ forms to see who was committing a federal crime in broad daylight, only to discover it was me.
Shocked at my own rudeness for needing to (briefly) use a communal seat in a communal area that was not in any way marked as “theirs,” since we were not actually in their living room at the time, I cried out, “Oh, is this seat yours? It was not in any way marked as ‘taken’, since we are not actually in your living room right now!” (Actually, I didn’t say that about the seat being taken; anyone with a brain could see the seat was not taken, except in their minds, which are small and narrow as the suburbs they come from in southwest Idaho or somewhere close to a pumpkin patch).
So the husband, as charming as the wife, mutters, with great forbearance and tolerance of my overweening rudeness, “No, no, don’t worry about it,” and pulls another seat into their magical circle, this time being smarter and wiser, marking it as “taken” with a suitcase. Good for him. He learned something new that day about how to comport yourself while traveling, something the rest of us learned in kindergarten.
Then the happy married couple muttered loudly about the third party they were waiting for, wondering, loudly, where she was. Within a few moments, I had filled out my customs’ form, and was on my way, as is typical in an airport, where nothing belongs to anyone and it’s no one’s front parlour and a chair is just a chair, it’s not part of the set of your personal drama.
Then there was the woman with a head scarf in the five star restaurant seated in the booth in front of me the night before I left Paris. I now know, from being forced to overhear her far-too-loud conversation with a quiet mouse of a dinner companion who kept her voice low and modulated, being from Europe and all, that the woman in question
a) lives in Paris, an expatriate who deplores loud Americans;
b) survived cancer, hence the headscarf;
c) survived a divorce, hence the cancer;
d) has no intention of ever returning to America due to deploring loud Americans but
e) has trouble making ends meet in Paris, so boy this five star restaurant is a wonderful treat, said with a large dollop of bitterness at the way her life has turned out.
I wanted to cry out, in umbrage: But you get to live in Paris, for god’s sake, shut up!
But I didn’t, because if I’m going to share my opinions with anyone, I prefer for it to be here, in private where only you can read my thoughts.
These are all things I didn’t need to know, but now I do, and I’m passing this knowledge on to you, because you know full well this blog is about umbrage, and traveling gives me plenty of it. Others get heartburn while rolling their suitcases over cobblestones; I get umbrage.
Then there was the woman traveling with her son in Gamla Stan who decided that their Italian waiter isn’t living the life she wants him to, and so he should move back to Italy. She told him this while he kept pouring glass after glass of some nice wine for her, allowing her to become ever more voluble.
I know all of this because, once again, I had the grave misfortune of being seated far too close to Americans abroad. I leave the States to get away from you people, and I wish you’d stay home, where you belong, since you bring far too much of yourselves with you when you travel. But I digress.
So the waiter is defending himself against this unwarranted attack and rude speculations on his life, his beliefs, his financial situation, his family history… he was very polite and countered all suggestions about how he really belongs back in Italy, and why wouldn’t he want to live there, it’s such a beautiful country… oh, except for those who actually are Italian and have to live in an economy that cannot support them.
As he said to this woman, in English, possibly his 3rd or 4th language, “I belong here in Sweden, where I can make a living. And all my family lives here.” You’d think that simple reality would shut her up, but no, the zeal of righteousness was fueled by copious amounts of alcohol, which he poured for her liberally. The irony was lost on her, but not on me, a casual observer. For her, Italy is only beautiful country, since she’s American and on vacation and all; his reality is of little importance to her. For him, she is yet another brutti Americani to take advantage of, since all that wine cost her a tidy sum, a fair amount of which went into his pocket in the form of the large tip she left him.
Then there was the overly zealous American on the train from Stockholm, who was shocked and amazed (“oh these guys!,” he expostulated, all shocked and amazed and condescending, but so fond of them and their cute little minds!) to find that Sweden a) has pull-down tray tables ON TRAINS! Who knew the Swedish could be so clever? and that b) the seats on trains can face toward the front OR the back of the train! Gosh these Swedish people are AMAZING in their ability to come up with innovations, aren’t they? Cause we all know that only Americans are innovative, right?
In fact, the plastic bag, those ubiquitous shopping sacks we are now trying to do away with here in the States, originated in Sweden back in the 60s. Just FYI. In other words, Sweden has been at the forefront of some innovative designs we in the States take completely for granted, and we should stop thinking we invented everything, cause we didn’t, and you have to stop having high-pitched epiphanies about how amazing and modern! other countries are, cause you’re making my brain tumor throb.
And here’s some history, written in Italian by an Italian person, who lets you know that the history of Italians in America has been no cake-walk. There’s a reason they leave their native land to live in places of economic prosperity, just like your forebears did in days of yore.
Here’s why overhearing other people’s conversations will drive you crazy. Now read all of this quietly, and if you’re reading this alone in some airport, for god’s sake, keep your opinions to yourself.
- Aberfeldy and Pitlochry, Scotland (nanhann.wordpress.com)
- European Travel Expert Rick Steves Offers Tips for Exploring Paris (prweb.com)
- Paying homage at Hemingway’s Paris shrines (collaborativewriter.wordpress.com)
- The First Time I Saw Paris (growingyoungereachday.wordpress.com)
- Paris is still the top city destination for the British (travelnews.britishairways.com)
- Paris hotels airport (ebookers.com)
- Paris Nightlife (ebookers.com)
- France soul-searches over treatment of homeless (telegraph.co.uk)
- Bon Jour Paris – Paris, France (travelpod.com)
- Fundamentalist Christians Protest at Paris Theater (foxnews.com)
- All about Paris – Paris, France (travelpod.com)
- Start Spreading the News… (weekendinparis.wordpress.com)
- We make our way to Paris… – Paris, France (travelpod.com)