Monday, July 7, 2014

Why No One Agrees on the Definition of "Liberty"

“Bring your passport,” I tell Gina at the door. “These Embassy things; you never know.” She nods and goes to the bedroom to get her proof of American citizenship.

It’s warm but overcast outside. The sky has that heavy feeling, like every time you look away the roiling grey clouds come down a few more feet. My shirt is still clinging to my back from my walk home earlier. Sweat is peppered under my eyes. Isolated trees stir in a haunted way. A lapacho between two mango trees is shaking and dropping amoxicillin-colored flowers onto a sidewalk already dark with their crushed petals. The mangos are strangely still. Dogs bark, looking down from rooftops, loosing their hanging slaver down onto passersby below. Other barks float up from a frantic place behind walls ten feet high. Plastic and Mylar bags skitter down the sidewalk and collect in drifts around the gutters. When it rains they will dam up the drains and the streets will flood quickly.

The Embassy looks like an exclusive park, a health spa maybe. The Embassy in Buenos Aires, just a formidable building with Americana on the exterior walls to belie its severity, in Yerevan, it was a compound, a neighborhood, a place diplomats were probably loathe to leave. In Almaty, the Embassy was just another office building, three stern Kazakh guards at the door. Today the Asuncion Embassy is open, exclusively open to the invitees of the Fourth of July celebration. An invitation, received the day before, is folded in my pocket.

We come to the side entrance where, for the first time, the doors are open and the buildings of the Embassy are exposed to the row of parked cars on Kubitschek. It’s an informal airport security line: women with their hair pulled back so tightly it shines with stress, metal detector portals with their little red carpets draped across the bottom, like lolling tongues. I hand my invitation to the tight-haired woman, hoping I’m not going to have to argue the plus guest line. She scans its barcode and hands it back, her face cordial, welcoming. Our status has been conferred so easily. Never before have I been invited to something so exclusive. I do not know the protocol; it seems there is nothing to know, however. You walk in, listen to a speech or two, eat some hors d’oeuvres, grin at some people, pocket a few mints and leave.

The Public Affairs sector is at the door, the first to welcome everyone. My job is vaguely linked to the Embassy and I know these people. They are the ones that were here waiting for me when I got off the plane and the ones who rented my apartment and found me a bed. They are good people and I trust them. The reception is through a door. Most of the attendees cannot be seen. There are a few stragglers among us waiting to go in. I notice that all the men are in suits. Public Affairs are wearing suits, everyone is in a black or navy blue jacket with a tie. Hair is brilliantined, cologne bottle necks have been pressed into fishy white palms so recently the imprints are practically still there. The men around me look like they have all just stepped out of the shower from somewhere inside the Embassy and then unwrapped a suit fresh from the cleaners’. I’m wearing jeans and a button-up shirt which is still sweatily clinging to my back.

“Was I supposed to wear a suit?” I ask Public Affairs. “Don’t worry about it.” They tell me, and for a moment I don’t. Then we go inside. There’s a red carpet, gold braid on military jackets, hands to shake, potted plants, the trickle of an unseen fountain and then a fluttering, tented room; white tablecloths; white gloved waiters; chafer dishes with their fuel and garlic smell; a bandstand and a veritable sea of handsomely dressed people: the women in wraps, sarongs, pearl chokers, sequins and the men, damn, the men are all wearing suits!

“It’s all suits!” I whisper to Gina.

“Don’t worry; no one’s going to notice.”

“Notice, hell! I’m wearing jeans! You know how people are at these things: they look you over.” I say trying to communicate the urgency of the situation to her in a way she can appreciate. I know Gina does not like to be looked over. “I’m going to say ‘hi, nice to meet you’ and they’re going to say ‘hmmph!’”

“Relax. No one cares.”

“How will they not care? I’m spoiling the mood. I’m that jerk at the Hallowe’en party just wearing his regular clothes, spoiling the illusion for everyone.” I look around and see that not only is everyone in a suit and tie but that they’ve all got hatpins, stickpins, cufflinks and all that kind of crap. “We’re at the level of dress attire here that’s like just beneath like a top hat and tails!” I whisper fiercely in Gina’s ear.

She tries to pacify me, telling me that she’s not dressed up enough either. I tell her no one can never tell with women. They seem to just wear whatever they want; as long as you’re not wearing a t-shirt you’re OK. She doesn’t seem to appreciate my inability to identify and concludes her supportive speech by telling me we don’t have to stay. I think wildly about leaving for a second, but then I decide that I’m already here, the damage done. If I were to leave, it would probably just look worse. Besides, it looks like those chafer trays are holding quite a few different dining options. It’s possible that there might be a vegetarian item or two among them.

“No,” I tell Gina. “We’re already here. Let’s at least stay and see what kind of food they’re going to have.”

