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Monthly Archives: August 2012

When I am around at bedtime, I sing my nieces and nephews a song about an English sparrow who gets caught in a storm and blown all the way to Paris. He meets a beautiful French sparrow who (in a very impressive French accent, if I do say so myself) gives him a tour of her city. The kids don’t understand half the words but they have made me promise that one day I will take them to see the Bios de Boulogne, Montmartre and the Champs-Élysées. My brother thinks it is a great idea because he might actually get to go on vacation alone with his wife. I envision keeping track of three teenagers in Paris and become a little nauseated.

I love to travel and I believe experiencing other cultures is the key to becoming balanced and well-rounded. I recently enjoyed a wonderful vacation in Venice, Italy. On my last night I decided to treat myself to a $30 plate of spaghetti at a café on the water. I found a table surrounded by flowers and lights with a magnificent view of the gondolas cruising up and down the Grand Canal. I had been there for a week but I was still pinching myself over the fact that I was in Venice. As the sun went down and the pasta arrived, I absorbed my last moments in Italy with so much happiness. Suddenly my tranquility was interrupted by an obese woman in an unfortunate sparkly red and blue blouse who arrived and announced, “I don’t speak Eye-talian. I want a glass of white wine and I want to use the bathroom.” The waiter placed a glass of wine on a table and waited for her to return from the bathroom. She came back and sat at a different table on the other side of the room. The waiter had already removed the second place setting so he said, “Madam, your table” and indicated where her wine was waiting. She bellowed across the restaurant, “I’ll sit here or forget about it.” The appalled waiter glanced over at the owner as he graciously moved the wine to the place she had chosen to plop herself down. I too do not speak Eye-talian so I don’t know what was said between the waiters but the woman started yelling that she did speak Italian after all and she did not appreciate the waiters being rude about her. She did not pay to be treated like that. 

Venetians appear to have very little need to relieve themselves on a regular basis. There is one public restroom at the train station that you have to pay to use and after that, you have to order a meal to use a restaurant’s facilities. Even then they will charge you 2 euros for the privilege of taking up a table. So it was immediately apparent to everyone in the restaurant that this vision of loveliness had ordered the wine only to gain use of the bathroom, and was trying to get away without paying for the drink on top of that. Wine is fabulously cheap in Italy and she was fussing about a $3 beverage. She got on her phone and started loudly complaining about the Eye-talians. The owner was not amused and asked her to leave. She didn’t pay for using the restroom or her half-consumed glass of wine. Mission accomplished. However, she was not satisfied with the outcome and proceeded to take photos of all of the waiters while yelling, “TripAdvisor! TripAdvisor!” The staff shooed her away but she stood across the courtyard furiously typing into her phone, apparently reporting her unforgivable treatment to the TripAdvisor Website right there on the spot. She yelled that she would never be treated like this in America. I almost cheered when the owner chased her down the street.

I was still sitting there with my mouth open, shocked at the entire scene, when all of the waiters and the owner turned around and looked at me. I raised both hands in surrender and said, “I’m Australian,” in a desperate attempt to save my life. The entire restaurant chuckled and clapped. “OK, you’re OK, you can stay” the owner reassured me. Peace returned to the café. I felt guilty for betraying the country that I have called home for most of my life, but there was no way I was going to be associated with that woman. And my unfinished spaghetti was really good. I then had to put on my best Aussie accent, which after all these years is starting to elude me. I didn’t care that I sounded like a Bostonian on Ambien, as long as I distanced myself from that horrible person. I had a great night talking to the waiters and the owner brought me tiramisu and a limoncello on the house. When I asked about opera in the area, he drew a map and directed me to a church that only locals know about. As I was leaving, all the waiters called “ciao” and waved. It was an amazing evening, and one that the awful woman could also have enjoyed if she had shown an ounce of decorum.

I have been an American citizen for a long time. I sound American and am proud to be from a country that accepts who I am and gives me the freedom to live the way I choose. America is an amazing place to live. But many of us apparently do not know how to behave in other people’s countries. I am often astounded by our sense of entitlement.

Here’s the thing; when you leave America, you are entitled to diddly-squat. I don’t care if you are paying $800 a night for the best room on the Grand Canal, you are still a guest. Wikipedia has a page for the term Ugly American and defines it as “a pejorative term used to refer to perceptions of loud, arrogant, demeaning, thoughtless and ethnocentric behavior of American citizens mainly abroad.” When they are older, I would like to take my nieces and nephews on an overseas trip and show them how we got this reputation. I have rarely been abroad without experiencing something similar to my Venice story. I am going to make it clear that something very terrible will happen to my kids if I catch them behaving that way. Thankfully they have cultured parents who would never behave like that and they are already exposed to so much outside their Los Angeles lifestyle. As Americans, we have to teach our children to embrace other cultures and show respect and humility when we are fortunate enough to travel. We have to show them how to learn about what is considered offensive there that we might not know about, such as tipping the taxi driver. Show by example how to pick up on social graces we aren’t used to, like addressing an attendant when you enter and leave their shop. Learn enough of their language to say “please” and “thank you” and “I’ll have another glass of red wine please.” It is not that difficult to show that we are trying to be gracious guests when we are in other countries.

