From Paris to Key West

Lessons in amateur journalism

“No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.” — Robin Williams. 1951–2014.

The first two sections of this blog are reprints of travelogues I published recently, the first from France and the second from Key West, Florida. Both included stories about what I perceived to be racism at the time.

I’ve included them below in their original form followed by some commentary on what happened when I published them, what I learned in the process, and why I ultimately deleted both blogs from the web.

Please stop reading now if you’re not going to make it to the last section because you’ll get a distorted view of the message I’m trying to convey.

Riddle Me This: Sketches from a Brief European Sojourn

“To believe something is to believe that it is true; therefore a reasonable person believes each of his beliefs to be true; yet experience has taught him to expect that some of his beliefs, he knows not which, will turn out to be false. A reasonable person believes, in short, that each of his beliefs is true and that some of them are false.” — W. V. O. Quine. Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary.

“Well, we got wines from all over the world. We got, uh, English wines from France, we got Italian wines from all over Europe.” — EJ Carroll. Everybody’s Fine.

We’ve been coming to Europe on a regular basis for almost forty years now and love practically everything about it: the bustling and historic cities, the cobblestoned alleys in medieval villages, the sun-drenched islands in the south and the green valleys in the north, the many languages and cultures. I stopped going to museums and tourist sites long ago, choosing instead to walk the streets, sit at sidewalk cafes, and watch people.

We’ve just landed in Paris, the sun is shining, and I’m jetlagged. What better time to go for a walk? As I walk through the twisty side streets of Marais, I’m surprised to note the lack of tourists. I have always been in love with Paris but had come to dread visits surrounded by throngs of tourists at every corner. This time, things are different. The airport was practically deserted; it took us less than five minutes to clear customs.

There are tourists around, to be sure, but they are few and far between. Police cars and armed officers are everywhere, government buildings are barricaded, and we are asked to cross the street when we get too close for comfort. Every few minutes, police cars and armored vehicles streak past at high speed, sirens blaring. There is a tension in the air that I’ve never sensed before. I’m sad to see that terrorism has killed tourism in this beautiful city but I’m also, secretly and guiltily, enjoying the quiet streets.

I sit at a cafe in Place des Vosges to have a drink. There are almost no tourists around and the locals are sunning themselves in the park in the middle of the square. The waiter comes by, hands me a menu, and walks away. He doesn’t say anything and neither do I.

A few minutes later, I look up and notice that he’s standing in a corner, grinding his teeth, making ugly faces, and flexing his muscles while looking directly at me. That’s odd!

Another couple of minutes go by and I glance at him again. If anything, his gestures have become even more pronounced. He’s clearly not happy to see me there and is making it obvious.

Place Vosges, Paris. Source: http://benfa.smugmug.com.

It’s a strange spectacle I’ve never witnessed before. Everyone talks about rude Parisians and I’ve seen my share on previous trips but this is not normal. I think back to what I may have done to irritate him but we have barely interacted and haven’t even spoken to each other yet. I sit there, puzzled and uncomfortable.

The next time I look in his direction, he’s talking to another waiter inside the restaurant. It’s clear that he doesn’t want to serve me and is looking for a way out. He’s asking the other waiter to serve me so he doesn’t have to.

This second waiter now comes to take my order. I ask for a glass of wine and try to ignore the hostile environment but it’s no good. Amazingly, the first waiter now stands in a corner, raises his fists, makes threatening gestures, and grimaces as he stares angrily at me. There’s no mistaking his intentions.

I’ve had enough. I stand up and pay for the wine I haven’t drunk. As I turn to walk out, I see him smiling broadly, frankly beaming, happy to be rid of me so quickly. It occurs to me that he’s probably a Le Pen supporter, angry at all the foreigners destroying his country and culture, frustrated about the terrorists killing his people.

I see a parallel to the current political climate in the US and can’t honestly blame him for his actions. What I don’t quite understand is why such a person would take a job as a waiter in a touristy location where he has to interact daily with the very people he dislikes.

It’s 5 PM in Paris, a few days later. The angry waiter is a distant memory and, thankfully, all my other interactions have been positive. I’m sitting at a cafe on a side street in Saint Germain and trying, unsuccessfully, to blend in. My tourist clothes instantly betray me as I sip a drink and watch locals chain smoke like it’s 1985!

A couple of fifty-something men of color sit down at the next table. They are sharply dressed in business suits and are clearly professionals of some sort, either businessmen or lawyers. Both are in superb physical condition — not even a hint of a beer belly — yet I doubt either of them has seen the inside of a gym in the recent past, if ever.

