NOTES FROM THE OLIVE GARDEN

I thought this would be quick - another Guardian column taking some snide swipes at the rude Colonials. But it’s more than that. It’s a Big Sweeping On-Location piece, an attempt to parse the yawp of deep dark America and find the source of Washington’s new chilliness towards its European allies. It subscribes to the laziest sort of parachute journalism: find a Symbol of America, talk to a guy eating supper, and discern the Pulse of the Culture. It’s like the greenhorn Yank reporter who visits an English pub, interviews one toothless old punter bent over his Newcastle Ale, and extrapolates the desires of a nation. (“England may be physically toothless, but when it comes to Irish Nationalism, it still has molars, incisors and the spine to back them up. ‘Kill ‘em all,’ said Liam McSodden, an unemployed shipbuilder who was sacked while still in the womb, but regards himself as part of his city’s proud shipbuilding tradition. ‘We all ‘ate the Irish,’ he added, a nod perhaps to Swift’s modest proposal. His sentiments are echoed by many whose quotes I’ll now take from this stack of papers I got at the tobacconists.”)

Here’s the full horror.
Here’s the Screedly annotated version:

The Olive Garden Italian restaurant looks a little more promising than the dozens of other eating places along the strip mall just off Interstate 20 in Birmingham, Alabama. The discreet hint of Tuscan decor and the passable wine list disguise the fact that there are 476 other Olive Gardens across North America, all with precisely the same menu.

That’s right. It’s called “standardization,” and it makes it logistically possible to run chains that span three thousand miles and simultaneously depend on local suppliers and national ad campaigns. It has its emotional cost, as the European keenly notes. Diners in Maine often put down their Olive Garden menus, stare into the middle distance, haunted by the suspicion that the exact same alignment of foodstuffs is also offered in San Diego. They shake it off and get back to ordering, but the feeling that their veal’s seasoning has been predetermined in a far-off corporate office gives the meal a false and hollow taste.

On the other hand, screw it; you get as many breadsticks as you want. The hot soft kind, too. I mean, if you ask for ten, you get ten. What a country.

This means, presumably, that everyone ordering scaloppine marsala anywhere in this vast continent will receive the same perfectly decent cut of veal served in a subtle mixture of malt vinegar and sump oil. The diner on the next table turns out to be friendlier -

Than who? The host who cold-cocked you when you walked in and demanded a fookin’ Newcastle?

and indeed more cosmopolitan, than the food.

So the veal is decent, but unfriendly. Downright European, then.

His name is Steve Mitchell and he's in the satellite TV business. "You're from England?" he says. "My mother's father came from over there. Well, Denmark, actually. My grandmother's from the Finland side. And my half-sister lives in France." "Have you been over to see her?" I ask. "Hell, no," he replies. "I don't like flying." "What do you think of Europeans?" "Well," he says, "they were good to us after September 11." He pauses. "You know, it's a long way away."

The incoherence of this exchange makes me wonder who’s been hitting the passable wine. If it’s meant to castigate poor Steve for geographical errancy, well, it’s clear what he meant by “there”: Europe. As for Steve’s remark “They were good to us after September 11,” that’s a kind way of saying “and they’ve been miserable shits since Oct. 27.”

And from the Olive Garden it does seem very distant. Indeed, the whole messy and diverse concept of Europe seems very distant.
Around Birmingham, there is nothing but miles and miles of Alabama.

Apparently around Birmingham England, there is nothing but miles and miles of Belgium, Thailand and the Antarctic Ice Shelf.

Beyond that, there is only Georgia, Tennessee or Mississippi, where the speed limit, the price of petrol or the sales tax might vary by a percentage point or two but in essence everything would be entirely familiar to an Alabamian, even down to the (huge) size of the portions in the local Olive Garden.

An Alabamian walks into a Nashville Olive Garden, shaking. The waiter hastens over, alarmed at this white-faced fellow. What’s the matter, friend? Ah’ve been to your gas station, the man stammers. The gas is ten cents higher - ten cents! And there’s no sales tax on bakery goods! ‘S like a whole different world - y’all bring me the lasagna so’s ah can git mah bearings.

"Where do most people round here come from?" I ask Steve. "Round here, I guess." And he's right. Mass European immigration to the US ceased almost two generations ago. In Birmingham, there is as little to remind the white population of its European roots as the black population has to remind it of Africa: European Hair and Nails, the Parisian department store and La Paree Steaks and Seafood, where each table has a miniature stars and stripes nestling between the ketchup and the mustard. That's about it.

Imagine that: immigrants have adopted the civic culture of their new home, and don’t cling to the very tribal distinctions Grandpa left behind in disgust. Traitors.

Of course, Birmingham has an elite who travel all over Europe. But only one-sixth of all Americans possess a passport,

That’s because our nation is HUGE, pal; of course Belgians all have passports;their country is the size of an average American rumpus room. They've burned out every available domestic vacation option by the time the kids are six - whereas this joint is so big our senior citizens retire, buy moving houses, and devote themselves to visiting each of the fifty states. Plus, we don’t need passports to go to Mexico, which one could spend another lifetime exploring. Europe’s wonderful, but sometimes when you think “vacation” you’re not in the mood for rain and indifference, no matter how much aristocratically-commissioned beauty you have.


