Living in a Land of Opportunity
I recently spent two weeks in Europe. It was a beautiful trip. We stayed in beautiful places, ate incredible food, met with some great friends of ours, and had a wonderful time. But above all, I came back home to America with a greater appreciation for our country and the unprecedented opportunities we have here.
These thoughts first started going through my mind very early on, as I simply observed our surroundings. We landed in Rome and had a three and a half hour drive from there to a village called Positano on the Amalfi Coast. The whole drive down, going through Rome, its suburbs, and then through the country, I was struck when I realized what I wasn’t seeing—I hadn’t seen a single crane in 3.5 hours! Can you imagine, no cranes, no building, no construction? The roads were in disrepair, and everything looked like it had been built hundreds of years ago—and untouched since. We drove through village after village on this drive, and in every one, we saw just tenement housing. People had their clothes hanging on the line to dry, like when I was growing up in the 1940s. I felt like I was in a Third World country.
Now we were on the Amalfi Coast, which is kind of sacred ground if you will. It’s just beautiful water on the Mediterranean, and just a great resort area. But I wanted to dig deeper. When I’m traveling I love to talk to people. I ask everybody questions, and I just listen. I don’t try to argue, I don’t try to prompt them to answer in any particular way, I don’t even tell them what I think. I just want to get their honest thoughts about their lives. I talked to a lot of talented, bright, good people. They were mostly in their late 20s and early 30s. I heard some remarkable stories, and I want to share just one that is pretty well representative of a great many of the stories I heard.
I had a driver who was with us for 5 days, a young married man who worked 7 days a week as a driver on the Amalfi Coast. He told me how they have a 6-month season there, and then everything shuts down. It doesn’t just slow down, like many vacation spots in the United States; hotels and everything else simply close down for the winter. So I asked him what he does when it closes down—how does he support himself and his family? He said, “Well, you can’t earn a living here. I go to America. I live in a room with a bunch of my friends over there and I wait tables for 3 months. But if I could work for you—I would wash your cars, drive you, be your security guard, take out your garbage, work your garden…I would do anything! Because there’s no hope here.” I can multiply that story in Italy alone by 20 or 30 people, most of whom had never come to America before, but they all wanted to come.
From the Amalfi Coast we went up to the French Riviera. It’s very different from Italy. It’s not necessarily “modern,” but it is luxurious, and it’s over a much larger area than the Amalfi Coast. It’s expensive, and big-money people from all over the world go there. I once again wanted to talk to people, and had those same conversations with the people I met. I remember talking with a boat driver one day while we were out on the water. We were going by the Hotel du Cap, and he pointed out a yacht nearby, saying, “That over there is the biggest yacht in the world. It’s 500 feet long, and there are 90 people on staff.” It was unbelievable. You see all this money—everyone who went there had money. But the people who were working described the same thing I had encountered in Italy: no opportunity.
Next on our itinerary was Paris. We stayed at a magnificent hotel. The city was beautiful, and bustling with activity. But the conversations I had with the young people of the city once again surprised me. I asked my driver one day, “How are things going here? It seems bustling, a lot of money.” He answered, “Not so good. Taxes are awful. There’s not much opportunity here. But I’d love to come to America…”
Again and again I heard the same thing, no matter where we went. Even as we saw these beautiful villages and great stores, hotels, and restaurants, there was a hopelessness. There’s no opportunity. Can you imagine? No opportunity—in Paris! In the French Riviera! And even though most of these people had never been to America before, that was their dream. They still see America as the land of opportunity, a place where they can do something, create something, be something. They don’t just want to come to visit; they want to come and live here!
There’s a lot of negativity in our country today. I sometimes sense a lack of appreciation for the opportunities we have. We take them for granted, because we’ve never had to live without the blessings our country has provided. The free market capitalism this country was built on has produced innovation and opportunities and wealth like the world has never seen. We all have a chance to succeed, and our businesses have a chance to succeed, and we can help more people and do more good for the people around us—and it’s all because of the greatness of this country. As we head into the July 4th holiday, I encourage you to reflect on just how lucky we are as Americans, and how we can use the blessings we’ve been given to do even greater things.