The 20-something guy working the counter in my favorite cafÃ¯Â¿Â½ in the northern Portuguese city of Porto did something one afternoon recently that nearly caused me to knock over my second glass of wine.
He switched the channel on the TV that is a fixture in every Portuguese cafÃ¯Â¿Â½ from futebol (soccer) to the afternoon news. Portuguese commentators discussed upcoming primary votes in the U.S. My fellow patrons, mostly men on their lunch breaks, turned away from their plates of grilled chicken and roasted pig to listen in.
After seeing in the New Year in Portugal during my 15th visit since 1987, I returned home again with an outside perspective. News about politics in the U.S. is prominent. The focus is on how America might change after George W. Bush.
The Portuguese are like most Europeans. They are anxious for the U.S. to resume leadership by getting over its many current fears.
Fear of immigrants. Fear of China. Fear of Iran. Fear of riding trains. Fear of electing a woman or a black man as president. Fear of cleaning up the environment. The list goes on.
For seven years, the Portuguese have viewed the U.S. as the crazed uncle clothed in camouflage, ginned up on weapons and ready to gun down whatever moves. To them, the U.S. has traded the Statue of Liberty and the Constitution for a noose and nuts in the White House.
The Portuguese recognize dangers in the world. But this land of 11 million that's about the size of Indiana -- with a history 700 years older than America -- isn't looking to other powers to craft solutions. Its hopes rest with us.
Sure, China is a rising power. So is Russia. India matters. So does the rest of Europe. But none is an alternative to renewed American inspiration and guidance.
Maybe it's something about our movies that has Europeans itching for change in direction. My wife's cousin told me that she prefers American films over anything made in Europe.
"All that happens here is a lot of talk," cousin Carmo said in Lisbon. "American movies have action. They actually do something. It's wonderful to watch."
American movies are big late-night entertainment in Portugal. I took in Bruce Willis in "Diehard With A Vengeance," Will Smith in "Independence Day," even Tom Cruise in the updated version of "Guerra dos Mundos" (War of the Worlds). My favorite, though, was Harrison Ford in "Air Force One." At the end, he tosses the terrorist villain into the night sky with a fitting farewell: "Get off my plane!"
Stretched out on a couch with a glass of port in hand, I found an extremely satisfying and telling point in these films: The American hero, first stunned by events, regroups, takes action and comes out on top.
Winston Churchill once described European inaction toward Adolf Hitler in this way: "They go on in strange paradox, decided to be only undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent."
Those words now describe an America that has become paralyzed by its fears since late 2001.
I don't know about other nations, but my hunch is that they are like Portugal in wanting us to get back on track. My buddies in that little cafÃ¯Â¿Â½ in Porto are watching -- and hoping -- in a way that you cannot see from inside all of the borders we have created for ourselves.
Steve Valandra lives in Tumwater.
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