They have dozens of printed pages in front of them and scribble notes as they discuss a business deal or perhaps argue over a court case. Surprisingly, one of them orders a glass of milk and the other orders an espresso and chocolate croissant! Did I mention it’s 5 pm?!?

For the next two and a half hours, they chain smoke and talk, laugh and argue, frequently making notations on the pieces of paper. They’re still at it as I get up to leave. For all I know, they will continue the discussion over dinner.

It occurs to me, as I walk away, that I’ve been watching a routine business meeting that is commonplace here in Europe but would be unheard of in the US. Everything about it is different from the equivalent experience in the States: the outdoor setting instead of a conference room, the glass of milk instead of beer, the two and a half hour duration, pieces of paper instead of laptops, sharp suits instead of jeans or dockers, trim physique instead of layers of flab, the relaxed banter, cigarette smoke wafting through the air.

The scene is basically repeated at another cafe the next evening. The guy at the next table looks like a Hollywood movie star: thirty-something and, again, fit as a fiddle. Both he and his girlfriend are smoking and sipping wine. Three ancient looking women sit at another table drinking Campari and Soda, talking up a storm, and, you guessed it, smoking almost non-stop! As I look around me, I see more and more fit people walking around with their kids, buying bread for dinner, or just sitting and talking unhurriedly.

I have to admit the locals are pretty damn healthy looking, by any standard of physical fitness you may wish to use. And yet they eat fatty foods, smoke like chimneys, and stay up until midnight drinking — on weeknights, no less! Most have never seen the inside of a gym and get their only daily exercise by walking. They seem healthier than their American counterparts — regardless of age.

I see the same thing as we travel through France and Italy over the next few weeks. With fewer tourists around, the European cities and countryside are actually much more enjoyable. Rome and Tuscany, perennial tourist favorites, are crowded but the villages of Umbria are almost deserted. More than anything, it’s the relaxed pace that is jarring to Americans. Even in bustling Rome, the pace is glacially slow. Dinner can’t be had in less than three hours — the waiter will make sure of that!

Assisi, Italy. Source: http://benfa.smugmug.com.

Riddle me this: Why do Europeans get to live like this, enjoy longer relatively healthier lives, all while staying out with friends and family eating massive dinners and drinking multiple bottles of wine until midnight, taking four hour siestas every day, never getting on an exercise bike or attending a Zumba class in their lives, and smoking cigarettes?

This will seem like a cliche but there are only two main differences that I have observed: first, Europeans eat whatever they want; second, the level of stress over there is visibly lower. We talk obsessively about work-life balance, they live it. Americans work harder and longer hours, are much more careful about their diets, avoid cigarettes like the plague, spend hours a day exercising, and yet they are chronically overweight, in debt, and tired if not sick.

My admittedly simplistic interpretation of the data, based on nothing but anecdotal evidence, is that the combination of hormones and genetically modified ingredients in our foods are slowly but surely making us sick while ever-increasing levels of stress conspire to make us miserable on a daily basis.

A baguette purchased in the morning in a European city goes stale if not consumed by that same evening but a loaf of bread purchased at an American supermarket has an expiration date a month hence. Why do you suppose that is? We’ve gotten so used to having chemicals added to our basic foods that we no longer even question the need for them.

I’m not naive enough to believe that all Europeans enjoy happier healthier lives and that all Americans are doomed to suffer through stressful ones. Nor am I suggesting that Europeans do everything right and we should abandon our lifestyles tomorrow. I do, however, have to wonder when we’ll wake up and get off the treadmills we’ve created for ourselves.

My brother-in-law traveled with us. He’s suffered from an amazing series of gastrointestinal problems over the years. He’s had colitis; he’s had a quarter of his intestine removed due to digestive problems; he can’t eat dairy, gluten, carbs, or sweets; he is constantly going from doctor to doctor while at home in the US, can’t eat anything other than bland home cooked meals, and is constantly at the edge of another intestinal “episode”.

He had pasta, tiramisu, and bread every single day. He had fried food, he had salads, he had cheese, he had gelato. He ate things he would never dream of eating in the US — and he was fine! He ate anything and everything while he also wondered aloud why he wasn’t having any intestinal problems! Same guy, one day later, random restaurant in Italy. The experience was repeated again and again every day while traveling. No intestinal problems whatsoever. The only thing that was different were the ingredients in the food.

Anecdotal evidence.

Then there’s this. I googled the GDP of Italy. It’s 1.8 trillion US dollars — with a population of 60 million. Think about it. That’s about three Apples! Sort of puts things in perspective to think about it that way. The numbers are only slightly better for France: $2.4 trillion and 66 million people. By comparison, the US GDP is $18 trillion for a population of 320 million. In other words, the per capita GDP is almost double that of Italy and France.

