if only they’d been older

In case you were wondering, here’s a snapshot of what 23-year-old French boys are like:

1. They’re outgoing. The two of them struck up a conversation with Jessica and me while we were sitting on the front steps of our Amsterdam hostel at 11 p.m. I was drinking a coffee mug of cabernet while we people-watched and tried to stay out of the rain.

2. Their English is really good. “Hey, your English is really good!” I said.

“Thanks,” the more outgoing one said. “Where are you from?”

“America,” Jessica said.

3. They have some misconceptions about America. “Oh!” the outgoing one said. “I know how to say, ‘Yo, dog!'”

Jessica and I laughed. “That’s good, but not everyone talks like rappers in the States,” I said.

“Oh, really?” he said, disappointed.

“We really don’t,” Jessica said.

“Are you SURE?” he said.

“Yes. I think people talked like that in high school, didn’t they?” I said.

“Yeah, they did,” Jessica said.

“Let me ask you this,” he said. “Are you voting for Obama or McCain?”

“Obama!” we both said.

4. They really like Barack Obama. “Yes!” he said. “We just saw him speak in Berlin!”

“How was it?” I said.

“It was quite good,” said the shy one.

“So why do you not like McCain?” said the outgoing one.

The wine was talking for me, so I said, “When I hear him on the radio, his voice sounds just like George W. Bush, and it freaks me out.” I don’t remember what else Jessica or I said about it.

5. They love Will Ferrell, and they LOVE Judd Apatow movies.

“Did you see Superbad?” the outgoing one said.

“Yeah, but I didn’t like it too much,” I said.

“What, really? It was great! He is McLovin!” he said, pointing to his shy friend, who did indeed look a little like McLovin.

“Maybe a bit,” I said.

“It’s just the hair and the glasses,” Jessica said. Then we talked about Old School and the 40-Year-Old Virgin and some other man-child movies.

“You should see Pineapple Express when it comes out,” I said. “You’ll like it, it has Seth Rogen.”

“Seth Rogen?” the shy one said.

“Yeah, he was the one in the 40-Year-Old Virgin who said, ‘I’m ugly as fuck.'”

“Oh, yes, him! Let’s write this down!” the outgoing one said. The shy friend took out some paper and a pen and wrote “Pine Apple Express.”

“Pineapple is one word, like the fruit,” I said.

“Okay, and then you have to see Blades of Glory. You will like it!” the outgoing one said.

“Eh,” I said.

“What! You have to see it! I promise you will like it!”

“Here’s an American expression for you: I’ll take your word for it.”

“‘I’ll take your word for it.’ What does that mean?”

“It means you’re not going to do whatever the person said you should do, but you’ll believe them that it’s good,” Jessica said.

“Ah, so it is ironical, yes?”


6. They understand why George Bush got into the Iraq war.

“WHAT?” I said.

“He had to,” said the outgoing one. “When things are bad America has to go in. They are the biggest, richest country in the world–”

“Not anymore,” the shy one and I said at the same time.

“But still, they are very powerful, and they had to go in.”

“Let me tell you something–” I said.

“Uh-oh, here she goes,” Jessica said to the shy one. They both laughed.

“–George Bush is a war criminal, and he needs to be impeached, but he won’t be, because–”

“What is ‘impeach’?” said the shy one.

“Oh,” I said. “Impeachment is when the government decides that the president might need to be removed from office, so they hold a trial to see if they can vote to remove him.”

“Oh, okay,” said the shy one.

“Bill Clinton was impeached, but it didn’t go through, and–”

“Nixon?” said the outgoing one.

“No,” Jessica said, “he resigned before he could be impeached.”

“Only one president has ever been impeached and thrown out of office, and it was Andrew Jackson. Wait–”

“Johnson,” Jessica said.

“Andrew Johnson, yes.”

[I was wrong, though.]

7. They want to hang out with YOU.

“Where is the red light district?” the outgoing one said.

“Oh, we just walked around over there,” Jessica said. “Go down that way and take a right at the canal, then take a left at the next bridge. It’s down there somewhere.”

“Thanks,” the outgoing one said. “Do you want to come with us?”

“We just got in and we’re pretty tired tonight, but thanks anyway!” I said.

“Okay. Well, it was nice to meet you. I will remember ‘I’ll take your word for it.'”

“Good!” I said. We all shook hands and they took off into the rain.

tits up

On our second night in Brussels, Jessica and I went to a nearby square to find someplace to have dinner. Anyone who travels in foreign countries is probably familiar with this method of dinner-finding:

“What about this place?”
“I dunno, let’s look at the menu.”
[Looking at menu]
“Whoa, that’s expensive! Let’s keep walking.”


“How about here?”
[Looking at menu]
“Eh, we had pizza last night. Let’s keep walking.”


[Looking at menu]
“I can’t tell what this is.”
“Me, either.”


“What about this place?”
[Looking at menu]
“I think I can find something to eat here. You?”
“Yeah, this looks good.”

We sat down at a table outside and looked at the menu. The waiter came over and spoke English to us, so we asked him to translate some of the less-obvious words on the menu, and he helped us pick out some drinks and salads and pasta.

As we waited for our food, I noticed an elderly man sitting by himself at a table just behind Jessica, with what looked like a metal crutch propped up next to him. On his table there was a beer and a bunch of colored pencils; it looked like he was drawing something.

