I had been buzzing around Japan with a small group of Aussies and Brits. I saw in the distance that most were already at the agreed upon meeting point. Before I could reach it, however, I was joined by our tour guide, a self-described cowboy from the Australian Outback who based his recommendations for restaurants on the price of beer. Two other Australians on the tour, meek and mild-mannered sisters of Chinese descent, peeled away from the group and made a bee-line for us. They were both school teachers, though I don’t know of what. During the tour they hadn’t really talked to anyone but themselves and had yet to initiate a conversation with me. One sister wiped at her eyes; the other’s lips trembled. Both had wet and reddened cheeks.
“How did that make you feel?” one blurted out as soon as she reached me.
“The museum. How did it make you feel?”
I knew what she was asking. I doubt she had confronted anyone else in the group. She wanted me, an American, to express paralyzing guilt.
Years before, I had traveled from Poland to Sweden via ferry. In the evening I went to the bar for a beer and tried to chat up a Finnish woman. I thought things were going pretty well when she paused, slitted her eyes and said, “You know, I just can’t forgive you for what you did to the Indians.”
“You mean ‘Native Americans?’” I try to be witty when I flirt; our conversation had taken such a turn that I thought she was joking.
“What? No. Indians. American Indians.” Her nostrils flared. Clearly she had some pent up anger that had waited for an appropriate moment to surface. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what had set her off. Just moments earlier, we had been talking about the Winter Olympics. When I dropped the name of a Finnish ski jumper (since forgotten) she leaned into me and curled a tendril of her blond hair around a long, slender finger.
“Well, it just happened.” I took a sip of beer.
“What?” Now her voice started to rise. “How can you say it just happened? All that murder doesn’t just happen. What a terrible thing to say.”
“You don’t understand. ‘Just’ can mean ‘recently.’ It happened recently.”
She wasn’t appeased. Proposing that Americans were more open than Europeans about the sins of their forefathers didn’t help.
“I read somewhere that the Neil Young song ‘Cortez the Killer’ was illegal in Spain,” I said. “It’s not on any albums there, and you can’t play it on the radio.”
“I don’t know this song,” she said. She attempted to swig the rest of her beer but gave up while her mug was still a quarter full. She didn’t look at me, just walked out of the bar. I never saw her again.