These are hard times for the world traveler. America's increasingly bellicose foreign policy is making our citizens persona non grata on distant shores, and the downward spiral of our own economy means that, for many of us, a trip around the globe no longer seems feasible, even as a post-retirement victory lap.
Fortunately, we still have a direct line to the next best thing: Epcot. Disney's mall-chic microcosm of the United Nations offers all the culturally enriching amenities of actual travel. Or does it? We spent a day at the park, in the guise of garden-variety guests, to determine how accurate the country-hopping experience is for the budget vacationer. Specifically, we wanted to see how closely current real-world events influence the on-site proceedings, and how much leeway us Yanks enjoy to do the things we like to do on overseas jaunts. You know, like perpetuating harmful ethnic stereotypes. And sowing the seeds of international discord. The stuff we're really good at.
Fireworks shows or no, Epcot is a pretty somber proposition from the moment you step through the turnstile. The Leave a Legacy monuments, which display acid-etched head shots of past guests, are supposed to be "a symbol of the past meeting the present, and a bold look toward the future."
Instead, it takes us seconds to remark that they look more like a memorial to war dead. In that spirit, we spend a while searching for tributes left on (or at least around) Sept. 11, 2001. The closest thing is a cryptic statement of purpose: "This year brought many losses. We go on." Sounds like somebody's family came up a little short on the vacation money. Our favorite portrait is a not-to-scale etching of a baby, whose enormous head positively dwarfs those of the surrounding adults -- a commemorative, no doubt, of the day a mutant tot rampaged through the park, determined to make off with the oversized golf ball that is Spaceship Earth.
Strangely, American and British nationals seem to be the only guests who have seen fit to festoon their testimonials with the flags of their respective countries. If there was ever a sign that the Coalition of the Willing was going to be an exclusive affair, it begins right here.
Before we can make it to the border of World Showcase, we run smack-dab into a trio of costumed acrobats whose blue tights and big black eyes are apparently meant to denote alien origin. Instead, the effect is one of Spider-Man throwing in his lot with Cirque du Soleil. Get us to Mexico, quick.
Upon entering the Mexican pavilion, we're pretty impressed that the family behind us is instantly able to translate a sign that reads "Animales fantasticos" as "Fantastic animals." This seems to bode well for cross-cultural understanding ... until we notice that they appear to be Hispanic themselves, which would constitute unfair advantage. On second look, though, we're ready to entertain the competing theory that they may be Chinese. Looks like we won't be scoring an ambassadorship post to anywhere more exotic than Alachua.
The interior promenade is like a Mexican version of the lobby at Caesar's Palace: an enclosed environment that simulates permanent twilight. We strike up a conversation with a salesgirl who hails from Mexico City and is in town on a one-year work-abroad program -- an arrangement typical of the World Showcase "cast." The real Mexico, we know, is currently experiencing a lingering financial crisis that's forcing much of the workforce into the black market, and we want to discern if the retail chica standing before us is any better off hawking garishly painted south-of-the-border trinkets to Ohioans. Is it good, we gently inquire, to work for Disney?
The reaction -- at first a lightly nodded "yes," then a tentative, cabeza-shaking "no" -- seems to be dependent on the shifting cues of our own facial expressions. Finally, she takes a position outside the mercenary parameters of our question.
"We don't make it for the money," she ventures, her good values shining through her broken English. "We make it for the experience."
In Kathie Lee Gifford's world, this slogan is what substitutes for "Look for the union label." We don't bother to ask if any of the employees here try to swim across the Epcot lagoon to make it to "America."
Just a few steps counterclockwise and we're in Norway, where the natives raise their children to be fjord-tough. Getting ready to board the Maelstrom boat ride, we spot our next interview/mark: The stunningly Scandinavian cast member in charge of greeting the new arrivals. We ask her if the Maelstrom is "a scary ride." She shoots us a glacial look that indicates we are beneath contempt.
But there's no telling where it might lead, we protest. It might let out into the waterfall that's cascading directly to our left.
"Where would you go?" she pooh-poohs, indicating the less-than-precipitous drop.
"The hospital," we quaver. Our helpless-nebbish routine nets not even a grin. Woody Allen is so full of shit.
The Maelstrom is a fun but disappointingly short ride that affords an impressionistic view of Norwegian cultural history. One minute, we're in a quasi-mystical land inhabited by mischievous trolls; the next, we're unceremoniously dumped into a grey modern seascape, with oil rigs dotting the horizon. As in the best foreign films, the connection remains obscure.
Our watercraft pulls into the disembarking position. "Welcome back, brave sailors," deadpans our guide. She makes no effort to hide her disdain.
