I got to Sweden on Tuesday and it did not take me an hour to be fleeced by a taxi driver (A four minute taxi ride from the Kista subway station to the Microsoft office which was not my intended destination cost me 195SEK, or about USD$33). Later in the evening I was speaking with one of the clerks at my hotel she told me that it was not uncommon for taxis to take advantage of people they see are tourists, and more specifically American tourists.
When i got to Stockholm on Thursday I had to get from the central station to the Swedish Tourism Bureau… no more than a 300m walk. I kept asking directions and continued to walk around in circles. I assumed I was looking for some obscure street that nobody knew, but when I arrived at Kungsträdgården I discovered it was this huge historical park with a concert venue, statues, and french gardens that started from the water and extended four blocks with cafés all along one side, and terminating at a major intersection three blocks from the central station.
I thought for most of the time that I was getting my exercise that the people in Sweden just did not speak English very well.
There was a bit of a line-up at the Tourism Bureau so I went into the gift store. They had lapel pins of the Swedish flag crossed with several others, and I decided to buy and don the one with the Canadian flag; I had heard for years that Americans traveling abroad would wear Canadian flags to be treated better and I didn't know if it would be the case, but I decided it was worth a shot and if nothing else it was a nice pin for 5 SEK (less than a dollar).
It was the last time I got wrong directions in Sweden.
I understand that there is a great deal of animosity towards the United States. I am not even naïve enough to believe that they would have started with the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan (or even the first Iraq war). I know that people have an impression of America that is not entirely favourable, to put nicely. That impression has often extended to Americans abroad; the caricature of the loud, boorish, and ignorant American tourist is in so many movies including American ones. I have encountered such tourists in Canada, in Israel, and even in America. It does not mean that all Americans are like that; but we remember those who are because they leave a more lasting impression than the nice and quiet ones.
When I walked into the bar last night I took off my jacket, forgetting that at the same time I was taking off the pin that was on the lapel. I was not treated poorly. The bartender and people around me would answer my questions. One of them finally asked me where in America I was from, at which point I made clear that I was from Canada. All of a sudden we were all friends and having a great, jovial time.
I asked them about this and they told me that they did not actually dislike Americans, they just did not respect them, their behaviour, and the fact that their country 'felt it necessary to stick their nose in everybody's business.' (We were sitting in a Boston Irish pub with a baseball-basketball-football motif… but let's leave that aside) They spent five minutes telling me all of the bad that America has contributed to the world. I asked them about all of the good that America has done… 'What good? What has America ever taught us?'
How to not have to speak German.
It is easy to focus on the bad… and frankly I am as turned off by the loud and obnoxious tourists as anyone, but I also know that the majority of Americans are not like that, and that there are people like that everywhere. I also understand (and have often joked about) the fact that so many Americans are woefully unaware of the world and cultures outside of their borders. Is it that America has become an insular society closed off from the rest of the world? Probably not… a hundred years ago it was unlikely that anyone anywhere would have traveled more than fifty miles from their home. I know countless Americans who have never left their own country, but have traveled extensively within it.
In the United States should one wish to there are dozens of specialty channels that concentrate exclusively on foreign cultures, travel, and lands. However if people are not interested there is little you can do to force them.
There is good and bad in every group of people. Roger Waters sings a (VERY anti-war song) called Leaving Berlin. It is about an encounter that he had with an old Lebanese couple in 1961… about how kind, gentle, and loving they are. I have met those Lebanese, and I have met the ones carrying guns and planting bombs… launching missiles and carrying out terrorist attacks.
Many Americans that I have met are equally guilty of the same offences. That does not make the entire country racist, only the individuals who are unwilling to open their minds. 'The ability to think differently today from yesterday distinguishes the wise man from the stubborn.' It is a quote on the wall of the Nobel Museum attributed to Sir Isaac Newton (or John Steinbeck depending on the source). Hopefully we can all get over the stubbornness and open our minds.
You should not hate all people in a group based on the actions of a few, but neither can you love them either. People are people, and should not be judged based on anything other than their actions and deeds.
Because I am going there next I asked another clerk at the hotel about the differences between Norway and Sweden. She told me that the people in Norway are nicer. I asked why and she told me that the Swedish people are xenophobic (her term was racist, but the explanation clarified her position). I have not found that to be true, but then again I do not know what is being said behind my back, or in front of me in Swedish. I guess I am trying to see the best in people… and hope that they are truly living up to it.