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Today's word on journalism

Monday, January 29, 2007

Words as weapons:

"When he had a pen in his hand it was like giving a kid a machine gun."

--Peter Hall, theater director, on "Angry Young Man" playwright John Osborne (1929-1994)

An American touring Europe: 'My eyes opened, my jaw dropped'

By Sarah Reale

December 1, 2006 | Before I left for Europe I considered myself an open-minded, unsheltered individual. That all changed the minute I walked off the plane in Rome. My eyes opened three inches, and my jaw dropped to the floor. I became an outsider, the minority, and it only made my pride for my home grow stronger.

On my first day in Rome I went to the market to get something for dinner. I walked in and an old Italian lady followed behind me. I stopped and opened the door for her as she wobbled in with her arthritic body and thinning hair. She immediately looked up and her face warmed with joy. She was impressed and thankful that I had opened the door for her. She stopped, took my hands in hers and started rambling in Italian.

I am Italian by heritage. I have the attitude, the dark hair, the eyebrows, and the round behind to prove it. My last name, Reale, is pronounced like "real" in the U.S., but Re-al-eh in Italian. My friend thought I looked a lot like the Italians when we arrived, so I didn't take it as a surprise when she assumed I knew Italian.

"I am sorry, I don't know Italian." I explained.

"Oh, jes, that is good, you American?" she asked.

"Yes, we are from the United States," I said.

"Oh, I love the U.S., I visit once, wonderful, welcome to Italia!" she exclaimed.

I thanked her, she hugged me, and she was on her way. I thought that this would be my experience for the rest of the trip. The truth was, it was only the opposite. I had my first encounter when I kept seeing Canadian flags on travelers' backpacks in hostels. I am a friendly person, and it was a great advantage for me when traveling. When you're lost, you ask for directions. When you are on a train, you talk to the other Americans and the rich ones from New Jersey buy you and your best friend a fancy Italian dinner (this really happened). So, I decided to ask a Canadian I met why all of them have flags on their packs.

"So no one confuses us for Americans, no offense of course," she said to me.

It was the truth. They didn't want to be treated like the American travelers are, and I don't blame them. It might just be the timing, but America isn't liked at this time of war and it shows. I always got asked the same questions when I was talking to Europeans, and the same thought came to my head every time.

"Do you live in New York?"

Clearly, no, if I was from New York I probably wouldn't be talking to you, and I would have a Louis Vuitton bag.

"Do you only eat hamburgers, Sprite, and Snickers?"

No, I hate all of them, but they are geniuses at advertising.

"Are all Americans fat and drive Hummers?"

About 1 percent of the population drives Hummers. You are close on the fat one though, Americans generally do eat unhealthy.

And the inevitable, most common question I got, "Do you like Bush?"

This was always a tricky one. I never knew the right answer, so I would generally just change the subject. People outside of the U.S. think that each American has tons of control over whether we go to war, or who is President. If I were to say that I voted for Bush, they would immediately think that my one vote made him President. That I called him up one day and was told him, "Hey G-Dub, let's go to war."

It was icing on the cake when a hyper French teenager who had just lit his joint on the train wearing a New York Yankees hat and San Francisco 49ers jersey said, "Bush coo coo."

Their perception of the United States is altered. Created completely by what the media displays. We might be stereotyped, but we should never be treated the way we are treated when traveling. If I was in downtown Salt Lake and an Italian came up to me and asked for directions, I would be nice. Almost excited that someone from another country wanted to talk. I would help them out no matter how busy I was, making sure they were okay and their questions were answered. I don't think this is just how I am; Americans treat travelers with respect. We are grateful they are over here spending their money in our country, and we respect them.

I loved sitting in a hostel listening to German girls jam out to Jack Johnson or Justin Timberlake, and going to a café and seeing doughnuts with American flags in them. Hearing them use the word, "cool" and seeing Britany Spears on the tabloids. America is present in their lives, but they are annoyed with us visiting their sights.

It wasn't just Europeans. I had struck up a conversation with a girl from Australia one night on the coast of France. We were talking about how my next stop was Interlaken, Switzerland.

"Oh, don't go there," she immediately said.

"Why," I said. confused.

"There is, no offense, lots of f'ing Americans," she said bluntly, like it was nothing.

I replied with a smile, and a nod. Later I wished I had replied by saying, "Oh that makes it even better," but I wasn't brave enough.

When we were in Geneva, Switzerland we made friends with the man that owned the café next to our hostel. We would go in there everyday for a sandwich and crepes. He was always so nice to us, and helped us with directions and such. One day he said in his broken English, "You from England right?

"No, we are actually from the U.S.," my friend replied.

"Oh, I thought you from England. I never understand Americans talk, always so na na na na, like a children whine," he said.

My trip to Europe was still a success, and I enjoyed my time there. Traveling can be a life-changing experience. I came home with souvenirs, 2,000 pictures, a great tan and a newfound gratitude for the United States. I even found myself singing the Toby Keith patriotic, "We'll put a boot in your ass it's the American way," songs when I was at a restaurant and the man at the counter served the person behind me and never gave me the time of day.

I only wish that I were treated better. I know there are plenty of young American frat boys who go to Europe and get too drunk to stand up and ruin it for a lot of us, but I am not one of them. I respected their culture. I admired their sights, I followed their rules, and I gave them plenty of my money.



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