On my trip I am meeting a nice mix of highly educated businesspeople / writers / academics (through my network) as well as the more "comman man" (in bars, restaurants, on beaches, etc). There are consistent contrasts in how they respond to me, an American, and America more generally.
In Barcelona my friend and I went to an Irish Bar one night. We have both studied Irish writers and I had a successful stay in Ireland a few weeks ago. Unlike many Irish pubs, this one was Irish owned, showing Irish football on the TV, and we happened to sit down next to an Irishman comedy-club/music manager who immigrated to Barcelona a few years ago. He was a fun guy but "doesn’t want to visit America anytime soon". He has a kind of unacknowledged split in how he views my country. On the one hand he adores some of its cities (New York and San Francisco, he mentioned) and enjoys many of its cultural exports. On the other hand he deplores George W. Bush, the War in Iraq, etc. His opinions are more emotional than philosophical.
In Madrid we had dinner with a private equity business guy named Luis, who Chris Yeh introduced me to. Luis is a Madrid-based investor who attended Harvard Business School for a couple years and thus has acquired a honed "pro-market, pro-capitalist" outlook toward the world, making him seem like an alien to his Spanish business colleagues. We had a great time discussing Spanish politics, business, media, and life. Unlike the guy in the bar, Luis has a more favorable disposition toward America. It’s less charged and more nuanced: he admires the American model but qualifies his support saying what works for one country may not work in another.
These are just two examples. It’s been healthy to interact with all kinds of people on my trip — in train stations, over dinner, in a park, at a tourist office. I’m not necessarily surprised that the businesspeople, scientists, and academics I’ve met have a considerably more enthusiastic view of the U.S. because they personally experience the country’s contributions in all those arenas. The guy in the bar isn’t employed by an American multinational, doesn’t collaborate with America’s science labs, doesn’t sell to the American market, and thus only bases his anti-Americanism on the America government as reported by European media.
I’m not big on "populist" techniques to learn about the world. I don’t buy the idea that "media elites" or academics are out of touch with "regular Americans." Heck, maybe I’m an elitist myself (ok, I confess, I am). But this doesn’t mean I should avoid the "bar conversations" altogether. Indeed, I would argue it’s the aggregate of thousands of conversations in bars around the world which together constitute the "public opinion" of a nation, a statistic so often quoted in newspapers. It’s this aggregate, not the "chattering classes" of academia, which is measured and is where one must influence minds.