The Americans, Always The Americans

I Facetimed my father yesterday. It seems the UPS guy who delivered a Christmas present from us to my dad late on Monday inexplicably left it next to his Pennsylvania garage door and never made its presence known. So it sat outside all night in sub-freezing temperatures.

Tuesday morning that turned into a near-farce. Not knowing it was there, Dad did not see it just at the side of the garage door and while reversing his car out he caught a corner of the large shipping box and just missed flattening it entirely. Fortunately its gift inside was undamaged and had survived the cold overnight.

[Christmas poinsettia, Hertfordshire, England. Photo by me, 2018.]

So another Christmas is nearly upon us. In not traveling to the US this year, a reality suddenly struck me as I spoke with him. Unless I am talking by phone or by Facetime to someone in the US, the only Americans I encounter daily are usually on the internet.

It has been that way for years. In the early 2000s I worked at a university on the edge of London, and only two staff I met there were Americans; and I never got to know either very well. My closest colleagues (some who became friends and still are) were primarily British, German, French, and Italian, and from other European countries, such as Russia, as well as from Middle Eastern countries (Egypt and Jordan in particular), and from sub-Saharan Africa and beyond.

We always hear that only a minority of Americans do foreign travel, whereas Europeans go everywhere. However, that’s an inaccurate like-for-like comparison in this sense. It is worth remembering that, for instance, flying from Britain to Italy, while foreign travel of course, is also the distance equivalent roughly of a New Yorker flying to Florida.

That distance issue in mind, we might be surprised as well at how many otherwise well-traveled Europeans have never actually been to the US. Moreover they also see the US around them seemingly everywhere. I always find that combination intriguing whenever I cross paths with any of those people…

[Excerpt from Passports, in paperback. Click to expand.]

For an author, “write what you know” is also an old adage. I try always to remember it. It’s an excellent basic writing rule to look to live by. (“Beatrice” there also turned out to be a real-life friend.)

Our US is in many ways as we know also a global Goliath, and has been so since World War II. Several generations of both Americans and non-Americans have now grown up never knowing the US that was militarily almost irrelevant (1939), “isolationist,” and not greatly involved in international affairs. “America” is now even more than ever stamped all over the news, business, and global popular culture.

Pre-internet (meaning pre-1990s) there was perhaps more to “learn” about the US that was not easily accessible. But today non-Americans see the US and we Americans over the internet as well as on other media; given that, we are in many ways “inescapable.” In British media, for instance, recent US presidents are not generally referred to as “US President…”; they are routinely called simply “President…” despite the fact they are obviously NOT the president of here.

My personal US presidential preference currently tends more towards, uh…

[“Jed Bartlet” for President. “Barlet” is the fictional president from the 1999-2006 US television series, The West Wing. Photo by me, 2018.]

…but that’s not the main issue here. 😉

My point is that what non-Americans tend to see of us in America at a distance is certainly not really “representative.”

True, it is probably expecting far too much that it can be. Yet through media and social media non-Americans tend to see way too much of the US of the extremes: yapping politicians, Kardashians, people waving guns around, poverty, racial discord, hurricanes, wildfires, religious “fundamentalists” who seem to dislike everybody who isn’t their sort of Christian, and a slew of negatives on a near-endless list; or they see glitter that dazzles them: gorgeous national parks, Florida beaches, Las Vegas, snowy mountain retreats, cool New York City, Hollywood, shopping, and much more.

[Woodbury Common shopping outlets, upstate New York. Photo by me, 2018.]

They may end up with a knowledge of the US that borders on caricature, and a skewed view of most Americans’ lives and personal beliefs and opinions. For years I have had versions of that conversation more times with Europeans than I can begin to recount. It is also why I try always to be calm and reasonable in discussing especially US politics in particular: Europeans who have never been to America, or have been only to the likes of Disney, tend to put a lot of stock in what Americans abroad have to say, so it is worth being careful, I believe, about what we say and how we say it.

That unlike how we Americans might behave among only other Americans. We’re “different” I think when no non-Americans are within earshot. Abroad when I have socialized with Americans and we appear to behave as “expected” to non-Americans who are around us, we may draw “knowing” grins:

[Excerpt from Distances, in paperback. Click to expand.]

Uh, “Brad” really liked “Valérie”… but let’s not digress; that’s for the novel. 😉

All of this is nothing new. Europeans have historically often found Americans both degrees of fascinating as well as tough to understand. That existed even right after US independence: for example, Americans in the 1780s were generally stereotyped as “uncouth frontiersmen”…

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris, for iPad/iPhone. Click to expand.]

…who did not know how to behave in “polite company.”

Sometimes, even with all the information we have now that few possessed way back then, one wonders how much that has really changed?

[Catskill Mountains, upstate New York, December 1, 2018. Photo by me.]

Have a great day, wherever you are. 🙂