My wife, she ain't from around here. She's Italian, I tell people. Or she tells them herself.
"Oh, and have you ever been to Italy?" they ask her.
"I'm Italian," she says, with as much patience as she can muster. "That's where I'm from."
"Ohhhhhhhhhh...," they say. "So you're really Italian."
As if there were another kind.
But there is. The American kind. For the United States is the only place a conversation like that can happen. At least it's the only place I've seen it happen.
Yes, the United States, the land of the self-satisfied, overfed, under taxed, and inferiorly educated; the land where nearly everyone strains as if trying to dislodge a mammoth bowel movement to refute each of those facts; the nation whose politicians still use an eighteenth century phrase like "American Exceptionalism" as if it were an edict from their private God, is the only place on Earth where there are no Americans.
It's true. Just walk up to one and ask. I know what you'll hear.
'What's your nationality?"
"Oh, I'm Italian."
"Russian on my mother's side, French on my father's side."
"Spanish and Irish. That's why I'm so crazy!"
It was within days of my wife and I meeting each other that she first turned to me and asked, "What are these people talking about? Are they really from all those places? None of them seem to have any accents."
And I had to explain it to her. Here in the United States, I said, people identify themselves as belonging to whatever country their parents came from. Though, since most of their parents came from right around the corner they actually identify themselves with whatever country their grandparents came from. Though, since most of their grandparents came from just a state or two away, they actually identify themselves with wherever their great, great, great, great grandparents came from. And so they say they're Polish.
I wish I could show the rest of my nation the look she gave me when she heard that.
"These people who say they are Polish are not really from Poland?" she asked.
No. I'm afraid not, I told her. And the Italians aren't from Italy, the French aren't from France, the Swedes aren't from Sweden, and the Dutch aren't from wherever Dutch people come from.
"Then what are they talking about?"
And I have to tell her that I don't know.
Why is it that the most aggressively self-satisfied citizenry - who'll tell you everything that's "best" about the United States, even though they've never visited anywhere else - never identify themselves as belonging to the place they're so proud of?
Except when they're overseas, that is. Put them on any other soil and they'll bray it to the heavens.
"Oh, no. I'm AMERICAN," they yell. "Can you believe it honey? He thought I was from CANADA!!! HA HA HA HA HA."
But here at home, they're German. Because their last name is Schmidt.
I'll confess, I never thought about it much before my wife pointed it out to me. Though, personally, I never identified myself as being from anywhere else. I don't even know where my ancestors came from. A no-man's-land called Russia-Poland, according to my parents - though they could never name a specific town. They couldn't even pin it down to a nation, apparently. If people really push, I tell them I think my relatives were eastern European. But really I have no idea.
It's the audacity of it that gets to my wife, I think. The same audacity that allows Americans to call themselves American, even though the term only delineates between two continents out of seven. It doesn't even come close to naming a country. (Hell, if you want audacious, there's not even another word in the English language to describe someone who comes from the U.S. Unless you want to use "idiot.")
The question most often asked of my wife by her friends and family back in Italy, though, isn't about the absurdity of school children pledging allegiance to a flag (with our without any "under Gods"); it's not about the frightening sight of seeing the national anthem played before every sporting event; it's not even about the requirement that politicians ask God to bless their nation at the end of every speech - none of which is done where she comes from. The thing they all want to know is how Americans clean their asses after they take dumps. Because we have no bidets. The idea grosses them out. It disgusts them. We disgust them. The topic absolutely blows their minds. And if you want to blow your own mind, think about it for a second. Because they're right.
I don't know anyone who thinks they're going to clean a dirty window very well with dry paper towel. But that's the equivalent of what Americans do with their asses every day. Sometimes two or three times a day, depending on intestinal temperaments. Not only that, they'll probably tell you they're the cleanest people on Earth as they're doing it. Or at least right afterward. And I've got news for you. We're not.
