Foot Outside My Door
Traveling through Europe for the first time recently
gave me a chance to get a new perspective on the world. I suppose that's
what travel is for, but behind every great cliché there is a measure
of both truth and untruth. I was afraid that my journey through Europe
would leave me unchanged, that the world was really no different from
one place to another or that if it was I would be too dense to sense the
I spent nearly two weeks in England, with a short detour to Wales and
four days in France. England enabled me to read about the horrible foibles
of my own country in my own language from the perspective of another country.
Newspapers in Britain are much more well informed than newspapers in the
US, but maybe that's because they don't all subscribe to the same AP news
service but actually use (gasp) writers. The second most interesting thing
about the "foreign" press is that, outside our borders, we are not nearly
the super power we think we are. The 800 pound gorilla has lost a little
weight, it seems.
People in England like to collect trivia about celebrities. I mean, this
was a universal theme. Every Brit I talked to eventually got around to
asking me if I knew some latest detail about this or that obscure American
or British crossover star that they had some connection to by some sixth
degree of separation. Sadly, I didn't know a one. Americans don't know
nearly as much about their TV and movie personalities as the English apparently
I have a theory about this. People need a certain amount of psychological
space, of territory to have mastery over, much as we may not realise it.
Some people have large houses and large yards. Some people collect old
cars or buy large boats. In American cities, like New York, where it isn't
possible to own a large apartment or piece of land, establish psychological
space by collecting things - baseball cards, coins, comic books, music
- that represent a whole world to them, but can be stored in a tight space.
Well, the cost of living in England is about 40% higher than it is even
in New York, so people don't have a lot of disposable income to spend
on collectable items - so they collect people. Or more specifically become
experts at collecting trivia about people. It's a great device - their
collections are ultimately very portable, and can be trotted out and shared
at a moment's notice. Like baseball cards, trivia collectors can trade
trivia - only the great thing is that it doesn't cost anything and they
don't lose anything when they trade one juicy bit of gossip for another.
Except for the money spent on tabloids, it's an almost expense free hobby.
The second thing I noticed about the British, for this was as true of
the Welsh I met as it was of the English, is that they are not nearly
so reserved as their reputation implies. Everywhere I went, people were
warm and friendly and happy to talk to me about just about anything I
wanted to talk about - the European Common Market, the American War in
Afghanistan, The Royal Shakespeare Theater Company, -- and a few things
I didn't want to talk about, like The "Americanisation" of English Society
(really, these guys are far more different from us than they are like
us - so I didn't see it. I mean, these people actually have health care.)
One of the things that is different about English people is that everybody
calls you love, lovely, or lovey. That's really sweet. Another difference
is that if England has a homeless population, it is so much lower than
America's, that it was invisible. I gave money to one beggar and two buskers
while I was in London. Does London hide it's homeless? Or do they take
care of them?
The food is not so terrible as I was led to believe, just simple. Especially
if you like fish or Indian food.
The traffic system baffles the mind. It's based on these little circular
things that are the motor vehicle equivalent of merry-go-rounds. Round
you go, until you jump off at the right moment. My hostess kept offering
to let me drive. I'd sooner drive a tanker full of oil through the San
Nobody bags your groceries. (I don't know what they do in Ireland, but
in America, they offer to walk you and your groceries to your car.) In
fact, in England, people don't really wait on you at all. Now this is
a massive cultural difference between the US and the urban areas around
London, at least. In the JFK airport, the first thing I noticed was that
everybody was in a hurry, irritated, and upset about something. There
were also guys standing around with machine guns patting everybody down
for weapons, so it's not much wonder people were grumpy - but the airline
folks behind the counter were almost uniformly heroic in their attempts
to kindly, courteously and genuinely help these grumpy, surly customers
on their way. In fact, I bought my husband a book about the European historical
perspective on architecture, and in one of the chapters, one of the traveling
architects marvelled at the level of service he got uniformly in American
hotels - in the 1920's.
In our experience in England, the folks behind the counter could really
barely be bothered to ring up our sales, let alone help us find what were
trying to purchase. Well, there was one nice pharmacist who distinguished
himself by being less surly than the person that preceded him - from whom
we would not buy anything.
Anyway, it must be a cultural thing. It's as though, at a low wage job
they have showed up, but by god - they don't have to like it. Mind you,
Americans who work in the service industry endure a lot of stress, but
they are expected to smile while they do it.
And it's hard not to notice that we work a lot. Maybe I was talking to
the upper end, but all the English people I spoke to got five weeks of
holiday per year. Americans get one to two weeks max - unless they're
spending part of the year unemployed, which is a whole other problem.
And I didn't see a lot of people doubling up, working two jobs or working
small businesses. It was relaxing to see people needing less to make it
through their day to day existence. Of course, decent public transportation,
schools, and medical care will do that to a person.
I saw school boys drawing pictures at Westminster Abbey - and they were
really good pictures. I met a man who taught stained glass in a public
(state) school !! We barely have art programs in American schools. I couldn't
imagine a curriculum that included stained glass. Oh, and the English
tourist books say we won our independence in 1789, not 1776 when we celebrate
the declaration of our independence. I thought that was an interesting
perception of history.
