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Europe Votes for Americans

It was one of those glorious–-albeit rare–-autumn afternoons in Holland. Not a cloud in the sky and the air had only the first hint of cold.

On a high-speed train bound for The Hague I enjoyed the flat countryside with an American friend visiting from Los Angeles. As we chatted, a passenger across the aisle leaned over and asked a surprising question.

“To who do you vote?” he said in awkward English, though I know he was referring to the U.S. presidential election.

The question caught me off guard. The Dutch are known for their straightforward nature but asking two strangers about their political leanings was not typical directness.

Noticing that his question had piqued the attention of several other passengers, I responded, “Probably not Bush.”

“Good,” he said, smiling. The eavesdroppers also smiled and returned to their newspapers.

“Good for you,” he continued. “Because we don’t need any more lying. Bush lied to the whole world.”

It’s no secret that the feeling about President George W. Bush around the world is unfavorable. One survey taken before the election showed that the majority of people in 35 nations would have voted for John Kerry. Poland was the only country in Europe to favor Bush.

But just because Europeans, by and large, believe President Bush is more intellectually equipped to run a convenience store than a nation, does that mean that they have cast the same judgment against Americans as well?

“Americans, in general, must be stupid” said Ingrid Langedijk, an Amsterdam-based psychologist. “Why did people vote for Bush? I really don’t understand.”

But Langedijk doesn’t allow her general opinion of America to interfere with her attitude towards individual Americans. To her, there is a clear distinction between a stereotype and an individual. Indeed, Europeans often do draw a line between the two.

This is not always the case among Americans. Consider the American reaction to French opposition to the war in Iraq. “Freedom Fries” made national headlines and replaced “French Fries” on menus across the country. Angry at the nation they helped liberate 60 years ago, some U.S. veterans also grabbed media attention by pouring French wine into the street.

In the months leading up the war in Iraq there were many anti-war demonstrations across Europe. But the protests were against the U.S. government’s action rather than to the nation’s culture.

The European capacity to separate stereotype from individual, government from people helps explain why an American is unlikely to encounter any overt anti-American sentiment on the Continent.

During the four years I’ve lived in Europe, I have not been attacked–verbally or otherwise –because of the passport I carry. I have, however, had dozens of discussions about America’s changing role on the global stage, the unilateralist views the Bush administration flaunts, and the military action it has taken.

Sometimes I agree with the other person’s view. Sometimes I don’t. It’s about having a lively discussion, an exchange of ideas, and, at the end of it all, realizing that both parties are more enlightened for it.

Europeans Appreciate Debate

That is another difference I’ve noticed in Europe. Differing political opinions can make Americans nervous. If two Americans are going to disagree on an issue, chances are they won’t even bring it up. But Europeans typically appreciate vigorous discussion and disagreements.

Political maturity aside, Europeans don’t mind tossing around jokes at an American’s expense: “What’s the difference between milk and Americans? If you leave milk alone long enough, it develops culture.”

Indeed, they do relish the chance to show off their (admittedly) civilized ways.

“In Holland, we have five weeks of holiday a year. How many do you get in America?” is a comment I often hear.

A friend recently informed me that “Dutch children learn the name and location of the world’s major cities when they are 12. Do you ever learn that in America?”

And one of my personal favorites is, “Why is it that Americans always expect everyone to speak English to them?”

On the other hand, Europeans find our friendliness and optimism refreshing. They realize that a lot of us who come to Europe are different from the stereotypical American. Fewer than 20 percent of Americans have passports. So those who travel internationally–-much less live abroad–-already have a more global perspective than the stereotype that precedes them.

Perhaps surprisingly, the largest source of anti-Americanism in Europe seems to come from Americans. Bush bashing is fashionable among many expatriate Americans, who can have a tendency to socially isolate themselves among other native English speakers.

If you are considering expatriate life in Europe, don’t be deterred by European attitudes toward America. The greatest barrier could be obtaining the appropriate residency permit or work visa. In the post-9/11 world it has become increasingly difficult in many countries for people from all nations--including the United States--to get long-term visas.

With this in mind, do not neglect research on paperwork requirements, fees, and timelines. Before departing, identify resources that are available on the ground in your new country to help you navigate what can be a lengthy and costly process.

That individuals are more mobile while borders have become tighter is one of globalization’s ironies.

Despite this, there is little reason for you to miss the opportunity to tell a stranger who you voted for.

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