Thursday, September 17, 2009

Myopia Dept.

Steve & Louise, 2006

My wife and I were having a quiet dinner by ourselves in a restaurant in Paris. It’s a small place, with maybe a dozen or so tables, and presided over by a hilariously animated pair of characters right out of Central Casting.

We were dressed nicely for the occasion. Most of the other diners were well dressed and were greeted by name by the staff. We supposed they were regular patrons from the neighborhood.

We’ve been fortunate to be able to travel abroad several times. Much of the world remains to be seen by us. But what we have experienced has been rich and broadening. The diversity of places and different ways of life always amazes. Such travel was unthinkable for our parents. It’s special to us. Our daughter’s generation think nothing more of hopping a plane to Paris or Peking than they do of flying to, say, Chicago.

While we were enjoying a glass of wine before dinner, a more casually attired couple, Steve and Louise, was seated at the next table. Overhearing us speak English—up to then we’d been the only people doing so—they struck up a conversation. They, too, were in Paris celebrating an anniversary. We were from Virginia. Steve and Louise lived just across the Channel in a suburb of London.

Our perspectives on Paris could not have been more different. My wife and I had been to Paris before. But on this return trip there was still much new, different and interesting for us to explore. Steve and Louise, on the other hand, had never traveled more than a few counties away from home in England. Steve was extremely suspicious of Parisians. His approached them with skepticism bordering on rudeness, and it only affirmed his self-fulfilling prophecy when he got the same treatment back. I suspect Steve went home from Paris only more confirmed in the belief that it was a waste of time to have ever gone there.

I’m not surprised by the usual social, racial and class biases you find most places. But I am almost always caught off guard by the nationalistic biases of modern Europe. In the U.S. we have regional differences. But until recently, when some of my Southern neighbors’ behavior has prompted new considerations of whether Southerners are really as backward as they seem, our regional differences have mostly played out through parochial variations on Polack and “blond” jokes. They might mock a Maine accent or a vapid valley girl. But they’d never make the kinds of sweeping derogatory comments I’ve heard some in Britain make about the Irish or the French, what I’ve heard the French say about Africans and Germans, or what tourist guides everywhere say about Asians. (Italians, it seems, are too consumed with each other to have any beef with outsiders.)

Some day I hope we’ll go back to Paris. I don’t expect we'll run into Steve and Louise.

1 comment:

  1. That's very interesting. I'll tell you--I'm always just so happy to have any opportunity to travel that I find everything I see as new and exciting and interesting. I take it as a gift that I'm getting to see another way of living or another part of the world, so I relish every minute of it.

    I honestly think with some people, there's just no pleasing them--no matter where they are, oui?!