This essay won the Second Annual Solas Awards gold prize for “Most Memorable Character” 2007.
“Then he burst into a rendition of a Pogues song, his great mane of black hair flowing around him as he strode down the carpeted corridor in his leather boots: I have acres of land, I have men I command, I have always a shilling to spare; so be easy and free when you’re drinking with me, I’m a man you don’t meet every day.”
The Streets of Paris
The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong, but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land. (Victor Hugo)
When I finally left the United States it was late summer. Gravity forced me back into my seat as the plane’s engines burned up fuel at a fantastic rate in their attempt to gain height quickly, sending us hurtling away from the tarmac.
The August sun lay sprawled over the waters of the coast and the city looked still and sultry in its pall. Our evening flight circled over Boston harbor before heading north up to the coast of Labrador. As I watched the former terra nova recede below me, as I had dozens of times before, I did not know when, if ever, I would return. All the way up the coast I watched as the day failed and we rushed eastward into its night, and further, into tomorrow. Around me people fidgeted, shifted, twitched; children cried, the cabin crew bustled about, organizing, and the faint smell of food floated through the interior as foil-wrapped dinners were heated. Outside the air passed us at four hundred miles per hour. The plane carried us, seats, life jackets, toilets, in-flight entertainment systems, all insulated in its metal canister towards the other coast, thirty thousand feet above the darkened, rolling Atlantic Ocean.
My neighbor was a tall young man with a thick dark beard, long greasy hair and a battered leather jacket. For the first half-hour of the flight he perused a piece of fax paper with “American Express” printed across the top in big black letters. The content seemed to refer to a lost ticket and the credit card company’s assertion that he had paid for it.
After he had thoroughly scrutinized this, somewhere over Greenland, he got up and left his seat. I read the papers, napped and watched the movie, aware of my pleasure over my neighbor’s absence. It was not until an hour before our stopover in London that he returned, reeking of whiskey and smiling broadly, winking suggestively (but not without some charm) at one of the flight attendants. He was talkative now: “Bet you never thought you’d end up sitting next to a drunken Paddy,” he exclaimed in a thick Irish brogue. He was an Irish carpenter, he soon told me, who had just spent six months traveling the States on a motorcycle, a Honda Gold Wing, to be precise.
He had slept on beaches in Baha California, with itinerant hippie communities, cruised with militia groups in North Carolina, shacked-up with golden-haired beauties in Minnesota, become blindingly drunk in Irish bars in Chicago, and stayed that way for several nights. He had lived off hunks of meat roasted over his primitive campfire, often not talking to anyone for days. He had, in other words, toured the country toe to tip, coast to coast, mixing with the underworld, the counter-culture, the foot loose and fancy free, and now his money gone, his bike sold, and his last traveler’s check stolen at the bus station (along with his Texan cowboy boots and his new pair of Levi’s) he was heading home to Dublin, by way of London and a girl he met (and had sex with) on the plane on the way out.
“I’ve been hanging out with the gals at the back there,” he gestured towards the aft galley, then stood up to receive more miniatures of Scotch and Bailey’s from a passing attendant; “Oh, she’s a nice one, that!”
I told him about the various jobs I had, and that I was currently on my way to a conference. This completely floored him: “What, you mean you fly all this way to sit in a room with a bunch of guys in suits listening to them read to you? For days! Jeesus, I just can’t get me head round that one!”
America for Paddy had been one huge, wild, fulfilling fantasy. It had delivered exactly what he had expected and hoped for. He had lived the Easy Rider life, the life of outlaws, freedom, dust and leather and whiskey; the America of Brando, of Jim Morrison and Dennis Hopper; the America of the sixties and seventies, of movie posters on adolescent bedroom walls. As I listened to him I considered my experience: of graduate school, of apartments and taxes and jobs involving desks and coffee and fashion concerns; the America increasingly defined by The Gap, Starbucks, by Seinfeld and Frasier, the America of commuters, computers, and therapy, to make it all bearable. Urban middle class America where people were tied to desks and tied down by the debt they had taken out to become tied to their desks, and I wondered where I had lost that original vision of America, the vision I had while growing up, had associated with, informed by Jimi Hendrix and Apocalypse Now.
Where along the line had I traded Woodstock for Cats? When and how had the kind of raw experience I had craved when in my teens become the indolent and banal security which was, apparently, so highly valued by the American public? Was this just a sign of the times? The sixties are over and that kind of America doesn’t exist anymore, I told myself as I watched Paddy sink another Baileys and Scotch, except for a few aging hippies hanging around student cafes in Berkeley and Cambridge, selling magazines full of conspiracy theories and railing against the military-industrial complex. The rest of them, the sixties kids, settled down and had their own families and at best were running B&Bs in Vermont or used bookstores in the Napa Valley. Even bikers, I thought, did not really exist as they had done in the seventies. Now they all had full time jobs and on Sundays took the old lady for a spin on the Harley; suburban bikers, respectable bikers, or bikers rich enough to afford a Harley – which meant corporate bikers.
