A couple of weeks ago I had a fucking brilliant idea. That was after I was thinking about commenters who add so much value around here. I wondered to myself, how can I repay them, beyond just engaging as much in comments as time allows? Once I asked the question the answer seemed too obvious: give the best ones center stage now and then.
Sean Abbott at Prague Stepchild was an easy first on the list. Lots of commenters come and go, but Sean somehow finds a way to add value to virtually every post I do, and he’s been doing it for a long time. He’s a veritable co-blogger in that sense. So here we go. The first in a long series, perhaps every couple of weeks. I already have a couple of others in mind.
As an American who’s going on 17 years living as an expat in Prague, Czech Republic, I suppose one of my biggest self-identifying characteristics is being an expat. One has to be careful self-identifying with things like this, or thinking ‘this is what makes me a unique snowflake’. I remember when having long hair was an important part of my identity. And that’s frankly pathetic. Still, having spent more of my adult life abroad than in my native land has come to shape a lot of who I am today.
When I first moved to Europe I had a bad case of white liberal American guilt. I only spoke two languages (and my Spanish, even at it’s best was never exactly stellar), Bill Clinton was getting impeached for getting a blowjob, OJ Simpson had just been aquitted of a crime everyone knew he was guilty of, etc.
Living abroad cured me of all that. Nowadays, with a lot more perspective, I’m not ashamed to identify myself as an American, or to realize that America has a healthy percentage of the smartest humans on the planet.
Yes, I’m now going to start making some broad sweeping generalizations about Americans and Europeans.
America has more stupid people per capita than Europe. They also have more intelligent, risk-takers and I’d say more interesting, wacky people in general. In other words, American has a flatter bell curve with more people at both ends of the spectrum (or spectrums) than Europe, probably a result of hundreds of years of European emigration. Lots of miscreants emigrated because they were losers, but lots of them didn’t fit in because they had higher intelligence, along with the drive to take the risk of looking for greener pastures.
Europeans have it tougher in general, so they tend to be leaner and meaner than Americans. This is mostly my experience living here in Prague, but I think it generalizes to many European countries. Things are frickin’ expensive here, thanks to taxes, regulations and tariffs, purchasing power, even with a decent salary, is much less than in America. Buying things in general is much more painful, with less availability, ruder shopkeepers, more crowded stores, etc. As a consequence Europeans are much more careful with their money. People have effectively less money, but they spend it in much better ways. They buy nicer stuff for their usually smaller flats, they take nicer vacations, etc. Americans work harder than Europeans, or at least a lot more hours, but they tend to spend more of their spare time and money buying giant TV sets and watching them. Sort of like the days when buying a CD or even an LP (explained here for you youngins) was a big deal. One was very careful what to buy, and then it was listened to over and over.
Europeans are more provincial than Americans. Sure, there is the cliché of the suave European who speaks seven languages, dresses impeccably, has a flat in Paris, Milan and London, etc. And those people certainly exist. But the average European only speaks one language, travels abroad only on group tours where they stay in their little bubble speaking their own language, and receives their news and entertainment from state-owned TV station(s).
Most Europeans think they are familiar with Americans, they see our movies, TV shows, they see American tourists, they think they know Americans. And this false familiarity breeds provincial contempt, because most of these people have never lived in America, spent much time there beyond a week in New York, or even interacted with an American at all beyond the internet, yet they feel qualified to piss and moan about how we are all ignorant cowboys.
vI also think there’s a much stronger undercurrent of independent thought in America. Yes, the United States has it’s cathedrals of political correctness, but this disease has a much stronger foothold in Britain and Scandanavia in my experience. Americans tend to be, or at least have more opportunity to be, less conformist than the average European.
The thing is, none of these sweeping generalizations really matter, because while people are different all over the world, they are also mostly the same. Of course, there’s only two things I hate in this world. People who are intolerant of other people’s cultures and the Dutch. I’m not saying let’s all hold hands and sing Kumbaya, because I’m really quite the misanthrope. What I’m saying is that it’s easy to talk in platitudes, but actually living in other countries helps one to understand, on a visceral level, that other cultures can be different, and how they are different. I’d say it is similar to people who’ve never spent any time around animals (kitties and puppies don’t count), yet have so much ‘respect’ for them that they demand the world renounce meat. The reality is that farm animals are dirty, stupid and even dangerous. Still, the ranchers I’ve known who raise livestock to be slaughtered love and respect their animals, much more than the vegan animal rights activist spouting empty platitudes like ‘meat is murder’.
Finally, here is my opinion on travel and language:
My idea of traveling is to go to one place and soak up the atmosphere. Find a nice pub or cafe to become a regular at, learn or improve your grasp of the local tongue, explore the less-beaten pathways, the local haunts, etc.
I’ve had to wrangle with the wife about this one. She used to be into the idea of stuffing in as many sights as possible but I’ve managed to win her around, more or less.
I’ve seen the Eiffel tower, but I don’t remember much about it. However, I do have fond memories of playing a pick-up basketball game under the shadow of the Eiffel tower (there are, or used to be courts at the far end of the park). Me, two Aussies who were staying in the same hostel, and a French guy versus four Italians. Ironically, I was probably the worst of the bunch (although I’m almost 6’4″ so that makes up for a lot). It was a hell of a game and we barely won—fist pump.
When I’m on my death bed, I’ll probably remember things like that multinational pickup basketball game more than how many famous buildings or works of art I’ve seen.
Languages are great. But they also require a huge amount of time and energy, and they are only useful if you are going to actually use them. Okay, languages do have some intrinsic value, they give one insight into one’s own language and teach grammar (I never really learned English grammar until I studied Spanish). But if you already speak English, the fact is you can get by with this in most places. Spending four years studying French is great, but if you only use it for two weeks in your life on a dream vacation to France, was it really worth the effort?
There are plenty of skills that might pay off much better depending on one’s life choices, learning an instrument, learning a sport, etc.
I don’t have a problem with learning a language per se, but as someone whose American Language Guilt has been assuaged by knowing three of them, having encountered many Europeans who could barely speak their own language, and being someone for whom languages do not come naturally, I think they should be put in perspective.
That being said, knowing a language is going to help open doors. An American friend of mine majored in chemistry and Russian in college, and now he’s living in Kaliningrad, married to a Russian woman with two kids. Had he not had that language under his belt his life would’ve definitely taken a different and probably less interesting path.
Another advantage of knowing a language is language groups. Master any Slavic language and it is much easier to learn or even get by in any of their cousins. Ditto for the romance languages and other language groups (so stay away from Hungarian!).
If you do want to learn a language quickly, technology has made things much easier nowadays. I think Gabriel Wyner has some excellent advice along these lines.
…Okay, that’s it. I want to thank Richard for allowing me this opportunity to guest post without saying fuck even once.
[I took care of that in the intro – Ed]