By Debby Dodds
A loud thumping on the door seemed indistinguishable from the thundering pounding in my own head. All I could think of was that scene in Sixteen Candles with Long Duck hungover, moaning on the ground “…the Donger need FOOD!”
Florence, Italy I told myself as I surveyed my pension bedroom through the watery slits that had previously been my eyes. I slid out of bed and crawled to the door.
In 1992, I wasn’t the wine drinker I am now, so the few glasses I’d had with my new Italian friends tortured me mightily that morning after.
I was backpacking overseas with a new boyfriend, en route to Sardinia where we’d planned to stay with my old boyfriend, with whom I’d never officially broken up. In retrospect, that might have had something to do with my imprudent imbibing the night before.
I opened the door a bit and peered through the crack I’d allowed.
“Your Vice President is an IDIOT! He cannot even spell POTATO! HA!” A fiercely triumphant Roman in a red banana-hammock bathing suit stood outside my door gesticulating with his finger at me.
I pinched the bridge of my nose to try to quell my raging headache. “Carmen? From last night, right?” I vaguely remembered him heartily guffawing at my stories in the common area of the B&B around 2am. I’d been making him guffaw, telling him stories about working at Disney World. He especially enjoyed hearing how some American tourists made it their mission to “drink around the world,” sampling beer or wine at every country pavilion when visiting Disney World’s Epcot Center, but my goal had been to “date around the world” when I worked there, as every country from England to Morocco was staffed exclusively with cast members hired from that country.
Now he was glaring, not guffawing.
“Yes, Carmen, right. This is my name. Nice of you to remember.” He seemed put out that I struggled to identify him. He didn’t grasp that I was also struggling to just stand up. “And now your Vice President has gone too far! Quayle has embarrassed himself in front of the children! He is NO GOOD!
“Okay, well… I didn’t vote for him.” I just wanted to get back to a dark place.
“He represents YOU. Your country. All Americans. You all look stupid. You must do something about this man unless you want the world to HATE YOU! Many Europeans already do.”
Of course, I didn’t know Carmen was going on about a stupid spelling bee snafu, but I gleaned nobody had died from this fiasco he referenced. “Yeah, okay. But our country isn’t just this one person and this conversation is weird. I’m going back to bed.”
“So you are blind no matter what?” he spat. Literally spat. On the floor outside my room. “An American Patriot.”
“Sure. Let’s go with that.” I said and shut the door.
Before this, I’d had my fair share of other surreal events that summer overseas. Sometimes I felt like I’d stepped into one of my favorite movies, After Hours, in which everything in one’s world gets tipped askew and the normal assumptions can no longer be relied on.
I visited a local amusement park just outside Madrid, Spain and saw a familiar game: throwing a ring around a milk bottle neck. But here instead of a stuffed animal, a participant had the chance to win a big side of beef that had been hanging out in the hot sun all day. In Paris, France, I’d been chased by a bunch of hooligans chattering like birds through the streets of that city’s Chinatown at midnight. In Morocco, I so wearied of having people try to trick me into carpet shops where they could ply me with fresh mint tea and give me a well-practiced hard sell for a rug, I’d taken to speaking a gibberish language I made up so the “guides” accosting me at every turn couldn’t figure out where I was from and change their language accordingly, to charm me into compliance. My reasoning was: I didn’t need to be rude if I played oblivious. I suspect many Moroccans just thought me crazy. Did the same job, so it was fine with me.
Although experiencing all of these fresh things excited me, the novelty also threw me off-balance. After a few weeks, I felt nostalgic for anything familiar. I wearied of being the foreigner. The outsider. I got to the point that I craved something recognizable, even mundane. Finally, in Rome a city of culinary delights, I abashedly slunk into a McDonalds to eat a fish sandwich just to have the comfort of not guessing about what exactly I was ordering and putting in my mouth. I was startled to find the taste of the Fish Filet disconcertingly different. Not as salty or something; I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I just knew it wasn’t the same and I didn’t like it.
In my foreign travels that summer, I found myself getting defensive about America more often than made me comfortable. I realize now that, “Nobody criticizes my family but me!” reflected my modus operandi pretty well.
It’s not like I was naïve. I’d worked with Amnesty International, the American Indian Movement, and the ACLU in high school and college and never held back in my criticism regarding the USA’s domestic and foreign actions. However, facing this Italian buffoon berating me about my Vice President’s gaffes when Tangentopoli and the Government/Mafia connection plastered his country’s news seemed hypocritical. But more than that, truthfully, it felt personally insulting. I eschewed the Ugly American stereotypes but also secretly feared inhabiting them. I worried because jingoistic thoughts like: Right, you hate us so much but then why do you listen to all our music, fetishize all our fashions and ESPECIALLY watch all our movies? kept bubbling to the surface of my thoughts as yet another and another new overseas friend told me how evil my country was.