A few speeches are given. The Paraguayan national anthem is sung which everyone takes up heartily. The Star Spangled Banner follows and I feel like I should sing along or put my hand over my heart and bellow out the words because very few people are singing it. I settle for kind of sotto voce singing like my mom used to do in church, a kind of singing that shows that you agree with the general idea of what’s being sung but that perhaps you’d prefer to express your emotion a different way. My singing drops off entirely when the woman’s singing spirals up into the showy “land uh of the uh fre-eeeeeeEEEEeee and the hoooome ovtHe braaaaaaaave” portion.

At the end of the Ambassador’s speech everyone is set loose. The room resembles a model of molecules that are slowly being heated: a few people break away for the bathrooms or the buffet tables, but most stay within their orbit and try to gradually shift the others in their party in the direction they would like to go. When the chafer trays are opened there is very suddenly a strong smell that so closely resembles decay, I unconsciously shift my breathing to my mouth. Gina and I make rounds of the buffet tables. There are at least four large food tables and three dessert tables. One of the tables is dedicated to American Fourth of July Fodder. There are little bags of Lays, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, baked beans and two pyramids of White Castle-sized burgers. Looking at our national food that most of the attendees seem to be avoiding, I realize that the problem with many traditional American dishes is that you only want to eat them if your mother made them. Anyone else’s baked beans or macaroni and cheese looks suspicious to me. For some reason there’s white rice on the table. I pile a plate with the stuff and dump barbecue sauce all over it and then I take three of the little bags of chips and Gina and I go find a place to sit down at the edge of the party as is usually our wont.

While we were eating, I realized my mistake. The invitation had requested traje de calle. I had just assumed this meant street clothes since I’ve never hear of the bizarre street suit the invitation seemed to request. Now it was clear that traje de calle meant something like a casual suit. Luckily, one other brave attendee had sufficiently lowered my anxiety by sporting an un-tucked shirt with a checker pattern, jeans and sun glasses. In a room of suits, only he and I were truly memorable, perhaps not in the best way, but I had accepted the fact that I was not appropriately attired.
No one seemed to be getting too upset about it anyway.

For the rest of the reception, Gina and I moved among the buffet tables sampling black olives, stale pretzels, mints, little rolls and commenting on the other suspicious-looking items. The decay smell remained. I think it was emanating from something that looked like a fresh cheese station where a man in a white hat stood at the ready with a knife in his hand and a block of something unidentifiable before him. There was a coffee machine at the edge of a table that was covered with Kahlua, Drambuie and whiskey bottles. The espresso that the machine dispensed was the best I’d had since coming here and I had three cups, returning to the man operating machine each time with renewed loquacity for a discussion on the merits of the coffee. When I met some people I knew, I gestured to my cup, sloshing around its contents, all but begging them to try it. They probably thought I was drunk.

We left after about an hour and a half, but it felt like it had been much longer. The Ambassador was near the exit, shaking hands and having his picture taken. I considered going over. “Go over and say ‘hi’ to him,” Gina nudged me in the direction of the Ambassador. “I probably shouldn’t,” I said backing away. “I’m not really dressed for it.”

When we got home, I changed out of my button-up shirt and went out skating. At the rush hour, it was hard to find an open parking lot anywhere. The streets were clogged with cars and I went tearing through them, like they were slaloms. I skated through a few gas station parking lots and bombed down a hill past a parade of red taillights.


Yesterday, I had a day off for the Fourth. I work in a bi-national center, so the Fourth of July is considered a holiday, as are Paraguayan holidays. It’s not quite as good as life at the Embassy where I think they consistently get both Paraguayan and American holidays off; we didn’t get Labor Day off and I don’t think we’ll get a break for Memorial Day either.

I went over to the Real Supermarket to buy barbecue sauce; it’s like some kind of expat tradition to go looking for this stuff on the Fourth of July, only to eat copious amounts of it that day, declare it delicious beyond all expectation and then forsake it with all the other half-used bottles of condiments in your refrigerator.
I went to Real because they have an American aisle. I don’t think they call it that, but that’s what I’ve heard it referred to as. What the American aisle amounts to is about two entire shelves crammed with marshmallows, crammed like the way a sleeping bag is crammed into its sack, almost an entire shelf of cardboard tubes of Pringles The Works! TM , a bunch of condiments that aren’t difficult to find anywhere else, such as Heinz Ketchup, that take up about 3/5ths of the aisle and finally, a shelf of IGA-brand canned goods. The canned goods, which were mostly vegetables, were the most American thing I had seen since flying out of Detroit Metro and that’s saying a lot. American stuff is not difficult to find here. Coca Cola is ubiquitous, there are McDonald’s on the main streets of most principle cities, Burger King and Pizza Hut, too. The Simpsons are everywhere, mostly advertising the Paraguayan equivalent of a liquor store and every so often, you see one of those HUGE pickup trucks here, the ones with some kind of corrugated plastic bed-lining and exhaust pipes draped along the thing like some kind of ridiculous trim, four wheels in the back: the types of trucks that usually have huge American flags billowing out behind them, like some kind of red, white and blue bridal veil, now unchastely thrown back and flapping in the wind. Even in the midst of all these reminders of home, the stark can of “Irish” potatoes was too much for me. Seeing it was like seeing an old friend, but then remembering that he owes you money. There’s a limit to the amount of Americanness you want to be able to access in a different country. It’s nice to leave some things behind and really let yourself miss them for a while.