Further exploration of the pavilion confirms our emerging thesis: Norway is a land of really hot women who are less interested in humoring you the hotter they are. In that sense, it's a lot like Orange Avenue, only with a stronger fish smell. In the gift shop, we set upon a sales rep who is slightly plainer than most, and thus more open to our mortifying line of investigation.
What we want to know is why shot glasses are available bearing the flags of Sweden and Denmark, yet Norway has naming rights to the whole magilla. Why isn't this the Scandinavian pavilion?
It could have been, she says, but the other two countries wouldn't pony up the cash for equal involvement. It takes "a lot of money," she says, for a nation to gain representation at Epcot. Personalizing her real-world approach to economics, she then becomes the second employee in two lands to stress that a stint at Disney is "great experience."
Not all of the conversation is so highfalutin. While our feigned interest in purchasing a Nordic Trac machine gets us nowhere -- imagine that -- we do learn a bit of indigenous mythology. In Norway, she tells us, children grow up learning to blame trolls for anything that goes wrong.
And when you reach maturity, then whom do you blame?
"Yourselves. Each other."
Works for us. Herring all around!
Crossing the border into China, we pass a group of teen-age girls who are busy raising scented pieces of paper to their nostrils and cooing about the divine aroma. They're perfume strips, we learn, and the girls scored a whole mess of them back in Norway, gratis. We ask if that duty-free teaser made them want to actually buy a bottle.
"No!" they giggle conspiratorially, then go back to inhaling. Perhaps it's a good thing the Norwegians have resisted joining the European Union: They may be genetically superior, but they don't know dick about marketing.
The Chinese, on the other hand, could be making a killing, if only they had somebody to sell to. Though their area of Epcot is a cramped set of quarters, it's also astoundingly free of foot traffic. You may have heard that China is the most populated nation on Earth. But honestly, whom are you going to believe, us or some damn textbook? Either Epcot's proportions are way off, or the Imagineers have been able to make some incredibly timely adjustments for the SARS era.
Making matters worse, a street-corner vendor asserts that this is "the busy season" -- though, with more prompting, he allows that business should pick up slightly a few hours later in the afternoon. Hah! We'll be in Quebec by then, so save your breath, Chairman Mao!
To prevent our visit from being a total washout, we decide to stir up a little centuries-old enmity. So we tell the cast member stationed outside the Nine Dragons Restaurant that we can't decide between eating here or in Japan, and could she please choose for us? To her credit, she proves extremely reluctant to stick a chopstick in the ribs of a rival nation. Refusing to hype one on-property restaurant over another, the most she's willing to do is tactfully state her personal preference for Chinese food. Chinese gives you more choice, she says. (That's what we call ordering from the irony menu.)
In the gift shop, we try to exploit the region's nuclear tensions by asking a salesgirl if any of the items on display was actually manufactured in Korea. No, she smiles, but she encourages us to look anyway. And if we find one, does that mean it's free? No again. The rictus remains in place.
She's impossible to offend, so we move on to another employee and ask some questions about the demographics of the store. But she has no idea if anyone from Hong Kong works there, or (our follow-up question) was working there before the big British handoff of a few years ago. She's on another one-year hitch, so she doesn't know what the place looked like before "the changeover in 1994. Or 1997," she hedges. Hey, at least she knows it happened.
In Germany, it's always Oktoberfest, an efficiently romantic moon hanging in another darkly painted sky. Spotting a couple of cast members who look a tad older than the average, we decide to go for broke and ask an overtly political question.
"When that whole Iraq thing was going on, did you get any flack here for not taking part in it?" we inquire, bracing for a cold stare at best, a tongue-lashing at worst.
Sometimes, the male cast member admits, surprising us with his amiable candor. But the catcalling of some guests isn't a new development, he says, with certain members of the peanut gallery customarily tossing out cruel comments -- like asking where the Auschwitz pavilion is. The worst offenders, he says, are tourists from Brazil. (Yes, Brazil. As in "The Boys From." Maybe it's overdue guilt for harboring all those Third Reich refugees.)
Our new pal is straightforward and very cool, and we savor the rare experience of being spoken to on Disney grounds as if we're thinking, feeling people, not participants in a shared fairy tale. He isn't asking for pity -- he's just sorrowful that misplaced Baghdad-blitzing barbs should have to be lobbed at the younger cast members.
"These kids didn't have anything to do with that," he says. Meanwhile, his female counterpart ventures not one word, looking as if she's readying herself to kick the next pro-war loudmouth with a poison-tipped shoe.
Did their mutual status as holdouts bring the "Germany" and "France" portions of Epcot together? Don't bet on it.
"We don't get along with the French," our forthright "Freund" reminds. Inches away, FrÅ ulein Bunt remains as silent as the grave.
