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How Canadians Must Feel

How can Austria help Americans understand their friend up north — Canada?

October 11, 2003

How can Austria help Americans understand their friend up north — Canada?

Spending a little time in Austria can be a humbling experience for any American. No, not only because the country's centuries-old history and culture. And not even because of the increasingly cogent critiques of U.S. policies that are presented to me in Vienna, the capital of the truly "Old Europe."

In fact, what really knocks me as an American down from my pedestal is something far more basic: the geographical proximity of Austria with its population of 8 million to Germany (population 80 million). Living here for while — and giving a sporting try at looking at things from the Austrian perspective — places an American in a rather unfamiliar position.

Instead of being the big guy on the block, all of a sudden you shift to being the little neighbor faced with a giant next door — with ten times the population.

Sure, you maintain friendly relations with this country, Germany — to the extent that cross-national marriages are quite common. But, somewhat unnervingly, this big country dominates the airwaves, exports all sorts of products that crowd Vienna's supermarket shelves — and it runs an economy to whose fortunes you are often hostage.

Once you think about it, though, there is something familiar about this kind of relationship — but in reverse. The dynamic between Austria and Germany bears an uncanny resemblance to another relationship that most Americans do indeed have some familiarity with: That of Canada and the United States.

Look at the similarities. Canada maintains a free-trade relationship with the United States through NAFTA, while Austria and Germany are both members of the European Union.

Just like Canadians, who are bombarded with U.S. media, Austrians are bemused — and sometimes annoyed — at seeing their children beginning to speak with the "foreign" accent they hear on TV shows coming from the bigger country across the border.

Like Canadians — whom Americans tend to think of as Northern versions of themselves — Austrians sometimes have to struggle to be recognized as a truly different culture by their German neighbors.

And just as the United States has been a fertile ground for Canadians to expand their professional horizons in the media and entertainment (think Peter Jennings or Dan Aykroyd), so Austrians are running a number of Germany's largest manufacturing and service companies.

Of course, the comparison can only be taken so far. Canada has an enormous land mass (in fact, bigger than that of the United States) while Austria is not even the size of a Canadian province.

Unlike Canada, Austria was once the home of a great, multicultural empire stretching from the Swiss border in the west to Ukraine in the east — and from Poland in the north to the Mediterranean Sea in the south.

And while Canada has two official languages reflecting the historical presence of both the English and the French cultures, Austria has a single national language and a relatively homogenous population.

Let's also not forget, of course, that the joint history of Canada and the United States has never included something as convulsive as the "Anschluss," the Nazi German annexation of Austria in 1938.

In some ways, Canadians have it easier than the Austrians. Their big neighbor to the south may be inconvenient. But once you are used to having the United States on your border and influencing your culture, most other threats to your identity seem pretty tame.

Austria, on the other hand — in the eyes of many people around the world — not only has Germany to reckon with. For one, there is Australia — the country and continent mixed into one that, among Americans at least, is much better known.
In a desperate attempt not to be confused with the land down under, the Austrians have even invented bumper stickers that read "No Kangaroos in Austria."

And of course, Austria — ranking high on most surveys of openness to globalization — must also reconcile itself to the overarching economic, cultural, political and social impact of the United States. Witness the invasion not just of words spoken with a different accent, but in a completely different language.

Which leads one to wonder what ultimately poses more of a challenge to a country's national identity: A larger neighbor who bumps up against your border? Or a distant behemoth who makes his influence felt through the tools provided by free trade and investment flows?

In the end, Austrians can probably content themselves that most Germans have at least a passing familiarity with things emanating from Vienna and its provinces. There is some kind of two-way street.

Getting Austria's message across in the vast, diverse and faraway political and cultural landscape of the United States appears a much more daunting enterprise. Of course, there always is Arnold Schwarzenegger, who just triumphed in the California re-call election.

But that's another story.