birds in a barrel's mission is to release creative nonfiction into the wild.

40 Days & 40 Writes is its first project.


Arrogance kills me. Ignorance kills me. Combine the two and you should be put in a corner and given a timeout.

I'm a firm believer in not speaking without understanding, in listening to context before asserting a claim.

So I'm embarrassed for Americans who think they know more than they do, who believe they're exceptions to rules and principles everyone else is adhering to.

And I'm not even talking about the Trump era.

In the late 1990s, I was on my first trip overseas, to Paris with friends. Their advice, having spent months there ahead of our visit, was to try to speak French, to greet shop owners with at least an effort. To try to make even a brief attempt at using the language before expecting people to just inherently know and use English when speaking to U.S. citizens.

It worked, and I was grateful for all of my high school and college French, and the confidence that came with retrieving phrases and small bits of dialogue effectively. Americans (often those who haven't been there even), accuse the French of being arrogant. I've never seen it, not in that visit to Paris, nor in multiple trips to the south of France.

So when I saw my first incident of Ugly Americanism, it was mortifying to be associated with even by proximity.

At Versailles, we were part of a tour group through the interior of the palace. The docent, a Frenchman in his 40s who spoke English with a beatuful accent and visibly reveled in sharing his country's culture and history with this group of tourists, was engaged and receptive. He took pains to offer options for this array of Americans, ranging in age from 20s to 60s, to ask questions, to locate amenities and restrooms and to explore the parts of history that intrigued them.

He showed an emphatic degree of pride in spotlighting items — desks, mirrors, paintings — that had been stolen and hidden during the French Revolution but over time been recovered and return to this grand palace. The phrase he used — "And then it came back to us." — sticks with me still.

So when, in a bedroom filled with diligently curated, precious, items set apart by rope lines and curated pathways, this wonderful guide could not summon any words, it was clear to most of us that something was wrong.

"Please..." he said. "Ma'... ma'am" He was gesturing, delicately but emphatically, with his arms, a movement that suggested rising or conjuring.

One of our group of Americans, a woman in her 50s, overweight, inattentive, was seated, BEHIND a rope line, on an heirloom chair. Fatigue? A bad knee? It wasn't clear what led to her choice to sit, to cross one of the clearly delineated lines that had been underscored to the group repeatedly, but there she sat, seemingly perplexed at what could be bothering this now-inarticulate man. Some in the group urged her, "Get UP!"

Still, she sat. It took a minute or two for her to rise. And she did so without apology. Maybe it was my read, my own embarrassment, but her look seemed to be not one of awkward acknowledgment but one of, "What's the problem, pal."

Ugly. American.

My Daughter

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