"Sorry?" asked our burly and wonderfully friendly waiter in a small restaurant on a grim street in south Vienna, Austria. "Sorry for what? I have a lot of customers who don't speak German."
I had just apologized for the fact that I was limited to speaking in English. I didn't want to be presumptuous, I said. But our waiter went out of his way to make my wife and me feel at home.
So did hundreds of other folks in Europe last week. In some circumstances, perhaps, that wouldn't have been a surprise. But given all the media reports about how angry Europeans are with the United States over its intentions to go to war with Iraq, we had expected the worst. USA Today had just devoted a front-page story on March 4 to the rough and rude treatment a number of U.S. tourists were getting at the hands and mouths of Europeans.
We simply didn't find that to be the case. Most of our time, however, was not in Western Europe, but in the Czech Republic. And the Czech Republic had been among the first of all European nations formally to align itself with the Bush administration as committed to the propriety of military action against Iraq. Vaclav Havel, the popular outgoing president, had signed the pro-U.S. statement. (It is also true that Mr. Havel's successor as Czech president, Vaclav Klaus, who took office on March 7, has expressed doubts about his country's support of the United States against Iraq.)
What troubled me were reports stressing that even in the countries that were supporting the United States, there was a big gap between the political leadership and the people. I'd like to see how the reporting was done and exactly how the polls were worded.
But what I found last week in several parts of Europe was neither warm support nor angry criticism, but puzzled and ambiguous confusion. Even while we were traveling, I was reading a book from a British publisher, Why Do People Hate America?, which prompted me to keep my antennae tuned for some of the static and venom the two authors (Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies) suggest are almost everywhere. I know some would say I was naive-but I simply failed to find (at least in the intensity and the quantities reported) what I think has become something of a media-manufactured phenomenon.
I know better than to suggest that if all us Americans would just remember to be a little more polite, and a lot less demanding, when we travel abroad, then all our foreign-policy issues would take care of themselves. Yet my experience traveling in some 45 different countries of the world- and deliberately walking the streets of dozens of cities in many of those countries-prompts me to believe that the tone of our voice has almost as much to do with foreign relations as does the content of our conversation.
Maybe it's because I grew up in the farm country of eastern Iowa that I have always known I had a lot to learn. It has always been easier for me to ask questions of people I didn't know than to tell them what I thought I already knew. My father and my mother were good at asking questions of the many guests in our home; and those guests-who came from distant places like Thailand and Amsterdam and Amman (and even Chicago)-were always honored and special people. We kids sat and listened in awe.
I have seen the other side. I have been with Americans who were arrogant, pompous, and demanding with regard to their own needs, and demeaning, condescending, and rude toward those of the culture they were visiting.
All that is partly why it is still easy for me to say with genuine humility and embarrassment to a local, as we had to again last night on the street in Trnava, Slovakia, "We are so sorry that we speak only English. Can you help us anyway to find our hotel?"
It's a very small gesture, I know. And I know there are real issues that divide the cultures of the world-some rooted in the wealth and power of America, and some rooted simply in a sinful response by others to that wealth and power. I can't escape the sense, though, that a little more display of helplessness by Americans-in all our dealings with the rest of the world-would go a long way in mending some relations. It can't be just an act, of course. But who knows for sure just how helpless we really are?