Back in the 1970s, when my husband had an opportunity to work for an American-sponsored news organization in what was still known as West Germany, we gave some serious thought to what would be a sea change in our lives. On the positive side, leaving Long Beach and moving abroad would give us a chance to (1) learn a new language, (2) soak up some atmosphere and (3) widen our cultural horizons. Yes, there would be minor frustrations, but they were easily smoothed over.
And so we set off.
On one occasion of our nearly 10-year stay, our German landlady informed me, after inviting me to her home, that the large cracks in her living room walls had been caused by Amerikanische bomben. OK, I thought at the time. I got the message. We’re guests in this country.
But by the time we left West Germany, I had grown to appreciate the warm hospitality of neighbors, including the family next door, where the lady of the house, who, after many years, still wondered what had happened to her neighbors — "a pleasant Jewish family" she had known as a young girl. I had grown accustomed to the reluctance among Germans we met to discuss the Holocaust and the history of anti-semitism.
A few years later, after buying a home in Rockville Centre in 1980, we had a visit from the daughter of a friend we had known in West Germany. She was about 16 and spoke English fluently. One evening after dinner, I asked her how she felt about the United States, suggesting she not say anything nice just to please us.
She thought for a moment, looked at us and said quietly. "Well, it’s different here."
"Different how?" I asked, curious.
Again, after considering my question, she said rather profoundly that there was a different feeling here and went on to talk about a sense of "openness." Not necessarily of land and space -- of which there was plenty -- but of the relationships between people.
I thought, what a perceptive remark for such a young person.
I tried to get her to elaborate, but she demurred.
Yet, I felt I knew where she was headed. I, too, had been struck by a sense of "openness" when we returned to the United States.
Here, there is a feeling of frankness and, to a degree, of tolerance and acceptance, things I didn’t really feel while living in "das Vaterland," even though West Germany at that time was considered to be, and Germany still is, a model for the democratic countries of Western Europe.
Oppression has not been the American ideal. Our country has a long history of aspiring to be better, more tolerant and accepting; and as Americans, we’ve often felt we had a mission to carry those ideals round the world.
Yes, there have been soul-shattering moments, the murder of George Floyd and the killing of Ahmaud Arbery being two recent examples. But such horrendous acts have been met with an outcry for justice from most Americans.
For the most part, that "different" feeling – one embodied by the Bill of Rights -- still exists. We are better for the rights and responsibilities to speak freely, assemble peaceably and petition the government for redress of grievances.
At this time of year, in particular, I find these ideals something for which to be truly thankful.
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