January 2009 Reflection

t has been said that the brain makes thousands of calculations while the body walks on cobblestones. Slight adjustments to the ankle in fractional degrees otherwise unnoticed keep students, tourists, teachers, and the smallest toddler ‘afloat’ in Trinity’s Front Square. And then there are the thousands of thoughts the brain produces at the first glimpse of the campanile. We are lucky to have our mind racing through multivariate calculus so a simple moment of awe can be enjoyed – on two feet.

I still get a rush every time my feet scamper along the cobblestones in Front Square. The sounds of sneakers and stilettos echo limestone to limestone building, creating a chorus of chaotic canters. And I, I have become one of the echoes.

Similar to the ‘unthinking’ our minds do while we walk across cobblestones, every face we meet releases a thought within us, a second where we think, “He looks just like my friend from high school!” or “That scarf is incredibly beautiful,” or “I wonder what she’s thinking.” And being an American abroad, I’ve found my mind tossing around the latter statement every time I walk across campus, down Dawson Street, or enter a pub. I wonder what they’re thinking of me, the American.

And the minute they know I’m American, a myriad of assumptions might be made: “She must be vacationing here;” “She probably drinks herself silly in Temple Bar, calling herself cultured and worldly;” “She has come here on Daddy’s dime looking for love with an Irish guy;” “She wants to go Irish jigging and needs you to point her in that direction;” “She doesn’t like the taste of real Guinness and probably thinks that Killian’s is a traditional Irish brew. How wrong she is.”

Instead, I ache to shed my shell of Americanism, but even here, I’ve come to realize such a task is impossible to do. My country will always remain ingrained in me.

In a culture of many, being American represents the fundamental ability to absorb, adjust, and appreciate. There is an openness in Americans to retain individuality, while appreciating the richness of cultural expression. And what do I mean by that? It’s my desire to understand the correct context for saying “cheers” – and to know that just because it’s Irish, it doesn’t always have to relate to drinking. And furthermore, when traveling to even more exotic cultures, such as that in Fes, Morocco, it is valuing the cultural significance of being invited to celebrate the Eid with a Muslim family. Or waking at 5:45 am to hear “God is great” in Arabic, resonating off a cold tile floor, into my ears, under the warmth of my pillow, and through my sheets. Or sharing a meal with Spanish travelers and Moroccan locals in the Djmaa el-Fna, exchanging only points and smiles when a language barrier prevents me from exclaiming to them, “This is the most delicious olive oil I’ve ever tasted!”

Perhaps my greatest realization of my Americanism was while Travis and I traveled to Marrakech and Fes, Morocco, this past December. Every corner we turned through the souqs, Moroccan artists shouted to us from their stores, “Hello, bonjour, do you like?” In their eyes, we were Americans: known for our incredible privilege, our mockery of democracy, our love of hegemony, our bottomless bank accounts, our endless desires to fill our mansions back in the United States with knick knacks from our extravagant travels, hoping that one day, a Moroccan tea set or glass ceiling fixture would inspire a guest, perhaps with cocktail in hand, to remark, “My, what a lovely piece of artwork.” And to wear this weight on my shoulders became more than I could bear, to the point where I started addressing Travis in German, hoping to break free of the American stereotypes that lingered on my clothing.

Where did these ideas about America come from? I knew the moment I met a woman I’ll call Nancy on our first night in Marrakech.

“And you know what? The SUV didn’t even have heating!” Nancy squawked in the small, vibrantly tiled lobby of Riad Sherazade. Travis and I stared at her, open eyed, wondering when the next gush about her “horrible” stay in Morocco would come. Apparently, Nancy and all of her girl friends had just toured the beautiful High Atlas Mountains in the desert that day, not by foot, but in an SUV no less. Granted, I was pretty sure that my 4th grade geography teacher emphasized that mountains have snowcaps because the climate was cold…very cold. Perhaps Nancy had missed this lecture in primary school. I almost forgave her misunderstandings about these crucial facts until she told us that she was an American living abroad in Norway, a country surely not known for its incredible warmth.

There are some tourists who are looking for America in foreign lands. “America” could be things like heat, in Nancy’s case, or warm showers or personal cars or Jif peanut butter or Gap. And if we look abroad for something that is at home, why bother booking a plane ticket? Perhaps the greatest thing I’ve learned by looking at Irish and Moroccan people in the eyes is that I am American. But, I have flown here and there and back to delicately etch another scar on my skin, and mash delicious bread into sautéed eggplant, and stumble on cobblestones as every, every person does when they realize just how difficult and demanding it is to walk on centuries of history.

My American heritage is my cobblestone. And I am the echo across Front Square.

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