“My Dad Was a Soldier Who Made You Free!”

Sesame Street: Charlie Looks for a Policeman

Linked to the My Global Life Link-Up at SmallPlanetStudio.com

A popular trend in social media is that of “Throwback Thursday,” when people post pictures of themselves surrounded by family on their wedding day, holding newborns who are now college students, or posing with high school friends. The story another language specialist told me the other day involves neither big hair nor arena rock, although I used to envy those young men whose hair was always bigger than mine. The only time I ever came close to “80s hair,” I needed so much gel and hair spray that I felt as if I had a plastic sculpture on my head.

The city where I acquired temporary big hair was also the scene of a traumatic experience for my coworker, who shares my passion for other languages. Let’s call her Charlotte. Like me, Charlotte takes it as a compliment when listeners cannot place her accent. Since her language of predilection is German, she has often been mistaken for Dutch or even Austrian. During my extended stay in Paris, France, I was at first asked if I was Spanish or Italian. Then as I gained further proficiency, people guessed Swiss or Belgian.

Most visitors to France have heard that the locals will not respond if they hear English. My sister globetrotter, who spoke no French, was one such visitor. Both she and I had grown up with the assumption that if we see a nice policeman in the street, we can ask him for directions. After all, there was that Sesame Street episode where the lost Charlie looks for a policeman to help him find his way home. The officer turns out to be his Uncle Louie, but Charlie does not recognize him with his uniform on. Off come the hat, the badge, and the jacket, and Charlie quips, “Now can you help me find a policeman?”

Imagine 20-year-old Charlotte lost in a strange city. When she sees a uniform, she thinks she will be guided to the train station. This particular French police officer was not nice. In plain English, he was a first-class jerk, and this is putting it mildly. Upon being addressed in German (which turned out to be an even worse choice than English) he became enraged. Not only did he shout, You filthy German [blank. . . fill in the blank with the worst conceivable insult]! but he then proceeded to spit on her. Poor Charlotte! So much for using another European language besides English to soften the blow, and so much for approachable cops. My culturally nomadic coworker had no idea that hatred of the Germans was still so strong. And idealistic Sesame Street episode or not, I was dumbfounded by such an aggressive reaction on the part of a law enforcement officer.

Had she not been sobbing so hard, Charlotte the young girl lost in Paris might have told the officer, “My dad was a soldier who made you free!”

More Random Acts of Cultural Kindness

la vie en rose

Movie Poster, La Vie en Rose
Source: Urban Times

Like food, movies can be a way to catch a glimpse into another culture. One spring evening in 2008, I was called upon to introduce La Vie en Rose starring Marion Cotillard as the street songstress whose rise to fame earned her the nickname “Le Petit Moineau” (the Little Sparrow). A student helped me make a brief PowerPoint and I even sang a few bars of the title song.

This was not so “random,” since the screening was part of the foreign film week at one of the area colleges. It never occurred to me to ask people to turn off their electronic devices, even though such warnings have been issued at concerts at the Eastman Theatre and even Sacred Heart Cathedral, my home parish where such formal Diocesan celebrations as the Rite of Election (induction of new Catholics) are held. I thought they would have enough common sense to refrain from sending text messages while the movie was being shown.

It was pitch dark, except for the faint light emanating from the screen. By the time I realized what was happening, voices were being raised. “Put that away!” came the strident tones of a woman who sounded as if she were in her 50s. “We’re watching the movie.” Apparently, the young man behind her had taken out his handheld device and was texting. The angry reply I heard was his, although I could not understand a word. From across the room, a third voice belonging to another young man entered the melee: “Hey, stop acting ghetto!”

I was terrified beyond words. What if the verbal fray turned into a fistfight? The offender got up and stormed out. Fortunately, he never returned.

A news story from earlier this year involving a man shot dead for texting in a Florida movie theater reminded me of that unfortunate incident. The full account can be found here: http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/13/justice/florida-movie-theater-shooting/

It never crossed my mind that someone could bring a firearm to a movie theater, let alone shoot another person for texting. That night at the French movie screening, I was only worried about a possible exchange of blows.

This incident prompted what I thought would be my permanent departure from that particular college once I finished the semester. I did attempt to return a year later, only to be asked by a student with a criminal background whether or not I had spiked the orange juice. My feeble attempt to enliven the atmosphere of a morning class with the abovementioned beverage and croissants failed miserably.

Obviously, he had never experienced random acts of cultural kindness. This was when I left for good.

Random Acts of Cultural Kindness

“Puzzled Look Businessman” from http://quoteko.com

Many bloggers have a certain day on which to post a specific type of content, such as Multicultural Mondays and Wordless Wednesdays. While I cannot promise that every Monday will be a Multicultural one, I have been thinking about Independence Days past and how celebrations sometimes do not cross cultures.

In language classes, I would like to think there is a cultural component, however small, and it usually involves food. When I was in my sophomore year of high school, my Italian teacher showed us how to make pesto sauce, and I was in charge of purchasing the olive oil. At an international holiday celebration that same year, my French teacher asked me if I would sing “Minuit, Chrétiens” (the original “O Holy Night”). There was a bûche de Noël (Yule log cake) along with other desserts like pizzelles (Italian waffle cookies). I was allowed to take two languages and I even borrowed a book to teach myself Spanish.

Of course, not everyone shared my passion for learning. Fast forward to 1999 and the takeover of a French company by a German firm. The disgruntled young men in my class asked me what the sense was of taking English since they had all been laid off. My reply was that they could leverage their mastery of English to find a better job. Who was I fooling? They grumbled: Why can’t the Germans just learn French?