Later that night, while flipping through the Italian TV channels in my hotel room, I came across a show that was called Ridiculousness: Very American Idiots. It was the title they gave America’s Funniest Home Videos. ”Well, that’s perfect,” I thought.  “That just makes this night complete.”  I turned the TV off in disgust at the perception of my adopted country, curled up in bed and wished I had someone to sing my sparrow song to. I adore Italy but I was very glad to be going home to my family.

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ImageOn her sixth birthday, I took my niece Rose to one of those family fun centers where you can play miniature golf, breathe in petrol fumes on a go-cart, and spend $20 on arcade games that spit out little tickets. The reward for an hour of air hockey and Space Invaders is the honor of standing at the counter for 30 minutes while the child picks out a $2 prize with her 5,000 tickets. We went on the bumper boats three times and squirted each other with nasty water that might have been pure chlorine. We had root beer floats in the ice-cream parlor where we enjoyed seven rounds of “Happy Birthday to You” accompanied by a bass drum and clown horn. After several hours of riotous fun, Rose and I were in a spirited skee-ball competition when she paused and said, “Being an aunty is the best thing ever.”

We discussed what great stuff she was going to get to do when her brothers, Rider and Stanley, make her an aunt. I pointed out (with as much control over my sarcasm as I am capable of) that she too will get to spend a large amount of money on whac-a-mole, mini golf and corn dogs in 100 degree heat in the San Fernando Valley. A posting by the American Psychological Association (APA) titled “Squirrels recognize degree of kinship by scent, psychologist finds” reported on squirrels and their habit of smelling each other. I don’t read a lot of articles about squirrels but this caught my attention. People actually make a living by watching them sniff out their relatives. The article explains, “Squirrels have keen noses. So keen, in fact, they can recognize their relatives with a whiff, according to research published by psychologist Jill M. Mateo, PhD, in the British journal Proceedings: Biological Sciences (Vol. 269, No. 1492). In her research on two species of ground squirrels, the Cornell University psychologist found that squirrels can recognize whether another squirrel is related to them—and to what degree—just by smelling the odors given off by their glands.”

That’s actually not the part that interested me, although I did spend a few minutes contemplating that my experience in smelling the odors produced by my nephews is not that dissimilar. The article went on, “Since female Belding’s ground squirrels give preferential treatment to close female family members—mothers, sisters and daughters—but not more distant kin, such as nieces and nephews, the ability to decipher who’s closely related is important, Mateo explains. For example, a female ground squirrel would probably endanger itself by crying to warn of a predator for its sister, but not for its cousins or unrelated kin. Saving the sister’s life is similar to saving its own genotype, while saving an unrelated squirrel doesn’t make evolutionary sense, she says. “

Squirrels will only expend the energy that it takes to shout, “Hey look out!” when it protects their direct bloodline. Can you imagine if we were like that? What if we only took care of our own? The Web site Savvy Auntie is dedicated to the art of being an aunt. It offers advice and creative ideas for all kinds of women who are taking on a role in the life of someone else’s child. The site refers to aunts as ABRs (Aunts by Relation) and ABCs (Aunts by Choice). As I was paging through the site, which could have been created just for me, I started to think about all the children for whom I am an aunt by choice. I have all kinds of kids in my life who are confused by the fact that they call me Aunty Jo but are actually my first cousins once removed, my girlfriend’s kids, or little friends/neighbors of my actual relatives.

The truth is that I am an aunt by choice for all the kids in my life. No one says I have to be an aunt. There is no rule that says just because my brother chose to procreate, I have to play skee-ball and ride bumper boats. I don’t have to pack an overnight bag every Friday night and schlep out to the Valley in rush hour traffic so that I can be woken up at 5am on a weekend by three wriggly children fighting over a spot in the bed. I do it because I choose to. I do it because investing in them makes me happy and gives me purpose. I have a responsibility to engage other people’s children in a productive way as a member of the “village” but if I’m being honest, it’s more about what it does for me.

Rider’s birthday is not that far away and when he brought up the go-carts, I tried to suggest something that might be more fun for me. But I know very well that I will do whatever makes him happy which means more go-cart fumes and funnel cakes.  It won’t be long before a day out with Aunty Jo fails to produce leaps and wiggles of joy and excitement, and I will be driving teenagers with iPods around. I remind myself when I don’t feel like playing Lego, jumping on the trampoline, or building a pillow fort (and I’ve never once felt like doing any of those things) that I will not be able to get this time with the kids back so I have to give all my energy now. Rider is completely underwhelmed with my Lego walls, Rose prefers Daddy’s forts because they don’t fall down, and Stanley wants Mommy to sing the doggie in the window song at bed time because as Rider puts it, “Mommy’s voice is a little better suited for that song.” But one day they will be doing this for each other’s kids and they will remember how hard I tried.