So, in order to embark on my tour for my new book, Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven
, I've had to fly back to the States from Geneva, Switzerland (or Kitscherland, as I call it), where I currently live. This sounds fantastically glamorous, and let me tell you, it is. After waking up at 5:00 a.m., getting dressed, racing to the airport, then disrobing for the security check at 6:30 a.m., I got herded onto the plane, then sat on the tarmac for an hour and a half because the French air traffic controllers had decided to strike.
Since Geneva is surrounded by France on three sides, it's fairly impossible not to fly over French airspace en route to the US. And so we sat. And sat.
The French, as you know, take their unions very seriously. Striking (staging "un greve," as it's called) is pretty much the national pastime. Unions are powerful and often sacrosanct. And they're largely responsible for the amazing and ultimately unsustainable French quality of life that so many of us envy — the 37.5-hour work week, the socialized medicine, the little goodie bags that toll booth clerks hand out to vacationers on the auto routes during national holidays.
But they're also colossally paralyzing. The nation is like a group of kids playing a game of "freeze." Someone shouts "greve" and everything stops at once in mid-motion. To wake up one morning to find the entire public transportation system of Paris shut down is slightly surreal. My friends there are used to it. They sigh, then say, "I guess I'll take the bike to work."
No such options were available at the Geneva airport, however. Eventually, our plane did take off, though. It flew over France, collided with nothing, and eight hours later, I found myself in Newark.
Spare me the Jersey jokes. Coming back home through Newark is always a thrill for me. In France and Geneva, the immigration officers are so formal and tight-lipped, they're practically fossilized. Mm. Bonjour Madame, they sniff disdainfully, as if they've just smelled something acrid.
At Newark, though, they not only talk, but tawk — in that full-blown, attitudinal, gum-chewy accent of my Noo Yawk homeland. Leafing through the pages of my passport, they say, "So, you're Gilman, huh? So what? You, like, here to visit your family or sumpthin'?"
"Sure," I say. "Why not."
"So, is dis business or pleasure?"
"You tell me."
"Ay, we hear you," they say, chuckling. "So, you bringin' any food in from Switzerland? Any chawklit?"
"Is 'chawklit' a food?" I say. "I thought it was more like, I dunno, a high-class pharmaceutical."
"Oh yeah?" (Laugh again.) "You got any for us?"
Okay, so if my last name were Rashid, they probably wouldn't be so nice.
But what I love most about coming home is the banter, the playfulness. We Americans, I've discovered, never shut up — and I, for one, can't get enough of it.
When my husband, the Amazing Bob, and I first moved to Geneva in 2002, I couldn't begin shedding my red-white-and-blue skin quickly enough. Oh, how I wanted to assimilate, to become a cultured, erudite, sophisticated European!
American culture seemed to me to be nothing but a big, plastic, supersized mall full of fast food, trashy television, and obese gun-nuts. The Europeans, on the other hand, had classical architecture, fine wines, and seven weeks of vacation. We'd spawned Rush Limbaugh, they had Alain Ducaisse.
And yet, after a year or so, I found myself missing American exuberance, our candy-striping, sunny-faced, star-spangled Can-Do-ism. Our happy informality. More than anything else, I missed our out-sized, confessional, emotional incontinence. I missed the way that Americans just talk.
We Americans don't give a shit if your great-great-great grandmother back in Dumfries once showed her ankle to a vicar, or if your name has a "von" in it, or if you went to one of the Grandes Ecoles. We don't care about your pedigree. As far as we're concerned, pedigree is for dogs.
We just want to have a conversation — even if we're, say, working at immigration control at Newark Airport: Yeah, you got some Swiss chawklit? My wife, you know, loves that stuff. Me, I'm strictly a Reese's Pieces guy. You know, gimme a bag of Reese's Pieces and a bottle a Rolling Rock, and I'm set...
One opening, and we're off.
The women spritzing perfume at Macy's, the clerk at the dry cleaners, the plumber at the hotel, people on buses, at newsstands, sitting beside you on the Amtrak to D.C.: if they're not talking to someone on their cellphones, they're tawkin' to you.
And I love it. Oh, do I miss this abroad: The outpouring of stories. The great, primordial ooze of personality and accents and anecdotes. For a writer, it's Nirvana.
Unless they're mentally ill, Europeans don't natter away like we do. Maybe because they've all been at each other's throats for 3,000+ years, or because they're all living on top of one another... I don't know. But I do know that for all our own shortcomings, we Americans are still an amazingly warmhearted, garrulous bunch. We're loud and proud and big, and we're friendly as hell.
And as soon as I got into the taxi at Newark to head into Manhattan, I heard it, the music of our fabulous yapping — guys from Bayonne were calling into a local radio station to bitch. And what were they bitching about, ironically? The unions, who are threatening to go on strike later this month.
"Ah, they're all a bunch a' lazy bastards who don't do nothin'," one of the callers declared. "I say fire the whole bunch a dem."
Ah yes, I'm home.