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Smiley Face

Jun
27
2006

One of the best things about being an expat is an expanded capacity to complain. Maybe you were already a complainer, but when you move somewhere else you really blossom. It broadens your lamenting horizons.
You can now gripe about the home country to an eager audience. “America? Well, imagine a place where people run errands on a 36-minute lunch hour!”


Then you can start groaning about your adopted country — strengthening ties to fellow fugitives and, in a place like Italy where everyone complains, to natives too — as the place unfolds. “It is absurd that post offices close for the day at 1 p.m. You can’t get anything done!”
Going back and forth really takes it to the next level. My stay in New York has been one long whinge fest.
For one, I would really like to know when flip flops graduated to become actual footwear. I have asked everyone and recieved no satisfactory response. When did someone decide that flimsy, plastic, open to grime and maybe disease beach-worthy slip-ons were shoes to wear in a city? Ick. No one has been able to answer, mostly because they are wearing them.
And put my name on the posse to hunt down and give an all-over scalding body wax to the corporate genius who instructed all clerks at checkouts to ask: “Did you find everything you needed today?”
Come on. If I didn’t, what are you going to do about it now? Risk getting pummeled by the 17 people in line behind me? My policy is to never take it out on minimum-wage city workers because anyone who toils in a place they can’t afford to live in has enough grief. The first few times the the question was mumbled at me, I had to say “sorry?” This was a new one. I had to overcome my sadistic streak and learn to mumble back, “yes, thanks.”
Every once in awhile, though, a custom comes as a pleasant surprise. In the U.S., people smile. I don’t mean sales assistants, or whatever they’re called now, but regular people. If you walk down the street with a smile on, even in New York — or maybe especially in New York now that it’s been voted the most polite city in the U.S. — chances are you’ll get one back.
Not from everyone. Not all the time. But certainly enough to see that grins can be in. I’d completely forgotten about the smile factor. So now I’ve been running a little experiment, smiling or at least attempting to have an expression that might expand into a smile, just to see who smiles back. Hard to make any fast conclusions on who will return the teeth, it’s just as likely to be the linebacker-like guy with tats as the manicured young mum pushing a designer stroller, the tough-looking kids on the subway as the elderly tourists. It’s very democratic and very American.
In Italy, smiling like that immediately tags you as a front runner in the village idiot contest. Italians just do not engage with people they don’t know.
Truth be told, I had never been much of a smiler when I lived in the U.S. as the studied scowls on drivers licenses and passports attest. Now that officials have outlawed American smiles in passport photos, I hope the tradition won’t fade away. That would really give me something to carp about.

Share  Posted by Nicole Martinelli at 3:22 PM | Permalink

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