August 8, 2012

ARCHIVE POST: Mad people across the water, part 2: having an affair with America

(originally published on May 13, 2011)

In my previous post, Mad people across the water, part 1, I mentioned that this was not my first overseas experience: I went to grad school in the UK a few years back. It was exciting, new, and the most independent thing I had done up to that point, but it did not measure up to what America has done to me.

I have a special relationship with the English language. I started learning it when I was little, and my time with it now amounts to most of my conscious life. I was not taught by native speakers, but somehow I picked up the American accent by listening to too much pop music. It is probably the most underrated language in the world: everyone thinks they can speak it, and it doesn’t mind. It yields itself to being bullied and beautified; it is radical, inclusive, open to changes, being mispronounced, altered and bent in every conversation, simply gorgeous in its longstanding history. Just think about it: it’s good to be hot, and it’s good to be cool. It’s bad if you suck, and bad if you blow. Fascinating, isn’t it? I feel a non-native distance from it, and yet it is my second nature and personal passion. This language is mine and yet I will never belong to it. You should hear my foreign accent come through after a few beers.

I also seem to have developed a love affair with America. I am a weird kind of foreigner. My passport says I am a resident of elsewhere, but people think I was born in the States. After thirty years in the crammed, nitpicky, everybody’s-nose-in-everybody’s-business, dusty, cobwebby, history-obsessed Europe, moving to the U.S. felt like coming home. Not in an idealistic sense, but with all the fun and frustration home can have for you. The sheer space of this country is something you never get over. The utter disregard for the environment is ridiculous: everything is so noisy! From the gas-guzzling pick-ups to household appliances… Haven’t you ever heard of noise pollution people? The specifically American no-nonsense approach to things and directness of communication felt like shedding an old itchy skin and donning a new one, shiny and more becoming.

However, what seems to have struck me the most is the mobility within this country, and the pathology it breeds: of course, as elsewhere there are people who live within five miles of their family, who never move and are happy and/or none the wiser. However, a great big bunch is very likely to move for school, research, a job, romance, or some other reason. As a result, people are quick to make contacts but reluctant to get attached. It is not difficult to find drinking buddies, a group to go out with on a Saturday night, or even a date – especially if you’re a woman. But if you are not part of their plan, people will shun you and not think twice. It is neither a good nor a bad thing, it’s just survival. Not all Americans I have met are happy with this set-up, but life forces them to grow a thick skin and move on.

I was used to a different kind of pathology before I came here: tribal, clan-like, loud, explosive, and possessive. Again, not better or worse than the American one, just different. The lessons I learned on this side of the pond, though, have made me more independent. And it fucked me up completely to find out I could feel so familiarly welcome in more than one place in the world. How is that possible? What do you do with that knowledge? How do you deal with that split in your mind?

Naturally, I wasn’t born yesterday. I am privileged in not having to think about American issues as my own. I can distance myself from the nation-building myths of all men created equal and the land of the free and the home of the brave. Obama is not the president I will have to think about re-electing, the global American military presence is not my embarrassment, and I can joke about gun control meaning “holding it with both hands.” I come from a continent where we have social healthcare, and one cannot disinherit one’s children [OK, not in the UK but they’re weird]. My immersion in American society is purely anthropological, and I blend in with a tinge of difference that doesn’t irk natives out of their comfort zone. Except maybe in southern PA dive bars, but I don’t think anyone blends in there unless they were actually born in one. Returning to Europe means turning back into a pumpkin. How uneventful, sighed the princess. Is it any wonder I’m kicking and screaming?

The Doctor and I discussed this some time ago. I wondered why so many people from back home were sending me long e-mails all of a sudden, looking for advice. The Doctor suggested that my friends probably recognized that I have possessed myself of experience from beyond the boundaries of my home society. Then it must work the other way as well, no?, I asked. I must be interesting to Americans for the same reason. The Doc said, Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re… exotic. And… familiar at the same time.

How could I have missed it before? Foreign, but familiar. Fitting in, but produced by an entirely different mold. Stepping out of my own body so as not to give myself a fake head, I came to a rational explanation of the “chemistry” between me and the Italian. Of course he fell for this girl. He had just ended a three-year relationship and was ready to hibernate and avoid women until he healed, when all of a sudden she dropped out of the sky. Literally. She was supposed to be a foreigner, but her English was perfect. She had a big old American potty mouth, but her ass would not be caught dead outside wearing sweats and flip-flops. She spoke several languages, including the one of his grandparents, and when she said Non parli Italiano? Nemmeno una parola?, he was done.

And when he fell into her lap, she discovered a long lost archetype of the first crush from her early teens. He was unlike anyone she had met before, yet understood everything perfectly. His level of education would have rendered him far from any social circle she might meet, yet he functioned on instinct, intelligence, and street smarts. Good girls gotta get down with the gangsters, right Slim Thug? He exhibited none of Europe’s grim pathology: his pain expected no sympathy, and she mistook it for maturity. He pursued her until she let her guard down.

Of course. How could I not have fallen for an American? I was not born for the old continent, I don’t have the time…

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