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America vs. Americana

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2010-07-04


The most popular vacation week of the summer for American families is the final week in July, and it's not a coincidence that that same week is also the hottest week of the year (on average) for most regions of the country. Americans for decades have escaped the most brutal summer days with trips to the beach, and it's not surprising that water-based vacations remain the top destinations for summer travelers today.

The trend isn't likely to change anytime soon while many Americans claim a desire to travel abroad and see other countries, statistics show that they're much more likely to end up in Florida or Hawaii for their annual two weeks. My particular travel plans for the summer are not too different from most Americans. I live on a lake, so for much of the vacations season I'll stay close to home and watch the weekend travelers come to me. I do have a couple of short trips planned, excursions to southern Indiana cities that I haven't seen yet, places like Madison, French Lick, New Harmony, Santa Claus.

My daughter is in France right now, doing one of those brainy summer programs for the eternally precocious, and when I drove her to O'Hare two weeks ago she asked me how many times I had been to Europe myself. It was surprising for both of us to hear me say, out loud, that I hadn't been to Europe at all. In fact, I said, after thinking about it, I had never even left the country before. My daughter was shocked. It seemed inconceivable that someone as cosmopolitan and worldly (read: snob) as myself hadn't ever experienced another culture. But it was so.

It was one of those moments that stops you cold, when you're perplexed by your own previous behavior: Damn, why hadn't I ever gone to Europe before? A trip abroad should have been right up my alley. I'm curious, adventurous, unafraid of being alienated, well-read, pseudo-intellectual, I smoke and drink, I'm an argumentative prick: I should have been a perfect fit in Nice or Milan. And yet after five decades I've never gotten to the International Terminal at O'Hare field for an overseas trip. It was a riddle to me, my own actions. I decided to try to figure it out on the car ride back from Chicago, and after a couple of hours of self-examination I discovered that perhaps I wasn't as adventurous as I previously thought. I had to cop to a surprising strand of provincialism in my personality, a certain resistance to change, a conventionality. And, most distressingly, I had to admit to an almost embarrassed patriotism, a love of country that made it less necessary for me to explore other ideologies. I'm so fascinated by the exotic nature of the U.S.A. that I've never thought to go beyond its borders.

Admitting to patriotism in a conservative state is tricky business and I'm a reluctant patriot. I have no desire to be lumped in with the right-wing xenophobes, the bittermens who make such noisy displays every 4th of July and believe that the country has been going to hell ever since Oklahoma! was released in 1955. In their eyes, the country needs to go back to the "good old days," that Neverland place where mom and dad were in the kitchen, where neighbors would come over and set a spell, where kids were clean and respectful and most folks were God-fearin' and law-abidin'. The Shangri-La of American ideals, in other words. I'd like to point out to these reactionaries that that place they're mythologizing never really existed, and that what they're celebrating Americana is a thousand times less interesting and impressive the real story of their country.

My daughter wrote to me that in her French class, French students were asked to come up with a composite picture of a "typical American," and what they drew was a roaring caricature cowboys with guns, waving American flags at the Statue of Liberty. As naive and simplistic as that sounds, it's probably similar to how most patriotic Americans view their own country. The temptation to see the country in simple-minded, color-coded ways is too reassuring to avoid, and rarely do patriotic American dig deeper to see the true complexity of the nation's past. In truth, America is a young, impetuous, quick-to-change country whose greatness stems from the fact that it doesn't sit still and reflect. It just does. In the first one hundred years of its sovereignty, America accomplished two remarkable feats it connected the oceans with the transcontinental railroad, and it solved the greatest crisis in American history (slavery) with the Civil War. That a young country could accomplish so much so quickly including dealing with a profoundly divisive moral issue is a rare occurrence in world history. Americans should celebrate the singular drive and spirit of their forefathers and not get bogged down with useless tributes to Mom's apple pie, baseball, and the supposed "innocence" of the nation's past.

I have an acquaintance who made a pilgrimage to Dyersville, Iowa, the city where the baseball movie Field of Dreams was filmed, because he wanted to see the cornfield that was made into the ball diamond for the movie. He took the trip on an extended 4th of July weekend, and he felt convinced it was an appropriate patriotic destination. I didn't tell him what I was thinking, namely, that what he was searching after wasn't America but Americana, a tacky piece of kitschy pop culture, a place as far removed from his own country as the Eiffel Tower or the Great Wall.

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