Wednesday, December 24, 2008

What Santa Brought Me

By Florin Ion Firimiţã

Christmas came early to me this year, on the evening Barack Obama was elected the next President of the United States. Suddenly, I experienced a miracle: after many years of doubt, I started believing again in Santa Claus.

My friend Paul, a New-Zealander turned Parisian, with whom I occasionally spend lazy summer mornings in a café in Southern France, emailed me right away: “Wow! Your adopted country has always intrigued me,” he said. “You guys have the best and the worst of everything.”

Coming from Romania, whose presidents kept reelecting themselves until they end up disheveled and unapologetic in front of makeshift firing squads, or they are replaced by other dictators-in-waiting, I am not a big fan of fake revolutions, and I am suspicious of any mélange of fantasy, politics and euphoria.

Back in the 80’s, in Romanian classrooms, we pledged allegiance to the Almighty Leader while listening to Bruce Springsteen on the banned short-waves of Radio Free Europe, furtively looking across the ocean: we had the worst, and the best came only from America. We were also suspicious of miracles. The official Santa Claus (or the more politically correct “Father Christmas”) was definitely a Communist (favorite color: red) on the payroll of the secret police. (I have always been suspicious of his gift for knowing both when we were sleeping and when we were awake, and also his ability of sliding up and down our chimneys without being detected.)

In 1981, when Ronald Reagan became the 40th President of the United States, in Romania we kept waiting for him to show up on a white horse and give us a lift. The dream didn’t last long. After a while, we feared that he could be just a B-actor with no interest in coming out of his movies and saving Eastern Europe from the dark basements of the Cold War. For us, the President of the United States existed mainly as a television myth, as unreachable and unreal as Santa Claus, or our own local dictator. The faith of our corner of the world had actually been decided way before the 80s’ when Stalin and the rest of the world powers sliced up our side of Europe like a tired, reluctant pizza. For decades, Romania has always been the poor Eastern-European girl hoping to marry the cultured, sophisticated New Yorker, but ending up with the bloody-handed KGB boy next door.

Why were we so disappointed that the Americans had failed to show up at our doorsteps? After years of waiting, it seemed that we had lost the battle. Except for its voyeuristic, slightly condescending attitude, the so-called “civilized” world stopped paying attention to our nightmares. Eastern Europe with its gypsies, gymnasts, and dictators couldn’t have been more than an exotic spice at the table of the rich Westerners.

The real Santa, rumors went, had defected to America.

I moved to the United States in 1990 and enthusiastically became a citizen in 1995. Still, American politics left me pretty much cold. I lived, like most of us, in my own bubble as an artist and a writer. Democracy was a given, politics was not my turf.

Over the past eight years, however, I have gradually started to feel both guilty and angry. My growing sense is that we’ve become increasingly trapped under the soft parentheses of our iPods; we are distracted by fresh scandals here and there, we are preoccupied by our endless quest for individual happiness (more, bigger, better), numbed by our designer cell phones, blinded by Britney Spears’ shaved head, and stuck on the soothing mediocrity of “Dancing with the Stars” and “American Idol.”

We had forgotten that democracy is an active, participatory venture.

All the while our soldiers died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and bodies decomposed for days under the New Orleans sun, we kept buying Hummers and stuck Chinese-made yellow ribbon magnets on them, calling ourselves patriots.

In my adopted country, where capitalism cleverly has been able to transform I want it into I need it, where we use nature as a backdrop to sell SUVs, antidepressants and investment plans, where competitive eating has become a sport, and losing weight has become a form of entertainment (I bet no one tunes in to those shows in Rwanda), I have a feeling that we have not learned much from the tragic lessons of September 11.

Last Christmas, when recession was only a laughable rumor spread by liberals, I found myself in a store on Madison Avenue. There I saw a $38,000 Roger Dubuis wrist watch and a pair of shiny Gucci crocodile pumps for $4,200. With all due respect to capitalism, I felt a latent Commie breeding inside me, quietly raging against all the Carrie Bradshaw wannabees taking the “Sex and the City” bus tour around Manhattan.

