I’m an American.
It was a simple enough answer to the gentleman’s simple question. Despite my limited French I was able to respond to his friendly inquiry.
It was the young father's response that got me confused, angered and even defensive.
“Oh, uh, uugh!”, he grunted. Three sounds which formed his reaction told a story worth telling.
It was a funny old train station in Vernazza, Italy. The platform was very short and long tunnels at each end made it futile to consider extending the platform. The station was squeezed into this tiny village which was squeezed into the steep granite rock of the picturesque Mediterranean coastline of Cinque Terre.
It was getting chilly at the station so we had squeezed into a tiny, enclosed seating area. It seems everything in this country is tiny; the streets, the stations and even the people. Sitting right next to us (you could say on my lap) was a French couple with a small child. Friendly folk and soon enough my French-speaking wife struck up a conversation with the papa. As far as I could tell they were parlaying about children, vacation and food. But to tell the truth as far as I know they could have been talking about chisels, vaccines and stock options on Wall Street.
At some point the papa looked up at me and asked the infamous question of “d'ou est-ce-que tu viens?” (“Where are you from?”) After I stuttered out my heavily accented answer and heard his not so surprising answer I was relieved to hear the cracks, pangs and clangs of the arriving train.
For the rest of the evening, while enjoying vino rosso and overlooking the waters of the Med, I kept contemplating about his “oh, uh, uugh” grunts.
What did he mean? What does it have to do with me? Why am I defensive and annoyed at the same time?
I think I know pretty exactly what he meant. It’s not that different from the reactions to my Americanness I have been hearing for the last 20 years while residing in Germany. His initial reaction, accented by the “oh…” meant, “cool, America. My dream land”. Then, within a split second, his intellectual id caught up and his “…uh, uuhg” expressed his skepticism, his anger, his sense that American cultural, moral and financial hegemony has run amok.
It’s even worse in Germany. I live there in the midst of a nation still coming to terms with itself. My friends and peers are sons and daughters of 'war children' and grew up under a veil of shame for what their grandfathers did to the world. They grew up seeing America as their knight in shining armor and as the guarantor for stability in the Cold War era.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, strangely enough coinciding with my first landing on German soil, they began to awaken from their hibernation.
Then came George Bush, Iraq, Abu Ghraib, and to top it all off came Edward Snowden informing the world that the naked emperor was listening in on every single phone call, email and WhatsApp message. After having just overcome the guilt of the Third Reich and having lived through the police state of East Germany it was just too much for them to take.
So that leaves me with all the “uughs” and almost no more “ahs”.
The second part of the question I posed a while ago was what it has to do with me and why it bugs me. Perhaps it’s not too hard to imagine where the problem lies. It is a complex issue, however. Even though I am an ex pat and opposed to the financial, military and economic power my country expends on Europe, I'm still an American and glad to be one. I do not, though, like to be the 'ugly American'. I don't like hearing countless comments about overweight, loud, uneducated Yankees. At some point it’s hard not to take it personally.
So what should I do about it? I could take the recent advice of the US diplomat Victoria Nuland to heart and “fuck the Europeans”. That doesn't work for me though, being that my family is full of Europeans. How about that wise old saying 'Europeans, can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em'. And the next time some French dude at an Italian train station asks me where I'm from I tell him I'm a beach kid from Pretoria with a Polish mother and a Swedish father.