Our economy is clearly doing better but do we live better lives as a result? I wish we’d take a lesson from Bhutan and start measuring our Gross National Happiness instead.

The Coming Immigrant Revolt

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” — Emma Lazarus, inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.

I was in Miami on a business trip last month and used the opportunity to spend a couple of days in Key West. The last time I was there was roughly thirty years ago. Perhaps I was just seeing the island through different eyes but I have to admit it felt very different this time around.

The intervening years have not been kind to the Keys. The multiple recent hurricanes and resultant economic downturn have been devastating to the region. And the recent introduction of cruise ships have added, there’s no other way to say it, a certain sleaze factor to the island.

Debris was strewn all across the side of the road as I drove down the highway that connects Miami to Key West: a four hour drive down a one lane highway. The locals kept talking about the “high season” starting in a couple of weeks, right around Christmas. Meanwhile, the streets were mostly empty.

Step a couple of blocks away from the busy main drag and you’ll still find the same quaint artsy shops, the breezy island bungalows, and the quiet Bed & Breakfasts catering to climate refugees from the frigid Northeast. There are also still plenty of elegant restaurants and shops around on the island but, increasingly, establishments on the main drag are giving way to T-shirt shops, tequila bars, and kiosks selling day-long excursions to nearby islands.

Downtown Key West looks like pretty much any Caribbean or Mexican resort town, waiting lethargically in the warm afternoon for the tourists to come off the cruise ships and give the economy a boost.

There seemed to be two Key Wests vying for control of the island: the old Key West of cottages and fancy restaurants right along with T-shirt shops and assorted tourist traps right next door. What was most intriguing to me was that “The Two Key Wests” seemed to live in equal but separate worlds, their paths rarely crossing. This was driven home to me by an amazing experience I had in a high end restaurant one night.

I walked in around five PM and sat at the bar, looking for a glass of wine and a light dinner, fighting jet lag to stay awake for a few more hours. The place was deserted except for the bartender who was busy washing glasses behind the bar and the restaurant manager who was interviewing prospective waiters at the other end of the hall.

I listened absentmindedly as the first interviewee spent about twenty minutes answering various questions posed by the restaurant manager. When the next candidate sat down for his interview, it became immediately clear that he was not a native English speaker. He spoke English clearly and had no trouble communicating but he did have a Spanish accent.

Within a couple of minutes, something very odd happened. I heard the bartender say loudly and to no one in particular: “English as a first language!”

I wasn’t sure what he meant by the remark. Perhaps it was just a follow-up comment to a discussion he had with one of the waiters a few minutes earlier. I hadn’t paid attention to their conversation.

I ignored the comment and continued to sip my wine. The restaurant manager asked a couple of other questions. Within thirty seconds, the bartender said, again, loud enough for everyone in the large restaurant to hear but also apparently to no one in particular: “English as a first language!”

Another minute or so went by before the manager brought the interview to a close and thanked the candidate. The entire interview had lasted no more than three or four minutes.

It took me a few minutes to realize what had just happened. All at once, the bartender’s comment made perfect sense. He wasn’t talking to the waiter, he wasn’t even talking to himself. He was listing a hiring requirement for waiters previously agreed upon with the manager: English as a first language. Why are you wasting time on this guy? He’s clearly fresh off the boat. Not our type of people. Move on.

He had just vetoed the candidate solely on the basis of his speaking skills, his native tongue, his accent — and hence his heredity — and nothing else. I have no trouble believing that the candidate was deficient in a dozen other ways — but I would have expected those to be decided by the hiring manager who was interviewing him, not by someone twenty feet away who is not even officially part of the interview process. I am assuming, of course, that he was a legal immigrant with all the proper paperwork. I am not in any way, shape or form, trying to make a case for illegal immigration.

I was stunned as I sat there thinking about this but, by then, the candidate had long left. I quickly paid and walked out, not wanting to get involved. Walking back to my room, I rationalized the situation in my mind. What the hell was I going to do anyway? Raise a stink about racism right then and there? To what end? I told myself arguing with a single bigot wasn’t going to change anything.

But the episode has weighed on me. This was clear and unadulterated racism, condoned by the management of the restaurant. The only thing missing was a printed sign hanging above the bar: “Coloreds need not apply.”

I’ve seen the same thing in the West coast for years, of course, with Mexicans and other immigrants trying to claw their way up the economic ladder. The economy of the rich rarely interacts with the economy of the poor, it seems, and does so only reluctantly.

