Rafalca is on her way home, and so is Ann Romney. There is no point hanging out at the London Olympics after her horse did not make it to the medal rounds. Her husband Mitt needs her at his side to announce his running mate. And he needs her at home – far away from those European snobs. His opponents were already giving him a hard time for being rich. But a wife who rides dressage took the debate to a whole new level.
Being wealthy and privileged in itself does not seem to be the issue – much less so than in more egalitarian European societies. In the U.S., the problems begin when you deviate from the tastes of the mainstream. A dangerous pitfall not just for Presidential candidates, but also for Europeans living in this country.
In the past weeks, comedian Steve Colbert could not get over the fact that a candidate’s wife practiced a discipline he mocked as “horse ballet”. My American friends were cracking up with laughter and said that they had never heard of such an elitist and ridiculous thing.
My problem was: I didn’t get the joke! Growing up in a small German town, horse riding was a popular after-school activity. Granted that it was not the cheapest option and that owning a horse was out of reach for most, but somehow most teenage girls got their middle class parents to pay for riding lessons.
A look at the numbers helps to understand this particular Transatlantic rift: In 2011, German horse riding clubs had 727,866 members, according to the German Olympic Sports Confederation, while golf clubs reported only 610,104 members. In the U.S., about 7 million people ride horses (and it is safe to assume that very few of these practice dressage), but 27 million Americans play golf. Horse riding always makes the top five sports for teen girls in Germany. In the U.S., it gets nowhere near the top ten.
But differences in the popularity of a sport are not enough to explain the “European snob” phenomenon. Trying to get stubborn horses to prance in small circles is but one small town German experience that qualified me as an elitist snob once I crossed the ocean.
Take wine, as another example. Wine consumption is on the rise in the U.S., but knowing something about grapes and regions – while it may elevate one’s standing in Washington social circles – raises suspicions among more middle class friends. I wish they could all see my small hometown with its horse stables and vineyards that produce wonderfully dry Rieslings and Silvaners. Every fall, we elect a ‘wine queen’ at the annual fair, the German equivalent of the ‘Corn Queens’ who populate Mid-Western small towns. (As a Mormon, Romney can’t get in trouble over wine at least.)
At the end of the day, all this snubbing of the perceived snobs has little to do with money and privilege. In the U.S., you can even be perceived as elitist and out of touch or not spending money on things that other people consider status symbols – especially if you actually could afford them. Riding a bike or driving a small car instead of an SUV can make you a snob or renting an apartment instead of buying a house. The list goes on.
As a German, I am still lucky. My country produces many of those cars that are considered such status symbols here. And most Americans think of beer and sausages, not wine, when they think of Germany, which is a plus. So, yes, I am a European snob, but my German heritage gives me some useful tools to modify that image. Fortunately, I don’t converse in French – at least not as fluently as Mitt Romney.