Yesterday was a pretty interesting day in international relations. I got to see an experienced, intelligent, articulate and aware government leader in a press conference with an inexperienced, arrogant, monosyllabic and egocentric government leader. It was enough to make press conferences great again. Believe me.
In 2004 I went to Italy to learn Italian. OK, that’s already a bit odd since the stereotype of people traveling the world to do things like that is that the people are in their 20s, they’re discovering themselves or they need the language for work AND they live in Europe. I was 52, studying Italian because I wanted a good reason to be in Italy beyond the superficial business of being a tourist. I went to Verona because Goethe had spent time there. I was excited to be able to see an opera in the Arena. I hoped to have the chance to visit a good friend in Trieste. I just wanted to BE in Italy and that was a good way — and inexpensive. School and an apartment for a month were just $1500.
A 20 something Swiss woman, a schoolmate, learning I was American, immediately jumped me (verbally) and began asking me why I had started a war. I told her I hadn’t started the war and she said, “You Americans…” As a teacher at an international school, I’d been in controversies with 20 something Swiss people before and I wasn’t going there.
“Yep,” I said. “We Americans,” and I walked away from her. I didn’t need to defend what GWB was doing in Washington. I didn’t like it any more than did the Swiss girl.
I was not very well-liked at my school, except by my teachers and the two older students — one from England and one from Germany. My schoolmates took exception to my being American, to my being older, to my Italian being strangely mixed with Spanish. I didn’t even KNOW until the last week of classes that everyone went somewhere together for lunch. I was never asked. It didn’t matter to me when I did find out. I’d used my lunch break for wandering the streets of Verona, talking to people, looking at old frescoes in even older churches. Sometimes I took a nap.
The second-to-last weekend we had a field trip to Padua — especially to see Giotto’s frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel. In spite of my poor Italian, I’d been allowed to take an afternoon class in art history for advanced students. My teacher realized my listening comprehension and ability to read were at a pretty high level. I had the usual language skills people develop when they seldom have the opportunity to speak. We took the train. I’d traveled on my own in Italy before, a fact that surprised everyone. I knew how. Many of my schoolmates didn’t. We met our teacher at the chapel — which I found by reading the map and paying attention to signs. I also knew something about how frescoes were painted in the 13th and 14th century. I knew about Giotto. I was amazed and moved by the work I saw.
An AMERICAN???? (There are actually a lot of us like me…)
My schoolmates began to look at me differently. How could I do this? Stupid, ignorant, semi-literate American ape that I was? Suddenly people who had refused to speak to me wanted to speak to me. Suddenly I was invited to lunch with the group. Suddenly this, suddenly that. Suddenly they wanted to go to an opera with me though they hadn’t wanted to go to an opera at all. (We all went to see Madame Butterfly. It was rained out during the last act but even that was beautiful.) Suddenly, suddenly, but I had already developed my niche and already hung out sometimes with a nice woman from Manchester who’d accepted my failings almost from the beginning.
Yesterday I watched this miserable news conference and I thought that Old 45 was exactly the European stereotype of an American. Too big. Too fat. Too arrogant. Too loud. Ignorant. Out of tune with the rest of world, rude, lacking situational awareness, intent on our own way, lacking respect for other cultures.
As for Angela Merkel? Well, she has a job to do. She has to get along with that guy. Whatever HE thinks about globalization, it exists and the EU and the US are dependent on each other. But it was clear to me that she has the rather supercilious contempt for Americans I’ve often experienced when I’ve traveled and when teaching international students. The disturbing part was this time, we deserved it.
I’m still embarrassed…