The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

So there I was in Dulles airport, at the back of this huge line waiting to go through passport control and then US customs, dog-tired, bleary, and leading a half-naked kid by the hand.

See, things had gotten a little bumpy on final approach, and just before the wheels hit the tarmac Boog leaned over and yackbacked muesli (we were on Lufthansa) and orange juice all over the aisle, his seat, and his clothes. Although we carried enough supplies in our carryon baggage for almost any eventuality, those eventualities did not include the necessity of a complete change of clothing. So we had little choice but to peel off Boog's yack-sodden clothes, stuff them into a plastic bag that came from an airline blanket, and parade him through the terminal like a little Mowgli in Spiderman sandals, yanked from the Indian jungle and plopped into the more-forbidding, more-treacherous jungle of Dulles Customs.

And everybody was so nice.

The TSA guy keeping the lines in order took time out from his spiel to joke with Boog and kootchie-koo with Tater. The customs guy stamping passports gave us a ribbing for bringing in olive oil from France ("France? You got to go to Italy. Buy it from an old person, an old Italian grandma. The young folks'll rip you off.") and his partner hurried us on through so we could get our bags and get some clothes for Boog. ("And welcome home.") Everyone was so friendly that it appeared as if an internal memo had gone around mandating that all employees laugh and joke with travellers to put them at ease and keep them from grumbling in the long lines.

It wasn't until later, until after we'd landed in Charlotte, found a missing suitcase, picked up our rental car, and gotten on our way, that we realized that everyone was friendly here. I suppose I had forgotten that, or had never had the contrast with France revealed to me as plainly. In France, people will be polite and formal, and may even be helpful if you speak French, but will rarely deviate from the script that delineates how certain interactions will take place.

I'm often asked how the French differ from Americans, and there it is: The French would rather be percieved as cool, intelligent and sophisticated, while Americans--and I'm making very broad generalizations here in both cases--would prefer to be seen as good people (in the Southern sense: "She's good people."). To go from one culture rapidly to the other can be disorienting, but for us it was a pleasant surprise, and it seemed to bode well for our vacation at home.

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