“Don’t all countries have problems? People that suck?” I asked some of my ex-boyfriend’s friends as we ate what seemed like the seventh course of a twelve course Italian meal on a beach near Sassari.
“Yes, we have people from Sicily!” one guy said.
“And Naples!” Everyone at the table exploded with laughter. I was confused. Okay, so definitely some prejudice in this country based on geography, too.
When I returned to the US, I found the protectiveness I’d felt about my country melting in the sunshine, as my new life in shiny California unfolded in front of me. Ah, Los Angeles, land of the American TV shows and movies.
Heck, I found lots to be critical of in the USA in the late 90s and early aughts. Why were people trying to pass “Measures” to prevent immigrant kids from going to hospitals or schools? As devastated as I was about 9/11, why were we going to war in Iraq? What the hell was up with the Douchecanoes claiming AIDS was God’s revenge on homosexuals? My list of grievances with my country seemed legion. I visited other countries and felt neither overly defensive nor embarrassed about my own.
That is, until this past year.
This spring I visited Zihuatanejo, a man we hired to drive us to see the dolphins indulged me in practicing my rusty Spanish. In the middle of our conversation about his favorite “restaurantes tipico” in the area, I blurted, “I’m so sorry that you’re seeing so many of my fellow countrymen and women screaming for a wall to be built on our border! The things that have been said about your countrymen and women…I’m so embarrassed.”
He smiled sanguinely, “It is fine. I know it is not representative of your whole country.
“Well, it’s just wrong. I’m just really upset at the Estado Unidos.”
“No, you have a good country. Do not worry. It is a fine place with many nice people.”
We talked about his daughter, in college to become a food scientist. I told him about how I helped students in my country prepare for tests and write essays to go to college. We both respected the value of education and shared our wonder at how much there is out there to learn, bemoaning we couldn’t go back to college again and again.
This time the movie I felt like I was in was some godawful mashup of Stand and Deliver and Driving Miss Daisy.
Then in June, I was at a Buffy the Vampire Slayer convention in England, sitting in a café with friends I’d met online from all over Europe. They were explaining the intricacies of the upcoming Brexit vote. The subject of Trump came up. I groaned, lump of big fat mortification in my throat.
Here it comes. Now I’ll have to hear how stupid and sexist America is just like I’d heard in 1992.
I met it head on.
“I’m upset that some people in my country think that disparaging women and mocking the disabled is ok…” I started.
But I was stopped. Not with the criticisms I’d braced myself for, but instead, with reassurances. That they knew the good things about America and Americans. One of my new younger friends whispered to me that he had to go back to Kuwait because his Visa expired but that if he wasn’t gay he’d try to marry me to come to the US. He was only about 22 so I informed him that this was actually a popular idea back in the 80s and that probably someone would’ve made a Romantic comedy movie of this trope and hired Wentworth Miller and Amy Schumer to play us. He laughed.
Apologizing for my country made me feel better and more connected with people than I had my summer in Europe twenty-five years before. Was it my imagination or did non-Americans feel more sorry for Americans now? Maybe our country didn’t seem as united in our blustery “We’re Number One!” superciliousness anymore. Our perceived arrogance has cracked under the weight of all of our internal struggles and the world has watched. Instead of deriding us, they feel for us. And maybe we’ve realized Patriotism isn’t about blind defensiveness of your birthplace. Maybe a true patriot is one who loves her country enough to acknowledge its faults, to admit it could be better, and to communicate that to others so we can all work for it to be so.
In movie terms, maybe we’re in the dawning of the Clueless age: The US is that snooty rich girl and she really does have it hard in some ways. But when she can learn to see past her own self-interests and admit her mistakes and shortcomings, others can see her true humanity. And they can’t help but to love her.
Debby is the author of the soon-to-be-released novel Amish Guys Don’t Call (Blue Moon Publishers, spring 2017) and has stories in eight anthologies including My Little Red Book (Twelve) and She Writes. She’s also been published in The Sun, Portland Family Magazine, FlashesintheDark.com, Stumptown Underground, The Crimson Crane, Zinkzine.com, and twice in Hip Mama. Her humorous essay, Why Sarah Palin Needs Me as Her SAT Tutor, was an editor’s pick on Salon.com. She won both “Best Humorous Essay” and “Fan Favorite” in The Attic’s contest at Wordstock. She received a BFA from NYU in Drama/Acting and a MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University. As an actress, she was featured in many independent films and television shows. She wrote and performed in stage shows at both Disneyland and Disney World. She also appeared in a special with Jerry Seinfeld and in many low-budget horror films. In Portland, she performs regularly with the comedy show Spilt Milk.
She’s the proud mom of an eleven-year old daughter, Dory.