When the guy across from me on the Hertz bus to LAX starts speaking into his phone in French, my heart picks up into rapid fire pulses—a physiological reaction to the emotional residue from my semester in Paris thirty years ago. I can tell he’s a native Parisian speaker, sending kisses to his son.
“J’t’embrasse,” he says, as if it’s a single word, unified, all slippery and soft around the edges. He could’ve said anything, and still the phonetics would have glided like a smooth Cabernet. But the beauty of the language is incongruous with my bitterness, putrid as a stinky French cheese.
I’d planned to immerse myself in French culture when I lived in Paris, but the Parisians wouldn’t have it. One glance at my jean jacket led them to conclude they knew everything about me, so they’d turn away, without even acknowledging my presence. All they saw was the image in their mind of an ugly American, and they made all sorts of assumptions: that I was loud, parochial, uneducated and lacking in any class or sophistication.
I’d studied French for nine years, but when I tried to strike up conversation, they pretended they didn’t understand. When I smiled, they pursed their lips. In my quest for an authentic experience, I went so far as to take Probability and Statistics, in French, at the Université de Paris. The students chain-smoked in the back of the auditorium, chatting and giggling amongst themselves during the entire lecture. They moved in their smoky cliques and never once thought to approach the one kid sitting alone in class. I asked for a pen, or offered gum, but they dismissed me. I was shut out.
On the Metro, people stared blankly without engaging. Even the old lady who was renting me a room in her apartment never chatted, never once asked me a question or offered to make an introduction. My dreams of kissing a French man on the Champs-Elysée turned to my reality of dinner alone in the old lady’s unheated spare bedroom overlooking a stone courtyard. Springtime in Paris was all rain. The days were dark, cold and wet. I never reached out to the Americans in my program, because that was the easy way out. I already had a tight-knit group of friends in college, and I had left that American experience in search of something new and different. Something French. I could’ve been fluent by the end of my stay, but instead I was isolated and lonely. Invisible.
So, on the Hertz bus, memories flooding, I look this guy over. He’s slightly unshaven and wearing jeans, not as put together as I might’ve expected for a Frenchman, but his accent betrays him. When he looks back, I don’t smile, because the Parisians were never generous enough to offer me this simple gesture—the acknowledgment that yeah, we’re all human, we’re in this crazy thing together. They never gave me a chance to prove I was different than the preconceptions in their minds. Instead of such warmth, I was offered, at best, cold indifference, and at worst, open hostility for having been born American. Who knows what our politicians were doing at that time, but it was definitely all my fault.
Maybe the people outside of Paris would’ve been nicer—or so I’m told—but my semester was in the city. I can’t erase my conclusions about the French, because they’re based on my direct, personal experience. These are facts, not preconceptions. I’m justified in my reactions because I have knowledge. My feelings are real and run deep, having gouged their way into my psyche every day during the saddest, loneliest four months of my life. I was living as an outsider, looking through the window, knocking on it, and nobody even glanced my way.
The guy on the bus finally puts his phone away, and starts speaking with his friend sitting beside me, only now it’s not French. My nearly instantaneous recognition of Hebrew fills me with pride for my musician’s ear, and I listen closely to the sounds which mean nothing to me other than the lyrical babble of a magical place. I listen intently, as though I might understand if I try really, really hard. I recognize “hadash,” which I’ve heard in a song, but that’s about it. I wish I could tell if they have a French accent in Hebrew. I wonder if they live in Paris or Tel Aviv, and what line of work they’re in. Suddenly I’m curious to spark a conversation, and wish I had offered up a smile—even a fake one at that.
When the guy and his friend stand up, a yamaka on the head of the friend becomes visible, which makes me lose my breath, then swallow to make the sinking feeling in my stomach disappear. What if they thought I was giving them a cold look because they thought I’d seen the yamaka earlier? Maybe they think I’m anti-Semitic. Anxiety, guilt and the frustration of being misunderstood override all my self-pity from just a moment ago. I try to smile at them, but they’re chattering.
They must think I hate Jews, or Israel, but it’s the opposite: Israel is one of my favorite places on earth. Israel had never been on my bucket list, but I’d taken an opportunity to visit there one quiet spring when I was invited to join a trade delegation. What a surprise! I felt an instantaneous connection to the country: the sun and heat, informality, the arts, soulfulness and that overriding aggressive drive. The culture reflected a combination of my own seemingly opposing character traits: my Greek love of music and sleeping on the beach, along with my American business ambition. Genetic testing says I’m just 0.3% Middle Eastern, but those genes are potent. I loved how strangers in a café asked rapid-fire questions like it was the Inquisition. They wanted to know all the nuance: So you were born in Boston, but your parents are from Greece? Where in Greece? Do you speak Greek? The questions were endless; it’s their way of understanding and relating.
