I spent this Fourth of July outside the United States of America. Those in service to our military do it all the time. Also, sometimes our politicians, depending on who’s inviting.
In my case, our family was simply accepting the kindness of friends who offered us lodging.
Here we reside in a cacophonous nexus of sound: dogs barking often and at all hours, raucous two- and four-wheeler engine exhausts echoing off bricks and cobbles and up and down shoulder-scrapingly narrow streets, sparrows that sound like the ones back home and other birds that don’t.
The houses are built tightly together — fused, in fact — but the yards are walled. We are packed together in isolation, except for the sounds of conversations and celebrations, which rise, carry and mingle. Sounds, and the aromatics of food.
This morning I walked the streets early and at every other corner was treated to the scent of fresh-baked bread. It was the living definition of “wafting.”
I do not speak the language of this place. I know some words, but vocabulary is not conversation. I make my best effort, communicating at the level of a slow-witted toddler. The hope is to convey sincerity and respect as opposed to presumption. It usually works out, and when it doesn’t, the results are usually humorous. Once I asked for ice and got Oreos.
At midday on the Fourth, I climbed to the roof and sat in the sun for a bird’s-eye view of our surroundings. The town is a dense conglomeration of stucco cubes arranged up and down mountain slopes and along a valley. The dogs were at it, as ever.
From the house next door arose the sound of someone singing ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” in a voice so off-key I found it a marvel equivalent to anything I’d ever heard in tune. To convey joy with an instrument so twisted is a marvel to be studied and respected.
The sky was blue and popcorned with clouds. Come late afternoon they would bank behind the mountain in a skulk, then breach to slide downslope and across the valley, draping gray veils of rain across the landscape.
Most days the rains are brief. Come evening you can stroll the town square and leave your umbrella in the house.
Earlier I scanned the news from home. The country of my birth has been a blessing I do not take for granted. I honor those who preserve it in person, in truth, and in principle. But perched here on this foreign roof I was reminded again how time spent in a place with paving bricks older than our Declaration of Independence and monuments and buildings testament to events far preceding all but our native history renders certain stripes of bluster just that.
To declare ourselves chosen is to unwittingly echo the chorus of every failed civilization preceding. Faith without works, etc., etc.
Fresh history or old history, all evidence suggests humans never learn; on the upside, they never give up. Back home, my flagpole is over 30 feet tall. Harrumph. But in a place where the birds sound different, it is good to hear new old songs. It’s less about being number one than numbered among many.
“I love it here,” my daughter said, after I’d climbed back down, “and it will be good to be back home.”
An original “Roughneck Grace” column exclusive to the Wisconsin State Journal. Audio versions may air on “Tent Show Radio” (tentshowradio.com). Read more from Michael Perry at www.sneezingcow.com.