Gertude Stein’s famous “There is no there there” implied that Oakland, her childhood home, had not achieved much of a presence. San Franciscans often agree. So, too, many Americans think that progress and decency end at this nation’s borders. Having returned Wednesday from two weeks in Paris and London, I’d like to remind those Americans who have no use for anything beyond our shores and seldom, if ever, leave North America that there is a “there” everywhere.
First, let’s get something straight. I love the United States. It offered my family opportunities denied in the “there” (Tsarist Poland and Russia) from which my grandparents fled. Let’s not confuse recognition of other nations’ validity with a lack of patriotism. Life is more complicated than that.
I’ve found London and Paris—and Vancouver, Mexico City, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Rome, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Amman, Bangkok and Tokyo—all to be dynamic, each in its own way. I like San Francisco’s Muni, for example, but I love the subways in Paris, London and Tokyo. I have good memories of Mexico City’s metro, too. These cities—and their national governments—have much to teach us. For example, while the US struggles to fund capital improvements for transit, London is renovating many of its tube stations, including Tottenham Court near where we stay in the Bloomsbury district. This massive project creates jobs and will offer an enhanced transit experience.
And while Europe hasn’t caught up to the US in its ability to assimilate immigrants, London and Paris still reveal multi-ethnic societies. A young Iranian man drove us to Heathrow airport Wednesday morning. He moved to London eight years ago (he has a sibling in Paris and one in Chicago; his parents remain in Teheran) and drives eight hours a day. But his love is the two hours a week he works for BBC producing a Farsi-language show on Iranian culture. He hopes to do that full-time since he studied communications in university in Iran.
Another example comes from the Financial Times (May 25), which I read while waiting for our flight home. Abdirashid Duale, from Somaliland, runs the London end of a successful family business, Dahabshiil. The company handles remittances—£200 million a year—from Somalis around the world to their native country. The family established a London office because Duale was willing to learn about English and European business practices while providing outstanding customer service based on Somali culture.
“Only in America,” we say. But the pursuit of happiness is universal and not a zero-sum game. America ultimately will find solutions to its challenges in concert with other nations. That’s why President Obama arrived at Buckingham Palace as our trip wound down and is now participating in the G8 talks in Deauville, France. Other societies may not totally resemble ours, and some deserve our condemnation. But as I write in GOD’S OTHERS, different doesn’t necessarily mean bad. The world’s far smaller than when I was a boy. The sooner we recognize that we are not alone, the better.
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