David L. Robbins
Novelist, Educator, Playwright, Essayist
Native Son #4
by David L. Robbins on May 19th, 2014

A few months back, to research a novel, I took a two week voyage aboard a massive cargo ship from Malta to Dubai.

The captain and officers of the CMA-CGM Hydra were Croatian, except for the Romanian chief engineer. The deck crew were Filipino.

Dinnertime at the officers’ table was each day’s highlight. Captain Dado presided beside his wife Valnea. Chief, 1st mate Jonnie, 2nd mate Aldo, and I filled the rest of the seats.

The food always dissatisfied. Bland pastas and soups, badly spiced stews, boiled meat, fried vegetables. Jonnie said the Filipino cook “lacked touch.” The conversations never soared during the entrées and limp salads. Chief reported on mechanical misdoings, Dado complained about the lack of internet onboard, Aldo harped about stopped toilets and lost wrenches. Perhaps as the French claim, the tongue truly is loosened by a pleased palate, and the opposite holds true, too. Not until dessert – Chinese pistachio ice cream – did we hit our strides, and I got to ask questions.

All of them had grown up behind the Iron Curtain; the Croatians under Tito, Chief under Ceauşescu. None found their upbringings particularly oppressive. They were blithe about what we Americans consider freedom. They’d had homes and families, were well educated, as young people had found work and loving mates. They did not yearn, as they said, for the colors and bangles of western liberties. Freedoms of the press, the vote, travel, speech, commerce, worship, they had none of these to an American extent and did not lament the lack. Having them today left them unimpressed.

What mattered most was that they’d come of age with kinsmen and extended families in a community. They pulled together on whatever oar was at hand, in happiness and tragedy. They left governance to others and focused on Sundays around some relative’s table, troubles borne or lessened by charity amongst neighbors. They were raised by a village and did the same when their turns came. No one was both sick and alone, nor poor without shelter and food. I remarked the obvious, that community was the root of ‘communism.’ They said ‘exactly.’
I asked if they could not have done these things just as well as freer citizens. They thought not. Too much freedom tempts the individual away, makes him think more of his own concerns. I asked for the chief difference between America and their countries. The captain answered:
“Nowhere in the world do people love the individual like America. Your fascination with the lone man is your greatest asset and weakness.”

Chief explained: America is the only nation on earth where a dream can be lived. It is “the territory of wonder.” A man can believe and achieve, yes. But what happens to the tens of millions who fall short? Who is there to support them until they can climb back to their feet and pursue the dream?

America makes heroes of actors and sports stars, we have professional celebrities, we forgive the rich but a pauper had best sleep somewhere else, our social programs are begrudged and under fire. Because wealth is the mark of a man, we care most about fair access to money instead of simple joys like health, family, and equality.

These were their pronouncements on America. They are good people who like us. But we disappoint them because we share so much with the world and, in their view, so little with each other.

At Dubai, I bade them farewell. To my pleasure Dado, Valnea, Chief and I have stayed in touch. They continue to gig me about oil spills, the tea party, handguns in our national parks, anything they can find to fling at my American singularity.

I won’t say I agree with all their assessments; they seem for the most part overly simplified, as mine would of their cultures.

But to be honest, a lot of their points tug at the heart. I should like to live in a country that is also a village. To be among a people who recognize what we have in common more than work so hard to achieve, even earn, a difference.

We are Americans. It’s revealing and refreshing once in a while to answer as one.

Posted in Boomer Mag, Boomer Articles    Tagged with boomer magazine, native son, richmond, malta, dubai, travel, ship, american, rva


Leave a Comment