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Fly the Flag

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.

in the 1990s, I worked for  six weeks in a small town in Germany 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 ancestors arrived.  I stood out without opening my mouth long enough to flub simple sentence construction in their harsh yet strangely cute language.

Listening in German was closer to my skill level, so I was forced to do that a lot.  One day I came to a the breakroom just as Harald was laughing about the latest directive from the US corporate office. Part of it really broke him up.

“With Americans, there are no problems, only opportunities.” he said with a laugh.  My colleagues kept laughing until I told them, “Yes, that’s right. Optimism is at the core of what we believe.” And there was silence.  The previous conversation over beer was sinking in.  They probably thought we were hopelessly naïve, but it all at least made sense.

That was my life as an outsider in a very small town in Germany.  I came to be known as “Der Ami” or the American because, simply, I was the only one many people had met in person.

Knowing I might represent my country to so many people, I became very careful. I took to calling it “Flying the Flag,” some self-aggrandizement born of loneliness and a little homesickness.   I did my best to dress well, tip well, and take a joke or snide comment with grace.   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.

At work, I had to try a bit harder.  The locals were one thing, but my colleagues and I were forced by circumstance to share a little more.  Harald was especially fun not because of his warmth or charm but because of his skepticism. He forced me to think and explain.

I’m happy that I took my role as self-appointed ambassador so seriously.  I still believe that 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 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 tried to really fly the flag.

10 thoughts on “Fly the Flag

  1. It’s a lot of fun to be way off the beaten path in another country. I think it’s great that you took representing the US seriously but I’ll bet it was more fun than as serious as you make it sound. I’ve done the same thing in Belize and it was cool to be received as someone other than just another tourist.

  2. I think this is a repeat from long ago but I still love it. I wish more people did their part to remove the stain of “Ugly American” that we earned all over the world.

  3. Thanks, guys. Yes, Jim, I was doing it more for the fun than any kind of “responsibility” at first – and it was fun. Janine, I think people respect us generally more than we usually think, but it’s really best to make sure and be a decent guest in another nation.

  4. So true Erik, I really enjoy having the opportunity to do this espcially as my appearance sets people off on the wrong track. I guess in me you get a two for one Hong Kong and the UK.

  5. I’ve often wondered just what the glue is that holds our disparate nation together. What, exactly, does an urban dweller in my hometown have in common with a rural dweller in my home state that they can claim to be of one nation? They don’t know each other or their ways of life. They probably wouldn’t even like each other. But they are united by something that makes them American. This has always puzzled me. I can see your point, then, in sharing an ideal.

  6. Paul, that’s exactly what I want to get at. We’re being pulled apart right now and a lot of people don’t seem to think of us as “one people” the way they used to. But we are. What ideals hold us together? “Freedom” seems like it would be as likely to pull us apart as an abstract idea, so there has to be more.

    Confession time: I’ve told this story before, and people ask how I could come up with something so good on the fly. They don’t believe me. Actually, I got the idea that Jefferson’s statement in the Declaration is our catechism from George Will. So there. 🙂

    Also, Harald spoke English very well. On re-read, I should have made it clear that I didn’t have to make my fancified statements in German (which I could not ever do!).

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  9. Flying the Flag by actions: Contrary to myth, not everyone in Europe speaks English; a point our daughter made clear to us before we crossed the Pond to visit her in Cherbourg [and Paris] when she was teaching in Cherbourg in 2004. When speaking to a native she advised us to first greet the person with “beau jour,” and then to ask “parlez-vous anglais?” She found the French don’t appreciate Americans expecting that they all speak English. This worked very well–even in Paris, where we experienced first a smile and often being thanked for asking.
    Flying the Flag: Too often today the more flags one displays on his house, car, business, and even disrespecting the flag in his Patriotic Fervor, clothing, lawn chairs and just about anything you may imagine, with an obvious flag pattern on it.
    Today I raised my single 32-star US Flag to fly through July 5th when it will be lowered, until the next Flag-appropriate day.

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