Grand Canal, Venice, Italy
At some point I’ll tell you about Europe, because it’s been a magical two months, but for now I have to tell you I’m freaking out about going home. Home as in back to the US, back to the loudness and ignorance and materialism. (That’s all I seem to remember now, that and the crime.)
I guess the Italians talk just as loud, but there’s a different cockiness about Americans, walking around like they own a place especially when they don’t. I am mortified for them, hurling their sloppy, slurry modern English into these ancient Venetian laneways.
I’m a tourist of the worst kind, selfish and smug. I want everyone to go home or behave like me, make themselves as unobtrusive as possible and hang their heads a little in apology for intruding.
“BE QUIET!” I want to yell and put an end to their verbal excess.
“Don’t you know where you are?
“It’s not about YOU here!”
“Have some respect!”
And then there were those Southern boys in my hostel blasting country music at 2 am.
You are in the most beautiful city in the world, birthplace of Vivaldi, deathbed of Stravinsky, and you are playing country music at 2 am? Not to mention stretching the already thin patience of the locals and interrupting my insomniatic sleep?
I dug up my meanest teacher voice and ripped them a new one.
So These Ugly Americans Walk into a Museum…
My second day in Venice I went to see the Peggy Guggenheim collection, a small gallery with an impressive number of post WWI modern art greats. Picasso, Duchamp, Ernst, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Pollock, Dali, Gorky, Magritte… I was in art geek heaven.
And then, standing a mere two inches in front of Pablo Picasso’s Le poète were two American women, facing one another, deeply engaged in conversation about a recipe. Sacrilege. (It was like that time in Prague when the musicians performed an Andrew Lloyd Weber piece as an encore to a Mozart concert and everyone cheered even louder. What were they thinking?)
“Excuse me!” I said in my mind, positioning myself a couple feet in front of them, glaring through them into the painting hoping they’d notice and step away (they didn’t and didn’t).
“These cubist wonders may mean little to you, but to me they SPEAK. So take your plebeian recipe swapping outside these hallowed halls of refinement.”
The Poet (Le poète), Céret, August 1911. Oil on linen, 51 5/8 × 35 1/4 inches (131.2 × 89.5 cm). The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, 1976, 76.2553.1. © 2013 Estate of Pablo Picasso/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Where’s that annoying attendant from the Sistine Chapel now? The guy who hushes everyone and reminds them they’re in a church. Because to me, this was church. No, it was better than church, it was pure ocular gluttony and I had less than an hour until closing.
Most of the visitors were walking around conversing about unrelated topics, too, as if nothing hung from the walls. It seemed a purely American tendency, this ennui-saturated egotistical loudness.
I thought you were only allowed to act self-important in an art museum if you were actually LOOKING AT THE ART!
Ok, so I’m being a bit harsh.
Being a loud, obnoxious tourist is an equal opportunity affliction. I’ve observed gruff Germans and surly Russians in Thailand, xenophobic Australians and Canadians in China, and unpleasant Danes in Vietnam.
Most of the Americans I’ve come across in Europe (and everywhere else) have been pretty great. In Paris they were so well dressed I mistook them for Parisians. I swear they blended right in. Well done compadres. In Asia I found the Americans behaved themselves exquisitely.
Some cities, or weeks, seem to attract more of the loud sort. Prague and Venice were overrun with them when I was there, and it didn’t do me any good. Thankfully they steer clear of the side streets and laneways I love to haunt, which reminds me: My last night in Venice I was approached by a very lost American man, middle aged, 6-feet-tall, pulling far too much luggage for a 2-week vacation in his pudgy sweaty hands, and in an absolutely panic.
“Is it safe to walk down there?” he asked, pointing to the dark narrow lane I’d emerged from. “I’ve heard there are swindlers here,” he said. The lane was completely empty.
“Where are you from in the States?”
“Sir, I think it’s safer here than Jersey.”
Brushing Up on Current Events
In Rome, my kind Italian hosts suggested I watch some US news already. Other than headlines and friends’ facebook links I haven’t followed US news all year. I listened to Michelle Bachman’s psychobabble criticism of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on Fox for five minutes before calling Mercy! My stomach was turning.
“You know, in Europe, nobody understands why Americans are like this,” he said, referring to the opposition to Obamacare.
“I don’t know either,” I said.
I don’t know enough about the issues to debate them, so I won’t. My main complaint here is how news is done in the US, the constant repetition, disjointed sentences that don’t prove the argument they claim to.
For example, the fact that the website to sign up for ACA health coverage was down doesn’t mean it’s a bad plan and we should abandon it overnight (that’s what Bachmann seemed to be saying, over and over in multiple. equally nonsensical sentence structures). It means too many people are trying to sign up for it. Google mail has periodic crashes too and you don’t see us giving up our email accounts and running back to Yahoo. Rome wasn’t built in a day, I thought while sitting in Rome. (The weirdness of that was not lost on me.)
I don’t miss US politics, or discussion of politics. I don’t miss how people vehemently defend opinions that are poorly thought out or extremist or selfish or just plain wrong, both on television and in person. I don’t miss the attitude that the US is the greatest place on earth (it’s great, but nowhere’s the greatest.) I don’t miss the fear-mongering media, and the resulting fear-mongering general public. It’s a lot of noise I haven’t had to deal with all year.
In the approximated words of my expat roommate in Saigon when I asked him why he’d lived so long outside the US: “Because it’s quiet here…” he whispered. And he wasn’t referring to actual noise levels.
On Noise and Going Home
So it’s not just how audibly loud people are that I’m talking about here. It’s how loud their opinions are, how insistently they assert themselves. Europeans, Asians, even Australians run a few decibels in tone and opinion below their US peers.
Jardin des Tuileries, Paris.
As an introvert, noise of all sorts has always been an issue for me. As a teenager I’d flee the giggly girls at summer camp by rowing to the middle of the lake or hiking into the woods to read Schopenhauer’s 1851 essay On Noise. It might be why, as much as I loved China for its food and culture I found the big cities jarring, and they are mostly big cities, escaping to smaller towns when I could. It was just so loud everywhere!
American advertising and media are loud, television is loud, people are loud, politics are loud. Supermarkets always seem extra bright and shiny (read loud) after I’ve been out of the country for awhile, and even people’s gestures and movements seem loud and garish.
I hope I’m remembering wrong. I hope I’m exaggerating. I have a vague sense of life sometimes being quiet in the States, of being able to find quiet places to get away to, of quiet evenings with quiet friends, of quiet hikes to quiet hilltops.
It’s been great to be away for a year, to be solitary when I’ve wanted to be, with few obligations to be anywhere or do anything that didn’t appeal. I’ve roamed cities, countrysides, wide swaths of empty beach for hours with just my journal and my thoughts.There have been long stretches of time in planes and trains, reading, daydreaming, filling pages on the laptop. It’s been heavenly.
So here goes nothing. In seven days I land in Boston, my gateway into the US. I’ll be the girl wearing blinders and a tinfoil hat, clutching a bag of earplugs in her white-knuckled hands.