how the world sees america

England



May 14, 2007 3:16 PM

A One-Way Ticket: Starting the Trip

The last time I was in the UK, I was a college kid on my way home from senior thesis research in Zimbabwe -- and from five days in jail. Needless to say, I was shaken up.

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Amar en route to Manchester.

In that African dictatorship I first experienced the downside to being an American, especially a curious one with a video camera asking too many questions about state propaganda. But that wasn't all. During my five days in detention, the guards who harassed me with cookie-cutter anti-American rhetoric also treated me as an object of fascination, asking questions about American obesity, the White House, and Michael Moore.

Now I’m headed back across the Atlantic, this time to explore other peoples' views of America and their stories of how my home has impacted their lives.

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May 16, 2007 5:34 AM

Goodhart: Britain Inches Left, Away from U.S.

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Today's high anti-Americanism in Britain is just skin-deep, says PostGlobal panelist and founder of Prospect Magazine, David Goodhart. “This sentiment will disappear in five seconds,” he says, when American leadership changes hands. "Come Obama, everything changes."

But this doesn’t mean America should ignore increasing differences with its ally across the pond. It should just look more closely: “The unsung aspects of the last ten years [are that] Britain is becoming increasingly Europeanized.” Its government is moving philosophically farther away from the American model. Since acquiring power, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and the New Labour Party have pushed for myriad social protections, growing increasingly attuned to continental trends and policy experiments.

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May 16, 2007 5:58 AM

Ivy League Workaholism

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Problem sets, quizzes, quarterly exams -- that is the U.S. to Daniel Goodkin, a Brit who studied at Harvard University. The work ethic of the place nearly drove him to a shrink.

Harvard is known to be a relatively hands-off university, but compared to what he was used to -- a UK system of year-long study followed by one month of intensive testing -- it was overbearing. So when deciding where to attend law school, he chose home.

From the gates of Middle Temple, where barristers train themselves to don wigs and annunciate eloquently on minutiae, we compared notes on our learning experiences in America. Daniel argued that because of burdensome pedagogy and hyper-testing in the U.S., kids don’t learn to think for themselves.

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May 16, 2007 6:43 AM

TV in the American Language

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Jerry Springer cat fights are so much better in America! Everything over there is bigger and more dramatic, so when British drama students play Americans, they don't worry about over-doing it.

Six students in Manchester's drama school spend Tuesday evening perfecting their American accents for the “America bloc” of their theater training. They perform scenes from Neil Simon’s play California Suite in which, among other assorted disasters, a wife returns to her room at the Beverly Hills Hotel to find her husband’s hooker passed out in bed.

Reflecting on rehearsals so far, a student named Rachel tells me “It’s been a culture shock. In school we were never really taught about America.” But they’ve had plenty of exposure: Friends, Will & Grace, Frasier...Sally Jessy Rafael. “If you watched as much British TV as we watch American TV, you’d be able to impersonate us too,” they reassure me as I awkwardly say “Hallo” in a British accent. “We don’t even notice American accents on TV, like we do accents from other countries.”

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May 17, 2007 1:09 PM

WWII Sailor Nostalgic, Disenchanted

"Here's lookin' at you, kid," Bogart told women around the world.
1943: As World War II raged, Casablanca flooded the big screens, and a young British sailor named Sid Grant prowled for a “beautiful, young bird” in Manchester. These were years of romance for Sid, and America’s image was at its heart.

Now Sid is an 82-year-old living in a rough part of Manchester. He’s been divorced three times, estranged from his children, and passes his time researching his genealogy and refereeing professional weightlifting competitions.

Waxing nostalgic, he told me how he admired American soldiers six decades ago. “They were very good looking, smartly dressed, taller than us British, and always eager for a good time.”

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May 18, 2007 7:46 AM

America's Two-Edged Flag

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After 9-11, I hung an American flag prominently at the entrance to my house. Didn't think twice about it. But to a group of young British politics students at Loreto College who visited Washington and New York City last year, the omnipresence of the American flag and unabashed patriotism was “very peculiar.”

