Traveling With Stereotypes

Moscow News
July 26, 2000

        At the peak of the tourist season, let me share a somewhat personal story with an intercultural flavor. 
        Recently, an American friend of mine joined the ranks of e-business millionaires. To complete the scenario of an all-American dream, Tom decided to tie the knot with his girlfriend Nancy and to celebrate the occasion in Paris. With generosity that befits the very rich, he rounded up several of his friends and provided first-class transportation and three nights of boarding in the City of Lights in exchange for their presence at his wedding. To all of us, the chosen friends, this exchange seemed more than fair. On a designated day, we met at the JFK air-port in New York. Making my way through the crowd, comprised of inevitably crying children and fighting spouses, I spotted Tom and Nancy at the Air France counter. They looked like they always did: slightly tired, each carrying a portable PC – a perfect fit for a high-tech couple’s stereotype. Nothing in their demeanor betrayed acquired capital. In fact, as I approached them, I felt that, perhaps, I had overdone it – a black pantsuit with matching luggage made me look like a throwback to the yuppie 1980s. Next to Tom and Nancy, clad in shorts and T-shirts, I looked like a Republican candidate for the Senate. Having been born and raised in the ex-Soviet Union, I was the only non-Yankee among their friends, and they must have dismissed my fashion oversight as a “cultural thing.” 
         And, indeed, it was: Most Americans, when they travel, like to do so with minimal formality. This makes it very easy to tell them from, say, Europeans who wouldn’t be seen dead in snickers and T-shirts outside a gym. After exchanging pleasantries, it was time to board the plane. Nancy announced that she had made seat-ing arrangements for the flight and that I was assigned to sit next to her. “But wouldn’t you rather sit next to Tom?” I asked bating my breath and hoping for a clean getaway. I had brought along an Oscar Wilde reader for the flight. I feared that an eight-hour-long conversation with Nancy would not be more entertaining. But she remained defiant: “We need todiscuss the wedding specifics. I want to make it a once-in-a-lifetime occasion,” she snapped. Bidding mental farewell to Os-car’s wit, I exhaled compliance. As we flew over the Atlantic, Nancy, following the rules of successful management, proceeded to lay out a three-day plan. 
         On the day of arrival, all the women involved were to comb Paris boutiques for bridesmaid dresses. “ I envision lilac,” she muttered dreamily. I nodded and gulped down a miniature bottle of Hennesey, hoping it would wash away the despair. Shopping was never a favorite pastime with me. Wasting a whole day in Paris on tasteless taffeta dresses seemed criminal.
         The second day was the wedding day. And the third would be what Nancy referred to as “the personal day.” This last tidbit filled me with hope and I applauded her generosity. But it was too soon. Inebriated by bottled water, which she consumed with the thirst of a Bedouin, Nancy requested that I prepare a rhymed speech for the wedding. “You’re a poet. It should be a piece of cake!” she assured me. “But keep in mind that I am a radical ultra-left feminist,” she warned and went into a diatribe on injustices suffered by women. As she spoke, I decided that my wedding poem would consist of a single word to the groom: “Run!” 
        By the time we arrived in Paris, I was torn between the desire to improve the world and the desire to hide from my stereotypical hosts and enjoy it. The French, alas, did not stray too far from expected stereotypes either.
 As we emerged from a taxi in front of the George V hotel, we were met by a condescending concierge. With an ironic glance reminiscent of Voltaire, he asked: “You are the Americans, no?” “ Yes,” I admitted and blushed as he made a grimace which made his distaste obvious. “It was not too difficult to guess,” said the front desk clerk as he eyed Nancy’s marathon shoes. “I am really from Russia,” I whispered to the bellman. The hotel crew gave me an appreciative glance and escorted me toward a group of people sitting in the lounge. My friends remained oblivious to Continental disdain.
They had better things to do: check their rising stocks, for example. As we approached the group, I heard the painfully familiar Russian swearwords and asked a stupid question: “Russians?” “Russian businessmen,” the bellman corrected me. I thought I’d had enough of stereotypes for one day but fate, apparently, decided otherwise. Dressed in Armani suits, the men were decorated by cell-phones and tall, silent blondes. Judging by the evening-wear that the blondes sported at 1 pm, the Russian businessmen spent their money lavishly: It would have taken a fortune to upholster these women.
         Next thing I remember, I was riding along Champs Elysees at the speed of light surrounded by the New Russian reality. As soon as one of the men mentioned plutonium reserves as his source of capital, I suggested that we go to the Louvre. “What for?” he asked. “It’s not for sale.”
        The following day, as I listened to the altered wedding vows which Tom and Nancy exchanged, I felt like a stuffed turkey in my taffeta dress. Instead of “honor and obey,” they promised to “cooperate and contribute,” but it still smelled of hopelessness. On the third day, I, finally, went to the Louvre. I found myself in front of the Mona Lisa and froze in horror. It was not the Italian master that plunged me into immobility: A bunch of Japanese tourists, dressed in identical suits and ties, were chirping and positioning themselves around the sad-eyed Gioconda. They were posing for photographs.

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