Or perhaps this America did live on, outside the borders of the United States in the imaginations of people like Paddy, or other Amerophiles who came looking for Janis Joplin and Abby Hoffman. Perhaps it did live on even within the contiguous states themselves, but as more of a backwater than ever it was, a quiet class of the itinerant, the politically sidelined, the culturally and economically alternative which once was news, was young and vibrant and different, and now was dated and nostalgic and excluded from the middle class dream of suburbia.
As Paddy talked I saw all of this in him. He had come to America with a vision firmly in mind, and he had gone out there and found it on his Honda Gold Wing. For him America was still empty bus depots at dawn, beer in an urban park by the Mississippi at sundown, highways running to their disappearing point between two buttes. It was the America of modern lyricism, of Thoreau on a Hog with Marijuana. It was a place of Freedom, or at least the dream of Freedom as it has been etched into the landscape throughout its relatively short history. But with all of this nomadic beauty and wildness came its nemesis: insecurity.
And it was this, ironically, which gave Paddy’s experience its piquancy, which infused it with the essence of life, the knowledge of one’s own precariousness and ultimately a closeness to death. My existence lacked this, being inside the white-collar gilded cage where certain things were guaranteed and certain other things unthinkable. We were insulated from danger, surrounded by air bags, health warnings, insurance companies, police departments (there for our protection, not incarceration). Our coffee cups were even insulated so as not to burn (although under the surface of this maniacal need for safety was the even more maniacal power of capitalism and its army of lawyers ready to find responsibility somewhere other than where it ultimately lay). Paddy’s experience, I thought, as our plane came into Heathrow, was in a sense a trip back in time, to a society in which security was not so guaranteed, where danger lay under bushes, behind doors, in the very food we ate. And how well they understood life, those who were about to die; they could not count on the deus ex machina power of an ambulance, an insurance policy, or, for that matter, double cups at Starbucks.
As we walked through the long corridors toward customs, Paddy made comments to young women who passed by, wafting scent from Paris or Rome; always they turned around and offered responsive smiles at the sound of his voice. Then he burst into a rendition of a Pogues song, his great mane of black hair flowing around him as he strode down the carpeted corridor in his leather boots: I have acres of land, I have men I command, I have always a shilling to spare; so be easy and free when you’re drinking with me, I’m a man you don’t meet every day.
I had left the United States many times before, but this time was to be final. After ten years and almost as many apartments and jobs, my stay had apparently run its course. I was returning to Europe, a Europe transformed in my mind by eight years away from it, and a Europe in the throes of transformation, in reality, on the eve of the introduction of a single currency, the latest step towards a new concept of unity. After such time outside of Europe, it had almost come to seem exotic. I had developed an American awe at European “history,” an incredulity that anything could be a thousand years old. And with its incredible antiquity came its mysteriousness, its “quaintness.”
Nina Simone had sung about growing up as the daughter of an Ohio coal miner. Her father always promised them they would live in France. In this promise was the chimera of a Paris which stood, of course, for a life of the senses, of fine living, of both escape and engagement – the Belle Époque Paris. After relating the miseries of coal-mining Ohio, Simone sings of the realization of her father’s dream: “I live in Paris now, my children dance and sing….”
I was going to Paris, but I was doubtful about the dancing and singing. Americans, I came to realize, had so mythologized Europe, not only Paris, in the way that a glancing acquaintanceship with something allows one to, that it had become the foil for all American realities; where America was materialistic, “Europe” (an undifferentiated mass, not specific, discreet nations) was soulful; where it was anonymous and prosaic, Europe was intimate and poetic; where it was young and gauche, Europe was ancient and nuanced (and also cynical). Whereas Europeans went about their daily lives amongst the rubble of the past, stepping over coliseums, detouring around acropoli, dodging chateaux with apparent nonchalance in miniscule cars, Americans bulldozed their way between Walmart and Kentucky Fried Chicken in giant SUVs.
But these, of course, were also the stereotypes held about America by many Europeans. Yet one sensed in certain Americans something paradoxical about their appreciation of Europe: a reverence, as of a child for a role model, and a simultaneous paternalism. This latter I had always assumed to be based largely on economic superiority, but it also had something to do with Republican democracy, the constitution, and the American liberation from the burdens of the past.
I had read on a website about France, the random thoughts of a young traveler from St. Louis who had spent a few weeks touring the country. His main obsessions were St. Germain-En-Laye and a green field somewhere near the Chateau, and Yop, the yoghurt drink available in all stores throughout France. He also became quite rhapsodic over the Arabe du coin, or Parisian corner stores usually run by Arabic-speaking families. I understood later why, as an American, he could be so enthusiastic about a French store that was actually open.
