September 2010 - The Same Only Different

by Justice William W. Bedsworth

Greetings from Copenhagen. Kelly and I have completed a Baltic cruise, and I’m standing in my hotel room, watching the Saturday night fireworks display over Tivoli Gardens.

Actually, it’s not quite as idyllic as that might sound. The fireworks display began at midnight, and I was awake to see it because I’m coming down with bronchitis and have been coughing my lungs out. Also it was 82 in Copenhagen today, and our hotel—like most Copenhagen hotels—does not have air conditioning, so if you can imagine watching fireworks from a sauna during a mustard gas attack, you have a better idea what my evening has been like.

It was 82 today because I made the mistake of traveling with Judge Thierry Colaw. Judge Colaw’s a sweet guy, and a history buff—very knowledgeable and full of interesting facts. I love the guy, and he and Jeri are great travel companions.

But Thierry is, by his own admission, personally responsible for global warming. Wherever he goes immediately turns into high noon in Palm Springs. Thanks to Thierry, we got to experience the hottest day of the year in London (twice), St. Petersburg (twice), Stockholm, and now Copenhagen. He went on to Berlin today and the temperature immediately soared to 99. So help me, if Thierry ever visits the North Pole, there’ll be beachfront property in Costa Mesa.

But except for the weather, the trip was wonderful and very educational. I often make the classic American mistake of thinking people in other parts of the world are just like us . . . only different. In fact, not only are people in other parts of the world different, they think we’re more than a little crazy.

Our Russian tour guide felt the need to tell us that if we used an ATM in St. Petersburg, RUBLES would come out. Not dollars. The poor woman had actually had to deal with Americans who expected that American money would come out of a Russian ATM simply because they were using an American card—as if the paper money would be magically wired to the ATM by their home bank. So it may safely be said that we do not always put our best foot forward in terms of tourists.(1)

And we’re always amazed to find out how differently others do things. At least I am.

In Kiel, Germany, I went to my first biergarten. I am not a beer drinker. In fact, I’m not a drinker of any kind. I have the palate of an eight-year-old: If it doesn’t taste like cherry soda, I don’t drink it.(2) I’ve barely experienced bars, much less biergartens.

So I was very pleased to find this lovely tabled area under a bunch of shade trees just a block from the 27th church older than God that we’d seen on the trip. And since it seemed like the right thing for tourists to do, Kelly and I sat down and had a beer and a soda.(3)

That’s when I noticed the kiddie area.

Right smack dab in the middle of the biergarten, surrounded by scores of people drinking beer (and me), was a huge sandbox full of slides and swings and toys. And kids. Dozens of them.

I have no problem with this. I just thought it was worth contrasting with American life. Can you imagine the brouhaha that would ensue if a bar owner went to a city council and told them he wanted to put in a McDonald’s-style kids play area IN HIS BAR?!

My God, there’d be people with pitchforks and torches outside his home the next night. CNN would be devoting 20 minutes every hour to the moral decline of America, and Fox News would be calling for volunteers to firebomb the place.

But the Germans apparently figure that having the kids may be why you feel like having a beer. So bring ’em with you. And let’s make sure you can enjoy that beer(4) by fencing them off and keeping them occupied while you lower your pulse rate a few feet away. Certainly a different approach than ours.

Then there’s the Little Mermaid. Not Disney’s Little Mermaid, Copenhagen’s. The statue in the harbor that’s Copenhagen’s favorite tourist attraction. They won’t stamp your passport in Denmark if you don’t go visit it, and since it was pretty much all I could identify in Copenhagen before this trip, I was looking forward to seeing it.

It wasn’t there. They sold it to China.

Well, not exactly. More like rented. But still . . . .

Seems there’s a World Expo going on in Shanghai and the Chinese asked if they could borrow the Little Mermaid for a coupla months. Denmark said, “Sure. Knock yourself out.” The Chinese sent a big moving van, loaded it on, and took it to Shanghai.

But here’s the part I love. While she’s gone, the Danes have set up in Copenhagen harbor a big television screen with a live feed of the Little Mermaid from Shanghai. Honest. So as you take your tour of the harbor, you float by a big tv and you can see the Little Mermaid—live, as it were—at the World Expo.

