“So where in the US are you from?”
“Okay, Virginia … is that in the East or the West?”
“On the coast?”
“Yeah. Right next to DC. I grew up close to DC.”
“Ah yes, okay.”
I was at the Saturday CouchSurfing meetup that I went to almost every week in Amsterdam, talking to Pol Ewen, a French traveler studying urban agriculture throughout Europe. I had had this particular conversation about a million times before, and was pretty used to the pattern.
“Virginia … Isn’t that where the Constitution was written?” I was taken aback by the question. This was not part of the standard pattern. Has our cultural globalism become so overblown that any Frenchman knows the minutiae of our founding?
“It was written in Pennsylvania, but a lot of the people who wrote it were from Virginia.”
“Ah yes yes, like ehh, Thomas Jefferson.”
“Yeah, Thomas Jefferson,” I said, both proud and slightly disconcerted. “He also founded the University of Virginia.”
“Ah yes. And ehh … John Jay.”
I looked at him blankly. “John Adams?”
“Yes John Adams, but also John Jay.”
I didn’t remember any John Jay from my history lessons. But it was loud in the bar and he had an accent, so I thought perhaps I had misheard. I tried to think of who he might mean. “James Madison?”
“Yes James Madison,” he said, laughing, “but also John Jay! He wrote the Federalist Papers.”
I was rapidly getting out of my depth, but I wasn’t about to let this frog school me on my own nation’s history. “I thought Alexander Hamilton wrote the Federalist Papers.”
“Yes he wrote them, but also John Jay. And Alexander Hamilton became president, yes?”
“Uhhh,” I said uncertainly, acutely aware of the fact that I’ve never been totally clear on which of the founding fathers were president and which weren’t.
“But John Jay, he was the, ehh, the loser in all of this. He wrote some of the Federalist Papers but he didn’t become president.”
There was a pause.
“I think you’re making this up. I’ve never heard of John Jay!”
“No, it is true! One of my English classes, it was on American and British history from 1750 to the present day.”
“We’re going to look this up. And if you’re right I owe you a beer.”
“Okay, it’s a deal.” He tapped a fellow CouchSurfer on the shoulder and asked to borrow his iPhone. A few minutes later he held the phone up triumphantly.
“John Jay was an American statesman, patriot, diplomat, a Founding Father of the United States, and the first Chief Justice of the United States!” he read triumphantly.
“Let me see that!” He handed me the phone. “Well I’ll be damned,” I said. “I’m so embarrassed!”
“Ahhh, don’t be embarrassed,” he said graciously. “You knew about the Federalist Papers, and not many people know that.”
“Oh, well, thank you, it’s an honor to be complimented by such a preeminent scholar of American history,” I said, silently thanking Dylan for her ridiculous obsession with Alexander Hamilton and the Federalist Papers. “What kind of beer do you want?”