Growing up, I thought all adults were intelligent and had life figured out, yet as I grew up I realized this was not the case.
Later, as I began to learn about the world, I formed this idea that all Europeans were intelligent, well-read, foodies that chained smoked, drank coffees, beer and/or wine all day. In the version of these people that I developed, these Europeans exuded sexuality, confidence and, of course, were fluent in five to seven languages. In my mind they were perfect and probably smug, but had every right to be since these Europeans were so cultured. I mean their nations and people had coexisted side by side (albeit not always so diplomatically) for generations. They have culture and history dripping out of their ears. They must be so much better than us (in this version of perfection in my head).
And as for me, I was along with my fellow Americans just that: an American. How am I supposed to compete with these Europeans??? I have always known in my heart that people are people, and am reminded of this whenever I hear Depeche Mode on the radio. I know that Americans really are no better than anyone else, especially Europeans, yet this is my point. In spite of knowing this, I still held to these silly ideas.
Really, I think I knew after my first trip to Europe that this was an unfair stereotype. However, during that trip most of my time was spent in England, so by the end of it I felt I really had the Brits down – okay, Londoners to be fair. For the rest of ‘Europe’ the stereotype was still strong.
I think about this idea now, even after living here in Europe (Germany) for nearly three years and depending on the day (or sometimes the city) I still think, Yes! Then there are the other days, these other days my head is obviously grounded in reality. It is these days that I can see, with my own eyes how so silly this stereotype is.
Part of the reason for this is that I can see that Germany is the fattest nation in Europe, party because of their beer consumption. What’s more, thanks to the cheap export that is American television, the internet, and the likelihood that most western nation probably buy their clothes in bulk at the same sweat shops in Asia; everyone looks the same. Finally, as my German improves I understand more of what is said and done around me (fascinating how that works) and have come to the realization that since there are fat people everywhere, so are there stupid people.
Do not misunderstand however, just as I would never call out the US as being full of fat, stupid people – I would extend the same courtesy to Germany and all the other European countries. Simply because someone is a fat or dim-witted person does not a country make, despite some of our leaders best attempts.
According to my Belgian blogger friend Jan, what I initially described above was the stereotype of the French extended to all Europeans. During our conversation, my impression was that many foreigners have this same idea. Perhaps for the last century or so the French have had the right friends in the marketing field and overall propaganda machine in the US. After all, behind the Spanish Aldomovar films I devoured en mass (initially for my Spanish foreign language class, then simply because they are amazing), were the “Art House” French films. I think “Art House” applied to any film coming out of France. However, after having lived here (next to France) for some time and befriending a few French, I have discovered that the “Art House” is just a very small part of the large number of films the country puts out, due in part to the French government protections/supports for the industry. The French government thinks there is a war going on against French culture (any and all of it), and fight it vigorously and diligently. I think of it like the beer that a country (and distributor) decides on exporting from a country around the world. It very often is our first taste of that country and often it tastes like crap, but it does help to shape an image of said country in our minds.
I understand that this is why people are encouraged to study abroad when in school. Doing so helps break these silly ideas of the ever-perfect-culturally-and intellectually-superior Europeans, or the fat-unintelligent-American-bullies. Because we create these assumptions in our head with a piecemeal of information about a place and its people thanks in part to the cultural documents that it exports (be it television, cinema, music, foods, etc). I try to tell my students that whatever they think they know about my home country, regardless of it they have been there or not, is a great place to start exploring and attempting to understand “why” Americans do what they do. What happens is that my students often don’t feel confident or comfortable speaking about assumptions, so the ones with experience inside the USA end up talking a lot more, much to the disservice to the rest of class (because everyone’s opinion is important and it unfortunately shuts down conversation when some of them don’t think their opinions are important simply because they haven’t been to said place).
So, where does this all leave me then? I like to consider myself a rather intelligent and worldly woman, yet a part of me holds tight to this stereotype I created long ago, even as I am proven time and again that it doesn’t hold water. Perhaps like a dieter clings to their ideal weight to help keep them on their mission to shed those pounds. Before we ever return to the states, I must become ‘Europeanized’ first, so that my time here can show for something (physically). I don’t want to chain smoke, but being a bit of a foodie wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Neither would being able to speak more than one language. I am a citizen of the world now after all!
I realize this makes me sound incredibly vain (and naïve)- which I assure you I am not, but that is part of the point. I can’t seem to entirely move beyond these silly idea, even though I can fully recognize that is exactly what it is.