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Revisiting the United States After Twenty Years

After having lived in the United States, intermittently, twenty-three years, I left the country once and for all in 1998, during the Clinton era.  I had been hired by the UN War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, and I stayed in the Netherlands for ten years, until I qualified for early retirement.  By this time, I had put my daughter through college, and I was eligible to receive a small pension.  During The Hague years I had gone back to the U.S. every two years, for visits lasting no more than two weeks.  And, having lived in five countries in my life, I decided I didn’t want to go back to the U.S., and retired in Portugal.

During the extended period that I lived in the United States, as I followed my former husband, a physicist, from one governmental lab to another, the fact that I had already lived in four countries enabled me to perceive the country with fresh eyes, and I always felt that I was somewhat of an outsider. My parents, both deceased, were from the former Yugoslavia, but Washington D.C. was my place of birth and I had spent my formative years in New York City.  When I was a teenager, I fully identified myself as an American.

For a long time now, I’d been thinking of how much I would enjoy revisiting the Southwestern United States, through which I first travelled when I was twenty-seven.  So, when my American high school in Egypt organised a reunion in Austin in late July, I used that as a pretext to go and meet old friends, and then go on to tour national parks and towns in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado.

I have been following the news about the United States for years.  When I get up in the morning, I generally read the news on BBC online.  Like the many Portuguese and the expatriate community here, I followed the election race and its results.  No one that I knew took Trump seriously as a candidate, and there was widespread disbelief when he was elected.  And then the presidential tweets started, and were followed by a series of scandalous statements, outrageous gestures, and senior staff dismissals that kept the media occupied.  We followed Trump’s antics in disbelief.  People read up on the impeachment process.  But what surprised me the most was the speed with which outlandish statements and antics became acceptable.  I had begun to watch the international version of CNN every day, just because of Trump. The President’s gaffes were discussed and analysed at length by one commentator after another, but the following day, since Trump preferred to tweet in the early morning hours, the news had shifted to the latest bizarre presidential outburst.  News about contacts by Trump’s friends with Russian officials, the firing of FBI director James Comey, the appointment of ex-FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate whether the Kremlin and the Trump campaign coordinated to influence the outcome of the 2016 election — all these stories followed each other with breathtaking speed.  Ivanka Trump moved into The White House as a government employee and senior adviser to her father, as did Jared Kushner, who was appointed head of the “Office of American Innovation.” Two unelected people, close relatives, were now serving in official positions, and appeared to be Trump’s major advisers.  The whole world screamed nepotism.  Not much, as far as I could see, was made of this in the United States.

I was really interested in talking to Americans about their lives, and getting away from the constant onslaught of media news and analyses.  During my trip, I covered over two thousand miles in twenty days.  Often, when I entered a food store or walked around exploring a town, I took photographs of the newspapers displayed.  They were always local newspapers.  On just two occasions, in four states, I also saw copies of USA Today and, on a single occasion, unexpectedly, The Wall Street Journal.  I had to reach Denver to see my first copy of The New York Times. While driving, I thanked my lucky stars: I stumbled upon the newscasts of National Public Radio and Democracy Now!

The news on television, which I watched at night after stopping at a motel, resembled a circus with its array of colours, changing pitches in sound, and a barrage of information which simply made me tired.  Against the backdrop of flashing lights and complicated screen layouts, the news anchors literally screeched out (or, as they put it), “explained” the news to their audience. I know from the past that the volume of commercials is higher than that of regular programming, but after years of listening to European news channels, where the news is delivered calmly, almost impassively, with few or no adornments added to the screen, I felt dazed.  Moreover, the news was often delivered by not one, but two commentators, in order to create a chatty, almost familial environment.  Their exchanges and follow-up comments riddled with meaningless banalities.  I had to laugh.  If newscasters informed us about natural disasters with high death tolls, the expression on their faces was sad and preoccupied.  The next second, they were smiling away at some unimportant, lighthearted report.  It seemed to me that this atmosphere of entertainment and levity was intentional.  When crisis areas in the world were addressed, there was no historical context, no matter how brief, to help the viewer understand the situation.

I tried to chat with as many people as possible about domestic affairs, always introducing myself as a visitor from Portugal.  I spoke to everyone — to gas station attendants, hotel receptionists, anyone sitting close to me in restaurants and cafes, and fellow hikers on the trails I followed in national parks. When I reached Boulder, I finally had a chance to talk to university students.  All of them, with two exceptions, said they supported Trump.  When I asked why, the answers were vague: “He’s his own man,” or “He says what’s on his mind,” or “He’s outspoken and doesn’t care.”  I was baffled by the comments and their relevance to good leadership and governance.  My followup question, immediately, was: “And where do you primarily get your news?”  The answer, unfailingly, was the internet.  “What sites?” I would ask, often to a blank, confused state.  “Oh, various places on the web.”  I cannot be sure, but I am fairly certain that this meant Facebook.

At the University of Colorado, I chatted with two undergrads.  The first, a young woman in her twenties, explained that her views on the election had been influenced by a wider cultural background.  She had initially opposed Trump throughout the campaign, but eventually succumbed to the influence of her husband, who came from a white, South African family.  “They gave me a completely different perspective on things,” she said, adding: “Trump is not afraid to be who he is.” I was amazed.  I could only assume that their approach had been critical of the South African black-led government, but how this impacted on U.S. elections was puzzling.  I wanted to ask her if she and her wider South African family were aware that the twenty-seven years spent by Nelson Mandela spent in South African prisons was prompted by a CIA tipoff, to protect the apartheid government from the ANC, which the U.S. considered a terrorist organisation heavily influenced by the Soviet Union.  I said thanked her and went off, wondering if she knew that the United States supported the apartheid regime throughout Ronald Reagan’s first term and well into his second.  The next student I spoke with was well-informed about both domestic and international affairs.  When I asked him about his sources, he told me got his news online every day from CNBC and CNN.  He added that his college roommate was from Malaysia, and that they were in the habit of talking about international events.  What did he think of the new President and his actions?  “I’m embarrassed.  The whole thing is embarrassing,” he said.  “It’s still sinking in.”

At my motel in Boulder, I met the receptionist, and asked him where he was from.  “Where do you think,” he swiftly responded.  “Hmm, the Middle East . . .” “Syria,” he told me.  “And you made it all the way here?” I asked. “Is your family here as well?”  “No, my mother is in Aleppo, my brother is in Germany, I have a sister in Istanbul, and another brother in Greece.”  He knew all about the crossings from Turkey to Lesbos.  But this young man was attending the University of Colorado, working towards a degree in geography.  “Are you scared by anti-immigrant campaign?” I asked.  “No, not really,” he replied.  “If worst comes to worst, I’m going to Canada.”

My last exchange took place at Denver airport.  My ticket was being handled by an African-American woman in her thirties.  That week, the dominant news story was Charlottesville white supremacist rally and the truck that ploughed into the crowd, killing Heather Heyer.  What did she think of these events and the political situation in the country with Trump as President?  “We’re in a shitload of trouble,” she responded.  “It all started with the tweets.   But I think he’s crossed the line now when he blamed both sides.”  I thanked her and said: “Good luck!” “God help us all!” was her answer.