The doorbell rang. On the doorstep stood the cute, little ten-year-old neighbor girl, prim and proper. I had actually never spoken with her before. I did now and then exchange a few words with her mom, though, who once mentioned in passing: "Everybody in town says how good your German is." I enjoyed the compliment, but the operative phrase is "Everybody in town." Living in a village is one of those things that big city folks don't know much about. Anyway, Dagmar (the little girl) just thought she should inform me that we had forgotten to roll up the front driver's side window in our car.
I dutifully thanked her since there might be rain. And as she proudly marched off, confident that she had done a good deed for a poor naïve foreign neighbor, I realized that her well-meaningness bugged me just a bit, as I coming from the "mind your own business" American culture. But, some months later I had to reconsider things somewhat.
The doorbell rang again. This time it was a portly, middle-aged gentleman. He was well-dressed and very polite. He said that he had a small matter to discuss with me regarding the Village Counsel. So, I respectfully invited him in for a coffee. He seemed sheepish yet curious and he mentioned, as we sat down with our coffee, that he had never been in a foreigner's home before. He remarked how similar it was to German homes. Well, I thought to myself, since we bought all our furniture and appliances from German stores, it is unlikely that anything would be all that unique.
"Herr Muzzio," he began... "We are all very privileged to have you living in our small village." Then he went into a long spiel about how important community harmony was, and that he was sure that I would agree. I did, of course. Finally, he got around to the point. So much for the myth of German bluntness! He prefaced what was coming by explaining that as a member of the Village Council, he was speaking on behalf of said council; and said that they had met recently to discuss an issue of some concern to the local townspeople.
The village was squeaky clean as are all such villages, towns, and cities throughout most of Europe. It was important that everyone do his or her share to keep up the collective image. Finally he got around to the point. "We have noticed weeds growing up through the cracks in your sidewalk, and that… well, doesn't fit in too nicely with the general look of the neighborhood." I was mortified. I had always liked the herring bone design of our sidewalk, and now there were intruders growing right up between the paving stones. I guess in all my running here and there that I had not noticed.
"I will correct it immediately," I stammered. Next, I went on and on about how I was neglectful as I traveled a lot and all. But in the end, I was just being a sort of ugly American. And it had been I who had always tried so hard to blend in and be cooperative wherever I lived, never wanting to draw undo attention – worst of all, scorn, whether in public or private.
He left as politely as he had come, and even mentioned that I would be welcome to attend any council meetings (as a non-voting observer). I was fine with not attending. I am definitely not inclined to get involved in small town politics. Even homeowners' association meetings in my current condo complex are enough to send me running.
Later that afternoon, I was thinking about the situation while pulling the weeds out carefully – not missing one – when I realized something that I have thought about a lot in later years. Americans enshrine freedom and often decry other societies as too dictatorial. Most European (and many Asian countries) have a different view. They want harmony and cooperation. In their eyes, our freedom to allow our front entrance to go native just wasn't very harmonious. I understood that. One can travel all over Europe and places like Japan and other parts of Asia, and never see an old car on blocks in a driveway full of junk, an old discarded washing machine, a derelict refrigerator, or an unsightly dog kennel, overgrown bushes, and untended flower beds – minus the flowers. They don't allow it. They sacrifice their "freedom to be messy."
My father once remarked that the IRS should have a "slob tax," after I made a comment about how the gate to our farm looked a wreck – unpainted and dumpy. "If I paint it, they will call it an improvement and raise our taxes." I thought about that for a long time. As a thirteen year old, I was not accustomed to arguing with my dad. Later I learned that in general, baring tax loopholes that all farmers and businessmen could use, he was sort of right. There is no government agency infringing on our freedom to be pigs. We would pull out our guns in an instant if some city guy or environmentalist came onto our property to tell us to stop dumping used crankcase oil or old lead-based paint cans out in the back places of the farm.
But the slob tax didn't apply to him, however. Down the road from us were the rather untidy yards of neighbors, complete with abandoned vehicles and appliances moldering away while being gradually smothered by blackberry vines and thistles. He called them the Jodes. I didn't understand the literary reference until I read Grapes of Wrath in high school. "They're Okies – uncouth and dumb. But worst of all, they are renters." That was the worst slur that my dad could dish out to those whom he perceived to be beneath him.
About five years ago, when my father died, we were gifted with the daunting task of getting rid of every scrap of debris – tons of it – that he had accumulated over half a century of farm life. Fortunately, he had been able to hide it out of sight from the road and it's casual passersby. As we began de‑junking in August and all during that fall, I kept thinking to myself … the Jodes. The distinction, however, was that he was not a renter, but a landowner, allowing him the freedom to dump whenever he wanted and whatever he wanted on his own property.
We had to decide what to do with miles of rotting fence posts, wire, used-up tires, cans and bottles, and 55-gallon drums in various states of rust – some still full of indeterminate toxic pesticides, now banned.
I hated everything about it, all the time thinking that I would trade all this glorious freedom-to-pollute for the idyllic, controlled European countryside, where he would have been fined for all this environmental scourging of the earth and the callous disregard for nature and the planet. But, I guess that's just me. I thought back to the afternoon that I pulled the weeds out of the cracks in the paving stones, and remembered thinking that it was a small price to pay after all.