Life Abroad

When I am hanging out with my European friends at night and solving the world’s political and social problems over cigars and cocktails, the inevitable “American” question always finds its way to my attention:

“Christopher, why do so many Americans ...”

And from there, just insert any sundry number of questions revolving around the things for which Americans are known to make international news reports.

“... take so little vacation time every year?”

“... refuse to wear masks during the pandemic?”

“... have so many guns?”

“... tend to be so loud?”

My European friends are curious, of course. What they see and hear in the media can be foreign and quite confusing at times, but always interesting. I think they ask me because they trust me, and because they know I am not just a holiday visitor here.

I usually just kind of shrug these questions off with some standard doubletalk and strategic subject-changing maneuvers. Until recently, that is to say. I was asked this type of question a couple of weeks ago by a writer-friend from Scotland. A conversation our group was having sparked a certain curiosity, and he asked me why Americans seem so divided these days.

I didn’t have an answer at first. Primarily because there just isn’t a good excuse for any of it, on any level, from any perspective. And I felt a little embarrassed by the question, too. But I spoke up and agreed that things had certainly gotten worse. 

I also told him what it was like to be a kid in the 1980s, watching two old Irish-Americans, Ronald Reagan and “Tip” O’Neill, duke it out during the day over ideological differences, but somehow working everything out in the evening — over Jameson, perhaps — and coming together to compromise.

And then it hit me. Europe is a disciplined, cultivated, methodical, unobtrusive and well-established continent which meant I finally had the perfect answer:

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel addressed her people back in March of this year, she told them they would need to socially distance and wear a mask in public. So, the German people distanced themselves and put on masks. No questions asked. Why? Because as a whole, the culture here is by and large orderly and reverent.

Germany, like the rest of Europe, is also an ancient place, with history and landmarks going back thousands of years. There even tends to be very little trash on the roads and sidewalks, and it would not be surprising to see a random stranger stop and pick it up if there were.

But somewhere down the line, at some point in the past 500 years or so, there was a German here, or an Englishman there, who didn’t like their home and decided they would be better off elsewhere. Perhaps it was religion that caused the Frenchman to seek the shores of the New World. Or opportunity that inspired the Spaniard to make the voyage across the Atlantic.

Whatever the reason, the people who decided to leave the Old World were of plucky stock, and it is a good thing, too. 

Because the New World, as it turned out, was nothing less than danger, peril and despair. The whole continent of North America, for example, has been ever merciless in its pursuit to kill its inhabitants.

With that said, in Germany, there are very few poisonous spiders. In fact, none of the species here should be feared at all. It is said that Germany’s most dangerous creepy-crawlies are ticks. As for snakes, well, there are six total species and only two of those are considered venomous, though nowhere near deadly to humans.

As far as weather goes, hurricanes and tornados are not as likely to occur here in Europe, and both winters and summers are far less extreme than those in the States.

So, think about that for just a second. Those audacious, spirited few who took the plunge into the great unknown and left their homes and all they knew in Europe and the UK knew they were doing so at risk to life and limb. There were legions of alligators, bears, rattlesnakes, scorpions, black widows, mountain lions, wolves and coyotes, all just waiting to make their collective move and pounce on the newcomers as soon as they came ashore.

Yet somehow, they survived. They look a little different now, and sound a little different now, but they never forgot who they are, where they come from, or the meaning of rugged individualism.

They were persistent and they endured the worst. And they made the most of the volatile, hostile climate that was their new home. It took a while, but in the end, they built an incredible country with a history as diverse as its citizenry. In short, America is the not-so-distant younger cousin to its older, more established family members around the world.

While much younger, America is also the much bigger cousin in the family — the football player, if you will — who can usually be counted on when the schoolyard bullies start picking on distant family members. Oh, you might suffer a bloody nose and a lose tooth waiting for him to finally show up, but when your younger American cousin finally appears, he’s there to the rescue.

So yes, the news from the States can be disturbing at times. And some things outright shocking. But headlines sell ad space, and that is a global constant. What the headlines fail to show, however, are the majority of good, decent, hardworking women and men who get up every single day and make America the greatest nation on Earth through an unflagging determination, a positive attitude, compassion for others and the strength and courage to face down any threat.

America is you, World.

This is a recurring column on the experiences of an American Expat in Europe. Christopher Combest and his wife, Gerri Lyn (née Webb), maintain a permanent home at The Retreat in Cleburne, as well as an apartment in Idar-Oberstein, Germany. In addition to his art and writing, Combest is an adjunct instructor at Southwestern Adventist University in Keene. He can be reached at christopher.combest@gmail.com.

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