Americans have never possessed the most pristine reputation abroad. Other countries, particularly European ones, have long subscribed to typical American stereotypes: We’re fat, lazy, uncultured, loud, obnoxious, and ignorant of world affairs. An American traveling abroad can expect anything from dirty glances and muffled disdain to outright hostility.
And that was before the war.
With the amount of global outrage our president has generated, it would be easy to assume that anti-Americanism is at an all-time high.
However, some metro Detroiters who have recently returned from overseas say this is not the case; in fact, some say the war has even lessened anti-American sentiment — the rest of the world just hates our government.
During a weekend at Detroit Metropolitan Airport’s bustling international terminal, security is tight. Flashing signs on the road to the terminal warn that the security level is code orange (if you can remember what that actually means in the terror color spectrum), and all cars are subject to search.
Todd Benigni of Warren awaits the arrival of his wife, Veronica. The couple was vacationing in Germany, where they briefly lived last year. Todd returned a week ago to attend to his job with an automotive supplier, while Veronica stayed on for an extra week.
Todd says he didn’t experience any anti-American sentiment, but plenty of vocal hostility towards Bush.
“They understand that not all Americans support the war,” he says of the people he encountered. “They have the ability to differentiate between (Americans and the government).
“However, that may change, if the news keeps broadcasting these polls that say 70, 80 percent of Americans are for the war. Personally, I think those numbers are a little high.”
Todd added that he and his wife were frequently grilled on American politics by German friends.
“They have a lot of questions, and they’re just honestly curious,” he says. “They ask things like ‘Why can’t the U.S. wait? Why are they pushing us right now?’”
Todd looks up as Veronica exits customs. She leaps into her husband’s arms.
A petite dance instructor, Veronica was in Germany both before and after the start of “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” and says she witnessed a dramatic change in just a few days.
“I saw five demonstrations in two days, and there were all kinds of different people — Turks, teenagers, adults with their young children. I asked a German friend of mine about his feelings towards Americans, and he said, ‘Before or after the war?’”
Veronica says while her German friends don’t begrudge Americans, they’ve completely lost respect for our government.
A shy and quiet Matthew Gibson of Port Huron steps out of customs. He just returned from the U.S. territory of Guam, where he was working for a humanitarian effort arranged by his church to repair damage from the typhoon that swept across the island in December 2002.
“They’re very much for us in Guam,” says Gibson. “They love Americans.”
However, Livonia native Nikole Traynor, having just returned from backpacking in France and Spain with friends, wasn’t feeling the American love fest. Traynor says she and her friends were harassed one night in a pub in Spain, singled out for their nationality.
Although Traynor claims the majority of her encounters with Europeans were positive, she says she occasionally felt unspoken hostility, especially when traveling with other groups of American backpackers.
“We met some really nice people, and had some really interesting and nonargumentative political conversations,” says Traynor. “But there were times when I felt like being an American in Europe right now is like walking around with a sign that says ‘Kick me’ taped to your back.”
Some metro Detroiters currently abroad are using e-mail as a way to keep their loved ones abreast of the political climate.
Lori France of Flint is traveling through Greece, and updating her family via cyber cafés.
“While (Greeks) are very unhappy with the current administration and the military, they are not anti-American,” France says. “We only encountered one instance of semihostility — we asked for directions from two men on the street. One looked away from us and said ‘Americans’ to the other in a disgusted voice and walked away.”
Former Detroiter Rob Smith moved to Cork City, Ireland, in 2001, and has been cyber-updating his American friends with increasing frequency over the past few months.
“I am called on to justify the U.S. government’s choices (to Irish friends). When challenged, they do agree most Americans are not the problem, it’s their leadership,” says Smith.
“With the accent, I am obviously an American. I cannot hide that, nor would I. I am not ashamed of being an American, even if I am ashamed by the way our elected officials handle themselves.”
Detroit musician Joe Frezza returned in February from a European tour with his band, the Electric Six, which performed in the UK, Sweden, Germany, France, Belgium and Holland.
“We didn’t really pick up on any actual anti-Americanism … at least not any more than I’ve always seen in Europe,” Frezza says. “However, obviously people are very much against the idea of war, but most of the venom seems to be focused on Bush himself.”
Frezza says the band would open every gig by addressing the audience with an apology for Bush’s actions.
“This always prompted a really vigorous round of applause.”Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail email@example.com