To wash down all this serious talk, we decide to treat ourselves to a little refreshment. But our knowledge of the local customs is sorely lacking, so we're forced to ask the woman behind the counter whether beer or wine goes better with chocolate.
"White chocolate or dark?" she parries, without batting an eyelash. These people really do deserve to rule the world.
Our geopolitical eyes opened, we almost feel guilty about experiencing vague misgivings that Epcot's Italy sits right next to its Germany.
We arrive on la shores bellissima in time for an outdoor display of Renaissance-style masks by Venice's Balocoloc. We know this only after stumbling upon signage that explains why a bunch of white-faced mutes are wandering about the premises; until then, we might as well have been in the presence of a bad (but mercifully silent) Slipknot tribute band.
But in trying to repeat our success with the Aryans, it quickly becomes obvious that we're the cheese slices in today's Italian sub. A young shopkeep is the only logical target for the single Rome-centric question we've devised for our trip -- namely, "Anybody here go on strike today?"
There's only one problem: She hasn't the faintest notion what the word "strike" means. No matter how many times we pose the question -- progressively reshaping it according to that unique American paradigm that foreigners will understand your language if you just speak it ssslllowerrrr and LOUDER!!! -- all we get is a polite apology and a look of total bewilderment. Desperate to forge some sort of connection, we manage to extract the information that she likes America very much, but misses her scooter.
When she's out of earshot, we wonder aloud if our intended patsy really had no clue what we were asking, or merely feigned ignorance to salvage her self-respect (and what little of ours she could locate). Somehow, we think it's the latter. And somehow, we suspect our European allies have been doing it for a long time.
Next up is "The American Adventure," which, we're quick to discover, means "The Propaganda Experience of the United States of America and no other American countries." As soon as we enter the "country" -- with little or no regard for the security of its borders -- the difference from previous lands is striking. What looks like hundreds of other guests are herded with us into a theater for an animatronic voyage through 400 years of American sanctimony. (And no, it's not like the Hall of Presidents. The greeter/herder at the entrance takes pains to point this out, by informing us that the Hall "is at Magic Kingdom." Oh.)
The mob scene is a far cry from what we encountered in China, which could have sublet half its square footage to H&R Block for use as temporary office space. Similarities to Ellis Island are obvious, except that nine-tenths of the crowd appears to be American in the first place -- including two young ladies next to us, who politely inform us that they slept through history in school and are hoping to catch up.
What we all come away with: After being colonized by righteous refugees, the U.S. fought righteous war after righteous war after righteous war, invented everything and gently screwed over the Indians and the Africans in the meantime. (But we feel bad about that part, truly we do.) The result? The glorious, peaceful and prosperous nation it is today, a country that makes both Ben Franklin and Mark Twain (or at least their animatronic doppelgangers) proud.
Attempting to view this spectacle of chest-puffing from the standpoint of an outsider is a difficult exercise: None of the other countries at Epcot forced their visitors to endure indoctrination of this nature. We exit quite dazed, yet manage to ask the new "students" what surprised them the most about the afternoon's social-studies lesson.
The answer: "That they were robots!"
The voyage from Anytown, U.S.A., to Japan takes about a minute and a half, but after all that hard-nosed "history," the trans-Pacific journey is well worth it. Forgoing cultural awareness in favor of shopping and eating, it's possible that Japan is more American than America. O.K., there's an exhibit devoted to the history of baseball in Japan, but who cares about that when there's Pocky to buy?
Here, we get to experience every American boy's fantasy of hearing a cute Japanese girl exclaim, "Oh, oooh, oh, ooooooh!" Unfortunate-ly, the phenomenon has nothing to do with the concept of Yankee girth, but rather with our insistence on scouring the mini-department store for "whale products." Items made out of whale are the ideal, but anything even resembling a whale will suffice. Except the pigeon we pick isn't familiar with the term.
You know, the whale? Big fish? Ate a guy?
"Oh." Then, comprehending: "Ohhhhh."
Or maybe not. "Big fish or little fish?" Thannnnnk you.
Oh, well, time to eat! Upstairs to the sushi bar, where our request for "whale roll" nets more pity masquerading as incomprehension. (A concerned, "Have you ever tried sushi?") For fun, we inform the hostess about the nationalistic bitch-slap hurled across the pond from China in regards to its culinary superiority. Response: polite smile and nod. We share the same info with the waitress. Response: polite smile and nod.
This is going nowhere, although we secretly hope that -- in true American fashion -- our meddling helped sow the seeds for a little Nanking Massacre-style panty raid back at the cast dorms. Hmmmm, Asian panties ... Oh wait, where were we?
We're really interested to find out if Morocco is torturing terrorists, like the papers say. But when we arrive, everybody who could answer is off on a walking tour.
