I’ve been on vacation for the past couple of weeks with my family. We spent some time in Ireland and Greece, seeing the countryside, looking at the Olympic sites in Athens and visiting Ikaria, the island where my father’s family is from. Leaving the country always gives people a different perspective upon returning. In fact, it used to be an American tradition to live outside of the States just to get a different view of the world. Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams all spent years abroad while remaining resolutely in favor of life in America.
Sports wise, my trip coincided with the first couple weeks of Euro 2004, the quadrennial match up of the top European soccer teams in a World Cup format. Anytime a team competes under the banner of it’s national flag there’s going to be a swell of support. But soccer, or as everybody else calls it, football, brings out a passion that can’t be found anywhere else. Both England and Greece were in the tournament, and both advanced out of pool play to the quarterfinals. When that happened, you’d have thought they declared a national holiday in Greece. They took to the streets and partied until dawn. (Not unlike they do on most days, but this time they at least seemed to have a reason!)
It’s very rare that we have a chance to all root for the same team, under the Stars and Stripes, perhaps the last time was the 1980 Olympic Hockey Team. So it was fun to watch the news coverage and read the reams and reams of newspaper coverage about a 90 minute game. Every shopkeeper, every clerk, every taxi driver, in fact, everybody was up for a conversation about their team in both England and Greece. I felt a tinge of jealousy when it came to their communal fan spirit. It’d be nice to have something like that here again. Anytime we have a big event, fans are split. Our national teams aren’t competitive in many of the “international’ sports, and soccer is still developing. I say that because our best athletes are not choosing soccer because there’s not enough money in it. What if our national team in the last World Cup had Michael Jordan at center midfield, Deion Sanders on one wing, Barry Sanders on the other, Cal Ripken as the stopper and Kevin Garnett in goal? Think they would have been any good? That’s what other countries have, their best athletes play on their national soccer team. Even with 280 million people in this country, when your best soccer players are not your best athletes, you’re going to get beat on the international stage.
I was able to just sit and listen on many occasions to people’s opinions about the United States. Everybody has an opinion, and it seems that they want to give it to you, well, ‘cause you’re “a Yank.” Just like with anything, some people love us, some people hate us. The one thread that ran through all of the people who wanted to tell me how bad America is was their lack of information. I was amazed at how ill-informed so many people were about everyday life in the States. The communication system abroad is not like ours. You can be in a remote spot, and have satellite television, but only get a couple of channels. Between that and the radio, your knowledge of anywhere outside your village is pretty narrow. So I sat politely many times, listening to what’s wrong with America, only to pose the question at the end, ‘Have you every been to the States?” I’d always get the same answer, “No, but.” And I’d stop them right there. “You should visit,” I’d say, “You’d find many things about America that you’d like.” And with that, the conversation usually turned to something else. But after I gave that answer a few times, I realized that in a small way, I was using that old line “Our diversity is our greatest strength.” And it’s an old line, because it’s true. If you were to come to America from say, Greece, you’d find it so vast and varied that you couldn’t help but find somewhere and some people you liked.
I know I’m not breaking any new ground here, but the view of our country from that distance is very different. Every other country has it’s own infighting, but not quite as out in the open as here. (Except for England where everything is plastered on the front of the tabloids.) My son got a bit frustrated with one of the people who were running down America and blurted out, “Look, I support my country and until yours is perfect, leave mine alone.” Pretty good for a 13-year old I thought. You may not support the war in Iraq, or you might not like what’s happening with Medicare, and there’s a lot of other things people don’t agree on here in the States, but I promise you, we’ve got the best thing going.