“It was shocking, really, shocking,” she says to me. This is my delightful 19 year old niece who’s been visiting from Austria for the past month. The source of her surprise? The civility at Bumbershoot, a famous Seattle music festival. What on earth could be so shocking about a music festival? “Well, for starters, everyone was sober.” That’s not the only thing that’s left her shaking her head. There are whole entire families on the grounds, a lack of obvious police presence, and she’s allowed to carry her backpack in, unquestioned by anyone in security. “In Austria, I would be allowed some cash and my ID. That’s it. There would be police everywhere and people would be drinking, heavily, from early in the day…”
We’ve had a lot of conversations like this over the last month, most of them starting with Niece V’s response to… well, it could be just about anything. The way the bus driver said good morning or my friends’ unconventional family structures or the food on the table. Anything and everything is cause for discussion and comparison. “In Austria,” she would start, and then we’d fill in the blanks.
It is almost as good as traveling, having this foreign guest in my home. She gives me cause to open my eyes and think about things I take for granted, the opportunity to explain the grand experiment of “My America.” And I do refer to it as My America, because I think it’s also important that when we talk about the US, it’s clear that were she with a farming family in Oklahoma or a line of blue blooded North-easterners, her experience would be wildly different.
On her third or fourth day here, I asked her what ‘s surprised her about the US most so far. Her answer both breaks my heart and swells it. Back home, very few of her people thought that going to America was a good idea. According to her sources, we are an unfriendly, violent, dangerous, and unpopular place (never mind that her grandmother was here a few years back and had a lovely time). We are a television America, rude and packing weapons. None of these things have manifest themselves to V. We are friendly, easy going, all kinds of good things, us Yankees. While we’re having this conversation, a uniformed officer comes in to the coffee shop. “She’s got a gun,” I say, pointing to the cop, but V. says the officer doesn’t count. “Sorry, that’s the best I’ve got,” I respond.
I wave my arms around a lot about the critical need for Americans to get abroad more. I’m always standing on some virtual soapbox ranting about citizen diplomacy as the solution to most, if not all of our international woes. It is possible that I am shamelessly naive in this, but also, these are convictions I feel from my heart to my shoes. And each time I watch yet another negative American stereotype debunked in front of the eyes of my young guest, I am filled with joy. I imagine sending my niece, this unsuspecting victim of my insidious propaganda project, back to her home country with an idea of America that is completely different than the one she set out with.
The time I’ve spent sharing My America with my niece has made me think more about travel from the other side, from the view of the host country, for a change. It seems as critical that we get ourselves abroad as is does that we open our doors to people who want to get a look at us.
The other day a guy from the Democratic National Committee was on my front porch. We had a long talk about lots of things – I couldn’t, as usual, shut up – including the damage that Homeland Security has inflicted on accidental diplomats like my niece. I mentioned how I thought it was a damn shame, a tragic waste, really, that we are treating tourists like criminals when mostly, what they want to do is go shopping in our malls and take pictures of our national parks. How was it helping our lousy image, one spoiled by war and imperialism and entitlement, to put an obstacle course between tourist and their goals of driving giant rental cars up and down our open spaces and eating giant burgers at roadside diners?
Shortly after US troops invaded Iraq, I was in Italy. I was talking with a German gentleman, a sixtyish professorial type who’d lived in Eugene, Oregon once. I asked him if he had any interest in going back. He dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand saying that “he didn’t think much of America anymore.” I confess, I wanted to punch him. Europeans do like to accuse us of being undereducated yokels with no history, and here is this German, from a nation with some of the ugliest modern history on record, telling me he didn’t think much of us because of our government. I walked away but I did not forget the insult.
“It’s not at all what I expected,” said Niece V. last night as she told me how very much her parents needed to come to the US next, how much they would enjoy traveling here. Granted, the Pacific Northwest and my version of it is an island of lefty liberalism, natural beauty, and mellow civility. Granted, other places are very, very different. And granted, with very little objection, America is a deeply flawed nation. But it’s got a very bad rap from the rest of the world.
Never mind. I’m doing what I can to undo that, one conversation at a time. It’s a lot of work. Early this morning at the airport, I gave V. a big hug. “I’ll absolutely be back, you can be sure of it.” she said, and headed off to get her plane.
The guest room is empty. That’s one, there are only several billion to go. Next, please?