Nope, no terrorists here. On to France.
Our trepidation upon entering France is genuine. Can we expect the French to be as open and forgiving as their German frére? Will they appreciate our willingness to cross that patriotic line in the sand and indulge in some Bordeaux and camembert, all while commiserating over the corrupt and bumbling U.S. leader that effectively isolated America from the rest of the world? Will they acknowledge the camaraderie of the German pavilion? Could this be a new, mini-Monroe Plan about to hatch?
Non, it would not. Rather, the boy/girl team behind the wine-shop counterÃ who have that tres Francais way of speaking while burning a hole through your bloated self-image -- let us know that the French can more than tolerate the American cold shoulder without any stinkin' Krauts to back 'em up.
"Yes," says Jacques (or Francois, or Jean-Claude, or whatever the hell his name is), "we encountered a drop in American visitors [due to Iraq]. But the people we had the most trouble with were the British."
As in tourists from Old Blighty?
"No. With them," he hisses, gesturing toward the United Kingdom pavilion just over the bridge. "But we settled it."
How? With a "West Side Story"-style showdown? Random acts of snobbery? Weapons of mass body odor?
"On ze soccer field," he dumbs down for us, thinking our dumbass American brains couldn't properly comprehend "football."
Not wishing to incite the French to (gasp) another soccer match, we bolt for the more politically welcoming climes of the United Kingdom.
Of course, by "United Kingdom," we mean "England," as there is no bombed-out Belfast exposition in evidence, nor the "Victorian Imperialism: How We Royally Fucked Up International Politics In Under 100 Years" display we were hoping for. Instead, it's all pints and Beatles and scones and red phone booths and Joe Elliott underwear. (O.K, we made that last one up.) Scotland? Absent. Ireland? On restriction. Wales? Speak up, we can't understand you. London? Blimey, yes, and swingin' at that, lads!
With political blinders on view that rival that of the U.S.A., we're convinced the retailing "residents" of the United Kingdom will be equally politically retarded. The trio of lasses we corral (one of whom isn't from England at all, but sports a right believable accent) claims zero interest in the subject. They then quickly disprove their own point by expounding a running commentary on the politics of their mother country. Phrases we hear bandied about: "Division of power"; "head of government versus head of state"; "the queen has her job and the PM has his."
No fans of Tony Blair, then?
"He needs to go back to doing what he does best: Grinning like an ape." Sure, political firebombs like that are routinely hurled at our Grinning-Ape-In-Chief. But these three have the advantage of actually knowing what they're talking about.
And they even know why the Beefeaters are called "Beefeaters." (Something about scraping the flesh off of executed criminals. Ewwwww.) Alas, they have no comment about the cross-channel soccer battles. Nonetheless, we predict a revolution.
Our world tour has taken about four hours, and the final stop is, appropriately, Canada. Why "appropriately"? Because Canada may well be the zenith of nationhood. Its people have taken a little bit of the best from every one of their conquerors -- socialized medicine and high taxes from England, superiority complex and musical taste from France, a smidgen of libertarianism from America. (Yes, we know, the U.S. never "conquered" Canada, but we sure as hell could if we wanted. GO USA!!!) And they rolled the whole thing up in a big, fat joint of legalized marijuana and state-sanctioned gay marriage. It's like having a progressive European nation just around the bend from Detroit. One that speaks English.
No sooner have we set about looking for examples of Canada's open attitude toward homosexuality than we're greeted in the gift shop by two flannel-clad girls. Pay dirt, eh? Perhaps not. It turns out the flannel is part of the official pavillion uniform, and the girls are only huddled close together because they're making a mutual effort to complete a list of the 50 American states. They have 49, and after a few minutes of head-scratching, we're able to supply the 50th (the perennially overlooked Nebraska). Our attempt to name all 10 Canadian provinces flames out at about seven Ãwith coaching. Still, the lead Canuckette feels comfortable enough with us to confide some of the truly idiotic questions she's had to field from our countrymen during her tour of duty. Her favorite: "Do you have roads in Canada?"
Unfortunately, Terence and Philip are nowhere to be found.
With the faux chateaus of Canada giving way to the parking lot, we have a moment to reflect on the meaning of our tour. If we've gained anything today, it's a deeper understanding of what the international community wants out of its relationship with America. And basically, that's to smile indulgently at our awful behavior while they wait patiently to take our damn money. That's it, folks. The idea that we're capable of anything better -- anything, well, human -- is a concept that our foreign "pals" divested themselves of long ago. To really antagonize these people, you'd have to be a freakin' genius.
As we find our way to our car, we consider for the first time in our lives that Dick Cheney may in fact be a genius. Forget the U.N.; it's time to pull out of Epcot, before it's too late.