In November of 2008 we were in France listening to people tell us how much they hated our president. It was, of course, the month of the McCain/Palin vs. Obama/Biden United States presidential election. At home in Chicago, HOB and I had pushed each other to volunteer for the Obama campaign, promising “A few more volunteer hours tonight and you’ll get extra Camembert in Normandy.” Despite the advice in seemingly every travel guide to “Avoid talking about politics while traveling”, we deliberately sought a dialogue with the French people about our country’s historic election. We wore pro-Obama buttons on our coats and backpacks including one stating, in French “I voted for Obama”. Our goal was to talk with locals, and in reaching this goal we had a formidable success.
Leading up to the election, on seeing our pro-Obama buttons, many French people wanted to vent their anger about George W. Bush’s presidency and foreign policy. We’re talking about a lot of people here: even the cashier at a small grocery burst out into loud, almost incomprehensible French, going so far as to grab a piece of shrink-wrapped meat from the refrigerator and gesturing at it while shouting, we think, that Bush was a dirty cow in need of washing. While sitting in front of Chartres Cathedral we were approached by two German men who said sarcastically, “So here you are enjoying the old Europe.” (This comment was in reference to a derogatory statement by US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about France and Germany when they declined to support the 2003 invasion of Iraq).
After Obama was elected, we were treated like celebrities. Strangers congratulated us and we proudly told them “We’re from Chicago–Obama’s home town!” I was most moved by the French racial minorities whose congratulations were tinged with a bittersweet edge. A young man, Mohammed, we met on the Metro said “You’re so lucky. This would never happen in France.” We felt deeply patriotic.
Talking politics abroad is dicey, so basic ground rules should be observed. First, it’s always better to listen and engage than to dominate the conversation with your opinions. Through active listening, you’re bound to learn a great deal about the culture around you and maybe even come to change your own views. A sympathetic ear goes a long way. We made fast friends with Michel, a Parisian whose loathing of then French President Nicolas Sarkozy reached a level of almost religious ecstasy, by indulging his many Sarkozy-themed rants. Another important rule: don’t ever be patronizing. I’ve found that most Europeans are more politically savvy than Americans, and know much more about world affairs than we do. Finally, be prepared to be criticized. As we discovered in 2008, many Europeans have a ambivalent view of US foreign policy. But by far the most common question we get is a variation of “Why are Americans so obsessed with guns?” While I can explain our constitution and about the practicalities of hunting, I am otherwise unable to answer this question. Ironically, one of the harshest criticisms we’ve heard of the American love affair with guns was from Eugenio, our innkeeper in Naples, a city widely perceived as dangerous. “Here in Naples the only people with guns are police and mafia–stay away from police and mafia and you know you’re safe. But in America, everyone can have a gun, so how can you ever be safe?” It’s hard for me to argue with this logic, just as I was unable to answer the question from Lisa, a French friend, who asked “If your constitution mandates the separation of church and state, why is your currency printed with the phrase In God We Trust”?
So go ahead, break the “never talk politics” travel rule, but do so respectfully. (Come to think of it, this rule applies at home as well as abroad.) My own strongly held view is that political isolationism is misguided and untenable. All nationalities are connected and politics are as much a vital part of culture as art, food, and religion. Happy election day my fellow Americans. Vote wisely–the world is watching.
November 5, 2008: our victory walk through Bastille, Paris. FREE THE PRISONERS!
Backpacks? Check. Budget hotel? Check? President elect? Check.