The misunderstandings and suspicions melted away, as they always do, after a few litres of liquid bread that the Germans call “Bier”. Harald was very honest in his German way, a kind of honesty that was spelled out in long, silent pauses as much as words. “With all of these different people and cultures, what is it that makes you Americans?”
I swallowed my beer to give me time, and the perfect answer came to me:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
It was answered with another Teutonic silence, but the moment clearly demanded more from him. Harald dutifully complied.
“So that’s it? If you believe in that, you’re an American?”
“Yes, I think that’s it. It’s our catechism.”
“It’s more of a faith than a culture, then.”
“Yes, I would say so.”
I could tell that he wasn’t buying it, at least not for himself. But he had to respect a direct answer, and did. I could feel that it explained a lot to him, including the time when he laughingly told the whole group, in German, that he had learned that “With Americans, there are no problems, only opportunities.” The rest of my colleagues were laughing up until the moment I told them, “Yes, that’s right.” They were stunned. “Optimism is at the core of what we believe.” Now that Harald had the catechism, this earlier statement of beliefs had a context. I assumed he thought we were hopelessly na�ve, but it all at least made sense.
When I worked in Germany, it was in a small town where very few people had ever seen an American before. Burghausen is a place where everyone more or less knows everyone else, going back into the mists of time when their anscestors arrived. I stood out without opening my mouth long enough to flub simple sentence construction in their harsh yet strangely cute language.
Knowing I might represent my country to so many people, I became very careful. Going out at night became what I called “Flying the Flag,” an epic adventure where I would dress well, tip well, and do my best to respect the people and culture that were hosting me. I also did my best to answer any and all questions honestly and completely. I wanted the good Volk of Burghausen to know that me and my people are at least decent.
My colleagues at work were a bit different. There’s nothing like working with people from other nations to get to know another culture and, through the process, your own. A tourist can choose where they are and may be at the mercy of a tour guide, but you’re stuck with your colleagues who at least can give you details on their lives, not just the sites. Harald was especially good as a host not because of his warmth or charm but because of his skepticism. He forced me to think and explain.
As we celebrate the holiday based on the acceptance of our catechism, this is all a good thing to remember. To “Fly the Flag” is more than just hanging out a piece of cloth on a pole – it’s the process of living up to both the common standards of decency and our highest ideals. It’s not exactly easy, but in the end it’s absolutely essential. We are a people, and unlike so many other people that are defined by land and language we are defined by what we believe in. If we let our ideals down, we let our nation down.
It might sound like just another bar story between two colleagues who were forced by circumstance to understand each other. To me, it became a mirror. I’m not only a better person for it, I’m a better American. I hope we all have the chance to represent our nation sometime, even if just at some bar in a far corner of Germany. Holidays like Independence Day have much more meaning when you’ve had to really fly the flag.
“Optimism is at the core of what we believe.”
Bravo for you for being a good example, instead of the “ugly American” many people think of. Great recounting – thanks for sharing!
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