Measuring our life goals by the ever-increasing size of our flat-screen TVs, mesmerized by the promises of bigger and better toys designed to make us forget, our fingers glued to the buttons of our shiny electronic devices, wearing the masks of “compassionate conservatism” and greed disguised as patriotism, we have been watching our ideals turn into addictions. Santa might have once defected to the United States, only to have ended up on “Celebrity Rehab.”

What happened to my Promised Land? What happened to Democracy? What happened to the Politician as the Servant of the Nation? Where were our moral, spiritual and political leaders? Why have both wealth and poverty become nests of civic impotence? And when was the last time we had a truly presidential President? In a country that emphasizes so much competitiveness, creativity and achievement, why were we stuck with a leader whose ideas and actions, instead of uniting a nation, ended up inspiring endless comic skits on SNL?

On the evening Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States, I was at a friend’s home, glued to the TV until one o’clock in the morning. I wasn't really willing to believe he was winning. I remember feeling that maybe I should start pursuing that European passport I have been entitled to since Romania became a part of the European Union. I will never forget that night, because I stopped waiting for miracles, and became my own Santa Claus, by enjoying the fruit of my vote.

Obama's victory restored everything I believed in when I came to this country. It’s true, our new President faces enormous challenges. With more than 10 million Americans out of work, and an economy in free fall, maybe this is not the right time for that $300 showoff bottle of Dom Perignon champagne, but we could restart on a smaller scale. I have always been suspicious of any mélange of fantasy, politics and euphoria, but this December, please allow me to believe that the best is yet to come.

I emailed back my friend Paul, reminding him that, in a sense, he was right: we create our own best and worst in this country. One of the givens of living in a democracy is that we have to live with the mistakes we make, but fortunately, while presidents come and go, the country remains.

Obama’s election brought back my old belief in democracy not as a collective numbing, but rather as a form of elitism for all. Time is as an equal sieve for rock stars and writers, Presidents, artists and athletes, but I believe we all he have a role in a democracy. I also know for sure that, if in charge, either Joe Six-Pack or Jerry Springer would definitely have lost the Cuban Missile Crisis. Could you blame me that I feel more comfortable with a confidence-exuding, articulate, brilliant African-American holding Columbia University and Harvard Law School degrees to represent me at home and in the international arena? And while an unlicensed plumber is perfectly entitled to get an agent (!) and a book deal for irrelevant opinions someone else helped him express, I feel quite free (and relieved) to stick to the classics. Welcome back, Santa! Because of you, democracy has been proven one more time, a very effective way of taking out the trash.

Florin Ion Firimiţã is a Romanian-American visual artist, teacher and author who splits his time between Southern France and the United States.


Otto Katz said...

Beautiful essay, Florin, but some of us have been fighting the good fight for the past 20 years, weren't sucked into the "bigger is better" trap, and worked our asses off non-stop for the nightmare to be over. And it is. Now we have to keep working, to make sure the people we elected do our collective bidding, to right the wrongs, to fix the broken dreams, and to gain respect in the world again.

Anonymous said...

A wonderful essay, Florin. Implicit in what you're saying is the warning that we must never go back to our profligate ways. "Recovery" under Obama must not mean "return" to the way things were. Another thought: Once you are an American citizen, you are responsible, in a democracy, for the outcome. Fleeing when times are Bush-like is not an option. Staying-- fighting, if necessay; voting-- is a duty. Keep those ideas coming!

Unknown said...

That is an excellent rendering of your thoughts on US politics and its increasing glamor that has clouded democracy. And yes, the power of democracy has unveiled with the election of President Obama. Miracles do happen, Santa is reachable, and we can do it! We can breathe and see again!

Anonymous said...

Hi Florin,
As I write this your moving collage hangs on the adjacent wall....

Fabouous words, and so potent because of yur life long experience. YOu clearly articulate a character that I have as well; it is the juxtaposition of almost polly anna optomism with a jaded outlook due to tough realities that you have lived.
Since seeing you I have married and I live embedded in the campus of Yale. On the night of the election, also at 1:00, students poured into the streets singing the Star Spangled Banner in unison. It was one of the great hopeful moments of my see youth so energized about out country and its leader. Just in time.
Thanks so much for writing this beautiful piece.
Not surprisingly, the gallery lost it Mass State funding so I am out of work, yet it continues with volunteer efforts.
Much love, Heidi