Wednesday, September 24, 2008

L'esprit d'escalier

Hiking season started yesterday. The ladies all met up in the dirt parking lot down the stairs from the boulangerie, the lot where the circus pitches its tent every August, and where we paid a small fortune to see a Guignol puppet show in June. The hiking ladies are a sturdy bunch, most of them considerably further along in my decade than I am and many closer to my mother's age than mine. A flock of Scandinavian women (practical, frank, clear-eyed), a delegation of French ladies (the sort of French who are always dames, not femmes, short pixie haircuts, elegant), and then a bevy of English, less assembled than the French, less frank than the Scandinavians.

I was walking along with an Englishwoman whom I had only briefly met once before. We talked about the things women talk about when they are feeling each other out: children, a little life history, what we're cooking for dinner. When she told me the name of her village in England and I said, oh, you know, unless it's London I'm not so strong on English geography (which is not true, but I had never heard of where she came from), she came up short. You're not English? she said. No, I smiled. I'm American.

Then she said what people say: Oh! I didn't know. (Beat.) But (beat) your accent is so soft.

It's really hard on the English, that bit of conversation. Because after the but, they have to pull back from saying: you're not loud, you're not wearing a polyester track suit and a flag pin, you haven't mentioned that you're praying for me, you are so articulate, you don't seem like a person who would shoot wolves from airplanes. Because all of those things would be so un-English to say and they might make me feel (imagine) a little uncomfortable. So instead of saying those things, they remark on my accent.

My favorite American incident happened at a lunch last spring. One of the girls' friend's mums--with a name like Hyacinthe, the right word is mum, not mom--invited many of the women with children in the international section at the Collège des Vignes for lunch. She set the tables on the terrace overlooking the swimming pool and laid out grilled chicken and a half dozen different sorts of salads, and as many bottles of rosé. I arrived on time, which is to say, early, so I watched the other women come in. Each one was blonder and leaner and more tennis-English than the one before. They were all Riviera-ed out: white, gauzy, lacey sundresses, strappy sandals, big jewelery. As we ate, I talked to my nearest neighbors--about school, kids, living here, dinner tonight, all the usuals--and about a quarter hour in mentioned something about our family in the States. They both practically dropped their forks. But you're not American, they said in unison, the rosé making them unable to adjust their tone from shocked disbelief to mild surprise. You don't seem American.

One of the poems that rattles around in my head is Wole Soyinka's "Telephone Call." The man in the poem is talking to a prospective landlady on the telephone, and reveals that he is African. At the other end of the phone: Silence. Silenced transmission of /Pressurized good-breeding. She asks him how dark his skin is, and he tells her: Facially, I am brunette, but, madam, you should see / The rest of me. Palm of my hand, soles of my feet / Are a peroxide blond.

It's something I think about more than usual these days, with the election coming up and Wall Street falling off into the Atlantic. All the French I meet ask me about the candidates directly; the English, English who know my nationality and have absorbed the shock, wait a little while and broach the subject gingerly. When they find out that my opinions are, by and large, similar to theirs--that I have the same concerns they do, that the same things alarm me and keep me awake in the wee hours--they are relieved but even more puzzled by my American passport. An English friend teases me that I must actually be European and was switched at birth. I wonder myself, sometimes. My country from this distance, my country with its seeming acceptance of what can be most generously called the rampant hypocrisy of the last eight years, hypocrisy which it actually looks like it might vote into office again--that is a different place from the country that I carry in my heart. I don't recognize those people. It's like they are another branch of the family, cousins that moved away a generation ago and stopped believing in gravity, and then they show up at a family event and you have to try to find some common ground. I'm not sure I can.

But I am still American. C, with enviable esprit d'escalier, says that when an Englishwoman says how I don't seem American, I should point out that half the country voted against the Current Occupant, twice. I never think of that. I'm always trying to make the moment go away, trying to fix her discomfort and mine. Our pressurized good breeding collides, and I do not say: we're not all like that, you know. A lot of us are really quite civilized. We read Jane Austen, and we even accept evolution. Instead I say: But I am. I am American.

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