Stopping to smell the zeitgeist

Since I am someone who is known for ignoring popular trends and defying conventional wisdom, it seems appropriate that I headed off on my first trip to Europe in 27 years just before the Pew Global Attitudes Project announced that positive feelings about America are hitting the skids.

In Germany, my destination, the report claims we've taken a 17 percent hit from two years ago. I can practically hear Richard Dawson's voice on the original "Family Feud" announcing, "Germans who have favorable notions about the USA: Survey says - 61 percent!" Not much to applaud for that figure.

There's also been well-publicized feuding at a higher level, with President Bush and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder holding sharply different attitudes about the best way to disarm Iraq. It adds up to lively material for water-cooler conversations, but I'm happy to report that none of this supposedly simmering antagonism boiled over during my face-to-face encounters with German citizens.

The perception that "they hate us over there" is good grist for talk shows, but snappy phrases can't accurately describe what's happening inside an entire country. As I sat in the Zeit Cafe at the Cologne railway station, it was hard to tell who's us and who's them. Everywhere I looked there were Columbia Sportswear jackets, Old Navy sweatshirts, and JanSport shoulder bags. Are any Germans mad enough to rip the logos off such items and replace them with "We Hate America" patches? If so, they never came within my line of sight.

More typical was the friendly service my family received from our waitress at the Wolfsschlucht Restaurant in the village of Bad Munstereifel. Speaking minimal English, she helped us peruse the extensive menu without losing patience. My daughter was also highly intrigued that other patrons had brought their dogs along for company, and the canines were perfectly at ease under the tables.

This does not mean I'm in favor of allowing pets in American eating places. But as a roving Pollyanna, I keep my complaints to a minimum and look for positive things to talk about. One aspect of daily life in Germany that impressed me was the wide variety of nifty small cars such as the Peugeot Partner, Opel Swing, and Renault Kangoo that easily negotiate small streets and tight parking spaces. Why are these models not available in the US?

I also find it remarkable that a new monetary system went into effect almost overnight with no public uproar. The euro is firmly in place. Merchants and consumers seemed totally at ease in every transaction I witnessed. In this country, we've been stymied just trying to get a dollar coin into circulation.

So I'm advising everyone who reads the Pew Global Attitudes Project to be careful how they interpret the results. Asking someone, "How do you feel about America?" is not the same as, "How would you feel toward an individual American who walked up to you on the street?" The questions sound very similar. But the answers may be worlds apart.

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