I stood in the aisle for a while, a bottle of barbecue sauce in hand, artificial maple syrup in the other. There are countries, many of them, were either of these items would be impossible to come by. I have lived in one of them. While these countries may have a dearth of American products, they also have a dearth of Americans. Few people, even in the capital, have ever met an American. Every few days there is an old Jean Claude Van Damme movie on TV, dubbed in Russian; that’s all they know of America. As a result, these people are curious. They have heard reports, all conflicting, about America, they want to talk to you. They invite you in and you find the stage set for an ideal cultural exchange: a memory you will both retain for years to come.

Here, and I would argue, all of Latin America, there is cultural proximity to America. The people are familiar with the blockbuster films and the fast food of America. In the malls, they sell our expensive clothing brands and people use American-created social media websites. The youth skateboard and in the clubs, they dance and fall in love to American music. Most people seem to accept this and while there might not be any hostility exhibited toward the United States of America, there is very little interest in it. Italy, its fashion, its Tower of Pisa, its similar, but seldom heard language is interesting, small glimpses of Chinese culture caught in the municipal market are interesting. Anyone interested in going to America wants to go for the cosmopolitan experiences of Disney World or NYC; when I start talking about Oregon and temperate rain forests, I can see, I’ve lost their attention. Most people feel that through the combined efforts of McDonald’s, Ice Age 2, Coca Cola and Nike they already know most of what there is to know about America.

I don’t blame them. The prominence of Mexican culture in many places in the US has done the same thing for me. I enjoy the food, music and celebrations of Mexico at home, so, although I like the culture, I’ve never really felt a burning desire to go there. There’s a feeling that it’s not going anywhere; that I’ll always be able to swing across the border. Likewise, I feel like I know the place, even though I’ve never been there. I hear about it in the news, I’ve worked with Mexicans and had discussions about the different places in the country. I recognize that I know nothing about Mexico; I’ve never been there, therefore I couldn’t really know much about it, however, it cannot have the same spell-binding effect that say, Mongolia or Ethiopia does. When I meet Mexicans, I enjoy talking to them, but I am certainly more loquacious when meeting Yemenis or Azerbaijanis; I am more eager to hear their stories.

It’s the same thing here, in fact sometimes due to the aggressive marketing campaigns of American companies. I think it might be a little worse. I have met quite a few people here that hear my accent and ask my where I’m from. When I tell them, I’ve seen any flicker of interest just fall right off their faces. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell, if many people are just naturally laconic or if they’re just being especially terse with you because you are American.

Before going to the Real Supermarket, I had stopped at the bank to cash my checks. I had to show my passport and I couldn’t help but to notice that the teller acted very curtly. I couldn’t tell if it was my nationality or just the way he was. When he gave me my money, I looked right into his eyes and thanked him; he said nothing but turned away and began to talk to another clerk, done with me and seemingly glad to be rid of me.

In the Real Supermarket, with my bottle of barbecue sauce, I looked around at the American products and wondered if in fact they were the source of the bank teller’s ire. It couldn’t have been me. I hadn’t said anything to him. I tried to imagine what I could’ve done differently to make him acknowledge my thanks instead of turning away.
After I paid for my purchases, I went over to the store’s bag check to pick up my backpack that I can’t bring into the store. The guy working at the bag check was a kid with Down’s Syndrome. Like most people I have met with Down’s, he was garrulous and friendly far beyond the ability of most people. He took the bags of the customers, wished them a good day and genuinely meant it.

When I approached, he was wrapping a gift for a tight-lipped woman perhaps in her early sixties. I waited for him to finish and watched his exchange with the woman. He wrapped her gift with care, but he was not a professional: the paper was a bit wrinkled and the tape on the ends, excessive. As he worked, he talked with the woman. He smiled when he talked, like he was happy for her company. She said nothing, only occasionally reaching out her hand to hold down the package so that he could tape it better. The look on her face was one of annoyance, one of a person that feels herself to be surrounded by dolts. In the middle of applying a piece of tape, the attendant was suddenly racked with a fit of coughing. He turned away to cough. When he had sufficiently cleared his throat, he turned back to the woman and explained that he had been ill lately and smiled. To this the woman said nothing. Her expression didn’t even register that someone had spoken to her. Her package was finished and she took it without another word. No ‘thanks,’ no ‘feel better,’ not even a ‘good bye.’ She just turned and walked out. Watching her go, I thought of all the things I could assume about her biases, perhaps she loathed people of menial employ, perhaps she was a germophobe and was terrified that the attendant would get her sick or perhaps she disliked disability or didn’t understand it. Getting my bag and walking out of the store I realized that she was probably just a jerk and that the teller at the bank that refused to look at me or acknowledge my thanks, had probably been a jerk, too; nationality, barbecue sauce and disability had nothing to do with it.

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