My informal polling tells me many, if not most, Americans don't even know what a bidet is. I've been asked, "Isn't that, like, for women?" If they do know what it is, they might very well not know what its intended use is. That's how far from clean we are. It's like not knowing what soap is, or how to use it.
Nor do we have "the best healthcare" in the world, as each and every Republican presidential candidate proclaimed during their New Hampshire debate. Wouldn't it be great if an electric shock could be administered each time one of those politico Bozos distorts someone else's record, or lies about their own, or says something as inane and contemptible as "I believe the United States is the greatest nation on Earth." Saying we've got the best healthcare is bad enough. What we have here is the best automobiles. Period. We don't design or make them, though. We just buy them and drive them around.
Again, the ferocity of the insult being hurled around the world when a politician makes the proclamation of superiority didn't hit me until I was living with my wife. But then I started to hear the declarations through her ears, and to imagine how they must sound to everyone else on the planet. Both my in-laws have had successful major surgeries. They were performed promptly, and they didn't have to pay for them. When we traveled to Italy with our then three-month-old daughter this past year, we brought her to two different pediatricians. We told each that we'd been giving her Zantac, an anti-acid medication for acid reflux that nearly every infant I know in Los Angeles is given these days. She looked at us as if we'd told her we were administering strychnine to our child. It took a while for me to get the message, but I realized within a few weeks that my daughter didn't have anything like acid reflux. She had a very mild case of colic (chronic crying and apparent abdominal discomfort that no one in human history has been able to definitively determine the cause of). Because babies can't talk. But that kind of mysterious, ill-defined state of grace is too disturbing for urban American sensibilities. So we're prescribed medication.
I suppose, if anyone were actually reading this and I wasn't just typing it to myself, there'd be a contingent shouting "If you don't like it here, why don't you go live over there?" Just the same way the eleven year olds I went to junior high school with foamed at the mouth and screamed "America! Love it or leave it!" when anyone voiced any opposition to the Vietnam war. And, even though they were children and we were in the Hudson Valley less than an hour's drive from Manhattan, their bulging necks and the hatred shrieking off them actually made them resemble the crackers who tried to stop Vivian Malone and James Hood from registering at the University of Alabama in 1963. Oh, well. I guess it was only nine years later.
And now it's thirty-five years later than that. Too late, it could be speculated. I heard Randy Newman singing on the radio the other day. He's a songwriter I've long admired, but in my own foolishness I'd kind of subconsciously written him off as being past his prime. This was a recent, live performance that was playing. He sounded great. His voice was strong.
The end of an empire is messy at best
And this empire is ending
Like all the rest
Like the Spanish Armada adrift on the sea
We're adrift in the land of the brave
And the home of the free
Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye.
It's called "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country," and it's great. Like all great songs, it does what this fifteen hundred-word post does in a fraction of the space. You can see him sing it at what looks like his piano at home on YouTube. You should definitely check it out.
Of course, right under Randy's video, the top response read:
Go to any major city in Europe, Asia, Africa or Latin America. Check out the different embassies. You will find more people waiting in line to get visas to go to the United States than you will find at all the other embassies combined. Let me repeat that because some of you may not have understood, "more all the other embassies combined." People vote with their feet.
So there you go. Even if we don't question the responder's source for his data (my guess is the source is his father saying that to him when he was a kid) it's thirty-five years later, three thousand miles away, and it's the same story. Keep your mouth shut or go live somewhere else. Everything here is the best, and don't ever say different. Don't any of these people see the logic behind the argument that every refusal to admit something's wrong prohibits anything from ever improving?
Keep on singing, Randy. If no one here wants to listen, we can sing to each other in London, or Paris, or Florence, or Bologna. Or Madrid, or Sydney, or Melbourne, or Stockholm. Even if they're right that nothing's as good over there (and they're not), at least there are no strip malls. No Denny's. There are far fewer McDonald's. And, while the places are all crawling with Americans - there's no escaping them - at least in those places they all shout it out and admit who they are. They don't pretend over there, like they do here at home. They're too darn proud of themselves.