I only knew one word of Hebrew: toda (thank you), which I loved saying, because it sounded to me like “Tada!” I used this word often in Israel, and sometimes people would continue the conversation, as if I spoke Hebrew. When I told them I was not Israeli—not even Jewish—they were even more thrilled. They wanted to know why I was there, and they were eager to tell me what I should see during my visit. I was let in. I got the insider’s view, joining banter between locals. I found warmth and kinship—a deep sense of humanity. Although I’m of Greek heritage, I had a strange experience of feeling that I’d found my people.
Ever since that trip, whenever I hear the Israeli “r,” no matter what the situation—in a store, at a business meeting, or whatever—I whip my head around to strike up conversation and connect, like I’ve just found a long-lost friend. And the amazing thing is, I get it all right back. After momentary surprise, and curious to understand why I show such goodwill, the Israeli stranger is ready to engage, like we really are linked in some way.
I want to explain all this to these strangers on the bus, who think I’m a low-life bigot, and I try to remember what sort of a face I gave the guy—was it disinterest or disdain? My jaw clenches as I try to think of words to explain my acceptance of all people. I reject the distinctions that divide us, and pride myself on seeing both sides: the complete picture, not just the façade of positions. I can reject something a person has just said and still consider what they have to say next. Or allow for the possibility that they are looking at something differently. I can respect someone I don’t like, and accept that they might do good, even while they also do bad. Someone whose opinion differs from mine might in fact be intelligent, thoughtful and worthy.
My drive to a different viewpoint, beyond the surface, is the reason I love speaking foreign languages. When I’m in Greece, I revert to Greek. When I’m in Italy, I speak Italian. It’s not just about the appreciation of the locals for my efforts, although they really are grateful. They see it as a reaching out, and an attempt to forge the divide. More than all that, however, my speaking in their language allows them to communicate with me on a deeper level. What you learn from a taxi driver in his own language is something you can’t learn from a newspaper. I wish I could explain this, in Hebrew, to these guys on the bus, but all I have is “Tada!”
I’m torn apart by what’s happening in the United States, because both sides have something to say, but nobody’s listening. If you’re under the illusion that you’re open-minded, try this little experiment: listen to someone on the “other” side of Trump, whichever side that is, and check how many words you hear before you decide they’re part of the fools’ conspiracy and write them off. Regardless of who’s to blame for this situation, I can’t help feeling disappointed in seeing people on both sides comfortably expose their bias and unfairness. Both sides ignore the relevance of any evidence that supports an alternative position. It’s all or nothing, simple as that. Both sides are willing to live with half the truth, on the basis that one fact trumps all others. And so we become more and more polarized.
In fact, when I was preparing to send out this essay, I had no idea where to send it, because the media has scattered to the edges. If liberals listen to only left-wing media, and conservatives listen only to right-wing media, then we’ll never get the information and perspective we need to find some common ground. Without open dialogue, we’ll never be forced to argue our position to a real counterparty, who might challenge our assumptions and catch us with bias and unsubstantiated claims. We’ll have no chance to be educated and elevated by each other. We all lose.
Having been profiled, albeit in mild form relative to much more destructive discrimination, I’m bitter about its impact. Still, I can’t deny the practical necessity of reaching conclusions with inadequate information. We humans do this a million times every day, and we couldn’t survive without this capability. When I got lost as a child, I didn’t ask for help from the man in dirty clothes lying on a park bench with a bottle in his hand; I asked for help from the middle-aged woman in a dress with two kids in tow. Was that street-smart or morally reprehensible? Was that good judgment or profiling? Would you advise your child to do otherwise?
Our ability to see patterns, to categorize, and to infer generalities from the specific, is at the core of our human intelligence. What’s lost in that, however, is that even while general conclusions may sometimes apply to the majority, they don’t apply to all. Maybe most Americans are loud and obnoxious, by French standards, but that doesn’t mean that I am loud and obnoxious. Extending that argument further, maybe this view of Americans is not shared by all the French. I, as a victim of mild discrimination, was discriminating back against all French, judging them with broad strokes just as they had judged me.
What would happen if I reacted to everyone—even the French—the way I do when I hear the Israeli accent? While I’m normally quiet and keep to myself, what if instead I smiled and engaged random strangers in conversation? My observations of people would almost certainly be impacted by my own behavior.
When the men stand up to get off the bus, I’m pulsing with the need to justify my initial reaction, and explain that they’ve completely misunderstood me. If only I could speak to them in Hebrew, but I’m running out of time to say anything at all. I want them to know I’m not the kind of person who treats people the way I was treated in France, spotting an identity—an ethnic caricature—and reaching all sorts of conclusions without any information about the specifics. As they walk off and away, I want to scream out the bus window so they’ll know and understand: I’m not like that. Really, I’m not!
Or am I?