A German businessman went to Ireland to look into investment property for his company. He went into a shop to buy a paper and stood waiting at the counter for service. After waiting for several minutes, he leaned over the counter and called to the young man behind it, “Is there a word for “mañana” in the Irish language?” Whereupon the Irishman replied, “Sure there is, but it doesn’t carry the same sort of urgency.”
This joke and others like it can be a humorous way of expressing a clash of cultures. Being an American of Irish and German descent, I can get a chuckle out of it and no hurt feelings are involved. But clashes of culture are not always humorous. Feelings can be hurt, lands can be conquered, and ways of life can be destroyed when one culture, due to its differences, is viewed as inferior by another. In the 1600’s, stereotypes of the wisecracking Irishman with his lack of urgency gave the English a sense of cultural superiority and allowed them to justify the colonization of Ireland with a landowning aristocracy.
RF Forrester, in The History of Modern Ireland tells us, “The English saw the world of cattle-raids, Brehons and poets as arrogantly archaic and deliberately mystifying: a world at once bogus and perverse, which would only be civilized by means of plantation.” One traveler quoted in Forrester’s history wrote that staying with the Irish was like “venturing into a wild beast’s cave.”
I can’t imagine today’s travel writers writing anything as blatantly ethnocentric as the words of that 17th century English traveler. Colonialists practiced what David Spurr in The Rhetoric of Empire calls “rhetorical strategies of debasement,” which could either negate the value of the ‘other’ or idealize him. And yet, to quote Spurr again, how does one “construct a coherent representation out of the strange…?” Well, that is the goal of this blog, and I’ve just spent two paragraphs avoiding it, so here goes…
A New Yorker once explained to me that you can tell a non-New Yorker by the way he is always looking up. Perhaps this is true. Being from Tucson, Arizona, a Western town spread low across the valley like so many Western towns, I’m not used to many tall buildings; heat rises after all, and this is a desert. Emerging from the Holland Tunnel to the island of skyscrapers was a bit of a shock to me, and perhaps that explains the crick in my neck. The first specimen of New York culture I met was a man behind a counter in a small deli. I wasn’t sure at all what I wanted to eat or what anything cost, and I was examining the menu above the counter where he stood. (I was looking up again.) He began to sigh impatiently, “Yeah?” he said, “Do you know what you want?” I thought it was obvious that I didn’t, seeing how I was still looking at the menu. He then began to tisk and sigh, wipe the counter, and shift his weight from one foot to the other. Feeling vaguely intimidated, I ordered a turkey sandwich without taking the time to consider other options.
“Whaddaya want on it?”
“Uh,” looking at the menu again.
More tisking and sighing and wiping of counter .
“Lettuce, tomato, onion, mayo,” I panted.
The interesting thing about this exchange was that I was the only person in the shop. He had no reason to hurry and yet he was in a hurry. This was quite a contrast to the way I was used to being treated in sandwich shops in Tucson. Not to say that I’ve never had what I consider rude service at home, but I began to notice a pattern of franticness in the New York way of life. Drivers behind us at stoplights would honk before the light turned green as if in anticipation of its changing. Drivers merging into a lane would turn on their blinker and cut right in front of another car. There was no waiting for permission. But the thing was, that’s how most people drove. It wasn’t a matter of rudeness; it was the rules of the road, and if everyone followed those rules the traffic moved efficiently. All it took was one van load of Arizonans lollygagging at a stoplight, and everyone was late for dinner. It wasn’t long before we were cutting into lanes with the best of them.
Our experience in New York City stands in stark contrast to our experience in Italy. In Italy we were the ones in a hurry, watching the clock tick away as we were served one delicious course followed by another, the meal often lasting well beyond when we were scheduled to be on stage to begin our performance.
We had booked our tour through Carlo, a self employed promoter of American music who knew more about bands from Tucson and the Southwest than most people from Tucson and the Southwest. He was our agent and road manager during our time in Italy. He pulled up to greet us at the airport in a white van with a cigarette dangling from his lips that was soon to be replaced by another cigarette and then another in rapid succession. Upon seeing our drummer, Marx, who’d recently shaved his head, he took Marx’s face between his hands, peered at him sadly over his glasses and said, “cancer?” It took us a moment to figure out that he was teasing. Carlo was a great fan of the music and also, I think, of feeding us. He loved his food and wine, and when he wasn’t enjoying a full out sit down meal, he subsisted on espresso and cigarettes. The trouble was, we were always eating or getting ready to eat at show time. We had never been one of those bands that starts an hour after they’re scheduled to perform, at least not if we could help it, and most times we could, but not on Carlo’s watch.
One night, during the first week of our tour, we were sitting at a restaurant waiting for our meal. It was about fifteen minutes after we were supposed to start our show. Our accordion player, Kevin, who just so happens to be from the East coast, was twitching restlessly, checking his watch and becoming more and more agitated. Finally he said something about needing to eat soon and Carlo looked at him sadly over his glasses and said, “Do you ever not eat? Do you ever go hungry?” I explained to Carlo that we were worried about starting late and he said, “Why worry? The audience is eating also.” And sure enough, when we finished our meal and got to the gig, the audience was just beginning to arrive. I wondered why they didn’t list the time of the performance an hour later, but it didn’t seem to matter because no one expected us to start on time. Once we figured that out, we were able to relax and enjoy the leisurely pace of the meals. The food and wine, needless to say, were exceptional.
The pace of life varies greatly between New York and Italy. It’s interesting to think that my reaction to impatient New Yorkers may have been similar to Carlo’s reaction to us. Folks from Tucson and the Western United States identiry themselves as being “laid back.” Our visit to Italy was a lesson in relativity. Travel writers, in looking at other cultures, must find a way to reflect their findings back upon themselves. My first trip to New York did seem a bit like “venturing into a wild beasts cave.” But then, I can be a bit of a beast myself at times, and after all, it’s nothing that a leisurely lunch with red wine followed by a nap wouldn’t cure.