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An innocent abroad

International | Europeans laugh at Americans, but it could be worse

Issue: "Exodus from Disney," Nov. 7, 1998

"We are witnessing the final act of a witch-hunt which goes beyond the acceptable." - The Standard, Austria

Bill Clinton is being forced to endure "slow torture by excruciating embarrassment." -The London Guardian

"Europeans are saying that they need the United States to right itself and figure out a way to get beyond its self-indulgent and voyeuristic tendencies." -Christopher Walker of the European Journalism Network

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"These are the people that make life a burden to the tourist. Their tongues are never still. They talk forever and forever, and that is the kind of billingsgate they use." -Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

When a group of Americans enters The Silver Birch, a pub in Liss, England, the owner swings 'round a chair and brings out a recent edition of the Sun, that esteemed British tabloid given to huge headlines and naked Page Three Girls. He flips by this issue's Page Three Girl to get to the articles and editorials in which the Sun chides Americans for their obsession with sex. "Just been reading," he says. "About that Ms. Lewinsky. I'm not sure I understand. What's the trouble-really?" And he looks to the Americans expectantly. September was an ignominious month to be an American in Europe, for obvious reasons. Yet, as Mark Twain demonstrated over a century ago in The Innocents Abroad, Europeans are not without their own foibles. The following observations, collected from six weeks of travel through the Old World, may remind Americans of that time-honored maxim of hope and enlightenment: Things could be worse. For Enlightenment and Progressivism, there is no city as advanced as Amsterdam. At the corner of Liedse Plein and Liedse Straat, near the Liedse Gracht, a cabbie smiles when he is asked to go to de Oude Kerk, the Old Church where Abraham Kuyper often preached a century ago. "Oh, you want to see the Red Light District," he says. "Of course. It's part of the Amsterdam experience." For nine blocks I try to explain to him that Abraham Kuyper was a great Reformed thinker and a one-time prime minister of the Netherlands. The cabbie shrugs and lets me out at the Old Church, which is, indeed, smack-dab in the center of the Red Light District. (It turns out that asking to be taken to the Old Church is tourist code for "I want to see the sleaze but I'm too embarrassed to admit it.") The Red Light District is Amsterdam's grand experiment in tolerance. Prostitution has been decriminalized, regulated, and unionized, on the theory that regulating it would make it safer for the prostitutes and their customers. The result, however, according to CNN, is that more than 60 percent of the prostitutes are HIV-positive. The Old Church is closed-locked up tight, though a sign in English and Dutch said it would reopen in several weeks with a new exhibition of "Sacred and Church-related Art." No services are scheduled. Across the street, however, the Old Church Coffeeshop is hopping. Even at 2 p.m., whitish clouds of marijuana smoke billow out of the small stucco building. "Coffeeshop" is also code-it means "We sell marijuana, hashish, psychedelic mushrooms, and sometimes (but not often) coffee." The Old Church Coffeeshop, with its Italian villa decor and its courtyard full of Rasta-amateurs (white kids who dress badly and have dreadlocks that are not quite dreadful but are certainly unsightly), rests in the afternoon shade of the Old Church. It sells marijuana and hashish for about $10 per gram-a little more for "Thai" and a little less for "Skunk." A somewhat loopy waitress, who is slowly rolling and restocking the supply of single joints ($3.50 each), says she doesn't know how long the coffeeshop has been here. She's worked here "10 or 11 years," she explains. The coffee comes from an Italian espresso machine with the sleekness and styling of a Ferrari; it's pretty good. But watch out for the "Space Cake," which is made with marijuana baked right in, and the tea, which is made from psychedelic mushrooms. Across the canal, tourists are being herded into one of the Live Sex Shows that are also a part of the Amsterdam Experience. Most tour groups, especially American groups with retirees and cruise-ship veterans, make a special stop at these. Sorry, I do not know what goes on inside. But I do know that the tourists emerging one hour later (most of them women, by the way) look shell-shocked and vaguely scandalized. One gray-haired woman tells her husband, "Next time, I choose the vacation." "In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language." -Twain, The Innocents Abroad I passed two of my four semesters of high-school German, which in baseball terms is batting a most excellent .500. Yet, for some reason, the Germans had trouble understanding my attempts to communicate with them in their native tongue. Providentially, I met very few Germans at Munich's Oktoberfest, which is held in September each year. Instead, I encountered thousands of drunken Australian soccer hooligans. The Munich tourism commission