. . . and in Alabama the proportion is much lower. One suspects the European geography of many people here goes no further than the playground rhyme:

"I see London, I see France

I see ------- in her underpants."

Let’s recap: our correspondent is sitting in an Olive Garden chain restaurant - a successful chain devoted to celebrating the cuisine of another country, a chain whose menu is full of references to old Italia. He has deduced that the food is generous, filling, and does not vary from outlet to outlet. From his window seat, he concludes that Alabama stretches in all directions, and when it bleeds into another state, there is no significant rupture in the taxation structure or rules of the road. The one chap he has engaged has been able to name three European countries, and has a job piping satellite TV (According to the home page for the Birmingham Dish TV affiliate, the first upgrade package includes the BBC channel). His conclusion: “one suspects” that they know nothing more of Europe than a children’s ditty. One suspects that poor Steve will be the only local cited in this story - especially since the night clerk at the Holiday Inn turned out to be an International Relations major at the local college, is writing his thesis on Chamberlain and Disraeli, and engaged the correspondent at length the other night until the correspondent wanted to shout I don’t know, okay? Just because I’m English doesn’t mean I know what Gladstone would have done in a postcolonial diplomatic construct! Christ!

That morning, the Birmingham News has one paragraph from Europe.

Today, as I write, the UK Birmingham newspaper website has zero (0) paragraphs from anywhere else on its front page, but does have headlines like “New heart for Katie” and “Rover tries to curry favor.” Then there are seven sport-story links.

Indeed, major disasters aside, foreign news generally consists solely of the US's interactions with other countries. And Birmingham is a chunky-sized city, far more worldly than the other towns along Interstate 20, such as Leeds, Lincoln and Oxford. In all of them, a European visitor can expect a warm welcome, because Alabama is like that. But the locals might be just as charming to a visitor from outer space, who would be only a fraction more exotic.

The difference being that a visitor from outer space might unleash onna them death-rays, so we’ll keep our hand right here on our holster until we check you for scales and antennae. If ‘n you don’t mind.

Is this just how it is in the hinterland, far removed from the more sophisticated dinner tables of Washington DC? Not necessarily, when Washington is run by George Bush of Texas, Dick Cheney of Wyoming, Donald Rumsfeld of Illinois, not to mention Condoleezza Rice, from Alabama herself, and Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld's deputy, who is sometimes suspected of coming from outer space. You may not feel comfortable with the fact that the future of the planet should be decided by the representatives of voters who know so little about it. A good many senior European politicians share that concern.

Of course they do; that’s their job. Concern-sharing. They’re chauffeured around to meetings in palaces, where concerns are shared, and sometimes merely aired. Then again, maybe Pres. Bush learned a little about China from his pop, and maybe Rumsfeld learned a little about the world when he was evac'd out of Beirut in the bad old days - but of course Rummy probably asked his driver to take him to the Olive Garden before the helicopter arrived.


At times over the past few weeks, Washington has seemed almost like an enemy capital, certainly less comfortable for a European than Birmingham, where people do not follow the nuances of international diplomacy.

Waaaait a minute, pal - that’s it? That’s the extent of your Birmingham-based insight? You ground all the gears on that transition, and don’t think we didn’t hear the teeth ping all over the place. Again, to recap; from a suburban restaurant, a British reporter deduces that America is not particularly interested in Europe - quel horror! - but this willful stupidity has an upside, because the people who DO pay attention - the sophisticates in Washington, culled from the strange and varied-named, yet culturally uniform states - are acting like the enemy.

And why might that be? Hmmm? Could it be a flood of pissy hissing from professional concern-sharers, like the official who call Israel “a shitty little country”, or the diplomats who tore themselves asunder like Rumplestiltskin because America didn’t stop bombing during Ramadan?

Last month, the president coined the phrase "axis of evil" for his unholy trinity of Iraq, Iran and North Korea. The Birmingham papers may not have fully reported the reaction of Europe's foreign ministers.

They also did not report what the weather was like on Mars, or whether Winona’s legal troubles are impacting her complexion.

Hubert Vedrine of France said it was "simplism"; Joschka Fischer of Germany said alliance partners would not be reduced to obedient satellites; Britain's own Jack Straw said the speech had more to do with the mid-term elections than international politics; Chris Patten, the European external affairs commissioner, called it "absolutist" as well as simplistic.

Waiter? Another passable bottle, I’m really on a roll. I’m sitting here in this comfy chair, looking at this fabulous bird at the bar with just a great set of knockers, really, just American knockers y’know, and my old pal Steve’s gone - god, I loved him, what a great guy - anyway, I’m here with my laptop channeling the brave words of EU concern-swappers, and none of these laughing bumpkins have no idea what I’m doing. Jack Straw has your number! You got that, you wobbly sacks stuffed full of Murdocky fat, television sugar and Hollywood shite? Jack! Straw! Has! Your! Number!

