Thursday, June 20, 2013

Gandolfini, Putin and the Ring

Such sad news this morning when I woke: the unexpected passing of the actor James Gandolfini.  He was respected by his peers, adored by his fans, and an intelligent force in television and the movies.  My heartfelt condolences go out to his family, especially his kids.  He will be missed by many.

James Gandolfini is probably best known for his rendering of the main character on the cable TV show The Sopranos.  I have not seen this TV series yet -- probably the only person in the country who hasn't -- and I look forward to watching it.  After hearing the story told by the New England Patriots' owner of how President Vladimir Putin absconded with his Superbowl ring, I wonder, seriously, if Putin hadn't seen Tony Soprano at work and thought maybe he was him. 

Marc Sessler over at the NFL summarizes the whole story nicely, giving both sides, or, should I say, all sides.  It's not just Robert Kraft and Vladimir Putin involved, but also the American government and the Russian government.  And it seems, Mr. Kraft is happy his ring for Superbowl XXXIX is in Russia, so he doesn't want it returned.  I find it interesting that this story seemed to rocket out of nowhere last week and the initial reports I heard were not terribly flattering to President Putin.

It reminded me of my own experience with Russians, and how differently they think and behave.  One Russian couple that I befriended were mystified by all the things they had to do themselves because the government didn't do it for them.  They wanted the control over their lives that they found in America and they wanted the government to take care of everything for them.  It was amusing but also enlightening: they struggled to adjust to a culture and society drastically different from the one they'd left behind.  At one point, one of them commented to me that he felt that he'd lost all his experience.  That can be a humiliating experience for an adult, actually.  I told them often that as immigrants they weren't expected to know everything about living in America.

One of the things that affected me directly was their incomprehension of the concept of borrowing or loaning.  When we first met, I loaned them a book from my library because they wanted to read it.  Months passed.  I asked if they'd read the book.  Yes.  Well, where was it?  At home.  They did not understand that I had loaned them the book and expected them to return it.  When I asked for the book back, they both acted as if I'd offended them somehow.  I did loan them other books that I never saw again.  I understood that they believed I'd given the books to them, that I no longer wanted them.  Eventually, any time either saw a book in my library that they wanted to read, I would tell them I no longer loaned out my books, to anyone, not just them.  In truth, it was only them.

I also gave them many gifts during the time that I knew them.  However, I became wary of letting them even hold something for fear that I'd never see it again.  Other Americans I've spoken with about Russians and their culture have had similar experiences.  No matter how clear one is about loaning rather than giving, Russians simply assume anything you give to them is a gift.  Or why would you give it to them?

Mr. Kraft may not have wanted Vladimir Putin to have his Superbowl ring.  I believe that he willingly showed it to Putin, took it off his finger and allowed Putin to hold it.  At this point, I believe the Russian President thought Mr. Kraft was giving him the ring (he apparently wasn't), and reacted as such.  If Mr. Putin had stolen the ring, I think to a Russian that means he would have pulled the ring off Mr. Kraft's finger.  But Mr. Kraft willingly handed Mr. Putin the ring and allowed him to hold it, to put it on.

I believe both governments have handled this situation with the clumsiness of not wanting to step on anyone's toes when the feet are right there, hard to avoid.  They cannot see it as an opportunity for learning about each other's culture.  And that's the real loss here....

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