My still unused dark blue passport attests I am 100% American. Uncle Sam watches over me – or, at least, listens in on my phone calls. I haven’t mastered the Star Spangled Banner in its entirety but I am well versed in the intricacies of American politics. I am a certified citizen of the U.S. of A. Mostly. Legally at least. Embracing the American culture as a whole has been a different ballgame.
I am the product of large cities. I feel at home in large cities. Bucolic settings, in my mind, stretch only as far as the Tuscan countryside, the English Lake District, the South African wine county – all very picturesque really, and not representative of country life, certainly not American country life.
I just vacationed at the Russian River Valley, a beautiful location west of Napa Valley.
The little town of Guerneville is a mixed bag of would be gentrification, some hippie leftovers and San Franciscans come to spend the week-end in their pretty houses or at one of the inns. Everybody is white, by and large, which, if you come from LA, you are quick to notice.
Driving around the countryside I spot the sign for a rodeo the following week-end.
“We should go” I tell my husband
“Are you sure you will enjoy it?” he replies, rather skeptically.
“What do they do at rodeos?” I enquire – I have a vague ideas they involve bulls and horses in some form.
He doesn’t have the foggiest. He is from New York. But he indulges me and off we drive to the rodeo on the following Saturday, dogs in tow. I figured they would be welcome.
While we circle the fields trying to find parking, I spot a group of protesters holding a banner that reads “Rodeos are cruel to animals”. They are from PETA, the same bunch that used to throw paint at fur clad women outside La Scala theatre in Milan. They had me at animals and cruelty in the same sentence. After a brief conversation with the PETA contingent, I decide we will not be shelling money towards the rodeo after all. I still don’t know what rodeos are about, whether I would enjoy them or if they really practice cruelty but I am not taking the chance.
I do notice that the families streaming towards the stands are 100% white, all wearing jeans, boots and cowboy hats. My polka dots dress wouldn’t have been appropriate anyway – I would have looked like an out-of-town tourist a mile away. Just as well. But I sense a bit of smugness coming on, I am a bit too pleased with my decision.
When I am out and about traveling the world, I consider myself adventurous: I like to be immersed, or just take an interest, in cultures and customs that are truly foreign to me, with sometimes mixed results, but always interesting ones, or at least ones that make me feel richer.
At home, though, it’s a different ballgame. If something smacks of an ideology diametrically opposed to my beliefs, I will not give it a chance and will retreat back to my tribe.
I realize humans function better within a tribe, we always have: the evolution of the class system derives from that, protecting the interests and the well-being of those most like us, with often misguided results. But, as evolved as we are, we still operate within the tribe system: like seeks like. Not necessarily a bad precept but one that often blinds us to what the other has to offer.
In my case, I looked at a crowd streaming to a rodeo and saw a set of conservative beliefs I don’t share. But who’s to know? And any one of them might have seen in my polka dot dress and ballet flats a city snob way out of place and likely to miss the finer points of a good bull (and they would have been right).
Between the blond families with cowboy hats and the PETA protesters, I instinctively went to the tribe that fell more similar and, maybe, missed an opportunity. If nothing else, I would have known what goes on at a rodeo first hand.
A couple of days later, sitting on the plump couch inside a winery, a very tall woman approached me and, in that friendly and open manner that I recognize as truly American, she asked me where I was from. When she found out I originally hailed from Italy, she plopped herself on the couch and asked me to tell her all about it. “I am moving there in a week, to Vicenza”.
“Is your husband in the military?” I asked (there is a large American base in Vicenza, the only reason an American might possible move there).
I saw her hesitate and then she confessed she didn’t like to say that, some people don’t take it kindly. Then she confessed she had spent a lot of time on web forums of American expats and American military wives who live in Italy which led her to pose me some strange questions, such as “is it true you have to be careful of gypsies?” or “do illegal immigrants from Africa pose a threat?”. I reassured her her biggest problems would be of a bureaucratic nature, something Americans really do know little about.
“Well, what are some common mistakes that I should avoid as an American? I would like to blend in”. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that her remarkable tallness and her light blonde hair would make for difficult blending, even in the absence of an English accent.
“Just don’t order cappuccinos after lunch and you will be fine” I reassured her “You will have the time of your life. Eat and shop to your heart’s content”.
I know that, through the eyes of her tribe, she will find the food portions too small, the pizzas awkward, the banking system impossible to decode and she will yield to the temptation of buying a fake Louis Vuitton from one of those African immigrants “who pose a threat”. Gypsies, she will see few. But it’s interesting that her fellow Americans zeroed in on what was utterly unfamiliar, what doesn’t go on in the States: Africans selling knock-off leather goods and sunglasses displayed on the pavement, and brightly clad Romas pushing small children forward to beg. We can’t help but be suspicious of those who don’t belong to our tribe.
And, for that same reason, we are sometimes preyed upon. Waiting for a boat at Naples harbour, I was approached by a gypsy woman who, having heard me speak English, said: “Beautiful lady, I read your palm, tell your fortune.” Feeling relaxed – and maybe a bit American – I presented my palm for a reading of luck and riches. I gave her a euro. The gypsy soon pushed her luck further and suggested I follow her to some vague and empty corner she pointed to with her finger – she had seen where I kept my money after all.
Switching to Italian, I replied “Lady, I am beautiful but not stupid”. She scrammed before I had time to finish the sentence, horrified to discover I belonged to the wrong tribe. And I had proof, once more, that skating on the surface can indeed be deceptive.
Images: Rodeo from Wikipedia, Gypsy woman found in the public domain and Wine County copyright of C&S