Whadda mean, you’re going to get the manager? I wuzn’t loud. ‘S just talking to m’self.

And bring me a fooking Newcastle!

(Many long paragraphs of non-Olive Garden Euroweenie quotes snipped.)

Washington politicians are especially conscious that their armies had to come across the Atlantic twice in the 20th century to settle Europe's quarrels.

Yes, that’s what we call the wars over here: The Quarrels. Lost me dad in the Quarrels. Grandpappy was gassed in the Quarrels. I know a woman who gave up three sons to the Quarrels. My great-great grandfather fought in the Debate Between the States, and family history says we had a distant relative who fought in the Revolutionary Argument.

If more than 100 million had died, perhaps he’d have called it “Europe’s dust-ups.”

Europeans are inclined to think that the Americans, having been late for the last two world wars, are determined to be early for the next one.

Damned witty, Wilde. Damned witty! Deuce it all! Look: we were “late” for the last world wars like a policeman is usually late for a murder. One could easily say that Europeans are determined to be late for the next world war because they’re still feeling guilty about the last time some nutcases wanted to slaughter all the Jews. Except, of course, they’re not guilty at all. That was all Hitler’s fault. He had that big shiny hypnotism coin from the novelty catalog, and everyone just fell in his power.

In Alabama, Europe might seem like a distant fairyland.

You said it. Steve Mitchell didn’t, because he wouldn’t have been able to keep from snickering, and he’s a nice guy. He’ll call it that when he’s talking to the boys back in the installer shop, though. Guar-an-teed.

Europeans in Washington, even the Brits, are inclined to see the notion of European unity more positively than they might at home; exile, however benign, breeds a sense of solidarity. And perhaps no single group of people outside Brussels has been as enthusiastic about the idea of European unity as the traditional liberal-minded Washington elite clustered round the state department and restaurants a great deal fancier than the Olive Garden.

Closure looms; the circle is nearly complete; the travel expense account surely justified by now.

(Three more great blocky chunks of obviousness snipped)

I talked to some (students) the other day and asked them to play word association.

They responded very readily to Britain and the British: "Tea... proper... trousers... Monty Python... Jane Eyre... Austin Powers... soccer hooligans... Prince William... dry and witty... educated... not huggy..." They were just as quick shouting out about France and the French: "Wine... good food... smokers... nationalism... cultural snobs... closed society... proud... hairy". But they seemed almost Alabama-vague when asked about Europe and Europeans as a whole: "Culture... old... small... snobby... castles". Someone added, "They enjoy life more," then the answers petered out.

They might be likewise unable to come up for phrases about the solar system. “Cold . . . punctuated by the occasional rocky sphere . . . asteroid belt . . . comets.”


(Two more paragraphs, each of which feels as though you are being struck weakly by a wet baguette, snipped)


It is, however, easier to claim that Europe does not matter than to claim that Britain or France or Germany don't matter. America may not care about Europe. But the parts of Europe are still greater than the whole. When it comes to it, would they really launch a full-blooded assault without Powell holding hands with Hubert, Joschka and Jack?

Thus the importance of Europe revealed: When it comes time for war, we will send someone to hold their hands and explain that the thunder they hear on the CNN Baghdad feed is just the angels bowling.

Militarily, the US can now take on whomever it chooses. But the psychology is different. One influential senator (not from Alabama) was musing the other day: "Sure, we can invade Iraq without at least British support. But people still think of Winston Churchill. I think it would be politically difficult and perhaps impossible." It might, in short, go down badly at all 477 branches of the Olive Garden.

One of these branches is in my home town of Fargo, North Dakota. It’s packed every time we go there, and we go there because my family likes it, because the salad comes in bowls the size of Jayne Mansfield’s bra cups, and the portions will satisfy you for the rest of the night. There’s one dish I like - an angel-hair pasta with olive oil, diced tomato and seasoned chicken. Nothing special - I can make it at home, but whenever I find myself at an Olive Garden I know there’s one dish I’ll enjoy. Most of these restaurants have bar, outfitted in Italian - i.e., European - motifs. There’s often a TV. Should war with Iraq come, the TV will be turned to the news.

As much as it may pain the souls at the Guardian, not a single North Dakotan watching the war begin would wonder what Europe, let alone England, thinks. And if Tony Blair appeared to condemn the war, he would be booed, if anyone was paying attention to what he said. Oh, it would go down badly, all right.

Here’s the deal: we don’t need your support. But understand that if Iraqis had flown planes into Big Ben, we’d take out Saddam, because we understand that an attack on you is an attack on us. The West is not defined by Belgian edicts on acceptable levels of tomato sauce viscosity. The West is a set of ideas that need defending. Forgive us our passable wines; forgive our standardized veal. Forgive us our simple-mindedness, for we - from Alabama on outward to outer, distant Alabama and beyond - have a gut feeling that “quarrels” usually boil down to two sides. Forgive us for believing that fascism's side ought to lose.

And if we seem arrogant when it comes to beating fascism, forgive us once more, for we have something you don’t.

Practice.

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