Just after our food arrived, the man stood up and hobbled over to where Jessica and I were sitting. “Excuse me,” he said in heavily-accented English, handing me a beer coaster, “I draw this for you.”

I looked at the beer coaster. It was just a regular coaster on the printed side, but on the blank side he had drawn this:

a gift from an elderly man

In case it isn’t glaringly obvious, this is a drawing of me. Topless.

Of course I was not topless at the time; I guess the drawing was just his representation of what I might look like topless. While I was quietly freaking out, the elderly man was telling Jessica that to get the breasts so perfectly round, he had traced around an old Belgian penny. Not a Euro penny, a Belgian penny, I guess to add a little Belgian nationalism to his topless works.

I say I was quietly freaking out, but really I wasn’t sure what to think. How was I supposed to feel about this? Was the topless coaster drawing offensive? Was it creepy? Or was it just a prop for a funny travel tale? The waiter came out, saw the drawing on the table, and chuckled. “He does that every day,” he said.

The fact that the elderly man was there at the restaurant every day, drawing all sorts of topless tourists, made me feel a bit better. If he was creepy, at least he wasn’t so creepy that he had alienated restaurant employees. As a former waitress, I’ve known restaurant regulars like this–they walk a fine line between creepy and normal, but if you work at a place long enough, they start to seem a little endearing.

Jessica and I were halfway through our meal when the elderly man came over to our table again. “Excuse me. What is your name?” he said to Jessica.

“Jessica,” she said.

“Yessica!” he said. “You write it here.” He handed her a beer coaster and a marker and pointed to the printed side of the coaster. She wrote her name and gave it back to him. A few minutes later he came back over and handed her the coaster. On the blank side he had drawn a train, with Jessica’s name incorporated into the front grill of the locomotive.

“Thanks!” she said.

He asked us where we were from, and we told him Texas. “Texas!” he exclamed, as though pleasantly surprised. A few minutes later he asked me to write my name down, and I received a drawing of “a steam ship on the Mississippi!” with my name on it.

“Thanks,” I said.

The rest of the meal was uneventful except for the part where I arm-wrestled the waiter and he tried to give me a neck massage, but that’s another story. As we walked away from the restaurant, I thought about the topless drawing of me. What if the elderly man liked men instead of women? Would he draw pictures of shirtless or pantsless* men and hand them out to male tourists? I imagined how things might go if he handed out pictures of pantsless men:

“Excuse me, I draw this for you.”

If that’s really what would happen, then the beer-coaster drawing represents yet another thing that happens to women more often than men. Women are generally seen as more passive than men, and therefore less likely to react violently or negatively to things like this. Maybe the elderly man felt safe giving me the drawing because I’m a woman, so he probably wouldn’t get punched or even yelled at.

And he was right, apparently. I didn’t punch him or yell at him at all; in fact I thanked him. My general rule when I’m in a country where I don’t speak the language, don’t know the laws, and don’t know anyone besides my traveling companion is that it’s important to stay as safe as possible; negative incidents I might not walk away from at home are usually best avoided when abroad. So maybe that’s part of it. But the truth is that I am pretty passive. If a man in an Austin restaurant handed me a naked drawing of myself, I’d only make a fuss if he followed up with something inappropriate, and even then I’d probably just ask for the check and tell the waiter, “I’ve got to go, this customer is harassing me.”

The elderly man in the restaurant was obviously not coming on to me, and there was no inappropriate followup to be found. After he gave us our drawings, he didn’t talk to us again for the rest of our meal. If the same incident had happened in Austin, I’d have done the same exact thing that I did in Brussels.

There are a few other things at play here:

1. I felt less threatened because he was elderly, and walked with a cane. If he’d been large and/or muscular and imposing, I might have reacted differently, or at the very least felt differently.

2. My reaction to the drawing was a pretty American one. It’s an unfortunate American convention that, no matter what the context, the nude female form is automatically seen as a sexual thing to be censored.** Our movies are filled with more blood and violence and killing than with nudity, and when the nudity appears, it’s a big fat deal. Watching any amount of European television will tell you that they don’t look at nudity the same way we do. Perhaps the elderly Belgian man didn’t see his drawing as overtly sexual, at least not in the way I did.

I still struggle with my reaction to the drawing, and what it means as far as how I lead my daily life. I guess I don’t wish I’d been less passive at that restaurant in Brussels; the elderly man was harmless enough, as are your average men. But what about when things aren’t so harmless? I wish I didn’t feel the need to look behind me every time I walked down a deserted street. I wish I didn’t have to take my keys out and have them ready while walking to my car or apartment at night. I wish I didn’t feel like I can’t do certain things for safety reasons because I’m female. I wish about a lot of things that happen to women.

A friend once told me that whenever he’s walking down a nearly-deserted Manhattan street at night and there’s a lone woman walking in front of him, he’ll sometimes cross to the other side of the street to avoid freaking her out. And I think that’s what I really struggle with. Is it up to other people to try not to freak me out, or is it up to me to avoid allowing myself to freak out?***

As for the drawing, of course I took it with me, to use as a prop for a funny travel tale. Maybe I’m just a sucker for a good story.

*Side question: if he drew pictures of pantsless males, what would he trace for the penis?

**However gradually, I do think America is improving on this front, but we’re still much different from the rest of the western world in how we view our nudity.

***I think it’s both, really.