Saturday, 11 October 2008

Saying Something

"I had to get all American again," the elderly woman moaned to her companion as she set a pile of books on the check-out counter with a resigned sigh.

I looked up. I'd been thoroughly in my own world, happily browsing among the shelves, delighted to be in such close proximity to so many books I could read again. No one, to my knowledge, knew my nationality and since everyone around me appeared to be British, they no doubt assumed I was one of them.

"It's hard to know what to pick out," her friend agreed rather vaguely, shifting her own selection of books from one arm to the other.

"And there are just so many American books," the first woman moaned again, causing me to give her a hard look that sailed right over her silly head.

For a brief moment, I had a nasty fantasy of sticking this woman in a room with one of my English-people-hating acquaintances or relations. Part of me delighted in picturing this; part of me winced at the very thought. I really ought to say something...

"Mmm," murmured her friend, "there are a lot of American books, aren't there?"

I found myself grinding my jaw and counting slowly to ten. Of course there are a lot of American books available. There are a lot of British books out there too, to say nothing of Australian, Canadian, etc. Aren't we all lucky?

"Have you got The Secret Life of Bees?" I asked the woman at the check-out counter in my best American whine, and I spoke as loudly as I could too. Decades away from my country of origin have leached away much of the American from my accent, but I did my best to put it all back in now. No way did I want this woman to go on. I swear, if I'd had my passport on me I'd have flashed it at her. In fact, I was desperate to make it obvious that I was not Canadian.

"Got your books?" my husband asked, joining us at the check-out counter. He looked happy: he'd just found that the tiny library we were in stocked a full selection of Terry Pratchett.

"Just this one!" I said brightly, watching as the woman's friend checked out five Catherine Cookson books. "But this is such a good book, I'm just thrilled I found it!" And I'm betting the author is American too, so nyaa nyaa nyaa!

My husband was too absorbed in his books to notice my brand-new southern drawl. If the two women noticed it, they never batted an eye.

"I've read all those," the whiner remarked to her friend, tapping one of the Catherine Cooksons with her finger. "In fact, I think I've read ALL of hers."

I found the snob in me rearing its ugly head. It might be hard for some people to know what to check out, but I never have any problem figuring out what NOT to check out, and Catherine Cookson is way up there on my list. On behalf of the hard-working American novelists who wrote whatever books the whiner checked out (I tried to see, but she was holding them in such a way that I could not) and all the good British authors whose works this woman cannot possibly have read, I felt well and truly vexed. And what business does she have complaining about American novels when she's been checking out Catherine Cookson anyway?

Wish I'd said something, but it probably wouldn't have helped if I had.

Later I saw the reluctant American-novel-reading woman chatting with another friend outside. There was a charity jumble sale in benefit of a cancer society and both woman, originally light-skinned, had tanned their skins to a dark, leathery brown. They were hatless and the noontime sun was blazing down. And both women were smoking. "Put those cigarettes out!" I longed to tell them. "Giving money to a cancer charity is well and good, but you guys are crappy examples for my children. And for pity's sake, get a hat on and slap on some sun screen. Your skin can't take getting fried like that."

Wish I'd said something, but it definitely wouldn't have helped.


Charles Gramlich said...

I can understand someone not being happy with another country's political leaders, but why should that extend to food, or clothes, or books for goodness sake. How ridiculous.

Kim Ayres said...

Given the smoking and tanning, I guess helping the cancer charity was more of an investment...

Robin said...

There was no need to say anything snarky (as you had sumised, anyway), because the melanomas happily propagating in their dermis will soon make any revenge for their snooty attitudes moot. What sillies.

Kappa no He said...

Do people still thinking smoking and tanning are cool? Those women are insane. You did good to hold your tongue. Strong, strong woman, you are!

Carole said...

Catherine Cookson, Tanning, Smoking, Whining. Hmmm.

On the bright side it gave you fodder for a very good post.

The Anti-Wife said...

I so wish you had said something. Next time, please do!

Ello said...

Seriously, it wouldn't have helped and you did the right thing not saying anything. You took the higher ground and that is all you can do. Besides, there isn't anything you could say or do that smoking and the sun won't do to them worse.

All Rileyed Up said...

I can't imagine ever not wanting to read a book because of where the author was from. Silly.

Stop by my blog today, if you have a chance (to claim award, hint hint).

ChrisEldin said...

When I'm in Dubai, I'm lamenting all the British novels there.
And funny, the Brits in Dubai LOVE the sun. I cannot fathom this. They are also (generally speaking, of course, because I have a few close friends), tanned to the hilt and smoking. The running joke is "Did you see the Brit lady driving her SUV while texting and smoking..." Sorry.
This was a nice rant.

marshymallow said...

My roommate this summer told me she "read a lot" - she usually had about half a dozen Catherine Coulter novels around. And the other day I was talking to a very well-educated lady who had never heard of the Bronte sisters, or Jane Eyre. When there is so much excellent literature out there, why do people content themselves with something less?

Mary Witzl said...

Charles -- I feel just the same. Feel free to have at our government -- we do too. But our literature is perfectly fine and if anything, we deserve kudos for it. And if the ladies really found it so tiresome, who was forcing them to read it? Sheesh.