says that Australians make up the biggest block of visitors during Oktoberfest; Japanese are next. Americans come in fifth, after Swedes. That's probably because Americans naively assume it's held in October. Oktoberfest involves more than a million gallons of beer, sold and drunk and spilled in eight gigantic Beer Tents, each of which holds more than 6,000 drinkers and multiple oompah bands. Waitresses wear the traditional dirndl-the bust-enhancing dress that serves as the Bavarian Wonderbra. The waiters wear lederhosen, but as Germans always have, they manage to look tough doing it. Oktoberfest is like the Texas State Fair, except without hats, kids, or livestock judging. But it has something of which the Texas State Fair can't boast: well-engineered vomitoriums. There are troughs in the bathrooms made for the very purpose of throwing up. The Australians seem to appreciate that. The Australians I encounter at the Augustiner Beer Tent accost me with questions about the Lewinsky matter as soon as they realize I'm American. "What's the trouble? It's sex! Just sex!" shouts one over a determined oompah band. "Everyone lies about sex!" By this time I have a standard-and usually effective-response to such comments. "Sex and taxes, sure," I say. "Everyone is tempted to lie about those. But here's the thing. If I lied about my taxes, and Bill Clinton and his administration caught me, would they laugh it off? No, they would fine me or put me in jail." The Australians think about that for a moment. I decide to finish them off. "Besides," I said. "you people have your own problems to worry about. Here you are, hosting the 2000 Summer Olympics, and you don't even have summer at the right time of the year! Have any of you thought about that? What will the beach volleyballers do when they get to Sydney and it's snowing?" That silences them for good. "I trust I am a humble and consistent Christian. I try to do what is right. I know it is my duty to 'pray for them that despitefully use me'; and therefore, hard as it is, I shall still try to pray for these fumigating, macaroni-stuffing organ grinders." -Twain, The Innocents Abroad If Twain was hard on the Italians, I nevertheless can believe they were asking for it. My moment of deepest shame comes in the scenic town of Fiosole, a Renaissance wonder in the Tuscan hills above Florence. At a newsstand selling postcards, newspapers, and pornography, a bright new paperback is enjoying brisk sales. It is the Starr Report, translated into Italian and bound with a scantily clad Monica Lewinsky on the cover. An ice-cream vendor next to the newsstand notices me studying the cover (I believe the cover photo is a computer-generated fake) and laughs knowingly. "Ah, you are American?" he asks. I glance over and see a dark, middle-aged, balding man holding an ice-cream scoop like a weapon. He leans forward a little. "I think your country is in great trouble," he says, sounding like a gypsy fortune-teller. "Why do you say that?" I ask. "You worry about the wrong things," he says. "President Clinton is a good president. The Republicans should leave him alone." "He lied to a grand jury," I said. "He lied about sex." The ice-cream vendor motions me over and offers one of the metal chairs he keeps behind his stand. He takes off his sweater and then uses the sweater to dust the chair quickly. He offers me ice cream; I accept a bottle of mineral water. "I am not Italian," he explains. "I am Albanian. I was a professional." (I have no trouble believing that; his English is excellent.) "I grieve for Albanians in Kosovo now," he continues. "For what the Serbs are doing. President Clinton must be allowed to put aside the scandal, and to concentrate on the problem in Kosovo." "I'm not sure those are necessarily two different problems," I say. He waves his hand. "Of course they are. One is public, one is private. He has said the U.S. and the UN will intervene in Kosovo; he must be allowed to do so." The fact is that like his January promise to tell the truth about the Lewinsky matter sooner rather than later, President Clinton's promise to the Albanian refugees-to use air strikes to force out the Serbian army-was not kept. "And now that my temper is up, I may as well go on and abuse everybody I can think of." -Twain, The Innocents Abroad There is much truth to the claim in the American press that the world is tut-tutting about the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But that says less about America than it does about the world. A typical comment is that of Natasha Gorelova, a 27-year-old Russian who told the London Financial Times, "Do they not have anything better to do than make all this fuss about the president's affairs? I wish we had their problems. Our president drinks and forgets the names of the countries he goes to visit, but we still say nothing." I can add nothing to that. "We always took care to make it understood that we were Americans-Americans! When we found that a good many foreigners had hardly ever heard of America, and that a good many more knew it only as a barbarous province away off somewhere ... we pitied the ignorance of the Old World." -Twain, The Innocents Abroad

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