You think this happens in the United States of Unlikely? You think we’d even consider crating up the Statue of Liberty, or Plymouth Rock or Old Faithful and replacing them with a skype version? I don’t think so.

I’ll bet they didn’t even bother to ask. They knew we wouldn’t go for it.(5)

But my favorite example of how different even the Europeans—who, as I understand it, share 98% of our DNA, and still can’t pronounce “aluminum”—my favorite example of how different they are from us, is in Stockholm.

In Stockholm, Kelly and I went on a rooftop tour. They took us up onto the pitched roof of a 16th century building, fitted us up with harnesses, clipped our harnesses to little tiny HO train tracks on the roof, and walked us around on those tiny tracks for an hour, showing us all the sights of Stockholm from 130 feet above the city. It was very cool.

It was also something that will not happen in the United States until twenty minutes after the conclusion of blizzards in hell. This was a historic building; it had been the Swedish Parliament building for centuries. Can you imagine approaching the Department of the Interior and telling them you would like to conduct rooftop tours of Monticello? Or let people scale the outside of the Washington Monument wearing harnesses?

What’s more, the building in Stockholm is now a functioning court. While the goofy Americans and Canadians were clambering around on the roof, the Swedes were holding court downstairs. Run that little moneymaker by Kim Dunning and see how far you get. “Really, Kim, I think this could go a long way toward ameliorating our budget shortfall. I know there are a few security concerns and some liability issues, but with just a few snipers and some well-constructed waiver agreements . . . .”

Oh yeah, the waivers. Picture this: We are twenty randomly-selected Canadian and American tourists. We have been selected so randomly I am NOT the least athletic person in the group. Not even close. And one of our number—obviously concerned about the Obamazation of America—has already asked the tour guide if the government owns all the buildings in Sweden, so we aren’t exactly the best and the brightest, either.(6)

We are staggering around on these little foot-wide tracks to which our harnesses are hooked with a steel cable to keep us from falling off the roof. We are more than ten stories above ground and the roof is not flat. We are not only maneuvering our flabby bodies around the hot wheels track we have been hooked to, and the tiny ladders that connect sections of track that go over gables and cupolas, but bending down every ten yards or so to jiggle our harness clip around the catchpoints designed to keep us from falling to splattery Swedish deaths if we lose our balance. Three Cirque du Soleil cast members in our group have thrown up their hands and turned back rather than attempt it.

And the indemnity agreements, the waivers they had us sign before engaging in this death-defying feat of physical legerdemain? Are they air-tight? Well, not exactly.

What they are is air.

They’re non-existent. There are no waivers. There aren’t even warnings.

We signed nothing. We didn’t even have to cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die-stick-a-needle-in-my-eye promise not to sue. They aren’t the least bit concerned about lawsuits.

As near as I can determine, the official Swedish position on this is, “Hey, you’re the one climbing around on the roof. Any fool could see the danger. What lawsuit? You fall, you fall. Dipstick.”(7)

I asked our tour guide, Spidey, about this. She laughed and said, “We get that question all the time from our American guests.”

Apparently, we’re the only ones who ask.

They think we’re very funny. And very different.

I do, too.

Beds Notes
(1) A thought that might already have occurred to you when you imagined me on a Baltic cruise.
(2) I make an exception for tequila, but that’s not so much drinking as reupholstering.
(3) Respectively.
(4) Kelly’s, which I bravely tasted, was reminiscent of creosote. 80 degree creosote. The phrase “ice cold beer” apparently does not resonate with Germans.
(5) In fact, all fifty states were asked to contribute to a United States pavilion at World Expo. Only three—Tennessee, Texas, and Hawaii—responded. So the entrance to the US pavilion includes a map to the United States in which 47 states are unnamed. Like I say, we do things differently than the rest of the world.
(6) I would have told him the Swedes have 98% of the same DNA we have, but I was afraid he wouldn’t laugh.
(7) Okay, the “dipstick” part is probably not part of their official position. They’re very polite.


William W. Bedworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at william.bedsworth@jud.ca.gov.