I have never been the kind of citizen who feels compelled to wear a stars and stripes tee shirt, or pities the people of another country because they can’t get his hands on a double-bacon burger at three o’clock in the morning, and also have entire superstores devoted to their pets. I’ve often longed to live in a place where grown men ride bicycles over cobblestone, or where a family garden is almost a matter of necessity. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate my freedom, but simply that I know the difference between a voting booth and a drive-through window.
I have in my life, however, been guilty of the kind of patriotism that amounts to nothing more than the view that people from other places are somehow less fortunate, rude, and generally off-putting, and to assume their unavoidable envy at my uniquely American-made happiness. I can, however, during my more lucid moments, see this as the real, though lesser of my flaws that it is, and can even suppose a set of causes.
The earliest cause I remember was my first viewing of The French Connection, with Popeye Doyle so ill-tempered, amoral, and awesome, and the Frenchman, the nemesis, so benign looking, and so bad. And soon after that, a grade school French exchange student. He showed up in class one day and was suddenly dating a girl who was surely mere days away from dating me until he come along. I had been sitting behind her, breathing in her flowery hair, staring at the occasionally exposed bra strap. Then he showed up with his thin French lips pressing his thin French cigarettes, and she was immediately under his thin French benign looking but evil French arm.
Years later, with this memory moved to the part of my brain that requires triggers to shoot forward, I was visiting a magazine publisher in New York with some colleagues, and at the end of our first day, we were asked to dinner by that magazine’s fashion director. She welcomed us through the door of her penthouse apartment in Soho after we had opened the only other door on the top floor and inadvertently set off the roof alarm, and she poured drinks while we waited for the building manager to drive in from Brooklyn to turn the siren off. It was during this wait that I met this woman’s boyfriend, a man as French as the black turtle neck shirt he was wearing and the goose liver pate he was insisting I put in my mouth. It was difficult to hold a conversation with his accent so strong and under the roof alarm still whining in the background, so after many long minutes, we set off for dinner. If the building manager did not trust his tenants enough to give them the alarm code, then he could deal with the police by himself, who had not arrived yet either.
We walked up a wet city street to a restaurant. Walking on a wet narrow side street with close building walls in New York can be like trekking across the lowest bin of an old refrigerator, and I was feeling the need to watch my step. Along the way the Frenchman and I, the only men of the group, paired off in conversation. He seemed to have a fine command of English vocabulary, but the words themselves through the thickness of his accent were their own foreign language. I was able to glean that he dabbled in many projects for a living and was in the process of buying a small, stone cottage somewhere in the hills of southern France. How he had the time and money for this never even came up, as far as I could tell. Or maybe he told me in detail exactly how he had become so wealthy and how I could, too, and I was just missing a massive opportunity here. I resorted to nodding, and furrowing my brow in thoughtful agreement while constantly darting my eyes to the ground in front of me, and hoping he was not asking me if I was the idiot who opened the door that said Roof Access Only. Alarm Will Sound.
The restaurant was French, and reminded me of the other problem I had with France. The food. I spent my childhood with my stomach solidly tamped with Italian food, and was taught that most other forms of cooking were derivative of, and lesser to this. This was especially true of French food, to my Italian family, with France being so near to Italy geographically. It also explained quite clearly why Chinese food was so different. The people of every other culture of the world simply suffered from the realities of their respective environments, like the people of Iceland who eat strips of jerked walrus blubber for breakfast, and so forth.
With no English translation, because it was a “real” French restaurant, I understood nothing on the menu, and after failing to have a conversation with the French-only speaking waitress, I resorted to pointing to some shrimp on a pile of rice at a nearby table that looked fantastic, and she nodded in purse-lipped agreement, the universal signal for “a fine choice, sir.” The Frenchman lit a cigarette, and was casually told by the waitress in French that he was no longer allowed to smoke in the dining area. Her statement lacked the shock and command that would have come form an American server nowadays, and she even let him enjoy his first lingering drag before speaking up. But rather than stamp it out and get on with his evening, he sighed his disgust in a second spray of smoke, stood up, and meandered to the bar.
