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Friday, July 26, 2013

The World Ends in Las Vegas

Las Vegas surprised me. I'd never thought it would hold any appeal to me as a travel destination, since gambling holds no appeal. Twenty years ago I was in Monaco and avoided the Monte Carlo casino; if I'd  wanted to throw money away while watching naked women, I could get undressed in front of a mirror and pitch my francs out the window. I've since placed a few bets, in various contexts, and it's left me stone cold. In Las Vegas, what else is there to do?

On this particular trip, in May 2011, someone had put up billboards in the United States announcing the end of the world. Like so many things about the U.S., this is hard to explain. It's partly that there are so many people some of them are bound to be taken in by almost anything, and partly the almost limitless space that can be put to advertising use. This combination makes for regular panics about the end of the world. It also, of course, explains Las Vegas.

I didn't convert to gambling but I enjoyed walking down the Strip, hanging out watching T. throw her money away play, and getting the odd free drink (though this didn't happen nearly often enough). I also enjoyed things I didn't expect to, such as people smoking indoors in Nevada, even cigars. I wouldn't ordinarily enjoy smoke anywhere, but being back in an environment where people were free to do so made me somewhat nostalgic.

Freedom, in fact, was the word that came to mind. Freedom to gamble and whore and "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas," of course, but more than that, a relaxed attitude that really refreshed me. In trying to figure out why, I realized how debased a word freedom had become since 2000, which happens to be the last year I lived in America. Freedom became associated with the pretty much non-stop war footing the country has been on in the past twelve years. "Freedom" is why we put up with naked-body scanners and our e-mails being read, kill citizens with drones, force-feed prisoners and throw away the key, as well as the thousand little indignities of travel that have been the legacy of the Bush administration (and which Obama has, in too many cases, enhanced or continued). Whatever freedom is, it sure isn't much fun anymore.

By contrast, Las Vegas is all about fun. Apart from the odd ghastly-looking zombie who's been up all night hitting the same slot machine, everybody I see there always seems relaxed. "Good luck!" is the standard greeting, even from other visitors. Ever since I first emigrated, I've been struck on my return trips to the States by how much more people talk to you there, how they smile and say "Have a nice day!"; what seemed like insincere customer-service speak before is a nice change now that I don't get it in my day-to-day life. If America in general feels like this, Las Vegas is America to the extreme.

I cannot know how different the U.S.A. really is from how it was in the twentieth century, when I still lived there. But others' observations have strengthened my suspicion that the country I grew up in is gone. It was open, friendly, trusting (some would say naïve) in a way that it hasn't been since September 11. I don't remember seeing military everywhere I traveled in America, or the low-level anxiety. We knew that there were terrorists, of course, but mostly, growing up, I assumed that foreigners just wanted to come and live in America, not blow it up.

Las Vegas still feels like that to me. People from all over the world, even Europe, come to gaze at the fake Eiffel Tower and pyramids. There are bargains to get to Las Vegas, because they want everyone to spend money in the casinos themselves, and so travelers are its lifeblood, not feared or hated. Vegas is gaudy, unapologetic, fifty years behind the times--in the sense of a time when America was booming, its self-perception unshaken. The irony is that Vegas sits in a desert so godforsaken it was used for above-ground nuclear tests, weapons of mass destruction that were designed for foreign enemies, but killed and scarred generations of Americans instead. With this decades-old backdrop of terror, maybe Vegas is just the city of nothing to lose.

So, three o'clock in the afternoon Vegas time (not that there are any clocks) the world was going to end. I'd forgotten all about this, because shortly before the time, we were enjoying a pool party the like of which I'd never experienced when I actually was a young woman. So I was living it up in the pool, surrounded by people holding bottles of beer, when the d.j. announced "End of the world drinks, two for the price of one!" I didn't know what he was talking about. I swam away from the bar.

When the hour had passed, the d.j. told us the world hadn't ended after all. This being Vegas, everyone cheered and bought drinks anyway. T. was a little miffed when I got back to our deck chairs. "I can't believe the world was going to end and you went swimming and left me here alone!"

But that's Las Vegas. Carefree. Believe me, if I am around for the end of the world, a pool with a bar is exactly where I want to be.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

First world problems: Introducing Bob and Paddington

After the euphoria of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling (see below), reality must be setting in for a lot of couples. Here in London, for example, there are many binational couples--one partner from the U.S.A., the other British or from a third country. We have made our homes outside the U.S.; we have lives here. Some of the Americans, though, must always have been waiting to go "home," and will be making plans to take their partners with them.

