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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » April 16, 2008
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What Makes Europeans Tick?
April 16, 2008   
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Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere), the latest book by American-born, European-based writer and lecturer Ruth Ellen Gruber, is a perceptive mix of travelogue and social commentary, distilled from a decade of travel, that delves into what makes Europeans tick.

Originally published in the liberal U.S. magazine The New Leader, the letters are a form of epistolary journalism, in which the writer melds personal experience into describing an event. The late Ryszard Kapu¶ciński was among its greatest practitioners. In similar form, Gruber observes and interprets at close range such phenomena as a deja-vu Rolling Stones concert in Vienna; Czech bluegrass and the Tramp movement, and the architecture and (McDonald's) arches of Budapest.
Gruber spent two years in Warsaw as chief correspondent for United Press International, until she was expelled by the communist authorities during martial law on trumped-up spying charges. One of her letters describes how, nearly 20 years later, she came to be sipping champagne as a guest in the mansion of her old adversary Jerzy Urban, the former communist government spokesman turned capitalist magnate.
Gruber freelances for a number of international publications and is the author of several other books, including National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe (2007). She is now at work on Sauerkraut Cowboys, an exploration of the American frontier in the European imagination. She divides her time between a flat in Budapest and a century-old farmhouse in the hills of Umbria, 80 miles north of Rome.

Her latest book, published by Austeria of Cracow (www.austeria.pl), can be purchased in Warsaw at Empik stores, Bolesław Prus, Liber, Midrasz or the Jewish Historical Institute, or ordered online via www.jarden.pl or www.midrasz.pl. Gruber's website is www.ruthellengruber.com

Ruth Ellen Gruber discusses the views in her book Letters from Europe (and Elsewhere) with Patricia Koza.

You've lived in Europe for over 30 years. What are some of the biggest stereotypes or misconceptions Europeans have about Americans?
The reach of American media is so vast that many people think they know all about America and Americans from movies and TV. There is often little understanding of the huge variety of opinions, backgrounds and lifestyles. Common stereotypes are that Americans are naive, ingenuous, ignorant of the world-and eat hamburgers. When people tell me I am not a "typical American" I have to stress to them that I am very typical of a certain type of American. One of the most important books on the way Europeans view America is Ray Billington's Land of Savagery, Land of Promise, published in 1981. It shows that many of today's European stereotypes-good and bad-about the U.S. were already in place nearly 200 years ago!

What do you think the Bush years have done for America's image in Europe?
They have damaged America's image, particularly for those who equate "America" with its government and governmental policy. Among many people, there is little awareness or understanding about the political polarization in the U.S. itself, and how strongly many Americans oppose Bush. Using Billington's terminology, the Bush years have pushed the "land of savagery" stereotypes to the fore, overshadowing the "land of promise" image.

In your travels, do you find any one European country that consistently gets it wrong with regard to America?
I don't find whole countries that get it wrong-you have to speak in terms of people or governments or media. What I sometimes find is that ordinary people have a more nuanced approach to the United States than do media commentators or intellectual elites.

What about Europe's image in America?
Unfortunately, I feel that many Americans still do not realize that we live in one world, on one globe, and that what goes on in Europe is important. Certainly there is the potential for greater contact and knowledge, via internet, travel, and so on. But long-held stereotypes persist. For most Americans, European countries probably represent vacation venues more than anything else.

How has Poland changed in recent years, in your view? Are Poles still so attached to their history?
I first came to Poland nearly 30 years ago, under communism, before the Solidarity movement took root. So I have seen it change dramatically! National history-or what was defined or understood as national history-has played an important role as a touchstone for national identity in Poland, in large part because communism, Nazism, the partitions, and so on, attempted to mute or eradicate a Polish national sense. The recent debates on the role of Poles during the Holocaust and after World War II are extremely important, as they show that the definitions were not always correct.
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