Life on planet America

A short while ago I spent a month in the United States on a scholarship. Among the requirements of the course was that I stay for a few days with an American family. Right at the start of my visit, I found myself at the home of a couple in North Carolina. Ray and Anne were both well-to-do lawyers in their early 50s who enjoyed a high standard of living in a large home next to a forest, with two cars in their garage. Their huge television set was continually tuned to baseball games and their fridge was a consumer’s paradise. Very sweet, warm and caring, they embodied – at least to me – the stereotypical image of the average American that we have been given from films and books. Their only concern was their son. The father of a young baby, he was a career soldier serving in Iraq. Safe and sound, so far. I was in a difficult position. Could I ever tell them my opinion of the Iraq war? And if so, how? What words would I use? A photo of the young man in uniform, holding his child, held pride of place in their living room. The couch was scattered with cushions embroidered with «God Bless America.» It was clear that I was not dealing with arrogant members of the Bush administration but two incredibly well-intentioned and intelligent people who are convinced that their country is contributing to the spread of democracy in the world. Two parents worried that their child could be sacrificed for the good of the planet. And they treated me with as much affection as if I was also their child. I had a lump in my throat the whole time. As the conversation eventually turned to how Europeans viewed the war in Iraq, my concern mounted. I realized that this couple was a mirror of America – they live well, very well. They rarely travel and concern themselves only with what is going on in their own state. They live in a fortress world, a lovely self-sufficient bubble. Inspired by high ideals, they are naturally kind and polite in a way that has disappeared in our part of the world. Anne and Ray dashed one of my myths. They were not naive but prey to the media. They would never know the difference between a Sunni and a Shi’ite but they’d know Oprah Winfrey’s latest diet. They’d never be able to find Kurdistan on the map but they’d know that Britney Spears had been arrested for driving while drunk. They live on planet America without suspecting the existence of a parallel universe. Much as that pained me, it didn’t make them less lovable, but it did oblige me to think about how rabidly anti-American we Greeks usually are, from the safety of the distance that separates us from the other side of the Atlantic and without ever having talked to many Americans.