St. Polten is a baroque town of about 50,000, dating back to the 12th century, tucked between the Danube and the Alps. It's an Austrian regional capital. I didn't know this until I looked it up on the Internet.
But when I told her I was from Richmond, she knew a bit about Virginia. "Jamestown," she said, and "Your Civil War." She pulled a pack of cigarettes from her purse and pointed to the label: "Fine Virginia Tobacco."
I was impressed. And also embarrassed that she knew more about my home than I did about hers.
It was a feeling that was strongly reinforced by watching CNN during my vacation in Austria and the Czech Republic. The CNN I watched in Europe and the CNN I watch at home bear little resemblance to each other. The CNN broadcasts transmitted to Europe and Asia, and Africa, and South America, as well are all about world news, something we see little of here in the States. It's a point that the major TV news figures here notably Peter Jennings of ABC and Dan Rather of CBS have complained about in American journalism annals. They believe international news is important, but Americans just don't seem to care about what's going on abroad unless it directly impinges on us. Or unless the visuals are good. The War on Terrorism is an example of the former. A plane crash in Bavaria, Germany and the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain are examples of the latter.
But tune to CNN in London or Paris or Prague, and you're overwhelmed by stories that never show up on the CNN we watch at home.
The major events I watched unfold a few weeks ago were, I suspect, given short shift on American television: a teetering government was hanging on by a thread in Turkey (Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit was frail and fading, but refusing to step down), a U.N. spokesman in Geneva was saying that another drought was sweeping parts of Sub-Saharan Africa (as many as 300,000 were said to be starving to death), and CEO Jean-Marie Messier of the French mega-conglomerate Vivendi was desperately trying to hold on to his job as the company drowned in debt (he didn't). These are stories that you read about only in newspapers here in the States. But I'm sure the running of the bulls got its usual dramatic TVcoverage because the visuals were good.
There's something else different about English-language TV news abroad. The anchors and reporters have accents French, Middle Eastern, British, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese and Spanish. Their English is flawless, but their origins define a world map. Can you image a TV anchorwoman here with a "foreign" accent? Aside from Christiane Amanpour, whose accent is faint and almost unidentifiable, it's just not going to happen anytime soon.
And it's not merely Americans on vacation who watch CNN International. It's available via satellite in the homes of many of those who live in other countries. And they watch, whether it's to improve their English or because they're interested in what's going on outside their own borders.
It's actually a little creepy to think that they know more about us than we do about them.
Our tendency toward insularity struck me again when I came home. In every country I visited, signs in airports, train stations, hotels, tourist attractions and restaurants, were in both the host nation's language and then in English. Announcements would begin "Meine Damen und Herren . . ." and then continue "Ladies and Gentlemen . . ."
But when my flight from Vienna jammed with both Austrians and Americans landed at Dulles, it was all English the minute we stepped off the plane. At customs, at security checkpoints, at passport control and on directional signs throughout the airport, only English was spoken. Airport officials handled the language problem the way Americans always seem to: they spoke louder so the "foreigners" would understand.
Funny thing is, it seems to work. Like I said earlier, those "foreigners" know more about our language and us than we do about theirs and them.
We live in a great country. They live in a big world. S
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