In Britain, they told me, it’s very hard to find their flag displayed publicly, especially by citizens. This is in part because the National Front movement, strong in the 1980s, co-opted the British flag for its xenophobic politics. Flying the flag in homes is often understood as a symbol of racism, they explain.

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May 21, 2007 6:51 AM

U.S. Soccer: Betting on Beckham

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Manchester - Global soccer god David Beckham is coming to Los Angeles this summer, playing for the Galaxy, hoping to make Americans love soccer as much as the world loves him. But back in the town where the legend began, patrons of a local pub called Sku tell me they’re disappointed their hero is turning down the European world of real football for nothing but glitz and glamor.

Americans, I’m told by a girl named Emma Crompton, don’t watch football (as they call the sport here) because there are “two halves, and they’re forty five minutes long in each half, and I don’t think they [Americans] have got enough concentration to watch it.” She pulls out an example, and another speculation: “In the '94 FIFA World Cup, when it was in America, they tried to change it to quarters for ads and, I reckon, because of lack of concentration.”

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May 23, 2007 1:45 PM

Beauty Contestants Love U.S.

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Morecambe - I'm backstage at the Morecambe beauty pageant with a video camera and twenty contestants milling about. Perfect time to talk America. And what I hear is, in short, "We love you!"

The seaside town of Morecambe tries hard to please visitors. It's full of people who've spent their lives working in the city's hospitality industry as arcade managers, ice-cream vendors, hotel receptionists, cashiers, waiters and performers. But since the 1960s, passenger airplanes and package vacations have taken Britons elsewhere, leaving Morecambe’s promenade a litter of abandoned carousels and video game parlors.

They're seeking to awaken their slumbering town, and they turn to America's tourism industry and its tourists for insights. "Americans," I'm told, "are enthusiastic for life, "do things bigger and better" and, of course, they give "loads of tips."

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May 24, 2007 10:04 AM

Big Tippers -- 'Cause You Get What You Pay For

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Morecambe - “The American public treats the people in the service industry with respect and value whereas in England we don't. We treat them as some kind of menial, almost slave labor.”

So says Barry Lucas, a former concert promoter in Lancaster, now a primary school teacher in Morecambe. With his second wife, Mary Lucas, who spent a decade with a traveling German circus dancing atop the head of an elephant and now works for the community arts center, the couple talks about their positive experiences of American hospitality, including the care they received at their second wedding in San Francisco in 1993.

Barry describes “how nice, friendly and genuine” Americans are in their own country, how one always hears “have a nice day” and receives “help in the supermarket.” Mary chimes in, “Whereas in England you get a grunt and a reluctance” to serve, in America the wait staff really seems to care. And in turn, Americans treat their wait staff well.

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May 25, 2007 6:59 AM

Lancaster Muslims After 9/11: No Politics

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"Is it worth it, having to convince someone you're not a terrorist for five hours in an airport, just to visit America?" After 9/11, Afzal Essa's answer is no.

I have dropped by Lancaster Ilahi Mosque before prayers to ask about people's experiences as Muslims in this Northwest England town. Some tell me they feel completely free to practice their religion where they are. 9/11 doesn't seem to have diminished that here, but it has created more distance between them and America, making some more reluctant to head to the United States.

Which might explain in part why the elderly men I first approach relaxing outside the mosque meet me with some reserve. They tell me to speak with the Imam because they don't care for politics. The Imam later explains, "We try to stay far away from politics. It doesn't concern us."

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May 28, 2007 11:34 AM

Remembering Singer Jeff Buckley

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Sure, Elvis, Madonna, and Puff Daddy influence world melodies, but don’t forget the musician’s musician whose haunting voice inspires far-flung others. For Paul McCartney, Chris Martin, Bono, Elton John and many others, American folk singer Jeff Buckley was that voice.

