This starts the 3-4 post string of things I’ve written from trains that I haven’t been able to upload until now. All about Europe, not India. Sorry. More on India soon.
Marnel and I are on the ferry on the way back to Split from Hvar. We’re both exhausted and dirty and smelly but satisfied from a few days hiking, capped off with a nice afternoon spent on his friends’ rooftop patio drinking wine made by the neighbors right there in Dol.
About halfway through our boat ride, I ask Marnel about Lbjluljana, the capital of Slovenia, where I’m thinking of spending a day. “Slovenia? Eh, it’s nice,” he shrugs. Nothing too special, but cute. He proceeds to talk about some Bosnians he knows who moved to Slovenia 30, 40 years ago and are now trying to “pretend” they’re Slovenian by changing the way they pronounce the “itsch” endings of their last names.
I teeter for a moment on the edge of possible offensiveness, then decide, what the hell. Honesty seems to have its rewards, in spite of possible tensions therein. Earlier that afternoon, I passed successfully through what I feared would be a tense moment when the group learned my last name and I told them about the rumored Rudginsky precursor to Rudman. “So, that is what? From Poland. Jewish?” asked Jimmy, one of the three housemates. I tensed, my eyes darting around the circle. I haven’t been too keen on telling people I’m Jewish, not since the episode on Mykonos. Every bone in my body is telling me to lie, but this feels so low and disgraceful that I just say “Yes,” and hold my breath. Nobody seems to react. Later, I wonder if anyone besides Jimmy heard or understood.
But on the boat, I decide, somewhat arbitrarily, that Marnel and I are ready for some more ethnic honesty. “You know,” I say. “This isn’t a criticism, okay? Just an observation.” He nods. “My country has some problems, but one thing I think is wonderful about the States…everyone’s American. I have a friend, Aartik. His parents were born in India. Aartik was born here. Aartik is American.” Marnel nods again. “Yeah,” he said. “This is good. Not like here.” I admit that this doesn’t make everyone equal and that of course there’s still some anti-immigrant and racist sentiments. He pushes on the race question a bit and I tell him about my father seeing on a road trip as a teenager resturants in the South with four bathrooms: white men, colored men, white women, colored women.
Perhaps feeling that we’ve covered enough touchy subjects to broach the coup de gras, Marnel asks with an impish, almost fanatic glitter in his eyes, “So…what do you think about…the 11th September?” I know right away what he’s asking, and in an instant, I absolutely have had enough. I know that he’s going to say he thinks it’s a conspiracy, that he thinks the US government blew up the buildings to have an excuse to go to war with Iraq, and indeed when we plow on he appears to believe just that. But I am suddenly completely done with tolerating this specific European slur against my country. I let Marnel get away with calling English a “terrorist language” with only the slightest of frowns, I allowed his comments about how he’s heard friends suggest that Obama and Bush amount to the same thing, I even put up with his grumpy stereotypes about how Americans can’t speak foreign languages, but now I am putting my foot down. I’m American, dammit, and I don’t listen to anyone, not Europeans or Americans, try to claim our government massacred 4000 of its citizens in a spirit of jingoism.
I tell him he’s wrong. I say I don’t know what’s gone on here, sorry, but that the U.S. government would not do this. “But 4000 Iraqis, they kill them, no problem,” he says. “Well, they shouldn’t do that either!” He nods, grinning in the way that you do to try to alleviate awkwardness. “It’s an accident,” I say.
“Ah, this is an accident,” he says. “In 2007, an American soldier, he’s on the street and there’s a Bosnian, he has a…petard…what do you call? Explode, in sky, for celebrate.”
“Yes, that, he has this, and the American, he shoot the Bosnian there. Accident?”
Now I’m really pissed. “Why not? You think it was on purpose?”
He nods. “And the U.S., why are they in Iraq? Why do they kill all the Iraqis?”
“They’re trying to kill people who are plotting to blow up trains of civilians in London, Madrid, New York. Sometimes they kill civilians. It’s terrible and the war was badly planned. But this is what they’re doing.” I realize as I say this that I believe it, and I get even angrier. “What do you think they should do? You think they should let them do this? Sit and plot how to kill innocent people? What should we do? They shouldn’t go after these people? We should wait for them to come and kill us? What do you think?” Marnel is only grinning and nodding, either because he doesn’t understand, he doesn’t have an answer, or he wants me to calm down. Or all three.
“Look, I’m not saying they’ve done everything right in Iraq, or that the war was started with good intentions. But don’t hate on Americans. We’re not all so bad.”
“Okay, okay!” he says finally, patting me on the shoulder.
“I mean we’re really not all so bad.”
“Okay, okay!” His stiff smile softens and he shrugs playfully. “What, I don’t care nothing! I have my mountains. I wait for the American on the top of the mountain. He can come meet me there.” We both lean back, exhaling and visibly letting muscles unclench. There’s a beat of a few seconds, and then Marnel leans forward, smiling coyly and bringing us full circle: “But you, you’re not American! Your grandparents, they come from Poland–you’re a Slav!”
I laugh and try to speak, but somehow I can’t be honest a second time.