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My attention span for someone else’s vacation is about 17 seconds, long enough to ask, “Where did you go?” and “Did you have a good time?” After that . . . I try, but I am just misanthropic enough to not really care. With that in mind, I’m going to tell you about my vacation. Well, that’s not exactly it—I won’t bore you with the itinerary of our recent trip overseas. Instead I’m going to relay some conversations members of our group had with local tour guides.
For some reason, standing outside a church in Linz, Austria, the conversation turned to the European Social Security System.
“What do you pay in taxes?” an American asked.
“Upwards of 40%,” the Austrian answered. Knowing nods and smiles went around our group—a 40% tax rate must be a monstrous government rip off. Ours is indeed the greatest country in the world.
As Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast.” You should know I can be just a little bit of an instigator in moments like these.
“How much does it cost to attend university?” I asked.
“What happens,” I asked, “after a couple has a baby?”
“They both get paid time off from work—they can decide how long but it’s usually six months to a year for the father and a few years for the mother. And their jobs are guaranteed when they return to work.”
I muttered, “How’s that for family values?” and then asked, “What does it cost when you are hospitalized?”
“Nothing,” the guide said.
A few members of our group looked like they needed a stiff drink. This made no sense to them.
Then our guide took us down a street and pointed to a white building. “That’s where Adolf Hitler went to school.” She gave us a small lecture about Hitler’s unhappy childhood, his mediocre career as a student, and his failed attempt to get into art school. She said, “My opinion is that if anyone wants to attend art school, they should be admitted, even if their talent is average.” Two dozen meritocracy-loving Americans nodded in agreement, allowing themselves for just a second to imagine a world where Hitler painted department store signs and the Holocaust never happened. We went to another street where she pointed out two houses next to each other. One had been the home of a well-respected physician, who happened to be Jewish. The house next door was where Adolf Eichmann grew up. I may be an instigator, but I held my tongue this time. What I wanted to say was, “Wait a minute, neither Hitler nor Eichmann reflect well on your country. Surely you should revise your story and tell a different version, where the horrible things they did are balanced by their positive achievements. The way you tell your history traumatizes children and makes them hate Austria.” But I kept my mouth shut. I was afraid some in our group wouldn’t recognize my sarcasm.
A day later we were in Passau, Germany, and the conversation with another guide turned again to health care. “Don’t you have to wait a long time for treatment?” an American asked.
Our guide seemed puzzled, then brightened and said, “Yes, I see what you mean. It is true. We always have to wait outside the doctor’s office for a while before we are seen.”
“But we heard you have to wait months to see a doctor when you are sick,” someone said.
The guide looked puzzled again and said, “No, this is not true.”
“But is everything covered?”
Again the guide was at sea for a moment and then recovered. “Yes, I see what you’re asking. It is true, not everything is covered. I can’t think of the word in English, but it starts with ‘C’”
“Catastrophe,” an American said.
“No,” the guide said, “catastrophe is the reason you have insurance.”
“Cancer,” someone else said.
“No,” the guide said again. “Cancer is covered. I have the word now. It’s ‘cosmetic.’ Cosmetic surgery is not covered.”
“But who decides your treatment if you have cancer?”
“Your doctor explains the options and you decide together.”
“We heard there are panels,” someone said.
“There are no panels,” our guide said, with that same puzzled look on his face. Clearly, he was wondering where our group got its information.
There was another spectacular church to see, this one with the largest pipe organ in Europe, so we kept moving. But after a few steps the guide stopped and turned around. “Let me ask you something,” he said. “In 2020, you had a Presidential election. Since the United States is a powerful country with the largest economy in the world, there was extensive coverage of your election here. Germany is also a powerful country and has the largest economy in Europe. We just had a Presidential election. How much coverage of it was there in the United States?”
The group took this opportunity to examine the cobblestones beneath our feet. Finally, someone spoke up. “But how do you secure your borders?” she asked.
“We don’t have borders,” he said.
“No borders? How do you stay safe?”
“Good woman,” he said, “you just came from Austria. Did anyone stop you between Austria and Germany and check your papers?” This was met by silence. “Do you feel it is not safe here?” More silence. “Let’s keep going and see the church,” he said.
At breakfast one morning someone said, “Germany and Austria are such lovely countries. I just can’t understand how a megalomaniacal narcissist like Hitler could rise to power here.”
My normally diplomatic wife almost choked on her croissant. “Duh!!!” she said. “Something similar just happened in our own country.” She scored a point because our breakfast companion said, “I am a registered Republican, but I fear you are right.”
She was right. And if you want to understand how the orange bully came to power here, just listen to the questions average Americans ask European tour guides.