“My God! How little do my countrymen know what precious blessings they are in possession of, and which no other people on earth enjoy!” – Thomas Jefferson
I had every intention of making this the last of a three-part series and publishing it last month. Given the recent world events in Israel and the continuing conflict in Ukraine, it felt like an inappropriate time for a discussion on American exceptionalism. Throughout my wife and I’s trip to Italy in September, we dined and toured with travelers worldwide, especially from other parts of Europe. A common theme in our interactions was an admiration for the United States as “the greatest country in the world.”
In the first part of this series, I detailed our interactions in Rome with a pompous American tour guide who was all too eager to push his own leftist ideas in a tour of the Vatican. This was in contrast to a humble yet proud Italian woman who was all too eager to tell the stories of her country’s past. This dichotomy only increased my appreciation for the opinions expressed by Europeans we encountered along the way.
On our first night in Florence, we took a food tour of regional cuisine with several other couples, including a very nice German couple that we hit it off with and shared drinks with the following night. They were a younger couple and both pharmacists. They expressed their desire to see more of America, our national parks in particular. I was impressed with their scope of knowledge on America and willingness to discuss political issues that I might hesitate to discuss with fellow Americans I just met. Topics like politics, religion, the bad orange man, healthcare, energy, and gun violence were discussed. I was impressed that the discussion allowed for nuance and wasn’t nearly as polarized or verboten as it can be here.
Our German friends were dismayed at our celebration of Bavarian culture, as they considered it to be the redneck culture of Germany. Most interestingly, Germans are taught from a young age not to be proud of their country because of their history during World War II. This rejection of national pride seems tantamount to the modern American left’s desire to destroy American exceptionalism and mirrors their insistence that America has never been great.
Our tour guide to the Academy Museum was a very nice Italian man who recounted his experience in America. As a teenager, he visited his uncle in California twenty-five years ago. He expressed his desire to return to America and see all she offers outside of California.
One thing that is often lost on Americans is the sheer size of our country. One state is often comparable to the size and population of one European nation. This guide couldn’t fathom that it can take nine to ten hours to travel from the bottom to the top of Idaho. For comparison, it can take ten or more hours to travel from one end of the Italian peninsula to the other. This is also an important distinction to remember when making geopolitical comparisons in general: the United States is more comparable to the European Union than to any one nation.
Each morning in Florence, we dined at a small cafe outside of our apartment in Oltrarno. It was a lovely sidewalk cafe where they spoke little English but created extraordinary pastries and specialty coffees. Our bus boy each morning was a young Senegalese man who excitedly asked if we were American. Though his English was quite broken, we were impressed that he spoke seven other languages. Of all the people we ran into, he was the most explicit in referring to America as “the greatest country in the world” and his dream destination.
From Florence, we took the train to Venice and were seated next to a lovely set of twin university students from Naples on their way to a family vacation in Austria. One was an engineer, and the other a pre-med student. Their parents were seated behind us, the father an engineer and the mother a university science professor. The girls’ English was impeccable, though their parents did not speak English.
Over the course of a few hours, the girls told us of prior visits to both Florida and New York in their travels. Though the family was clearly well educated, they expressed their desire to have the American dream of a home with land. As a family, they owned a summer home with a yard but described it as the entire family’s home, including extended family. They detailed their memories as children playing outside and exploring, having a big garden and space to breathe. One thing they specifically mentioned was their desire to own a multi-story home. The idea that this is something someone would aspire to is somewhat foreign to me, as it’s commonplace here in the States.
One of the top animated films of my childhood, An American Tale, details the 19th-century travels of a Russian immigrant mouse family to America. They are told stories of the greatness of America, only to arrive in New York and find themselves separated in a foreign land while encountering all of the hardships that one can expect when having little to your name but opportunity. Somehow, the moral of the story isn’t “America sucks!”
For many generations of Americans who have become accustomed to a plush lifestyle, it is easy to miss what much of the world often yearns for: opportunity and a space to call our own. They say that good times create weak men, so perhaps we’re just in the weak men phase of the opportunity lifecycle. American greatness has never been about a lack of resistance in life or escaping our depraved nature to reach the pinnacle of humanity. It has always been about having the opportunity to overcome resistance and to chart our own course. For these reasons, America is still the greatest country, and the rest of the world still sees what we often don’t.