I first heard Jeff Buckley in a friend’s basement at the age of thirteen, about to succumb to teenage angst. His voice embodied the pain and delight I’d experience through the coming years. From my first kiss to my worst fights, Jeff Buckley was there, though I never dared sing.

So when I heard Karima Francis perform his song "So Real" outside Manchester’s infamous Canal Street bar scene, you can only imagine my astonishment. In this 20-year-old I heard the mystery of Jeff Buckley’s voice, just days before the tenth anniversary of the singer's death.

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May 30, 2007 7:47 AM

Blackburn Muslims Happy, Afraid That Could Change

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Though you’ll see them as a group playing soccer and eating kebabs, you won't see any of these Muslim men from Blackburn talking to my camera. They’re all afraid of saying the wrong thing and ending up a terrorist suspect.

These men live in the tight-knit Muslim area of Whalley Range. Just on the edge of the city center, this hillside community is flooded with sweet shops, halal kebab restaurants, madaris and mosques galore.

Explaining their fears, they tell me their friend was detained for three and a half years by the British government. They were not told why. And just recently he confessed to plotting terrorist activity. “He was a normal, quiet guy – quite friendly,” I was told, “But after three and a half years in jail, you’d say anything.”

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May 31, 2007 11:41 AM

Cambridge, Mass. vs. Cambridge, UK: Battle for the Brightest

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Frances Cairncross, the rector of Exeter College at Oxford University, sits in a 700-year-old chair. Oxford is old, she emphasizes. It's been around far longer than America as a whole, yet America's institutes of higher learning still manage to dominate, pulling the best students in the world to Cambridge, MA often instead of Cambridge, UK.

Consider this: Of the top ten universities in the world (here's Newsweek's rankings), eight of them are in the United States. Cambridge and Oxford are the other two. This staggering number is likely to last for a while, with rising powers like India and China "massifying higher education," as Cairncross says, but still exporting their best and brightest to the U.S. to study.

This is all good for America, says Cairncross. Talented youth from around the world study in America, make lasting bonds with citizens here, and develop "warm cuddly feelings" toward the country. Moreover, they are imbued with "a common way of seeing the world." So many global intellectuals pass through America's East Coast corridor that some level of consensus develops among them.

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June 1, 2007 5:07 PM

Schwarzenegger's Green, But Bush's Barely Catching On

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Oxford - Maybe because World War II didn’t demolish most of America, we can’t visualize the total havoc that climate change could one day reap.

Maybe because we’re not as densely populated as Japan, we are a little less attuned to nature as she strains to meet our needs. And maybe because we have only two big political parties duking it out for power, a green party can't influence a ruling coalition like it does in Germany today.

These maybes come from German citizen Katarina Umpfanbach, currently a master’s student in environmental change here at Oxford. But unlike most of her peers, she nevertheless believes Bush's announcement today signals a somewhat meaningful change.

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June 4, 2007 9:45 AM

BMX: Rails Always Smoother on the Other Side

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Where does the Bicycle Motocross (BMX) mecca lie? Where the rails are smooth, the money is good, and the pace is calm. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find all of that in one place.

In England, the pace is calm but the money is bad. In America, the money is good and it’s easier to gain prestige, but the pace is hectic and the competition fierce. Cities have also installed spiked handrails to stop skaters and bikers from grinding on them, making it harder to ride just for casual recreation.

Yet America claims to be the birthplace of the sport. In 1970 somewhere in Southern California, so the legend goes, a bunch of kids emulated their motorcycle motocross heroes by grabbing their 20" Schwinn Stingray bicycles, entering a backyard dirt park and getting serious air: thus BMX was born. Through the next two decades, documentaries, competitions and word of mouth helped spread BMX around the world to Japan, Australia, and England. In 2008, China will introduce BMX to the worldwide Olympic Games.

