One of the more pervasive beliefs about traveling as an American is that you can expect judgment from locals and other travelers. There is a certain expectation that our divisiveness at home will follow us abroad; that when you tell your restaurant waiter where you’re from, you won’t get a “Cool, what state?” and a genuine smile, but instead a look that says, “I’m sorry,” and maybe a snarky comment about Trump.
While this may not stop you from traveling, it sometimes makes you hesitate, even for a microsecond, when you get the “where are you from” question. I wish I had known all along what I know now: No one will judge you on your passport unless you give them a reason. Other countries have their own problems, which loom much larger and closer.
People are usually more concerned with their own politics than yours.
Let’s be clear — I don’t like talking about politics. If it comes up at a bar at home, that’s my cue to go to the bathroom. I was particularly keen to avoid politics while traveling through Central Europe, the April before the election. I arrived in Vienna on a Monday night, and figured I’d grab a drink around the corner. The bar was as dead as the streets, except for a couple of girls in a booth. “You are American?” they asked. I held my breath for the impending judgment, for a flurry of uncomfortable questions, or at least for them to ask “do you drive one of those trucks with the horns on top?” (Yes: I’ve heard that before).
Instead, they started talking in grave tones about something called The Freedom Party of Austria. The fringe party promotes policies considered to be anti-semitic, xenophobic, and aggressively nationalistic. They use identity as a wedge to foster fear and racial hatred, and many even accuse them of being neo-Nazis. I arrived in Vienna on April 25th. On the 24th, Norbert Hofer, the leader of the Freedom Party, had won a majority vote in the presidential primary. The concern in their voices was hard to ignore. Suddenly, my expectation that they would try to talk my ear off about American politics seemed ridiculous. They were afraid for the future of their country. Not mine. And the entire night, Trump wasn’t mentioned once.
“You are so far away, and besides, you have the good movies.”
I really didn’t know what to expect when I showed up in Belgrade. The U.S. had bombed Belgrade as recently as 1999, part of a NATO coalition; if anyone deserved to resent me for my nationality, it was the Serbs. My guide’s name was Aleksander, and we had been introduced through a mutual friend. We were out for lunch one day, and he explained to me the growing concerns around their president, Aleksandar Vučić. Often accused of media manipulation and voter intimidation, Vučić was considered by many to be an authoritarian threatening Serbia’s new democracy. My visit happened to fall during a particularly volatile period, when many believed Vučić would consolidate power by seizing the Prime Minister position for himself—thus becoming both President and Prime Minister (He has since named Ana Brnabić as Prime Minister).
This was in June following the U.S. election. My friend never mentioned Trump, but I could tell it was part of the reason he was talking about Vučić in the first place. There was a mutual empathy between us, between two countries dealing with authoritarian crises. He cautioned me about many things: Cab drivers. Fraudulent gas stations. Macedonians. Indeed, there was clearly a deep-seated distrust for their Balkan neighbors, but when I asked about Americans, he just shrugged, and said, “Why hate Americans? You are so far away, and besides, you have the good movies.” It’s funny how you can argue about politics all day and learn nothing, but it’s the people farthest removed from U.S. institutions, outside the echo chamber, who really put things in perspective.
It’s usually not anywhere near as bad as you expect it to be.
Of course, not everyone you meet abroad is just going to give you a free pass and start talking about their own problems. The truth is, U.S. issues affect the rest of the world, and people do pay more attention to our politics than, say, the general elections of Liechtenstein. Prior to the presidential primaries, I was in Galway for St. Patrick’s Day. My friend was sick from the night before, so I was out by myself, and unless I wanted to stand alone in a corner, I knew the subject was unavoidable.
I sat with a big table of students from NUI Galway and waited for the jokes to fly. I waited for drunken taunts or an absurd question about whether I put BBQ sauce in my coffee. Instead, they looked at me like birdwatchers spying a rare bird, jotting dimensions and diagrams in their notebooks. They didn’t jeer, or judge, or condescend. They wanted to know everything: where did I live? Did I know anyone voting for Trump? Why has he gotten this far? Will he win? A group of 19-21 year-old Irish students were more fascinated by the election than most of my friends back home.
It was at this point that I realized how lucky I was to be traveling at this particular time in American history. Now more than ever, people abroad are looking at the United States through the lens of the media, or rumor, and they have a lot of questions. When I sat in that Irish pub, with all those eyes on me, I felt strangely powerful; like these curious students were only judging my country through me, its representative. More than any preconceived prejudices, it was my answers, and my actions, that would inform their impression of Americans.
If it sounds like a heavy responsibility, that’s because it is. A lone traveler can’t change geopolitics, but he can play the role of ambassador. When those Irish students think of America, they’ll remember the American (fondly, hopefully), not whatever calamity might be unfolding on the news.
And if that fails… at least we have the good movies.