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The Ambassadors

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We were standing in the center of Munich last month watching the mechanical dancers swirl to the glockenspiel's music when we saw it: a crowd bristling with anti-American signs rolling like a dark storm cloud toward my family. This was exactly what I had feared.

            My husband and I had started planning this spring-break trip --- to Munich and Venice with a glorious train ride through the Alps --- months before. At the time, I figured the most I'd have to do is show our boys, ages 7 and 10, some art-history books and brush up on my conversational German and Italian.

            As our departure date approached, however, anti-American sentiment abroad soared --- this was before the torture photos appeared --- and I got a little nervous. Spain pulled out of the coalition on the heels of the Madrid bombings, Iraq was deteriorating, and predictions of terrorist activity increased.

            We realized that, whether we liked it or not, we'd be traveling as envoys of a country with unpopular policies. Regardless of our politics, we could run into hostility or worse. We decided to try to represent the side of America that Europeans don't see in the media.

            Short of wearing anti-Bush T-shirts, how could we demonstrate that we, like many Americans, think our country should work with our allies, respect UN votes, and be better global neighbors? The "ugly American" stereotype isn't easy to beat. We settled on dressing respectfully and really making an effort to learn the languages and customs of the places we were going to visit.

            With the help of some websites, I taught the kids a bit of Italian and German. They nailed down the key polite phrases, including "good morning," "good evening," "please," and "thank you," and the numbers up to 20. This way they could greet hotel staff, order food in restaurants politely, and translate prices.

            My husband took on the surprise role of fashion ambassador. He decreed that we could wear neither jeans nor sneakers. I searched everywhere for real shoes for boys and found the only two pairs in existence. I ordered boys' dress slacks that would keep their shape and resist stains, or so the Lands' End website claimed.

            Security measures, already tight, were clinching tighter. In every airport our papers were examined, our luggage screened, and our faces scanned by dozens of extra security personnel.

            Once in Europe, we stood out like sore thumbs, despite, or perhaps because of, our best efforts. Everyone --- from the smallest infant to the most ancient granny --- wears jeans and sneakers in Europe these days. But our culture and language lessons paid off. People seemed charmed by our well-spoken Little Lord Fauntleroys in their handsome shoes and fancy pants.

"Boykott amerikanischer Produkte," one handmade sign in the Munich demonstration read. Others, printed in red ink, said, "No war in Iraq" and "Kein Krieg in Irak." Somewhere a bullhorn was blasting an angry male voice as the march drew closer.

            I flashed back to a mildly violent anti-American demonstration in Milan shortly after the Gulf War. All along the street shopkeepers had rushed to roll down their gates as small explosions --- probably fireworks --- echoed between the buildings. The waiter in the café I was in warned me to stand back as showers of rocks rattled the storefronts. Across the street, the window of an upscale housewares store shattered.

            There was no gate between the Munich marchers and my family; if there were to be any violence, our good manners and conservative attire would not save us. The mother bear in me stirred. Angry mobs don't stop to ask questions. I swept my arm around the children and pushed them toward a subway entrance across the plaza.

            What fools we had been to take our children abroad now! The Madrid bombs. The terrorist alert in Italy. Hostages taken in Iraq. Bush on TV reiterating his tired "stay the course" speech and committing more troops. No wonder people were mad.

            But this wasn't an angry mob. It was one of dozens of peaceful demonstrations that occur all over Europe and America every week. I relaxed a bit watching the somber marchers and turned to answer the children's questions.

When you are 7, you are not interested in nuanced answers. When you are 7, war is a game to be played with sticks and a lot of running around. "Is America bad?" our younger son asked. "Absolutely not," I said with a quick hug.

            His older brother, though, is outgrowing the war-is-fun phase and sees the world through more mature eyes. For years his fascination with World War II manifested itself in accurate, heroic drawings of planes and warships spewing missiles that flew through the air, complete with sound effects, whistling down, down, down, BANG! BOOM!

            He's been studying World War II in fifth grade this year, and it has changed his perspective. The day before he had told us --- with awe in his voice --- that the magnificent cathedral we were visiting was destroyed during World War II. He said it had been "rebuilt brick-by-brick based on photographs" afterwards. And now America was at war. A war that involved cool airplanes and missiles, to be sure, but one that also involved destruction and death.

            "These Germans disagree with America's occupation of Iraq. And they're free to express their ideas, just like we are," I told him. "That's one of the neat things about America. We can make a big stink about the government and not get in trouble."

            "Germany didn't always have this freedom, right?" he said, the gears clicking into place.

            "Is America still the best country?" the little one wanted to know. Looking back, I saw the march was now headed straight toward us, bullhorn bellowing.

            "Of course," I said. "But if anyone asks, just tell them you're from Canada."

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