Leaving an America still drunk on the news of the death of Osama bin Laden, traveling to a Europe withering on fumes from the emptying tank of economic union, yet giddy over this weekend’s Eurovision song contest, you just have to wonder, and ask, what the hell is going on here?
I’ve had the distinct benefit of a short time in Paris, and a short visit in Berlin. Two impressive old world European capitals, complete with charm, dignity, and abundant history.
Yet Paris was riddled by a rail strike that took this first world city to the depths of third world conditions, while Berlin, in classic German form, has taken prevailing security concerns to a level not seen since the days immediately following the attacks of September 11.
In conversation in Germany, the morality of the military action against bin Laden is raised, and raised in a way that suggests this discussion has been going on for the better part of the last two weeks, in public, in the media, and in many communities. It was with a straight face that I had to inform a friend that the killing has not so much as raised a hackle in the United States. While not all danced and paraded before cameras like the students in front of the White House, and the New Yorkers who rallied at Ground Zero, the death of bin Laden has not been a moment of contemplative reflection for Americans.
My friend, a fellow journalist familiar with America, and our practices and standards, understood, and politely moved the conversation on to another topic. So much for that one.
Back in Paris, a city ridden with tourists, tsochkes and tarts, an odd civility seemed to hold forth. The well worn stories of rude service and incivility did not come to bear, though replaced less with charm, than with a politeness, and a willingness to assist, upon request. Even with a significant language difference, strangers on trains offered guidance, and suggestions, even though their information was neither clear, nor always correct. Yet this metropolis seems to move forward even as Parisians live with these incessant strikes, and these unerring attacks on modern, urban life. How anyone in Paris accepts this nonsense is beyond me. Americans just wouldn’t stand for it, though we stand for a lot. But periodic shutdowns, slowdowns, and regressive practices seeking benefits that can’t sustain the country, let alone the economy, just don’t seem to make sense in this 21st century.
All of this being said, there is an efficiency to European urban life, to simpler living, to fewer amenities, to smaller apartments, to smaller meals, to smaller cars, even to smaller overhead storage on flights (damn Lufthansa for not allowing my carry on to be carried on). Yes, you may be more likely to be run over by a bicyclist in Berlin than an auto, though in Paris it’s conceivable you may be run into the Seine by a frenzied visitor straining for that ‘original’ shot of Notre Dame.
Back at home pedestrians have rights, though American drivers are reluctant to recognize this fact. And you’re not going to see someone texting while driving here, though the selfish American with a nose in a smartphone is replaced in Germany by a loutish teenager with his nose in a quart bottle of lager. Each presents an issue, though in the end, while the differences are significant, and the attitudes vary, seeing them, recognizing them, and beginning to understand them all help us learn more about the world around us, and more about the world in which we live.
But don't worry, we can still agree that any couple seen wearing matching sweatsuits should be returned immediately to their country of origin. So there's still a dismissive view towards Russia and many parts of eastern Europe!
Tonight, while Europeans will sit before their small tv screens in rapt attention, I will be skipping the Eurovision song contest. An American has to have some standards, after all. Perhaps I’ll work on creating a puppet show documenting how President Obama took down bin Laden. That might do the trick, and bridge the divide. Puppets. There’s the ticket. Wonder if anyone has Euros for admission?