I apologize, at some point my portion of this blog seems to have become Story Hour. I think it has something to do with the fact that the weather’s been decent for a three- or four-day stretch, so instead of mainlining Google News and watching CSI re-runs in my free time, I’m sitting on the back porch reading.
The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo is, yes, one of the “American woman in a foreign country” books that have sprung up all over since Under the Tuscan Sun became a giant hit (and I loved that book too, and the recipes are all brilliant, and shut up). And it’s got its weak points, mostly that if you’re going to publish your journal, somebody ought to excise the boring parts. But the one thing that did keep me reading was the sense, which Paula Huntley captures very well, of being flabbergasted at the kindness of strangers.
I’m always stunned by this when I travel, this willingness of people to just sort of help the clueless Yank out. It always shames me because I think of how America treats its foreigners, expats, newcomers, even tourists, and wonder if any of them go home and write books about how they visited a small town in Illinois and the people there made them a home and a family. We seem to operate on a kind of “speak English, motherfucker” and “object of charity should earn that charity” system these days, and though I know many people who are warm and kind even to strangers, I don’t know many who’d start out offering somebody directions and end up bringing the stranger home for dinner.
I’m not sure how much of that is simply different cultural norms when it comes to hospitality and how much of it is our own unique American fear, the state of low-level anxiety with which we all seem to live that tells us never to cross the street if we don’t have to, that tells young women not to walk alone lest they invite their own assaults and that tells everyone a city is not a city but a war zone of safe passages and no-man’s-lands. I didn’t unequivocably love Bowling for Columbine but I did like that aspect of Moore’s storyline, the idea that we’re not so much steeped in violence as we’re scared of everybody and everything.
There’s a portion of the book where Huntley describes a ride she took with Ismet, a stranger who offered to take her home because she couldn’t find a taxi:
Another five minutes and we arrive at Ed’s office on Dragodan. Ismet says he would like my husband and me to visit his home, take a meal wit hthem. I tell him truthfully that I would like that very much, and I thank him for the ride. “Ah!” he booms, beaming. “You are American, I take you to Istanbul if you want to go!” He reaches out to shake my hand, and I grasp his with both of mine. He puts his left hand over mine and, reaching from the back seat [his young daughter] Tringa puts her tiny hand on top of ours. There is a lump in my throat, and for a moment the car is silent.