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June 5, 2007 11:42 AM

Abusive Father, Fatherland, But America Stood By

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As a child, checks from America financed his father's alcoholism. At thirty, he invoked the memory of JFK in bar fights with British guys and in run ins with the British authorities who accused him of supporting the Irish Republican Army. Now Tom Dolan lingers on street corners in London's Trafalgar Square, seeking out the comfort of American strangers.

Over many hours, Tom slowly unraveled his life story for me. He has never visited America. His connection to the country is with the idea of America and of Irish-Americans, which gave him great strength in "hellish times."

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June 6, 2007 8:26 AM

Backpack Fit for a Street Fight

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Photo of the bag from back in DC, as I was packing to leave.
“Put that thing away or you’ll get bashed on the head,” a Colombian man selling pasties warns me in Gipsy Hill. I slip my small Sony HDV camera off my neck and tuck it into one of my shooting backpack’s many slots. The other slots house a MacBook laptop with Final Cut Pro, a Nikon D100 still camera, two Schriber microphones, HDV tapes and lots of extra batteries. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but inside I have everything I need to write and post daily on washingtonpost.com.

The small scale is what makes my project possible. I spent Monday afternoon with Tom Dolan and then explored an old gymnasium where muscular kids inject themselves with horse steroids. Lugging anything more with me like lighting equipment, a crew, even a tripod at times would make me stick out sorely. The work would be more challenging, potentially dangerous or even impossible.

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June 7, 2007 12:04 PM

UK Is America's Aircraft Carrier

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“The one right thing we did was to get rid of our colonies, all of them…just as America should get rid of its colonies,” Peter Underwood says as he stocks his canal boathouse. “America runs bombing missions out of Britain” using the isle as an aircraft carrier. It's hard to see how America represents freedom anymore, says Peter.

Peter spent forty years as a journalist covering crime and politics. He had a stint running a PR consultancy specializing in crisis management for big oil. But after a heart attack Peter chose to turn his hobby -- boating up and down England's canals -- into a way of life. He now spends half his time on his boathouse and half at the pub, where “talking politics is part of the fun.” What he hears from the other “laid back” canal-goers -- and what he firmly believes -- is that an arrogant America has become a true threat to global stability.

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June 8, 2007 3:46 PM

Why Rupert Murdoch Polarizes U.S., Not UK

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I can't escape Paris. She's everywhere here, baring her American all. But strangely, I never see Victoria Beckham, (a.k.a. Posh Spice) on the front page of The Post back home. Puzzled by this, I decided it was time to better understand UK media, and so I turned to an expert to help me figure it out.

In the cavern beneath the Royal Society of Arts, Bill Emmott -- who grew The Economist circulation six fold in his thirteen years at the helm -- talked to me about media, contrasting the UK and U.S. scenes.

1) On Rupert Murdoch’s News: Fox News in the U.S. and Sky News in the UK are both owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch so why is the former so “politically polarizing” and the latter “quite centrist”? Does the divide tell us there’s “a divided America,” an ideological Rupert Murdoch, or just different business incentives across the Atlantic? Basically, Emmott says, America has a bigger news market so you can segment it more by ideology and still get millions of viewers. Watch the video to see more.

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June 11, 2007 12:13 PM

American Football: How Not to Get a Date

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Being your high school’s quarterback might help you nab a girlfriend in America, but it’ll do you little good over in England. “It’s rugby but they wear helmets” says Rachel Matthews dismissively. Jignasa Patel continues: “In comparison to [English] football, [in American football] you don’t get to see the beautiful men running around in their shorts and t-shirts. Instead they wear shoulder pads, tight costumes and head gear –- which in my opinion make them look like triangular wannabe superheroes instead of lean athletic men!”