I happen to have lived on both sides of the fence. I am privileged enough to have retired from a successful career at age 52. I have lived the American dream, you might say. But I’m also one of those immigrants who clawed his way up the economic ladder. I made $2.60 an hour washing dishes in a steakhouse as my first job while also attending college as a foreign student upon first arriving in the US almost forty years ago. I, too, was once fresh off the boat.

But enough about me. This is not about me. This is about all those others who are struggling and haven’t made it yet. Having lived in this country for my entire adult life, I consider myself an American and I sincerely believe that most Americans are not racist. But it is also true that a small subset engage in xenophobic activities such as the one described above.

Immigrants have always been discriminated against in this country. If it wasn’t the Cubans and the Mexicans, it was the Japanese during World War II. Or the Irish after the potato famine. Or the Chinese who built the transcontinental railroad. Or the Italians fleeing poverty. Or Middle Easterners escaping barbaric regimes back home.

Replace Cuba and Mexico with Middle East or Italy or Ireland or Japan or China or India or any one of a dozen other world regions over the past two hundred years and you are guaranteed to find similar experiences by each of those ethnicities. If they weren’t profiled at the border, they were rounded up into internment camps, they were used as indentured labor to build the country’s infrastructure, they were shunned and ostracized as outsiders. But every one of those ethnicities is now broadly accepted in America and has found a way to not just integrate with, but also to change, the culture of America for the better.

At every point in the history of this country, some subset of the population has been discriminated against — based on their place of birth, based on their native tongue, based on their cultural beliefs, based on the color of their skin, based on their financial situation, based on their willingness to take low paying jobs away from Americans. Based on things they often had no control over.

And it wasn’t always brown or black people that were hated. A hundred years ago, European Catholics were discriminated against just as much as Muslims are today. Newspapers warned that the influx of Catholics would “take jobs, spread disease and crime and plot a coup to install the Pope in power. In 1844, mobs burnt Catholic churches and hunted down victims.”

Progressives and conservatives are in a rare unity welcoming Pope Francis to the US, but anti-Catholicism was rampant…www.theguardian.com

The Muslims and Mexicans being vilified and discriminated against today are a resilient bunch. They are already merging with the rest of American society at a faster pace than previous ethnicities. The Japanese had it worse. The Irish had it worse. The Chinese had it worse. The list goes on. No one said it would be easy. But it’s the only way forward.

“I say you know it’s funny I think we were on the same boat back in 1694.” — Indigo Girls. Shame on You. Shaming of the Sun.

I love this country but I shudder as I see the rights of immigrants pummeled on a daily basis. These are the very people that are working their asses off to make this economy grow. Whether it’s the gardeners mowing our lawns or dishwashers and cooks in our restaurants or the laborers working in our factories, they are part of this country. They’re here already and chances are they’re working multiple jobs to make their own lives and the lives of those around them better. They’re helping the economy by working hard, making money, and spending it.

And yet, what they get in return is racism, xenophobia, and a hidden two class system that is as pernicious as the Jim Crow laws of the past century. What do we gain, exactly, by antagonizing them, discriminating against them, creating a hidden “separate but equal” universe for them?

Where is the #MeToo moment for immigrants who are discriminated against? Why aren’t they banding together and demanding their rights?

We attacked the equal rights problem several times over the past couple of centuries. Equal rights for blacks — which almost tore this country apart. Equal rights for Women — makes sense, they’re half the population. Equal rights for gays and lesbians and transgender people. All good stuff. But how about Equal Rights for Immigrants? I wonder if we have the stomach to attack that one head on.

Our political problems will continue to worsen if we don’t address this problem. No, trickle down economics doesn’t work. Been there, done that, had financial meltdown. No, allowing lobbyists and special interests and big corporations to run this country won’t work either. Been there, done that — again and again. The results have been a disaster each and every time.

We need to treat immigrants like they deserve to be treated, like the downtrodden that we promised to take care of. If we don’t do it, who will? We are the richest nation on earth and yet we squander our money away and turn a blind eye to those needing our help — for reasons that they have no control over: their place of birth, their cultural beliefs, their accents. It almost doesn’t matter where they come from.

We’ve shown that we can discriminate against white Christians from Western Europe just as well as brown Muslims and black Africans and yellow Asians. So the problem is not them. The problem is us.

If we don’t solve this problem constructively, positively, as a united society, we will have a revolution on our hands with immigrants demanding their equal rights — which they fully deserve.

And don’t tell me we don’t have the money. We are the richest nation in the world. Here are just two data points to disabuse you of that notion:

“Each year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the rest of the world.” — Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

“U.S. military expenditures are roughly the size of the next seven largest military budgets around the world, combined.” — NationalPriorities.org.

