We have quite a list of things to cherish and things to be proud of, and we don't know it until we step away
Living my entire life almost exclusively inside the bounds of this great country, I've had a hard time gaining perspective on the way the rest of the world views us Americans. Sometimes it's impossible to see that we're simply comparing different parts of the same elephant without getting a chance step away and see the big picture.
For the last two weeks, as John Brewington mentioned during his interim stay in the sports editor chair, I did exactly that. I've been abroad in the tiny Baltic country of Estonia, just north of Latvia and Lithuania, across the Baltic Sea from Finland and west of Russia. I got plenty of things I expected – a magical music experience, a handful of hand-woven souvenirs and a sunburn, but the thing I didn't expect to return with was a new outlook on the country I call home.
During my stay I learned that many of the stereotypes about Americans are absolutely true. We're loud, we're oddly friendly and we're fiercely proud of our homeland's relatively short history. We are a vast and diverse country with varied interests, dialects and peoples. Our land is full of mountains (Estonia has but a few small hills), mighty rivers, plains, swamps and endless coastlines. We're also very well off, despite the constant political grumbling: it usually costs you to get a glass of water in Europe, and you almost always have to pay to use the restroom.
All of those clues, especially the noise and the way we tend to gather in bunches, are a dead giveaway in a crowd. The rickshaw drivers will follow you and periodically ask if you'd like a ride, vendors will secretly raise their prices with the expectation that you have a little more to spend and foreigners will laugh at you if you ask about the soccer game that was on a few hours ago.
I've also heard that we smell of milk, but it wasn't that or any of the things I've mentioned that made us stand out.
The giveaway might have been singing the national anthem loudly in a crowded bar before the United States took on Belgium during the World Cup a few weeks ago. Our group of about 20 stood and belted the Star Spangled Banner along with the players on the television, much to the dismay of the Belgian fans near the back. As we sang, they jeered and shouted for us to sit down, which only happened with the conclusion of the anthem.
For those who didn't catch the game, American goalkeeper Tim Howard (no relation, by the way) set a World Cup record for saves at 16 before Belgium prevailed 2-1 in extra time. It was sad to see the United States fall, but even at the time it was still easy to be proud of how far we have come as a nation when it comes to the world's sport.
It may never catch on with the same fervor as it has in England or Germany, but I think the world understands that it's only a matter of time before the United States becomes a power in soccer as well.
A nation with over 300 million people has considerable weight to throw around. Though we tend to put our top athletes in the sports of football, basketball and baseball (just imagine Dwight Howard playing goalkeeper and Cam Newton playing center striker), the rise of the U.S. Soccer Federation to prominence in the world theatre has youth participation, viewership and overall interest up in the last several years.
The Americans are advancing, and everyone knows it.
I sat next to an English man and his 12-year-old son on the flight back into the United States, and he put it best. England, long seen as a powerhouse in the sport of association football, is in free-fall after failing to make it out of group play and into the 16-team bracket. While the English – according to my new acquaintance – used to view the United States as a soccer chew toy, they're now past the point of looking over their collective shoulders. Now the question is, even with one of the best football' leagues in the world competing in the United Kingdom, how can we keep up with the improvements the Americans have made?
He may not represent the viewpoint of the rest of the UK, but it felt good to hear that we weren't really the laughing stock of the soccer world anymore. I took his praise to heart and set to work on flipping my biological clock back to Pacific time, dreaming of futball,' public drinking fountains and free water closets.
Thankfully there was plenty of each by the time I arrived in Chicago, and upon walking under the massive U.S. flag hanging on the wall by customs, the thought struck me as it hadn't ever before.
With my eyes open, face burned from the Baltic sun and legs exhausted from a days' travel, I looked up and whispered with a smile, I'm so proud to be an American.