You can always pick out the typical American tourist in Europe–his big sneakers, loud voice, and lack of discernible body odor give him away. But the telltale sign that a tourist is from the good old US of A is the way he looks at historical monuments and artifacts. Looks isn’t really the right word. The American tourist gawks, stares, gapes, and even ogles. His shoulders are slumped, his jaw is slack, and his eyes are popping out of his head like a diabetic in a candy store, all of which magnetically attract pickpockets from miles around. Look at the rest of the tourists. They’re pleased with what they see—perhaps even impressed—but they don’t need a napkin to wipe up the saliva dribbling down their chins. I can never forget the first time I entered St. Peter’s Basilica; I perfectly epitomized this description, drool and everything. The soaring dome, the intricate mosaics, the smoldering stained glass, the monstrous marble statues, the golden shafts of sunlight, the resonant voices of the choir singing in Latin left me speechless and stupefied. There I was in my big sneakers, with my extra-loud vocal chords, wearing several layers of deodorant and utterly unable to move. Why does this happen primarily to Americans?
I think it’s mostly because our country is so young. Two hundred thirty-five years is a mere drop in the bucket on the European timeline. And how many of us live within spitting distance of the historical treasures we do possess? In America, the farther West you travel, the more distance you put between yourself and history. Certainly, Colorado Springs, the place where I currently live, has been around just as long as Paris or Rome. But there is very little visible, tangible evidence of the thousands of years of human civilization that one may witness in most European cities. I live in a neighborhood that is younger than I am; when I was born, Sausalito Drive was an empty field. To the average Roman citizen, the Colosseum, the Arch of Constantine, and Vatican City merely form the backdrop of his existence; he peacefully coexists with many ancient ghosts.
Aside from the obvious “awestruck US tourist” phenomenon, one important implication of this fact is that Americans have to work somewhat harder to develop a sense of their place in history. We can accomplish this in part through study, but it is also extremely important to travel (here’s the study tour leader in me coming out again; I’m headed to England, Scotland, and Ireland in 2012 if anyone wants to join me!). We can learn from reading Julius Caesar that a leader ought to be careful whom he trusts, but actually seeing the location where Caesar was murdered by his trusted friend Brutus has a far more potent and lasting effect.
It is certainly true that people from other countries must work to know and understand history, or else historical artifacts will remain silent. But they have the advantage of being surrounded by evidence of the words and deeds of great people from the past. If they ignore history, it is a conscious choice, whereas we may easily neglect history by default. Our interaction with history must be intentional.