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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Yankee goes home

Americans are just nice people.

Okay, that’s a bit of an over-exaggeration. You can’t really make a blanket statement like that about the citizens of any country. Even the nicest of countries will have at least a few bad apples. And the assertion could be challenged, even on general grounds. There are plenty of people, many of them Americans themselves, who would insist there is something not nice about the American character in general or about how the country acts collectively in many instances. And, in any event, it looks like arrogant self-praise to pay a compliment to one’s own country.

But I will stick with my statement. It is only my opinion, but it is what I believe, at least at the moment. I believe it because of a recent visit to the States. (That was the week I missed writing after Easter, for those of you who keep track of these things.) I don’t refer to our holiday as a visit “home” because we went to Massachusetts. And, although Massachusetts is part of my country, it is a state I have made only brief visits to over the years and is nearly as far from the part of the country that is home to me as the European country where I currently live. When the Irish say “home”—no matter where they happen to be in the world or where their current residence is or to whom they are speaking—it is understood that they are referring to Ireland. When I first began spending time in Eire, I totally confused people with my replies to questions like, “Are ye long home?” or “How long are ye home for?” Being a literal-minded sort, I would answer, “Well, I’m not actually home. I live in the States.” But over time, I came to realize that, when an Irish person says “home,” you should just mentally substitute the word “Ireland” for it.

What I am getting around to is that, on this last visit stateside—since I have been a full-time resident Ireland for more than six years and had not set foot on American soil for two and a half years and have no personal ties to New England anyway—I felt in a strange way like a foreign tourist. People in shops and restaurants looked at me strangely when I said certain things (how was I to know that U.S. McDonalds don’t have americano coffee like the Irish ones do?) and I hesitated in certain situations—like when I had to figure out that people no longer sign pieces of paper when using a credit card but sign an LED screen. (In Ireland they punch in a PIN code.) And one particular night on Cape Cod, after a very pleasant two-martini Italian dinner, I even pulled out of the parking lot and into the left-hand lane of the road. Hey, it’s hard to keep track every minute of the day of what country you’re in.

But chief among the things that surprised me was how polite everyone was. Now, it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Most of my adult life, I lived in Seattle, one of the politest places on earth—probably due to the influence of Scandinavian immigration. A fellow transplant (from New York) once told me how he impressed a visiting friend by refusing to drive through an intersection while the light went from red to green to yellow and red again. “I told him that the guy behind me wouldn’t honk his horn, and he didn’t believe me. But I was right!” Now, by the time I left Seattle, there were already plenty of signs that transplants from California and elsewhere were diluting the famous Seattle politeness. In any event, I have always been aware that not all regions of America are as courteous as in Seattle, and I have always thought of the northeastern part of the country as being more abrupt and outspoken than well-mannered—possibly due to the influence of immigration from countries like Italy and Ireland.

So it was a bit of culture shock to find ourselves constantly treated to unforced courtesy. I’m not referring merely to the surface friendliness that is so jarring in shops and restaurants where the staff are angling to sign you up for a credit card or to get a big tip at the end of your meal. I’m talking about cars coming to a sudden halt to let a pedestrian cross a road, even when not in a crosswalk. (In Massachusetts, it’s actually the law that motorists must stop for people in crosswalks.) Or cars ungrudgingly slowing down to let you change lanes on the freeway. Or not honking at someone driving on the wrong side of the street. (Okay, that last one didn’t actually get tested because, thankfully, the road was deserted when I did that.)

The other thing that struck me was how ubiquitous the U.S. flag was. I don’t mean on or around public buildings. I mean on private homes or in shops. You don’t tend to see the Irish tricolor on people’s homes in Ireland, except perhaps in the North or near the border, where some point is being made about republicanism. People are much more likely to be flying the flag of their county, rather than their country, in support of one of the county sports teams. People in the U.S. are more likely to fly the stars and stripes on their houses, especially on patriotic holidays or in the period after 9/11. But my perhaps faulty memory is that people on America’s west coast don’t fly the flag all that much, apart from patriotic pockets or during patriotic holidays. But everyone, in the parts of Massachusetts where we were, seemed to either be flying the flag or have it incorporated in some form in their building’s décor. I guess I was surprised because Massachusetts is famously politically liberal, and the stereotype about liberals is that they shun overt demonstrations of old-fashioned patriotism. But all these manifestations of Old Glory didn’t seem to be exhorting jingoism. They just seemed to be part of the landscape. Maybe the flag looks more comfortable in that part of the country because it is where the country was born and not a territory that was acquired later. Just a thought.

Anyway, all this ruminating about the American character brings me to something I meant to discuss a long time ago but never got around to. And that is the politics of last year’s big Oscar winner, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. A little game I play with myself (okay, maybe it’s an obsessive compulsion) is to pigeonhole movies according to what political message is overtly pushed or at least subtly implied. With the truly great movies, this game does a disservice. Truly high quality art transcends mundane things like politics, although there do exist many great movies that are overtly political. Certainly, one could ascribe implied political messages to Slumdog, e.g. the economic inequality that exists in India and the world in general. Its focus on the plight of the poor and social injustice would naturally cause us to place the film in the liberal slot. But there is an argument to be made that there is a conservative message as well. It is, after all, a Horatio Alger story. A kid from the slums, orphaned and exploited and everything against him, somehow raises himself up economically and gets a job with an international company. It is nearly cheerleading the notion of globalization.

Directed by a Brit and produced in India, the movie’s story has nothing directly to do with America. But a couple of American tourists do make an appearance. Near midway through the movie, young Jamal is making a relatively comfortable living as a freelance tour guide. He has learned that foreigners will happily pay well for a personalized guided tour of famous places, even if he is making up the history as he goes along. In one scene, he brings Clark and Adele David down a lane to India’s largest Dhobi Ghat (outdoor washing area). While the Yanks are below shooting video of the place, a gang of thieves, led by Jamal’s brother, strip their hired car down to the wheel drums. Upon seeing the vandalism, the car’s Indian driver exacts a beating on Jamal. After a moment of hesitation, Clark pulls the angry driver off Jamal, who says bitterly, “You wanted to see the ‘real India’, Mister David. Here it is.” To which Adele responds, “Well, here’s a bit of the real America, too, son,” and proceeds to hand him cash from her husband’s wallet.

The couple are a stereotype. They are a bit overweight, a bit clueless and have a bit too much money. They aren’t sure what to do in a situation outside their own country and their own experience. But in the end, they basically do the right thing. They intervene to stop a beating and then make amends for someone else’s behavior. All in all, it’s not the worst stereotype for a country.

Like I said, Americans are just nice people.

-S.L., 7 May 2009

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