Reflections of an American Abroad
The discount airline I booked to Poland is giving me stomach trouble, thanks to a salvo of emails they sent this afternoon demanding passwords I never made and baggage fees I never agreed to. (Getting customer service on the phone runs you a pound per minute, so that’s out.) It’s three days after the American election and I’m in a London hostel.
My room is a cramped, four-bed affair with exposed pipes and bad WiFi. I’m its lone occupant, for now, an angry yank furiously trying and re-trying every possible password to crack his own Wizz Air account. I’m about to give up and watch the last hour of The Shining (which I ripped from someone’s hard drive in Bali) when another guest checks into the room.
He cuts a somewhat incongruous figure in this landscape, given the hostel’s peeling walls and steel-frame beds. Check him out: pressed shirt, dress pants, black leather shoes. Guy looks like he’s just come from a job interview. (I, on the other hand, wear black jeans and a Calvin & Hobbes tee.)
He opens with the same question everyone does: Where are you from?
Like a switch has been flipped; familiar American anxiety makes itself physiologically known. Gone are the gastrointestinal bubbles caused by an €18 charge for a second piece of personal luggage. Instead, I feel the hot flush of embarrassment come up my neck.
“United States,” I say, “Boston.”
“Ah, I was just in the States myself for four weeks,” says the guy. (What is he, English? Australian? Kiwi?)
“Sounds like you got out just in time,” I say. It’s meant as a joke, an implicit apology to the rest of the world — We’re not all like this, I swear.
Does he reply with a laugh? Does he roll his eyes with me, two sane souls sharing a moment of transnational solidarity? Does he, like the woman at reception, ask with genuine curiosity whether I was pleased with the results of the election? Does he, like two men I overheard at a Paris metro stop, worry about Trump’s willingness to attack the rights of women, homosexuals, and immigrants? Does he, like the Scottish girl I met in Berlin, talk my ear off about the dangerous megalomaniac we’ve chosen to lead us?
Sadly, no. Instead, he shrugs and begins untying his shoe. “If I could vote, I would’ve voted for Trump.” I freeze. Technically, this guy’s endorsement of our president-elect should excuse me from feeling embarrassed of my own nationality. But far from lessening my own shame, all this does is make me feel embarrassed for the guy who’s now pulling off his second dress shoe and stowing it under the bed. He looks around. “The photos online made this place look much nicer than it is. I’m going to complain tomorrow morning and see if I can’t get my other nights canceled, or at least paid for.”
I mutter something noncommittal and go back to figuring out the Wizz Air situation. After several minutes, I shut my computer. Fatigue is lapping at me. Not tiredness; true fatigue. I’ve been to five countries in the last three weeks. I’ve had three flights, a train, and a 10-hour bus. I’ve drank in bars and danced in clubs and gaped at the majesty of cathedrals. I’ve seen a dull football match and won a big hand of cards and smoked cigarettes until my throat was raw.
My plan is to fly to Poland on this crappy airline. I’ll spend two weeks at a friend’s flat in Torun, drinking late into the night and sleeping until noon. Then I’ll take a train back to Berlin, catch a flight to Istanbul, and spend a night there before heading back to Boston. The trip’s been part adventure, part escape. When the results were called late Tuesday night in America, I woke up in France to messages from my friends telling me to stay put. “Don’t bother coming back,” they joked. “The country is in a frenzy.”
And that advice seemed sound. After all, I make enough working remotely that I could travel indefinitely. I could move to Canada, as some people—including my own sister—have suggested we do. I could get Irish citizenship and stay there. But then my phone buzzes and the reverie is interrupted: one of my friends has bailed on Poland. I text the other one about my flight situation. I tell him about the fatigue. “That’s fine,” he writes. “Come home.”
I book a flight out of London in two days. I don’t skimp on the airline. I don’t look forward to going back and seeing a country torn ideologically in two. I don’t look forward to the vitriolic arguments that will pepper my social media for the months leading up to (and, I’m sure, following) the inauguration of Donald J. Trump. I don’t look forward to watching bigots crawl out of the woodwork, emboldened by our new president.
But the answer isn’t fleeing abroad. Travel should be about adventure, not escape. So home I go.
Next time I leave, it’ll be to head toward something, not run from it.
Cover by Lee Key