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OCTOBER 31, 2008 8:26AM

Blending In

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 Blondie in Nauplion, Greece 1985

(Blondie and Greek children in Main Square, Nauplion 1985)

 

When I was 16 and half years old, I went to Europe with a troop of teenaged Girl Scouts and made the happy discovery that I blended in. Being plumpish and fairish, with light brownish hair, you could pitch a brick through an English schoolyard, or a German Youth hostel common room and hit at least half a dozen kids who looked enough like me to be kin. On the Continent, if you spoke English, the assumption was that you must indeed be English - that is, unless you were sporting cowboy boots, a tee shirt with the stars and stripes blazoned across the chest, a ten-gallon hat, a lariat and shouting “yee-ha!” By dressing carefully, watching the local citizens and carefully adapting the way they had of summoning a waiter, or flagging down a bus or taxi, and speaking quietly, you could go for weeks without ever being hassled about Vietnam, or American Imperialism or import quotas, or whatever troubled the mind of the cosmopolitan European who assumed that harassing an inoffensive tourist would be an automatic fix for it. So many supposedly cosmopolitan Europeans took me for being English, or Swedish or German or whatever, I really did wonder how they got the reputation for being cosmopolitan, since it took so very little to fool them.

When we went to live in Athens, in 1983 the skills that I practiced in order to escape heated and unpleasant arguments became necessary survival skills. Greece under the Papandreau administration had, to put it simply, a terrorism problem. Americans, especially Americans from the “Amerikani basi” and the Embassy were constantly targeted. The fact that the terrorists were few, and their aim not all it might have been was cold comfort. They had support, as it subsequently emerged in the criminal trials of the N-17 members, and a lot of the English language media never missed a chance to slam the USA, and the Americans stationed in Greece. I loved Greece, had studied literature and history, solidly adored everything about living there and thought myself lucky and blessed in that assignment, but every day living was fenced around with paranoia.
 

The car. It was a European make, but had AFG (American Forces Greece) plates, so never drive it downtown. Leave it parked in a public well lit area if I had to. No distinctly American bumper stickers or anything identifiable, like a copy of the Stars & Stripes left visible on the seats. Always check underneath before getting in and driving away in the morning.

Always be ready to hide your military ID. Don’t wear your uniform off base. Bring it in a gym-bag and change at work when you got there. No tee shirts with American logos or English on them, no gimme caps. No blue jeans or cowboy boots. Ditch the luggage with a service crests on them, don’t re-use the AAFES plastic bags for the trash pickup in front of your house. Don’t display an American flag anywhere on yourself or your residence.

Greek women didn’t wear trousers in public, stick to skirts and plain shoes. Buy and wear European sourced clothes and shoes, don’t have loud conversations in English. Avoid those places in Glyphada that everyone knows are American hang-outs; Bobby’s was blown up once, with rare incompetence they only managed to lightly injure a score of patrons. The NCO and O Clubs were protected by armed SPS in flack jackets: I was never entirely sure if I felt safer seeing them, or not.

 

 

There had been so many murders, hijackings, and bombings targeting Americans that by the time we departed for Spain, I eventually only felt entirely safe if we were either on base, or in a crowd of people entirely speaking Greek. For a long time, I would hesitate when someone asked me “Oh, are you American?”, looking at the person and wondering WHY they needed to know, and did they seem to be a threat if I answered in the affirmative?

 

When I transferred to Spain, I was due a lot of leave, so we arranged tickets for the car ferry from Patras to Brindisi, stuffed the Very Elderly Volvo’s trunk full of the necessities and set off on a grand adventure, driving through Europe. Up through Italy, over the Brenner Pass, across Germany to the Rhineland, stopping to see everything of interest. Blondie was just short of 5 years old, and as the name suggests, a very fair, almost white blond. When she was with me, everyone took us for German; if they saw us in the car, they assumed we were Swedish.

 

We spent two or three days in Trier, which had been a Roman city, once. I wanted to see the Basilica, it was practically a whole chapter to itself in a class in Roman art and architecture I took in college. We stayed in a hotel in the hills above the town, a little way from the remains of the Roman circus. The hotel only served breakfasts, and the owner had suggested a brewery a little way away, which served meals. The second morning we were there, another American woman cornered me in the dining room:

 

“You’re an American, aren’t you? And that little blond girl, she is your daughter, right? An American, too? “When I cautiously answered yes, the woman got even more aggressive:
”And you had dinner last light at that brewery, out on the terrace? And your daughter was there with you, wasn’t she? And she was playing with all those other children?”
“Yes, she was, “I couldn’t imagine where this was going, until the woman turned to her husband and fairly spat:
”I told you I heard that child speaking English!”

It emerged that  there had been a ferocious argument, and she had just won it. We had indeed been down at the brewery for dinner. It was a small building in a large grove of sycamore and chestnut trees, with an enormous paved terrace at the back, amidst the trees, where they had set up tables for a quite large crowd of people, enjoying the mild autumn evening. There had also been a thundering herd of children, chasing each other over a stack of extra tables, and throwing conkers at each other, observed indulgently by their parents and other patrons. Blondie had of course, gone off to join them, lack of a common language never had been a barrier for her.

 

It seemed that the mob of kids had ran past the American couples’ table, just as my daughter called after them
“Hey, guys, wait for me!” The wife had turned to her husband and said,
“My god, that kid spoke English!”
“Can’t be,” replied the husband, “She’s not a foreigner, look at her playing with the other kids.”
They watched my daughter, blond and wearing the blue and white sweater that the German mother-in-law of one of my AFRTS co-workers had knit for her, after I had made some clothes for the co-workers children, romping as an equal in the pack of children.
“But I heard her speaking English,” the wife insisted,
“You must have been hearing things” husband replied, and it descended right then in into what she described as the worst fight in fifteen years of marriage, involving accusations of hearing things, and too much Moselle…. An argument which she didn’t conclusively win until the next morning.

 

I often wondered what he bought for her in Trier, upon loosing it

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travel, europe, greece, germany, trier

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When I started reading, I thought this was going to be about not fitting in as a child. As I read further, I learned that you needed to blend in out of necessity and it worked so well that people actually argued over your nationality. How fun! That's terrific how well your daughter was able to blend with the other children in spite of not knowing teh language. Is she still so adaptable now?
Yes, Lisa - pretty much - it's some kind of odd gift. I'm fairly OK at it, but she is a chameleon. I've watched her do it, ever since she was about three, and it's absolutely eerie. She would sit and watch the other children for a bit... and then plunge right in.
Children blend so easily. I lived in Germany as a teenager, and knew a young couple from South Africa there, who had two daughters, ages 3 and 5. I laughed out loud once when the 5 year old scolded the 3 year old because she was "mixing her languages", speaking a kind of "deutschlish". I suspect her little German friends didn't know the difference, or at least didn't care.