How did she describe it?
A joke, she said. Your country is a joke. One hooked on fast food and guns — a morbidly obese mass of people conditioned to find the easiest, fastest solutions possible. A plastic world of nothingness, where the gap between the rich and poor is exceeded only by stupidity.
Not the kind of verbal attack I was prepared for on an evening stroll through Copenhagen, but the sun was setting at 10 o’clock at night in this part of the world, so what the hell is what? I was looking for some conversation with a Danish girl anyway. I got it, too. Two Danish girls, in fact. They were sitting in the square not far from my hostel, and I made what I thought was a harmless comment about the pile of aluminum cans a hobo had been building beside them on a park bench. Are these your cans?
It took only a few minutes for them to decipher that I was an American, and this realization, of where I had come from, seemed to set one of them off. Just being honest, she said. She always had this image of America in her head, but then she visited the place. What a strange nightmare she had walked into, an epic disaster of highways, parking lots and ad space, fueled by individuals all fending for themselves, no matter the advantages and disadvantages handed down.
“No country is perfect,” I told her, trying to keep things light, trying to keep things moving.
“I would say Denmark is closer to perfection than the U.S. will ever be,” she told me.
“You act like I don’t know that America has its issues,” I told her, the lightness fading from me. “There are a lot of smart Americans, a lot of people who know exactly the direction this country has taken in the past 15 years, and know exactly where it’s headed. How many Americans have you met?”
She thought back on a brief visit to the states, New York maybe. They’ve all visited New York, or they all want to visit New York, just like us dumb Americans romanticizing about Paris. She thought a little more about the Americans she had met in Copenhagen, and she could add one more to the list.
“20, maybe 25,” she said.
There’s 300 million Americans,” I told her.
She considered this for a moment and then asked me what I thought of the European way of life. What exactly did I think about all these Europeans? I didn’t tell her that I had been in love with Europe for a few months now, that for one summer, it was one of the greatest escapes I had ever discovered. I told her that I thought Europe, for the most part, had health care and education figured out. “And these kids live good lives,” my brother told me one day while discussing what a few German engineers with us were paying for master’s degrees in Germany. A few hundred euros a semester, not a mountain of debt for a near-useless degree, a ticket into a saturated mass of disillusioned millennials climbing all over each other. Cynical, entitled millennials, but was the American Dream ever worth it to begin with?
Health care and education, yes, but the fact that the U.S. spends more money on defense than the rest of the world combined allows this type of behavior. We unload our pockets on nuclear war heads and things you could never imagine, so that Europe can spend its money on everything else. That’s ridiculous, she said, it’s not our fault your politicians haven’t figured out how to take care of your own people. The U.S. can spend its money on cheeseburgers and missiles, but that has nothing to do with us.
But it has everything to do with you. The U.S. policing the world, for better or worse, right or wrong, has everything to do with Europe. I’m not saying it’s a good thing, but it’s the truth. The second Danish girl agreed with me, and with this we couldn’t look at each other. I then asked them where I could find the nearest McDonald’s.