They have other complaints too:

1) “the game doesn’t flow, too many starts and stops"
2) “it goes on for too long for a game that claims to be an hour long”
3) “the rules are complicated”
4) “the audience is really into wearing giant foam fingers -– which makes no sense at all”
5) “if you are watching a game on the TV you are bombarded with American advertising every five minutes...that is probably why the game was designed to stop and start so much”

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June 12, 2007 9:49 AM

Communists to Hezbollah Question U.S. Democracy

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What do nude bikers, North Korea admirers and activists knitters who "stitch and bitch" have in common? They were all out at Trafalgar Square this weekend demonstrating for their respective causes -- and questioning America’s use of the word democracy.

I stumbled into this motley scene searching for -- surprise -- a Starbucks to write in. Following the loud noises, I found myself in the square surrounded by George Bush’s face on “#1 Terrorist” placards. “Down with American Imperialism!” a teenage boy screamed. Not quite as welcoming as a beauty pageant, but it seemed like an interesting place to talk America.

The pro-Palestine march was the main draw for most, but the fringe elements quickly stole my attention. Along the perimeter of Trafalgar Square about a dozen communist and socialist information booths hung big red banners emblazoned with the hammer and sickle. Do they all hate America and its breed of capitalism, I wondered? The answer, I found out, was far more complicated.

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June 13, 2007 10:39 AM

If You've Got HIV, America Doesn't Want You

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London - "I have HIV," Biagio, a bartender at Escape in Soho tells me, so "I can't ever visit America." He's right, unless he puts his anti-retroviral drugs in unlabeled bottles and hopes immigration control doesn't stop him.

A 1993 law bans all HIV-positive would-be visitors from coming to the U.S. except under special circumstances. The law was put on the books at a time when HIV wasn't well understood and paranoia ran high. It's lingered for over a decade now, leaving people like Biagio and his friends feeling like toxins. Biagio tried to visit Los Angeles a year ago; it would be his first visit to the U.S. But his travel agency warned him not to risk it.

As a UK citizen, he doesn't need a visa to come to America for 90 days or less, but, if caught at customs with HIV-related medication, he could be forced to turn around and head home. "It's ridiculous," Biagio says.

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June 15, 2007 10:50 AM

Turning Back from the Taliban

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Hanif Qadir at the Active Change Foundation.
Walthamstow - When America invaded Afghanistan, Hanif Qadir sent money to a Taliban-run charity for innocent women and children caught in the war. Then he decided to visit the battle ground himself.

He’d seen pictures of Afghan boys with their private parts blown off by the U.S.-supported Northern Alliance and children weeping over their parents' corpses. “All that to catch 22 people, who America can’t even prove caused 9/11,” Hanif laments. He is against the loss of all innocent lives, he says, Americans included. But departing East London, he half-jokingly warned his British-born family that if he saw America committing the grave injustices he expected, he might become a mujahideen himself and never return.

At the time -- between 2001-2002 -- Hanif saw the "war on terror" as a cover for a “crusade” against Islam. "Terrorism cannot represent any lone religion, let alone Islam," he says. Hanif read reports of a U.S. general saying, "I knew my god was bigger than his. I knew that my god was a real god and his was an idol." Rumsfeld defended this as free speech, while Hanif listened to Bush repeat the "false dilemma," “You’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists." When he heard calls for a war “against evil” Hanif agreed; but the evil was America. And he was ready to get personally involved "helping the innocent."

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June 18, 2007 11:00 AM

American Finds Islam in Jail; Moves to Saudi Arabia

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London - “Bin Laden Wins the Nobel Peace Prize!” bellows Mohammad Dawud. In Hyde Park’s famous “speakers’ corner,” sub-tabloid headlines write themselves. Individuals stand atop stools and shout for hours, competing with one another for crowds of listeners.

In the cacophony, Mohammad's voice caught my ear: an American's! That accent sticks out anywhere. I approached Mohammad gingerly as he preached to a crowd of a dozen about the incompatibility of Sharia law and democracy, waiting for him to finish and dying to hear his story. It was worth hanging around for.

