On my German sidekick’s first world trip by motorcycle he noticed an interesting phenomenon. As evil as those people who reside in far away countries may be, those that share your borders are infinitely worse. The Germans were convinced that the Polish were all thieves. In Poland he met nothing but kind hearted and open people who were all convinced he would not make it out of the Baltic states alive. In the Baltic states of Estonia and Lithuania he spent his evening drinking beer in public parks with an array of strangers who became friends and did their best to warn him of the fate that awaited him in Russia. The Russians for their part killed him with kindness, but warned him about the Siberians: once you hit Siberia the “nice Russia” apparently ended. And so it went with each place convinced the next one was evil. Where did he finally have an incident that landed him in hospital? Right before returning to Germany at the end of his trip – at his parents’ house in Switzerland.
(he fell up the stairs and cracked a bone in his foot)
As much as traveling around the world has never concerned me, I admit that when it came to the United States I was hesitant for the first time ever. I have thrown a tent down in the middle of the jungle in Cambodia, on the side of the highway in Argentina and in Russian forests. I have never been concerned. The only people we’ve met have been curious, and wished us luck on the trip. But setting up camp in the van in the United States made me shiver. This was not a case of the evil neighbor. No sir. This was the truth. People got shot here, no trespassing signs abounded, and I was pretty sure that the United States is the one place where the evil neighbor status is legitimate. Because, well, they are evil…..
Of course I did not lump the entire country into that category. I knew that some of the nicest people I have met have been Americans. Traveling in Europe, I learned there are two ways to identify an American tourist. Yes, they are often the louder group demanding to know why things are not like they are in the U.S. But they are also the ones wrestling little old German ladies to the ground in an effort to bring their groceries to their car or help carry them off the bus (warning: little old German ladies trust no one and assume you are not helping but rather stealing). But Americans take that beating, in the name of helping.
(I, on the other hand, have learned to help no one but my own Oma. And even then with care: at 83 she once did a pretty good drop kick to show me she was still fit enough to drive.)
People got shot here, no trespassing signs abounded, and I was pretty sure that the United States is the one place where the evil neighbour status is legitimate.
I remember a discussion I had in one of my classes. Somehow, like it often does, the subject of bashing Americans came up. I quoted the above example and declared Americans to be far more polite than their German counterparts. “Why, take the example of supermarket shopping,” I declared. “In the United States when a new cash opens up, the other lines unzip, and everyone politely rearranges themselves. In Germany I dread the opening of the new check out. Those in the back select the hardest item in their carts to bash against the head of the person in front of them before using their cart to run over the other semi-finalists who were fastest in maiming their opponents in the other lines.”
Was there shame in the room? No. My students just piped up: “That’s because Americans have guns and they are afraid of getting shot in the parking lot.” I of course told them they were horribly wrong. But in my head I filed it away as “potentially correct.”
Now that I am traveling for the first time in my life in the US, I have to admit I have been profoundly unfair. Although there are signs at the swimming pools that you must leave your gun at home, the people have lived up to their otherwise friendly status. Though I admit that what finally drove this home were not the people who regularly come up to swoon over our dog Mango (at first I eyed them suspiciously, wondering whether they would shoot him if he put down a false paw) or the people chatting us up on walking paths or in line ups “just because”. Nor was it the hellos, the greetings, the niceness. I wasn’t about to let those overtures deceive me. I read the news: I know about all about Florida and California. I was just waiting for the guns to start being waved around.
It was in fact at the laundromat – where everyone wanted to talk to me because our license plates were from British Columbia and my dog was so cute – that it finally hit me. Not because they were being friendly, but because when I told them our planned route they declared we were going to have a great time.
“Except for Texas: those people are different down there. Watch your back.”
I thought of Patrick in Russia being warned about Siberia, the very place in Russia where he had made the most friends, all of whom opened their doors to us when we rode through the past summer (despite almost seven years having passed). People like Anna, who I consider one of the most wonderful human beings I have ever met.
And then I realized that I too had fallen victim to the evil neighbor phenomenon.