I wonder what I was thinking the day I suggested that we create a festive atmosphere for the Fourth of July. After all, I celebrated the French National Holiday, otherwise known as Bastille Day, here at home. The two older men in the group tried to be good sports and brought in cheese and a baguette. The younger ones, however, had to be wet blankets. Of all things, they complained about the strong smell of their own country’s cheese (Brie or Camembert, I do not recall). Hadn’t they grown used to it by then? Halfway through the lesson I packed everything up and aborted the Independence Day debacle.

To the twentysomething killjoys, Independence Day was synonymous with the 1996 movie, whose trailer can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-S9nKByu5w

Why in the world would they make this strange association with a movie about aliens attacking the U.S.? Even more bewildering was my decision to initiate this celebration, when I was never overly patriotic to begin with. I would stand with my hand over my heart whenever the “Star-Spangled Banner” was sung and I enjoyed John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” with the famous piccolo solo (Listen to a quartet of soli piccolo players with the U.S. Marine band here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-7XWhyvIpE) Nonetheless, I was not an avid flag-waver; if anything, I felt like an outcast in my homeland.

Perhaps after twelve years abroad, my efforts to re-create the “home” I had come to idealize were clumsy at best and downright weird at worst. It was not multiculturalism yet but a disconcerting mishmash, in the words of one of my harshest critics.

My efforts to incorporate “café culture” into a French class in my hometown ten years later fared even worse. One of the students asked me if I had spiked the orange juice (?!) With a horrified look, I said, It’s only 8 a.m. What kind of a life do you lead if that’s the first thing on your mind?

After that, the troublemaker disappeared. Should I be surprised that he wound up in jail?

Leaving Kiddie Rides Behind

park policeman

Media credit: “Amusement Park Policeman”: http://media.liveauctiongroup.net

Even though the wife of my stepson’s closest friend is not even 30 years old yet, she is already much wiser than I ever hope to be. Like me, she was born and raised in the United States, and her husband is from the Dominican Republic. Not once has she ever spoken a word about the challenges of intercultural marriage, and I can understand why. With a seven-year-old child, a two-and-a-half-year-old, and the youngest who counts her age in months, this busy mother has bigger fish to fry.

At the beginning of the summer, she announced that her oldest daughter is now 48 inches tall (four feet, or 1m 22), which is the required height for her to graduate from the kiddie rides at Seabreeze, a local amusement park.

This is a milestone in a child’s life. I remember my disappointment at not being tall enough for the bumper cars. When the attendant told me, “You’re too short,” I heard, “You’re no good.” I only needed two more inches, but rules were rules. The following summer, I surpassed the height requirement by half an inch or so.

 Such rules existed for everyone’s safety. Once I had grown enough, I was able to go on a more exciting ride.
jack rabbit


The Jack Rabbit, my very first Seabreeze non-kiddie ride at day camp. I rode with two camp counselors.

Still, my pre-teen mind somehow produced a false equation: too short= “less than.”  

 Now I am struggling with a similar analogy that may or may not be true: silence=disapproval or worse, silence= prejudice. Ralph Ellison created a mythological cityscape in Invisible Man. I am part of an invisible couple in a town where too much lip service is paid to that infamous “d-word,” “diversity.” We are the non-entities. We are the gargantuan elephant in the room that no one wants to see, even if it is standing on everyone’s feet and crushing their toes.

 A comedian and blogger I follow, Alex Barnett, has had to field some outrageous questions (Why do you like black women?) and even more ridiculous comments (You mean to tell me your wife is a Negro?) He always has a snappy comeback: My wife has black skin, but yours has a black heart is how he handled the first shaking–my–head–inducing pearl of ignorance. As for the second howler, he exclaimed, What? You can’t say that anymore! It’s not 1960!

 More of Alex Barnett’s wisdom can be found here: http://www.alexbarnettcomic.com

Those who are so inclined can like his Facebook page as well: https://www.facebook.com/AlexBarnettComic

There are far better things to worry about than the approval of others, such as whether or not a second-grade child— biracial, bicultural or not— is tall enough to leave the kiddie rides behind.



A Taste of Soulfulness

A Taste of Soulfulness

This gospel-like hymn by David Haas can sound glorious with just a taste of soulfulness, as this rendition demonstrates. In my church, we sing it without the key change. Perhaps this is a wise move, since it is challenging enough in the lower key.

When “We Are Called” is led by a cantor rather than a choir, it is always a good idea to ask the people to join in singing the refrain. On the verses, young men really need to manage the register breaks, or else they can sound like Peter Brady in the days of his voice-changing drama. By young men, I mean those who are 20, not 12, and should know better. Mindless belting is what creates the Peter Brady effect.

Women of all ages also need to be careful. That E, the highest note in the piece, is right on my passaggio and my voice could crack as well if I don’t take it easy. The great Renée Fleming has advocated “soft passaggio singing” in choirs, and I try to apply this technique to guide my voice as a soloist as well.

Another deceptively simple piece is the Fauré “Pie Jesu,” which sits right in that tricky area. I used to cringe every time I saw a D or E and wait to feel that slight tension that meant a poor register transition. Good breath support and open vowels remedied the trouble I was having and kept me from sounding too thin or pinched.

On a contemporary hymn like “We Are Called,” the syncopated rhythms and powerful message speak for themselves. If anything, let the highest notes glide as tenderly as we are called to love.