Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Processing perceptions

Yesterday was a gorgeous day in Doylestown--itself the county seat of Bucks County and one of the most beautiful towns both in terms of layout and architecture that I've discovered since coming to the US, and I was there to be interviewed by Joy Stocke, managing editor of the Bucks County Writer. We met at the local Starbucks that's set within a military barracks from the 1800s and replete with a wraparound verandah on the second floor.

As she was conducting the interview, a chap who'd been sitting in a corner came up to our table, explained he had to go out and do something, and asked if we'd mind keeping an eye on his bag--a navy hold-all--until he returned. Both of us looked fleetingly at the bag and then back at the chap before Joy, whose got a very sunny smile, flashed it and warmly invited him to bring it over and set it at the feet of the table next to us. Of course, my Northern Ireland trait toward suspicion surfaced though I said nothing, not until the bag had been deposited and the chap was gone.

As Joy fired her next question, I explained I was nervous about looking after a stranger's bag and 'what's got something inside?" (My aunt lost a great deal of her vision when a bomb went off near her shop when I was about ten.) Joy looked at me incredulously. Again, both of us regarded the hold-all, my ears straining simultaneously for the sound of a ticking clock--notwithstanding quartz clocks are probably used nowadays--and nose crinkling like a curious cat's for any trace of an ammonia or fertilizer-ish stench. Of course, Joy made a perfectly valid comment as to who'd want to do something horrid in sleepy Doylestown while my thought--and I admit it was politically incorrect--was that the man hadn't looked Arab, in fact with his dark hair and blue eyes looked somewhat Irish.

After an additional five minutes, we opted to change tables, and moved some ten feet away from said bag, as if somehow that would improve our lot in the event it was indeed something nasty. At this point, I explained to Joy about an incident that had occurred while I was on my way back to my Hall of Residence with some friends after a law lecture in Cardiff. As we were walking along the main road, there was a loud bang and I fell upon the tarmac instinctively. None of my English friends did anything except look down strangely at my prostrate body. As it turned out, it was a car backfiring and they'd correctly assumed this was the reason for the noise. I, on the other hand, was primed to think 'explosion'. (Later though, English people, too, became suspicious of unattended packages and would not look after people's bags after bombs had gone off in London and other cities.)

After ten minutes or so, my discomfit returned and I articulated this to Joy. She was quite amazed, said as an American it wouldn't have crossed her mind that anyone might try to plant a bomb, but I said I'd grown up with this threat in Northern Ireland and it was now etched permanently in my psyche. Also, 9/11 was on my mind. At that moment, the chap came back and we told him about our discussion and he said he'd just gone to do some photocopying, though why he hadn't taken his bag I don't really understand. Everyone laughed about it...and I was right because it turned out he was part Irish, part Scottish and part German.

All in all, the incident left me keenly aware of how childhood practices carry through into adult life, how I react so very differently to Americans in such situations, and how I will always carry this Northern Irish fear and suspicion, this hangover from 'The Troubles.'

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Anonymous said...

Think that will drive you some extra traffic?