For four days it was bliss. Sitting in the window of a 15th-century converted convent every morning, waiting for the sun to rise over a gorgeous valley filled with olive groves and pine trees, I was as near to heaven as I'm likely to get on this Earth. Throwing open the shutters each day and gazing on this tableau high up in the hills surrounding Florence, the resounding church bells emptied my mind of all worldly concern.
Though most of my traveling companions filled their days with trips into Florence, Venice and the vineyards of Tuscany, I spent most of my time surveying the small towns of Fiesole, Settignano and Maiano from my perch. These few days of repose were but a tranquil prelude to a week of negotiating the hustle and bustle of the narrow streets and grand piazzas of Rome, the Eternal City.
Once in Rome, some of my friends insisted on tuning in to TV every evening in order to keep tabs on troubling news from home. Sure, the rumbles from Wall Street were getting ominous and election jitters were running rampant, but I saw no reason to subject ourselves to what passes for American news in Italy; the BBC and CNN International. Having been to Europe before, I knew the poisonous message they carried.
Ringing in my ears when I boarded the plane for Italy was the tiresome refrain from Barack Obama and friends that America's best days were behind her. And his statement made on foreign soil that, "We've made our share of mistakes, and there are times when our actions around the world have not lived up to our best intentions." Likewise his contention that "In Europe, the view that America is part of what has gone wrong in our world, rather than a force to help make it right, has become all too common."
Yet, despite claims that America's days as the lone superpower had waned, one only had to witness the domino effect our market plunge had on the rest of the world. CNN duly reported that the governments of the UK, Germany, France, Holland, and even Iceland rushed to aid their ailing banking industries. But, as one of my companions quickly noticed, government intervention by other countries was couched in terms of "assistance" and "cooperation," while similar action by the Bush White House was always and sneeringly called a "bailout."
American conservatives need no convincing that CNN, like nearly all of its media counterparts, is little more than a liberal mouth organ, but believe me, in Europe, it's almost worse. Night after night European viewers are pounded with stories full of angst and despair; many of them tied, of course, to Uncle Sam's coattails. It got to the point where I begged my companions to watch soccer instead!
But when folks like Obama and his cheerleaders in the media continue to trumpet fear and loathing of the U.S. around the world, using phrases like "racist right-wingers." "preemptive war" and "American Imperialism," I tend to get confused. Here I thought that most of early America's nasty habits -- slavery, war-waging, religious intolerance, and cruel and unusual punishment -- were picked up from our older European brothers. Not that we are ever reminded of these failings; only our own.
I eventually came to the same conclusion I arrived at long ago in this country; that one of the main goals of modern media reportage is to keep viewers in a constant state of fear, panic and depression; the easier to sell their socialist message packaged in euphemisms like hope and change. And if one of the ways of accomplishing this is by constantly pounding away that America is hated by the rest of world, then full steam ahead.
Except that, it didn't take long to realize that, at least in Italy, America is not hated; far from it. One can't walk into the non-public areas of hotels, restaurants and shops without being fascinated at the locals watching old, American movies and TV shows dubbed in Italian. The rooftop bar of my Rome hotel had a large, flat-screen TV out front for customers that usually carried soccer games. But the bartender's set was usually tuned to old reruns of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. And even the proprietor of our bucolic retreat in Tuscany nightly watched Who Wants to Be a Millionaire on his tiny TV.
Now I'm not suggesting that the European embrace of our Hollywood culture is necessarily a good thing. But it is an indication that, like here, the actual attitudes of the people of a country are very, very often different from those of their media. My advice to Americans traveling in Europe: keep your eyes on the scenery, your noses in the restaurants, and your minds off the news back home.