I was amazed at how urban the population was and how cultivated the land
was. We Americans tend to think too much of our land is cultivated, but
in Seattle, for example, there are huge swaths of natural rain forest
ravine that run right through the city. And from the hilly vantage points
you can see yourself surrounded by relatively wild mountains. I don't
know how long it has been since England has seen wild landscape, but it
has been a very long time. England is architecturally beautiful, London
and the surrounding area anyway, but I have been all over America and
I don't think I appreciated before how geographically diverse and beautiful
my own country is.
I did not miss America. I could have stayed overseas a very long time,
soaking up as much of the world as I could absorb. England is a part of
the world in a way that America is not. For all their disagreements with
the EU, England at least has an ongoing conversation with other countries
in Europe and the rest of the world. By comparison, I felt America's profound
isolation. I don't know if it is the two oceans that separate us from
the world at large or our own isolationism, but I suspect it's parts of
Before September 11th, George Bush's foreign policy could be best described
by the phrase "if we ignore it, maybe it will go away". Nonetheless, even
with the War on Terror, even with great diplomats like Jimmy Carter representing
us to the rest of the world, America remains this huge island.
We are a market unto ourselves. We are a people, talking to ourselves,
about ourselves. We look at the world without communicating with the world,
when we even bother to look. We are vast and varied, inert and monolithic
- in short, we have our hands full with a country that crosses a continent.
We are barely able to govern what we have. When we look outward, it seems
as though we are looking down from a great height - democracy and free
markets and all that rot - but more accurately we are looking from a great
We look from across one or another ocean. We listen through language barriers,
without any experience with other languages. We see through our cultural
experiences, not even able to recognise that we have adopted our own way
of being as some kind of "normal" standard, and other ways of being as
somehow on their way to being like us. We see the world from the gulf
of our youth, and our perception and participation in world affairs is
And what surprises me about the foreign press is how much this is not
obvious to them. They expect us to understand ourselves as they see us
- when most of us never get far enough outside our borders to get any
kind of perspective. We swim in an "American" world, not in a "global"
world - no matter what we say. It's like a fishbowl we can't get out of.
We're in the water, so we can't see the water.
We know less about what our country does abroad than the rest of the world
does. This isn't because we want to be ignorant, American newspapers don't
report on certain things. Sometimes this is because of economic censorship
by the newspaper owners or advertisers. Sometimes it is because of what
the news thinks Americans want to hear. We have a "Freedom of Information
Act" that requires government agencies to respond to citizens' request
for information within 10 days - but current turn around time for documents
from the federal government and federal agencies is 1-2 years. And that's
for the ones that haven't been declared "classified". There is a program
called "Project Censored" which I highly recommend you check out, they
have a website at www.projectcensored.org.
It covers the ten most under reported stories of the year. There is also
a book called "The
People's Almanac Presents the 20th Century" which follows trends more
Perhaps the biggest thing that keeps Americans from hearing what's going
on in the world around them is that most newspapers use one of three news
sources: The AP: UPI: or Reuters. They use these news wire services because
they can no longer afford to maintain a staff of writers to cover the
world. So we get our news from a small handful of news people whose stories
short, "to the point" and "without identifiable style".
I mean, another of the biggest differences between England and America
is that in America a newspaper costs between 25-35 cents, or it's a free
weekly. In England, it's around a pound - which is a dollar fifty. Part
of the willingness to collect information about people also includes the
willingness to pay for that information. Somehow in America, we expect
information to be free. It is as though freedom of speech includes freedom
from cost. But it doesn't. Free libraries rarely have new books anymore,
but we still think of them as up-to-date. Free television rarely reports
balanced news, because it is paid for by advertising. And we don't tax
ourselves to produce very much public television, so PBS must be underwritten
by corporate dollars as well. And as for free radio, there is perhaps
one major radio station in the whole US, Pacifica - KPFA - out of the
San Francisco Bay Area, that is supported mostly by its listeners and
receives almost no government funding. So we are bombarded with information
- I mean, there was much less advertising to contend with in Europe -
but all of it is paid for by somebody with an agenda, including our politicians.
It would be naïve of me to think that in other countries this is
not also the case, but in the US, it is a very small group of people,
often with the same agenda. And so it happens that one of the largest,
supposedly most influential countries in the world looks at the world
through a spy glass with a lens the size of pin hole. We do not seek to
be ignorant, but have ignorance thrust upon us.
Which is why I hold out such hope for the internet. I know people who
are addicted to it for their daily news source - and once you've read
the same AP story three times, you start looking for alternative sources
of information. And unlike the paper news, on the internet, you can skip
over to a British or Irish
or Canadian or Australian or any other English language news site in order
to get at least that much of a widening of your perspective. There is
a site called www.cluetrain.com,
which lists something called the Cluetain Manifesto -it's about the shift
in public awareness brought about by the internet. It's listed in ten
languages While it is geared towards a review of the policies of corporations,
everything it has to say, also applies to news and information. Check
it out. And while you're at it, keep on passing on those cool news sites
when you find them.
1st June 2002
Sarah Byam is a freelance writer
who lives in Seattle,
where she runs a small
art studio cooperative.