When I finally went to Washington to study for a semester, I stumbled across the homeless every morning on the way to my internship downtown. I thought, "Well, indeed this country would be a better place if it were less about money." I also more than resented George W. Bush's war on Iraq. Yet it was during that time that I fell in love with America. And I feel it every time I return, including during the last two months working on a fellowship at The Inquirer.
Couldn't I have fallen instead for France, New Zealand, or any other country? No, it had to be the United States. The mixture that intoxicated me was the overwhelming friendliness of so many men and women, the vast variety of people and views in the country, including suspenseful political controversies, and the American humor. Sometimes the last one can be rough, but it is honest and likable.
Let's talk about friendliness first. Anyone who has bought a sandwich in both Philadelphia and Berlin knows the difference. In Philly, you hear, "How are you doing today?" In the German capital, the man behind the counter will show by the listless way he wraps your purchase and looks at you: "I don't like this day, this job, this life. And you disturbed what could have been a wonderful workday without another demanding customer."
It's not just the professional courtesy in the United States that impresses me. For example, I will never forget visiting my former college roommate in a relaxed small town in South Dakota. Everybody knew each other and people would bring each other soup if someone got sick. And I'll never forget talking to his mother, a teacher, about Germany's drinking age being 16. "But you didn't do that, did you?" she asked. I blushed slightly and exercised my right not to answer that question.
That South Dakota trip opened my eyes to the variety in this big country. The more I visited the United States, the more I understood that this variety applies to everything, including any kinds of beliefs. Europeans, who always try to correct Americans as a teacher would a first grader, don't realize that nobody does a better job of changing America than the people themselves. The United States began the war on Iraq - and finally ended it. Some people could not care less about the homeless on the streets, but others volunteer in soup kitchens. As Bill Clinton said in his first inaugural address: "There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America."
Just consider the admirable enthusiasm of many Americans - for good or ill. When I wrote about tea party members in Chester County starting a "Fire Obama" campaign, my phone number was published under the article, a common practice at The Inquirer. I received many calls from conservatives who wanted to send me - the liberal from Europe - money to support the effort. Obviously, they didn't realize that I was just the reporter, not part of the group. But that was just the start. Then my cellphone rang at 4 a.m.
"Is that Tobias Peter?" the soft but committed female voice asked. After I confirmed, she said, "Those tea party people you are writing about, you shouldn't do that. They are bad."
I was still sleepy and dizzy, which helped me to remain relatively calm: "I'm a reporter. It's my job to talk to them. Why on Earth are you calling me at 4 o'clock in the morning?"
She answered, raising her voice again: "Well, you need to know they are really bad people." She couldn't have told me that a little bit later in the day? "Why? Did I wake you up or anything like that?" she asked, chuckling. This was my first lesson in American humor.
The second one was special, too. One evening I went in the wrong direction with my bicycle, a pretty stupid thing to do in a city that basically consists of squares. It was already pretty dark as I stood on a corner, trying to get on the Internet with my iPhone. All the other people I saw were black. I had always considered it racist when I was told as a student in Washington, "When you're in the subway and there are only black people around you, you know you're heading in the wrong direction." Still, I couldn't help but feel lost.
All of a sudden, a guy was standing next to me, asking me where I was headed. As I answered slowly, he said: "You don't have to be afraid of me because I'm black." But then he added: "You should be afraid of me because I'm black and I have a gun." He started laughing, showed me his empty hands, and in the end I joined in - after I was sure he had really cracked a joke. That's American humor at its best.
After I finally got home that night, I really needed a beer, and went to one of my favorite bars on South Street. It's not easy for me as a German to confess this, and it might hurt me if people read this at home, but I like American beer. In Germany we obsess over brewing our traditional beers as perfectly as possible. That's a good, sometimes superb, effort. But in the United States, with your many microbreweries, you are translating the variety of mankind into beers. There are great ones out there. I even found a stout that tasted like espresso with milk - though, frankly, I don't recommend it.
As I finish my fellowship and return home, let me leave you with some suggestions:
Brew all kinds of beer, but maybe don't let them taste like tofu or fish that have been dead too long.
Enjoy political catfights, but don't hate each other.
And, let me be very clear about this, definitely don't call a stranger at 4 a.m., even if his phone number is printed in the newspaper.
Most important, keep on being the lovely, hilarious people you are.
Tobias Peter is a political reporter and news editor at the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger in Cologne, Germany. He visited The Inquirer as part of the International Center for Journalists' Arthur F. Burns Fellowship Program.