Kim -- I thought the same thing at the time. I felt like telling them to cut out the middleman, but I doubt they'd have taken me seriously.

Robin -- You're right, but I come from a long line of teachers and missionaries and I have inherited their zeal to convert (though not, thank God, their somewhat narrow-minded ideology). I wanted to get those women on board, but I didn't have the nerve.

Kappa -- They do think it's cool here -- it drives me wild! I wince at the sight of their poor fried skins, but they are immensely proud of all the hard work they've put into tanning. And the smoking thing just makes me cry.

Carole -- Yes, it did! The minute I heard this conversation, I told myself that I would definitely write about it. All around me I heard the most interesting conversations you can imagine and yet I have so little time to record them -- it's maddening.

Anti-wife -- Next time I fear will be just the same: I'll itch to say something, but never work up the nerve. I always dream about the clever, influential things I could say, but seldom say them.

Ello -- I always feel as though I SHOULD say something just in case the people in question really haven't heard (about the dangers of tanning, smoking, etc.) But their prejudice against American books -- I fear that will never get better. There are a handful of older Britons who seem to resent the predominance of American writers. Fortunately, this is a tiny minority, but whenever I meet them, my hackles rise.

Riley -- Yay -- I want to claim that award and THANK you! I did stop by your blog, but had to get off quickly because someone needed to use the computer. I'll try to come by again this weekend; we still have no internet access at home.

Chris -- I think the British mania for sun-worshipping has a lot to do with the British climate. After years of rain-drenched greyness, many people want to spend the rest of their lives soaking up sun. I just wish they could control this a little; they are really courting melanoma.

Marshymallow -- They just don't know any better! It's like food. People don't know how easy it is to eat well and cheaply, so they go for the same awful fast food every time.

problemchildbride said...

The five pieces of advice I give myself for these situations:
Walk away
Keep walking away, speed commensurate with temper.
Have gin
Watch Scrummy McNulty on The Wire.

You could win them over in the most charming way, showing all your grace and intelligence, but people with their heads planted so firmly up their bigoted bums, will not catch it. In other words, it is impossible to do right for doing wrong with some people.

Carrie Harris said...

Whew! I'm starting to wonder if those women were on the Nobel committee. I'm not sure why the country of origin matters if the book is good. I'd read someone from Swaziland if they wrote a good book.

I have nothing against Swazilandians, of course. Or Swazilandish or Swazis or whatever the heck you call them. Just trying to come up with an obscure country that won't offend a lot of people.

But then again, it sounds like these women really WANTED something to gripe about. Sheesh.

Mary Witzl said...

Sam -- You give such good advice. I don't think I could have won these ladies over with charm; my accent would have immediately made them narrow their eyes and back away. But I think I'll give it a go the next time anyway -- it sounds great! And if it doesn't work, maybe I can use irony. I'm itching to use irony...

They claim that travel broadens the mind and I've always wanted to believe that this is the case. But in my own experiences abroad, I've found that people who start off with narrow minds only have them snapped more firmly shut when they travel. These ladies seemed like classic examples.

Carrie -- Me too! I'd read a book by ANYone from ANY country, if I picked it up and found that I was enjoying it. Once I find a book engaging or illuminating, I hardly care about the nationality of the author. For some people, though, nationality DOES matter. I knew a man who hated reading British literature because he resented looking up words like 'fortnight' (yes, really). Wish I could introduce him to these ladies...

AnneB said...

Fortnight is British? I grew up reading children's books from the Twenties (published in the good old USA) that had belonged to my mother, including a short six-book series about a girl called Marjorie and some of the original Bobbsey Twins, and I think they all must have used fortnight, because that's how I learned what it grade school!

Robin said...

Wait! Who's Scrummy McNulty? That's the best name, ever. This place (Pennsylvania) is so boring. Snooooze.

Mary Witzl said...

AnneB -- I grew up reading those books too! Our parents took us to the library, but the books we had lying around the house were old, scruffy British classics. I spent a lot of time puzzling over why people made such a fuss over tea (not realizing it generally included an entire meal) and some things I only understood from the context, but this was what I liked about the books -- that there were always a few things that were so engagingly foreign.

I owe you a good, long e-mail, but still haven't figured out how to access my e-mail account from the university computer (we don't have internet access at home yet). I'm reluctant to ask anyone here for help as they've already cottoned on to what a technophobe I am. I wish you had your own blog! If you ever get your own, I will drive around our neighborhood five times. (Remind me to tell you all about our neighborhood at some point and you'll be well and truly impressed by that...)

Robin -- When I get a spare moment (and the internet installed) I have a long list of things I need to look up, including Scruffy McNulty. And if you want to see an incredible blog, check out Sam's, the Problem Child Bride.

Speaking of blogs, I can't manage to log onto yours to comment! What am I doing wrong, or is it just my general computer imbecility? (No, you don't have to answer that.)

Tabitha said...

I was thinking the same thing as Carrie. :) To disdain anything simply because it comes from a particular place is the ultimate discrimination. One person does not represent a group. One group does not represent a nation. Anyone who thinks this has his head in the sand.

Sorry for ranting...I have little patience for closed-minded people. :)