The World Is Watching Us

How do we talk about being American?

I have been a traveler these past two weeks. First, I spent a week in Scotland and the Hebrides, then a week in Sweden with cousins. In some ways, the two weeks couldn’t have provided more contrasting experiences.

My travel companion Pat and I were on the go during our time in Scotland, sleeping in a different place virtually every night. We experienced unexpected delays, changes to our itinerary, and a storm that nearly stranded us on an island. We hiked the tallest mountain on Arran, Goatfell, which tested me physically like never before.

My time in Sweden was spent in Vasterbykil, a village of some 60 homes a few hours north of Stockholm. My days at Per and Gunnel’s lovely home were easy, languid. We sat in their garden for hours while the kites, kestrels, magpies, and skylarks filled the air with their distinctive sounds. We ate lunch in a small summer house. We lingered over every meal, and our evenings often ended at the table when we’d finished the wine. We read, we napped, we had excursions through the countryside that included a stop for coffee or lunch. One morning I got up at 3 a.m., long enough to see the midsummer sunrise.
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Since my first “real” trip—to Romania in 1972 with the Nordic Choir at Luther College my sophomore year—I’ve loved traveling. If not the planning and the jet lag, always the new places I experienced and the unexpected along the way. I’ve come home with a broader view of the world, often gratitude for what I have, and thoughts of where I might go next.

But this time, I was also reminded, as my half dozen trips to Central America reinforced, of the awkward embarrassment I feel as an American in another country. I’m reminded how much we have and expect. How extreme our political, economic, and social situations are becoming. How we keep “gaining weight” not just from food but everything else we use to excess: natural resources, power, money,  material things, and time.

The day before I flew home, I made an unexpected connection with an 84-year-old second cousin on my father’s side. Hardis was sharp, delightful, and a serious archivist of photos, articles, a log of visitors over the past 40 years (including my father in 1960), and a guestbook she asks everyone to sign.
Hardis greeted me warmly, we hugged, and then she said, “The last time I saw you was at your home in the states in 1971. Nixon was president then, but we won’t talk about that.”
Shortly after, as we sat on their porch and had coffee while it rained outside, she brought up our current president, then added, “We won’t talk about him.”

From that exchange and several others with people I met during my trip, I came home feeling that the whole world is watching us. Not with an envious eye, or out of admiration, or as a welcoming place it once was for our ancestors. More I sensed skepticism, distrust, especially concern that the America that once offered people a chance to write a new chapter to their lives has itself become a cautionary tale.

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