For some Americans, those more counter-culturally attuned, this would be a distinct advantage of France: they don’t give a damn about the customers, and often give the impression that they’d rather they didn’t exist. This would then suggest that they had their minds on things of more interest or importance than turning over the next buck or Euro, like the importance of Magritte in the history of modern painting, or the future of communism, or the memoirs of the latest hero of the Resistance. But, again, those materially-minded Americans would shake their heads and lament the lack of incentive implicit in a largely planned economy. And other Americans with less intellectual objections, would simply feel outraged that they, as consumers, were not catered to sufficiently, did not have their needs met, were not satisfactorily recognized as engines of a healthy economy, could not, ultimately, get a milkshake at midnight.
By the time I left Boston after nearly ten years, I was thinking like an American: I was accustomed to wishing people a “Nice Day,” I had ceased to view American cars as excessively large, and I had come to recognize the frequent decrepitude on America’s various streets modernity was growing old. In the summer of 1998 France had won the World Cup, which was strange for a nation with little footballing history. Saddam Hussein was still in charge in Baghdad, which was strange (but not unusual) for a man with no popular mandate, while the first American president born after World War II was busy describing how a White House intern used to give him blow jobs while he was on the phone to members of Congress (which was simply strange).
For a few weeks during that summer I had almost succumbed to millenial fever. War in the Middle East was looming; the President was in danger of impeachment; the Asian financial crisis was still wreaking havoc, worldwide, and beginning to affect Euro-American stocks (just before the Euro was set to go into affect); Russia was (still) in a state of near anarchy, and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was (still) at an all time low. And we had under two years to go until the year 2000. Notwithstanding humanity’s soaring levels of rational achievement witnessed in this century, I found it hard not to think of lions whelping in the street, the riders of the apocalypse appearing from the Massif Central, the seas boiling.
My doomsday premonitions were nothing more, in all probability, than a reflection of how unplugged I felt to be moving. In my ten years abroad, I had developed a love for the United States, not because it was necessarily a great place for freedom and equality, but more because it had been my home for so long. In the months that followed my departure I began to crave it like one craves a lover. And I could not stop wondering what it was about places that did this to us. Or whether it was anything to do with place at all, and not something contingent that we ascribed to our surroundings, an internal state projected onto our environment.
In a notebook, at some point in the mid-nineties, I had scribbled a quote from Victor Hugo, which I came across from time to time, always with different affects: The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong, but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land. Three different levels of initiate: Naive nationalists, adaptable internationalists and either alienated cynics, or transcendental mystics, depending upon your position.
Hugo’s declaration would have, I’m sure, been greeted warmly by those deeply skeptical of their fellow men, such as Thoreau, sitting in the woods by Walden Pond fulminating revolution, bewailing human enslavement by materialism. In fact Hugo’s third man was David Carridan from the TV series Kung Fu; the mystic wandering the earth (and doing good) and eschewing all sedentary society because of its intrinsic faults. Clearly I must have recorded the quote in a fit of agreement with its sentiments. I had envied Hugo his cynicism and his ability to always remain at a critical distance from humanity, assuming as he had that the ultimate, the ideal, human is one who is always distant enough from the “group mind” to avoid nationalism, jingoism, or any other common phenomenon of the masses . I do not know when he wrote this, but he must have been young, for who but the young are capable of such unrelenting idealism?
After leaving the States I realized that I did not envy that last man; I did not envy him as an alienated cynic, nor as a mystic/ascetic. I wanted to be neither. Maybe having experienced the whole world as a foreign land I wanted my homeland to be sweet again, and maybe this was a classic case of nostalgia: I wanted full involvement with the world, in some way, and the ability to cease observing from time to time and this, it seemed to me, required a solid footing geographically, this required belonging.
What belonging seemed to mean was perceiving oneself as so intrinsically a part of something – village, nation, community – that to be constantly wondering about it would be like questioning the necessity of your heart. In leaving the US, I had left a place in which I had begun to reconcile some of the relationships between myself and a place. I had spent a decade as a foreigner. Granted, being English in the United States is not as strange as being English in the Amazonian Jungle, or in the mountains of Afghanistan, but it does entail constantly being reminded of one’s origins and of one’s foreignness. And to this extent one has to make oneself feel at home whereas when you are a native, you are at home, you don’t have to contemplate your being quite so much, you don’t have to act like a one-man country, an island nation, a self-governing overseas dominion.
And if moving entailed starting all over again on the negotiations between the self and the other, it also meant another long encounter with myself as a floating, disembodied entity, the only points of reference being myself. I looked around me wistfully at people who owned homes. I listened carefully to conversations premised on the notion of belonging to a community; I thought how comfortable and joyous Louis Armstrong sounded as he sang, “I’m headed straight for my heart’s desire/ Gee its good to know I’m near the home fire.” And I wondered whether Nina Simone’s children were still dancing and singing on the streets of Paris