All I’m saying, Mr. President, is if you give these people a helping hand instead of a kick in the groin, if you help them with job opportunities instead of reminding them that they come from “shithole” countries, perhaps they will give you a few more people like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. A few more Albert Einsteins and Neils Bohrs. If, instead, you spend billions on an ill-conceived and useless wall to keep them out, we all lose in the long run.

It would take just a little bit of introspection to realize that “they” haven’t changed. They are still who they are and who they’ve been for many generations. It is only us, the people of America, the very definition of America, that have changed over the past two centuries.

I am an immigrant. I am also an American. Two hundred years ago, we were all immigrants. And yet, somehow, we keep finding reasons to hate “them,” the others, whatever the definition of “them” happens to be in the current decade. How hypocritical of us.

“But the thing that scared me most was when my enemy came close; And I saw that his face looked just like mine” — Bob Dylan. John Brown. The Bootleg Series Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962–1964.

Here’s a — hopefully constructive — suggestion. Let’s start documenting the cases of discrimination against immigrants. And you don’t have to write an essay to do so. An uploaded video recording will do just fine.

Lessons Learned

When I first published the piece on Paris, I received a lot of positive feedback. Many joined me in lamenting “The French” and how rude they are, asking in baffled tones why anyone would accept a job as a waiter if he had hostile feelings toward tourists.

Curiously, no one commented on the other observations in the blog — about Italy, food, work-life balance, culture, and all the positive experiences I’d documented. Every single comment was about the negative experience with the French waiter.

The response to the second blog about Key West was immediate and came in two flavors. It received at least ten times as many views and hundreds more comments. There were those who applauded the blog and commented that it was our duty to highlight racism and prejudice in all its forms wherever we see it.

But I was also immediately attacked by a small minority of angry readers who claimed I had no basis for claiming racism, that I’d misunderstood the intentions of the bartender, that it was reasonable for a restaurant to reject candidates on the basis of language proficiency because they wanted to offer a better experience to their customers.

I took much of the feedback in stride and even agreed with most of the comments. I realized in hindsight that I’d used anecdotal evidence from a single incident to draw broad conclusions. That was not fair to anyone involved.

The European blog had been more balanced and included both positive and negative comments. It was also spared from criticism because most Americans agree with the stereotype of the “rude French”. The Key West piece, on the other hand, took a single incident and tried to generalize it to make a political statement.

Predictably, many of these negative comments didn’t stop there. Instead, they turned into vicious personal attacks, telling me I should be happy that I was allowed into this country in the first place, that I should just shut up and go hang with my own type, etc.

To be clear, I didn’t remove the Key West blog because I changed my mind about what I’d observed nor did I remove it because I was afraid of the attacks. I removed it because I realized I’d participated in what I often tell others to avoid. I’d taken a single instance of xenophobia, of racism, of bad behavior (whatever you want to call it) and given it a broader audience.

I’d wallowed in negative press. Instead of highlighting the positive experiences I’d had on that trip, I’d picked a single negative incident and shined a spotlight on it, even going so far as to use a controversial title (“The Coming Immigrant Revolt”) to draw attention to it. I’d become part of the problem, not the solution.

Regardless of whether my personal assessment of racism was warranted or not, I stirred up anger and frustration. There were plenty of people who agreed with me on both blogs and made positive comments but that’s beside the point. Those people had already made up their minds on the issues and used my blogs as confirmation. In the end, I didn’t change anyone’s mind. And I confirmed everyone’s existing biases.

We all have a confirmation bias in things we believe— this has been shown scientifically. We make up our minds on a topic before all the data is in and then actively filter out or discount news that contradicts our belief system and, just as actively, seek out news reports that confirm our existing beliefs.

I chose to dwell on the negative. And, by doing so, I’d fanned the flames and reinforced pre-existing beliefs and biases. The failing was entirely mine. Mea culpa. I could have written a more positive piece, like I’d done in the first case. I chose instead to seek controversy and highlight what I thought I’d witnessed. I was wrong in doing so.

What I intended to do was to start a conversation. What I started, instead, was vitriol — and I didn’t mean to do that. I had to think twice about why I’d offended those people. What I knew, either way, was that I’d fanned the flames — and that was wrong. By focusing on and drawing attention to the negative, I’d failed. I’d failed to have a positive impact.

If we all spend half as much time talking about the positive experiences in life as we do obsessing about the negative ones, we would lead happier lives. Lesson learned.

Former {CTO at VMware, VP at Microsoft, Head of Engineering & Cloud Ops at Cloudflare}. Recovering long distance runner, avid cyclist, newly minted grandpa.

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