In August, 2007, I returned to New Orleans after living away for some 40 years. I spent most of that time in New York and Paris, where I was a writer and correspondent for TIME Magazine. Upon returning to my hometown, I jotted down some notes about my impressions of what I found here—some things familiar, some new, some strange. Some readers (if I have readers) may find these observations interesting, or at least amusing, so I offer them up here in periodic installments. This is Part 1:
One 19th century French traveler noted in his journal that Americans were remarkable for three things: their peculiar habit of drinking ice water with their meals, their tendency to put their boots up on any horizontal surface that presented itself, and an unfortunate propensity for “blowing their noses in public without the intervention of a handkerchief.”
When I read that account, some 30 years ago, the first two observations seemed accurate but unremarkable. Why shouldn’t we drink ice water and put our feet up if it made us feel better? The nose-blowing thing seemed a bit gauche, but I figured this traveler had probably hung around the wrong taverns and train stations.
But as the years passed, and I became more accustomed to the French culture, certain things about America that had always seemed perfectly normal to me began to seem strange. Ice water? The French don’t drink it because they think it interferes with digestion—and we all know how important digestion is to the French. Foot propping? They consider it the height of rudeness. The first time I did it on the Metro as a visiting student, I was almost put off the train. I eventually came to consider it rude myself, just as I learned to prefer wine to ice water at the dinner table, and to drink my coffee after my meal, not along with it as Americans tend to do.
Lest anyone accuse me of going native, I should point out that I continued to barbecue hamburgers, root for the Saints, make red beans and rice, and play New Orleans jazz all the years I lived in France. I remained a red-blooded American and proud of it. But the point is that when you have lived away long enough, like Halley’s comet, orbiting to the far end of the universe and back, things that once seemed familiar on the home planet can appear odd, even bizarre.
That is what I have experienced since returning to my home town of New Orleans. I am not exactly like Rip Van Winkle, who slept for 20 years and woke to find everything changed around him. Nor am I like some anthropologist who arrives from the outside to study some lost tribe of Brazilian Indians. I am more like a member of the tribe who traveled to other lands and learned other ways, then returned to look at his own people through different eyes.
Stay tuned for Part 2…
© 2010 by Thomas A. Sancton