About a month ago, we were on a train back from a weekend in the country. At a one horse town in the mountains, a party of about sixteen kids, parents and grandparents climbed aboard, laughing and toasting each other as if they were still at the wedding. As it turned out, they had just been to an alpine family reunion.
One of the couples and two of the kids settled into the seats next to us, and immediately honed in on Adinah. The parents probably figured their ride would go faster if they could distract their kid with ours. Anette was happy to see them for the same reason, and Adinah, as she does these days, just stared at the other kids--fascinated--then eventually started to draw and color with them. I was a little more suspicious, especially when a couple of the adults pulled out their cameras and cel phones to snap pictures of their kids playing with Adinah (Was she the first black kid they'd ever played with?) But Anette began chatting about Austrian public kindergarten with them, so I figured they were alright.
One of the moms, a skinny blonde with sunglasses whom we'll call Hollywood, sat next to me, speaking German with Anette initially, then striking up a conversation with me in pretty good English. Hollywood wanted to talk about America. Eventually she called out to someone, and then told me she wanted to introduce the American husband of one of their friends. I thought, 'Okay, here we go.' Introductions like this are usually based on the notion that Americans have something in common with each other, some sorta secret handshake that we do, a wink or a Budweiser beer hug that we will exchange as the Europeans stand back and observe.
Up ambles this twenty-something kid--Mike, maybe--taller than me and half my age. We go through the opening lines of the script--Where you from? What are you doing over here? How long till you go back to the US? Well, Mike's in the Army, stationed in Italy, and he's got another week in Europe before he goes back to Afghanistan. Oh.
"What's it like over there?" I ask.
"It's pretty crazy, and it's getting worse," Mike says. "The Taliban are learning from the insurgents in Iraq."
We chatted for a second more, and not just about the war, then he went back to his seat. Mike seemed perfectly poised between dazed and skeptical. I would have asked more about Afghanistan, but I didn't want to lock him into that sort of a heavy conversation, and he didn't exactly offer to go there.
Half an hour later, we said goodbye to them, and as they walked away, Anette told me that Hollywood and the rest of their party had been taking bets that Mike and I wouldn't be able to talk about the war. Apparently he had enlisted because he's a solid Bush man, and his friends, no doubt baffled by Mike, had taken one look at me and decided I was his opposite number--some sorta rumpled brainiac anti-war dude.
"Well, I didn't ask him more about the war," I started, as evenly as can be, "because I wanted to respect his right to not get into the whole thing."
"So they were right--you couldn't talk about it," Anette said, with a smirk.
It bugged me for a few days. It's bad enough when people think they know who you are just because of the way you walk. But it's worse when people here get something about Americans right for the wrong reasons. Even if I had known he was a Bush Republican, I would have still liked to have talked to Mike a lot more about what's going on over there, because the guy has seen it, and he is, after all, for whatever reason, putting his life on the line for something he believes in. But I didn't want to pry.
Part of me thinks that it's only Americans and Afghans that can really talk about what sort of hell is happening there right now. The US may or may not have fucked it up worse than it already was on September 10th, and the Afghans really need to be heard, but European opinion isn't even part of the equation. It's only part of a safe, distant conversation.
I guess the thing that gets me is that, despite all of our good friends and family here, I still get reminded, and not infrequently, that lots of them don't know what it's like to be me, American me.