I'll gladly take any excuse to talk about traveling; I love being on the road, seeing the world, expanding my horizons (not mention being out of Miami for a little while). Once a month I received Rick Steves' Travel News via email, in which Rick writes a little essay to introduce the month's news, normally a mix of updated entries from his travel guides, short articles on various aspects of travel in Europe, plus a photo essay on a different theme each month. (As a side note, anyone who loves travel and Europe should subscribe to the email newsletter and to the print newsletter, as it gives you a handy travel fix between trips.)
Today I got a special edition Elections 2004 Travel Newsletter email, with a mixture of new and old articles from the past year all focusing on how the U.S. and Americans are seen abroad (mainly in Europe) and what kind of thoughts that should elicit in us as we head to the polls next Tuesday. While I don't necessarily agree 100% with every single word Rick writes on his site, I do wholeheartedly agree with the overall message. To sum it up in a sentence from Rick's article on USAToday.com, "If more Americans traveled before they voted, they would elect a government with policies that didn't put it at odds with the rest of the world." Abso-freakin-lutely.
Americans in general are some of the most obtuse people I have ever met when it comes to having a world-picture: the U.S. sits at the center of the universe, and there is little reason to consider anything else. It's easy when you live in a country that spans a continent from coast to coast, but it shouldn't be the norm. I'm not saying we should not be proud of being American; quite the contrary, actually. We should be proud, and that pride should allow us to go into the rest of the world as citizen ambassadors, a veritable army of people putting a face on the U.S. that is not the president's (any of them), showing the rest of the world who we truly are: a people with a strong work ethic, no-holds-barred attitude and the ambition (and desire) to reach beyond the stars. Yeah, some people take those virtues and turn them into vices (workaholism is just as bad as alcoholism, and there is a fine-albeit-present line between pride and arrogance), but not all of us are like that. The government is not going to be the one to show this side of Americans to the world—it has way too many economic and political interests to be objective—so it is up to each and every one of us travelers to do so.
So please, when you travel abroad (and everyone should travel abroad, the world's too big to live your whole life in one place), remember you are an ambassador of the true United States, and that your actions speak for all of us. You don't have to learn a new language (though it wouldn't hurt you, you know! Europeans on average speak 2 languages, and many speak 3 and 4), just get a phrasebook and practice how to say "Hello," "Thank you," and "Do you speak English?" For all that's holy, please don't just assume and start speaking English; if a foreigner did that to you in the U.S. you'd flip out, so don't do it to them. Stop being a tourist and become a short-term resident; do the touristy stuff, but venture beyond the glitz to the backstreets and be rewarded with a whole new world, the day-to-day world. Remember that we are all, every single one of us in every single country in the world, residents of the same planet, so think of people in Russia, China, Japan, Australia, Ethiopia, Israel, Turkey, France, Germany, England, Finland, Canada, Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, or anywhere else in the world as your cousins a few degrees removed. And above all, keep the rest of the world in mind when you make your decision on Nov. 2; the elections decide the president on the U.S., but the U.S. has an incredible impact upon the rest of the world, and we should be responsible with that power.