Reporter's Notebook: On the Road to Bratislava

When I got the marching orders for my latest assignment, it had the ring of reality to me.

“Bush is going to the big European cities and he’ll be talking to these politicians who have been bashing America,” barked London Bureau Chief Scott Norvell. “Get out of the cities … hear what the REAL people think.” Thus began our cross-European odyssey.

I have lived in Europe for several years now; Paris is my latest home. And on a one-to-one basis, the French (yes, the French) couldn’t be nicer. I am on closer terms with the folks in my Eiffel Tower neighborhood than I ever was during 10 years on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Whenever I return from trips to very un-Parisian places like Fallujah or Kandahar, the baker, the newspaper salesman, the pharmacist and the rest all greet me with open Gallic arms.

But this task was a bit tougher. I was supposed to find out what Europeans thought of American values.

So, my team picked a town a half hour south of Brussels (the president’s first stop on his European tour). It’s called Nivelles, and it is best known for its majestic thousand-year-old church planted in the middle of the place. Now here was the Old Europe that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld had been carping about two years ago, I thought.

Then it got better. Not more than a half an hour after we got into the town, Tourist Office “delegate” Jacques Sartiaux, the self-styled ambassador for the place, appeared. The elderly gentleman’s family has lived in the town (surrounded by lovely rolling farm fields) since the 16th century. How’s that for Olde Europe street cred?

Well, Jacques was more than happy to spend hours waxing lyrically about Nivelle’s role in the Charlemagne empire, but this was Fox News at the “speed of light” and I had to cut to the chase: How does Jacques feel about America’s bedrock principals?

Well, like any good Belgian official, he did some “waffling” about wishing America listened more and maybe it acted a bit too much without thinking ... but after another 20 minutes of strolling I came out and asked him again: What’s good about America?

“Freedom [I think] … Peace … Democracy [yes].” Bingo.

Enough of the mini-officialdom of Jacques. I decided to dip into a fairly upbeat café to hear what rank and file Belgian coffee drinkers think of the U.S. Unfortunately, the first guy I sat down with was a Belgian “beer” drinker who at 10 a.m. was already into the second of many glasses of fine local brew. He gave me an earful about America being obsessed with trivialities, such as (pointing to his morning paper) the Michael Jackson trial.

I had to give him that one, and politely moved on.

Then I encountered what Belgium (and a lot of Europe) is becoming: a melting-pot country, not unlike the United States. And, funnily enough, while the opinions ranged a bit, these folks tilt toward the United States.

OK, one young woman of Moroccan descent had her nose full of what she thought was America’s dislike of Muslims, but a Belgian citizen of Italian descent was full of praise for President Bush and the recently completed Iraqi elections. And another Belgian, whose parents came from Chile, remarked, “America is a nation which gives the first place to God. And I respect that.”

On to the kids. When we headed over for the lunchtime break at the town’s turn-of-the-century high school, I figured this was a no-brainer. Pro-U.S. feelings would just pop out of their school bags. Well, not so fast. These kids had some undiplomatic things to say about U.S. foreign policy. But after further probing, they admitted that America, its people, its culture (movies/music) were all pretty cool. And one girl who was the most strident in her critique of America’s domination of Europe spent the rest of the day “bumping” into us and asking when our story would run.

Well, as you can imagine, after several hours of working the crowd and gathering opinions on a raw Belgian February morning, by lunchtime it was time to warm up and chow down. Little did we know what we were in for … in two ways.

First, the food. It seems Nivelles is the only place in the entire universe where you can get a thing called tarte al djote. It's sort of a quiche-omelet combination full of cheese and bacon bits. The key is puncturing this molten mass of carbohydrates with your fork and sticking
farm butter into it, making it more of a gooey melted mess. And, of course, the whole thing has to be washed down with very rich Belgian beer.

Well, my cameraman, Barnaby, and I thought it was great. Producer Cicely pushed the bits around her plate. Tourism Delegate Jacques (who had rejoined us) noticed!

So we distracted him by working the crowd again and came across our second surprise …Carmen Milton. Technically, Carmen isn’t Belgian-Belgian. While she was born in Nivelles, she’s lived in the United States for the last 50 or so years. But she comes back often and claims to speak for many of her generation.

It seems that Carmen fell in love with one of the GI liberators of Nivelles in 1945 (the Nazis blasted the heck out of the place and then made it home for five long years). That American salvation from occupation has burned into Carmen’s psyche a love for the United States that no amount of European America-bashing can wipe away. After breaking down once (over a dish different from that cheese thing), she confided to me defiantly, “If the U.S. hadn’t come ... we’d all be speaking German now!”

She brought her views up to date with this: “When I heard what Belgian politicians were saying against the Iraq war, I was ashamed to be Belgian.”

She went on (there was no stopping her): "I got in touch with one of my friends and she reassured me everybody didn’t think that way, just some people of the younger generation.” She felt relieved. So did we. OK, it was feelings by way of Aberdeen, Md., but that was Belgian-U.S. tough love if I ever heard it.

After the Carmen encounter all of our team looked at each other and decided we couldn’t top that, so we got out of Dodge — Dodge, Belgium, that is — to head east, by car.

I didn’t tell you about this part of the assignment. While President Bush might be hopping cushily along from Euro-stop to Euro-stop on board Air Force One, we are driving. And that can be either: A) monotonously boring if you’re doing hours on German Autobahns watching BMWs whiz by, or B) hair-raisingly dangerous if you’re crossing the Austrian Alps in a blizzard.

No matter. No hardship will be spared in our search for the real heart of Europe and its affections (or not) toward the United States. Stop 1 in Belgium has already made it worth the trip!