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June 19, 2007 10:15 AM

India Says Wait for Your Visa

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Don't complain, join the queue.
I’d be living with villagers in south India right now, but -- as many non-American trying to visit the U.S. would understand -- my visa is holding me back.

An Air Emirates flight was set to depart Friday, June 15 at 9:30pm carrying me with it. All was in order except my press visa to India, which I thought was being taken care of back in Washington. Not so. I got a call on Wednesday telling me I needed to re-apply for the visa in person in the UK. This could take “days, weeks” I was told. A bit of panic struck.

I went immediately to the Indian High Commission in London, planning to hop the line (or “queue” as they call it here), talk directly with the minister and have this “sorted out right away.” Cutting straight to the visa window, I panted, "I’m an American journalist. This is urgent."

Without looking up, a bored consular official monotoned at me: “Get back in the queue.”

“But, my f--”

“Queue.” This was a lost cause. I got in line.

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June 20, 2007 5:15 PM

Most Americans Don't Have Passports

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"Only one percent of Americans carry passports," Bill Tibble, the manager of Palmer's Lodge Boutique Hostel tells me, "I saw it on CSI." I've heard this "statistic" in interviews, on buses and at numerous pubs. It's taken as proof that Americans are uninterested in the world. Is there any truth to it?

First I checked the facts, which are admittedly fuzzy: seems about one in three Americans carry passports. That’s far better than one in twenty, but still less than Canada, where 2 in 5 carry passports, and less than much of Europe where the majority carry them.

But there are some reasons, other than being self-absorbed, for why this might be:
1) America is huge. You can ski and surf in one state alone.
2) International travel is relatively expensive for us. We generally have to fly across one of two oceans to get off our soil.
3) Americans have less vacation time. We have on average two weeks of vacation a year versus a month in England. So with longer flight times, precious vacation time can get lost in transit.
4) There’s less desire to emigrate from the U.S. than other nations so perhaps less interest in checking out other places to live.
5) Passports haven’t always been necessary for travel to the Caribbean, Mexico and Canada. Now they are, and we’re seeing a rise in requests for passports. In fact, the surge in applications was more than expected, causing long delays in issuing passports.
6) Citizens of small European countries -- the size of, say, Maryland -- have long needed passports to travel across their borders. We don't need passports to travel between U.S. states.

But even if these statistics do confirm Americans are less interested in going to other countries, travel doesn’t always equal worldliness. A spring break in Cancun, Mexico isn’t very different than one in Miami. Same is true for Britons: resort towns on the coast of Spain offer plenty of sangria, but not much taste for the real culture of Spain.

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June 22, 2007 2:09 AM

How England Sees America

After a month in the UK, I get the sense that Britons feel America has grown up too fast for its own good; its muscles are larger than its brain. Culturally, economically, and militarily, America carries tremendous weight, but doesn’t know how to wield it effectively -- for its own interests or for the benefit of others.

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American culture doesn't always reflect well on us.
In my interviews, the average American came out looking like a pre-pubescent Don Quixote in a sandbox. We’re described as big-hearted, big tippers with an exceptional service culture and a willingness to aid lost UK tourists. But we're also considered somewhat childlike: poorly traveled, insular, fervent with unexamined faith, excessive patriotism and wishful thinking.

The good of this that is we believe we can accomplish anything, spurring innovation and making us work hard. But confidence can easily slip into arrogance. The notion that Americans are exceptional, having founded a city on a hill, particularly irks Britons, who remind me they abolished slavery first. Omnipresent American flags and recurrent politicians’ calls for God to bless America blend faith and politics in a way that violates our founding principles, I'm told. Certain Muslim communities are particularly wary of American religiosity.

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PostGlobal is an interactive conversation on global issues moderated by Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria and David Ignatius of The Washington Post. It is produced jointly by Newsweek and washingtonpost.com, as is On Faith, a conversation on religion. Please send your comments, questions and suggestions for PostGlobal to Lauren Keane, its editor and producer.