' ' Cinema Romantico: How I Feel

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

How I Feel

The following is an essay written by Sarah Vowell titled "Vindictively American", posted here in its entirety, included in her book "Take the Cannoli: Stories from the New World".

My friend Esther Blaauw and I were watching the Acht Uur Journaal - Holland’s eight o’clock television news. Emphasis on “watching.” After three months at the University of Leiden, in April 1992, my Dutch vocabulary hadn’t progressed much past koffie, bier, and “My name is Sarah, how are you,” words and phrases which didn’t get much broadcast journalism airplay. The screen flashed pictures of buildings on fire. The newscaster said, “Dutch Dutch Dutch Dutch Dutch Los Angeles Dutch Dutch.” I absentmindedly sighed, “Fires in southern California, what else is new?” But Esther turned her gaze from the TV set to stare at me. “What?” I asked, just as the newscaster said, “Dutch Dutch Dutch Rodney King.”

Esther explained that a jury in Los Angeles had acquitted the four police officers accused of beating Rodney King. That surprised me, having seen the video. “Now,” she said, “the whole city is on fire.” That did not surprise me, having seen the video. Four people were dead from the mayhem. I stared at the smoky pictures. But Esther watched me, glaring at my hands accusingly, as if I could throw a brick through a shop window ten thousand miles away. She told me, only half joking, “Of course you’re not going back there.”

“Back where?” I asked.

“America.” It sounded like a dirty word.

“I don’t live in America,” I said. “I live in Montana.” I smirked a little, thinking of my hometown, in which the police report tends to consist of cute items like somebody walking past The Paint Pot on Main Street called in to say they noticed through the window that a coffeemaker had been left on. Not exactly Florence and Normandie.

Still, Esther wouldn’t drop it. “Why would you ever want to go back there?” she scowled, waving at the TV, where a palm tree was in flames.

“Because it’s huge” was the only thing I could come up with.

I wished that I could describe the hugeness. That it wasn’t just a huge mess. I wanted to tell Esther about the Montana sky and how it’s so gigantic that Montana is called Big Sky Country and how I missed it so much I pretended that behind the constant Dutch ceiling of clouds there was a big range of mountains with snow way up top. I wanted to tell her that even though I liked being twenty minutes away from Amsterdam, I was the kind of person who will sit in a car for the thirteen hour drive to Seattle - for Esther the equivalent of driving to Greece - just to see a band I like. I wanted to tell her that every time I meet her for some dinky thimbleful of coffee in the student union I daydream about big steaming diner cups and so many free refills you can’t help but talk real fast.

I wanted to tell her that looking at those riots on TV was digging a hole inside me and could she try and understand. But I ran out of there. I didn’t have the heart to try and explain why my lunatic homeland was going up in smoke to a resident of that sane little country whose craziest cultural brouhaha had been the great tulip mania of 1636. I jumped on my little bike and rode through the little town past a couple of little windmills. I went up to my little room and fell to pieces.

I finally fell asleep after listening to a Beach Boys song about twenty-nine times on my Walkman - “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” Wouldn’t it be nice if four people weren’t dead because four other people mauled their fellow citizen with billy clubs, over and over and over again? Wouldn’t it be nice if all those men and women weren’t running onto freeways and shooting guns in the air and shooting guns at each other and looting TV sets out of stores and being teargassed and terrorized and slain? Wouldn’t it be nice if that truck driver wasn’t lying in some hospital bed barely hanging on because a mob tore him out of his truck and attacked him en masse? Justice, wouldn’t that be nice? I guess I needed to hear towheaded California boys singing something so beautiful and so sappy as “Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray it might come true.” The song ends “Sleep tight my baby,” I kept rewinding that part.

Wasn’t that why I was in Holland anyway, to get some rest, to take a break from the chaos? It just so happened I decided to leave the country during the Gulf War, an action I didn’t understand then and don’t understand much better now called for by a president I did not vote for once and would not vote for again. Studying abroad required a lengthy application process. I remember the exchange program office organized a seminar on anti-American sentiment a few weeks after smart bombs were dropping into Iraq. We had to sit in a circle and they asked each one of us, “What would you do if you were abroad and some foreigners came up to you and expressed anti-American sentiment?”

“Agree with them,” I said.

I think I wrote on my exchange program application that I wanted to study in the Netherlands to do research on the paintings of Piet Mondrian, but I didn’t say why the paintings of Piet Mondrian appealed to me. Those painting were clean little grids, immaculate white rectangles and perfect black lines brightened by cheerful, childlike squares of red, yellow, and blue. They symbolized a real kinder, gentler country - Holland - a place of universal health care, efficient public transportation, a well-educated citizenry, and merry villages crammed with bicycles and flowers and canals. I wanted out of the huge Jackson Pollack canvas that is the USA, vast, murky, splotched, and slapped together by a drunk.

I got to do my Mondrian research all right, but when I showed up in Leiden I was told the art history courses I came to take “happened last semester.” Not speaking Dutch, in order to stay - and keep my financial aid - I had to sign up for some random classes in the languages I do speak, English and French. The low point was registering for a literature course called Vision on America During the ‘80s. Great. Like I crossed the Atlantic to pay nineteen dollars for a Jay McInerney paperback. I came all this way to the land of bread-for-breakfast for the grand purpose of explaining to my classmate that this thing called Count Chocula in Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland is a chocolate-flavored cereal with a vampire theme. Luckily, I loved the teacher, Professor d’Haen, who glowed a little when recalling his student days in some - to him - romantic place like Ohio or Pennsylvania.

Just before the riots we’d read Don Delillo’s White Noise from 1985, a book I had liked mainly because a character in it had a thing for Elvis. But the morning after I heard about Los Angeles, I dove into that book as a talisman of truth, rereading it in a single sitting, eerily noticing the claim that “we need catastrophe” and that “this is where California comes in.” I relived its “airborne toxic event,” its insistence that “all plots tend to move deathward,” its fixation on a thousand cheap American details - the supermarket shelves and the cars we drive and the food we eat in the cars we drive.

And I wept. I tossed all my Mondrian books on the floor and hugged that apocalyptic American novel to my chest and rocked back and forth, missing all of it, death and Elvis and California and catastrophe. I wanted Jackson Pollack. And I wanted to go home. I got on my bike and rode to McDonald’s and read the book again, smearing its pages with fries.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am the Esther Blaauw mentioned in Sarah's story. I was about 23 years old at the time and knew as much about the United States as your average American about Europe. I am 42 now, and understand Sarah a lot better. For us Europeans it's hard to understand what it's like to live in a country as big as Europe and still to feel part of every state. Don't know if I will ever feel 'voraciously' European. Time will tell ; ).