This is not very romantic (and devil's-advocate) of me, but I imagine not every non-U.S. partner is thrilled about this. Immigration in Western industrialized nations always seems based on the premise that everyone on earth would like to live there. So at the U.S. border, every foreigner is treated as a suspected immigrant, the more so if s/he is from the "global south" (i.e., not the industrialized West). And it seems assumed that all Americans with foreign partners are only living abroad, in "exile," because outdated U.S. law forced them to.

Were there not British (or Canadian or other "first world") partners who said over the years, "Sure, honey, I'd move to America with you, but I CAN'T"? Suppose this is the case for our hypothetical (male) couple: a U.S. citizen named Bob Caygeon, and his British partner, Paddington Bear (as in Bear with me). Is not Paddington saying silently to himself now, "Oh, sh*t. I didn't really mean it"?

Equality only means we now have all the same complications as opposite-sex binational couples. It does not solve the problem of where the jobs are, how far we live from our families, or what degree of cultural difference we are willing to put up with.

If Bob has gotten used to a healthcare system, or a low level of gun violence, or a generous allowance of vacation time, he may not be interested in moving to the U.S. now. If, on the other hand, he doesn't get to see his young (or old) family members often enough, or he's never really adapted to life overseas, he now has the job of convincing Paddington to make the same sacrifices that he has made all these years.

In a way, this is a nice problem to have. It means we are free and equal. It means we will have the same opportunities, and the same risks, as straight people who have fallen in love with someone from another country. We can visit the U.S. as a family and be ourselves at the border. It still doesn't mean we might not have a bad experience or someone who hassles our partner, but it won't be because they're the same sex--it will be because they are foreign.

And, importantly, it will depend on how foreign they are. Does Paddington, for example, look Peruvian, or was he born in Peru? Citizens of the global south, let us never forget, have a harder time doing pretty much everything. Even if they get the chance to travel, it must be hard to be looked at so often with suspicion, of trying to overstay a visa or commit a crime or heaven knows what.

"First world problems" are defined as problems from living in a wealthy, industrialized nation that "third worlders" would probably roll their eyes at. For those Americans, and our families, now debating which privileged country is best to live in, we are blessed to have such a first world problem.

There are over two hundred countries on earth, and most don't recognize same-sex partnerships at all, or even criminalize them. The change in U.S. law is a first world problem for some of us. For other families, it is lifesaving.

Paddington and Bob will appear in a future episode of The Discreet Traveler. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The irony has entered my soul

My bilingual evening in the pub was about half successful. On my right, most of our multinational party was gamely attempting to speak French. I find my confidence in another language takes a great leap when I'm in a pub rather than a classroom, so I was chatting away about my Fête du Canada experience in Trafalgar Square.

I was sampling a beer called Naked Ladies (not nearly as nice as it sounds) when the man and woman on my left began to engage me in English conversation. They understood enough French to take me for a Canadian, which I guess explains why they launched the following topic: how Americans don't get irony.

Where does this idea come from? I've heard it a lot on this particular sojourn in England, but I was never aware of this misconception when I lived in Oxford. Possibly because Oxford is full of sarcastic Americans speaking ironically all the time.

Everyone in my family, and most of my American friends, not only use irony and sarcasm, but have a difficult time not doing so. We of course do know people who don't "get" sarcasm. They are called stupid.

No, I'm just being sarcastic--see what I did there? But honestly, I was in a bind as to how to respond. If I "came out" as an American, and expressed any sort of annoyance at this patently false observation, I was only going to prove their point. Americans, the man said with confidence, take everything literally and therefore are offended. They don't know when someone is taking the p*ss. (NB: I never heard that expression before this round in England either--"to mock, tease, ridicule, or scoff"--but I certainly knew how to do it!)

So finally, I turned to them both and said, "Have you ever met my mother?"

Because my mom, and I mean this as the highest compliment, is the most ironic person I have ever heard. Her path, on which the rest of us are set for life, is to never say anything straight if there is any possible way to be sarcastic about it. We cannot even help it. Glimpses of this can be found in my fiction: "He's ugly" means "What a good-looking guy." "Brilliant" does not mean (as it does in England) "great, thanks," it means, "what a stupid thing to do." (Come to think of it, so does "Great, thanks.")

The guy said, "Why? Is your mother English?"

"No," I said, "she's American!"