We were just settling into our meals when he strode back and announced he was leaving. He had run into a friend at the bar, and they were setting off to find a restaurant that would allow them to smoke with their meals. He chose to ignore, as we all did, the look of annoyance on his girlfriend’s face. And then, rather than simply exiting, he grandly circled the table and kissed everyone good-bye once on each cheek.
He moved from woman to woman, cupping a hand in both of his, giving each a gentle smile well within their personal space, and then the kisses, as if they had been dear European friends for a lifetime and he was now leaving for some great journey. Each of my colleagues leaned into his affection, smiled into his eyes, and nodded that she was sincerely sorry to see him go, but understood completely. And all I could do was sit, knowing this man was at some point going to kiss me. I tried to formulate a plan for when he did, to relax, to appear at ease, to be just another lifelong Euro- friend, but was left with neither the time nor the skill to deal with such a thing, like when I was in grade school gym class, bracing for a dodge ball coming too fast that I had no hope of avoiding. And so, like grade school gym class, I would just try to hold still and not whimper too audibly.
I couldn’t help but think that if this French man had been a French woman, I would have brought to life the very definition of charm. I would have lingered and gazed with my farewell. Shrugged my shoulders and squeezed her hand in reverent affection. The waitress was very attractive, and I would have gladly kissed her goodbye, at least twice. I knew her as well as I knew this guy, and she had been nice enough to bring me food. But the fact that she was French did not allow me to kiss her any more than I could expect to kiss any of my colleagues. I was American, and just like in grade school, the Frenchman got the girl.
As he rounded the corner, I was forced to ask myself what sort of message I might communicate if I allowed our departure to become awkward. This was a professional meeting after all, and I was there as a professional communicator. I simply had to allow myself to be kissed, by a man, gently on the fact, twice. It was no big deal, really. And I did realize that. And so, fine then. So, how do I proceed on my end? Should I pucker? What if I lean the wrong way and meet him square on the lips? What if I succumb to my penchant for inappropriate giggling, like when the school nurse used to check me for a hernia?
As he approached, I stood, and hoped to let him lead. But then I was met with his outstretched hand, which he was presenting to me for a good, ol’ American handshake. I quickly gave him my hand, which he grabbed with an overzealous squeeze that told me he was as uncomfortable with this as I would have been with his kisses. He leaned in, widened his stance, lifted his elbow straight out sideways, and shook my hand so hard it made me nod, and after kind of a long while, I finally had to push my arm down to indicate that he should really stop now.
Back at the hotel, I remembered a French girl I met while traveling in college. I was sitting on the Spanish Steps in Rome, and she sat down beside me. She was beautiful and friendly, and wore a tiny black dress that revealed the sun-lit fuzz of unshaven legs. I found this remarkable, and not in the way most hairy Italian women were remarkable. The middle-aged Italian women holding a ceiling strap on a crowded bus in their sleeveless dresses, some of them looked like actual bad people, but this French girl, she was as beautiful as she was untouched by cosmetics. She spoke only French, and I spoke broken Italian, but through a few similar word bases, I learned that she was from France, and meeting friends for lunch. I also learned that I was not clever enough in any language to get this girl to want to see me again. If only I had known she would have welcomed a kiss good-bye.
The evening in New York had bothered me. Had I really not matured to even such a basic level? But then, I supposed, the difference between my discomfort and his. In fact, I had not blundered a French farewell at all. This Frenchman had blundered an American one. One he had initiated. And in America.
I understand that where in the world someone is born may determine which species of mollusks he is willing to eat, and what his choices for roofing material might be, but it does not allow him to be socially irresponsible. I had supposed the French to be masters of social graces, but the few Frenchmen I had encountered were unable to compensate for my very American lack of social graces. The difference is subtle, I realize. It’s not as obvious as the cultural difference between a tiny naked man rowing a boat on the Amazon versus a tiny naked man rowing a boat in Central Park. Still, I do hope to one day figure this out. I hope to possess the social skill to kiss a new acquaintance on the cheek, woman or man. And for that matter, I hope to one day be able to spot the difference between an apartment door and a roof access door. And who knows what that then could lead to. Maybe one day I could dabble in many projects for a living, or possibly even buy a small, stone cottage somewhere in the hills of southern France.