I promised myself I wouldn’t write this, but I couldn’t help myself.
During the summer of 1970 I traveled to Europe. I traveled with a group of students on a tour bus which took us through France, Italy, and Switzerland, and I had the incredible good fortune to actually attend classes at the University of Geneva and to live in a Swiss dormitory for a couple of months. It was a transformational experience for me.
Before leaving, I did a little bit of research. I wanted to look European. I wanted to act European. I did not want to be the stereotypical “ugly American”. I spoke with some seasoned tourists who explained that in Europe (at that time) women were expected to dress in skirts that fell below the knee. That I should dress very conservatively. That women should never travel the streets alone – especially in Italy – or else I might risk being mistaken for a “professional”. Women were supposed to walk down the streets arm-in-arm with other women. Never at night! Never alone! I was told to mind my manners, to address adults formally as “Monsieur”, “Madame”. I was told not to “tutoyer” anyone (in France) – that is, not to use the familiar “tu”, but to use the more formal “vous” when speaking with strangers. Dutifully, I went shopping and came back with a couple of scarves to tie over my head, and two suitably drab dresses that hit at mid-calf, exactly the least flattering place they could hit. I pulled my curly hair back into a tight bun and wore “sensible” brown shoes. All of this making me appear both matronly and prim, if not downright homely, even at the tender age of 19. My European disguise was complete, or so I thought.
What I did not know, as I took off from La Guardia Airport one warm June day, was that all the frumpy clothes in the world could not disguise my nationality. Everywhere I went in Europe, before I even had a chance to open my mouth, I was spotted as an American. People refused to address me in any language except English, although at the time I spoke fluent French. It puzzled me for the longest time. After all, I was only a second generation American. My grandparents hailed from Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Romania. I could easily “pass”, or so I thought. When I related this experience years later to friends who were very experienced world travelers, they nodded their heads knowingly.
“It’s the walk”, they explained, “the way you carry yourself. You can spot Americans a mile away”. It’s our attitude. It comes out of having been born into a free society that honors individuality and independence. We can’t help it. We just feel entitled. We take up more space on the sidewalk. We walk with our heads held high, our gaze direct and unselfconscious. It’s a wonderful thing, when you think about it.
While I was in Europe, I was given a tiny taste of how things could be otherwise. I remember being stopped on a train every time we got to a border. We had to whip out our passports and answer questions. I vividly remember when we crossed over to England on a ferry on the way back home. The authorities questioned me as if I were a hardened criminal. They wanted to know what I would do in England; how much money I had in my possession; whether I had relatives in England; how long I planned to stay; whether I planned to work, with or without a work visa; where I planned to lodge . . .It seems like the questions were endless. While staying in a hotel in France I had to surrender my passport. This struck me as distinctly creepy. Even in Western Europe, I could feel how different life is outside of the United States. When we touched down in New York, I felt like bending down and kissing the ground. It’s hard to explain to an American who has never been abroad, but it seems like everyone I’ve spoken to who traveled abroad felt the way I did.
So why am I reminiscing?
I am afraid. I am very afraid. We have already had four years of a president whose core support comes from the so-called Christian right. He doesn’t seem to have any respect for separation of Church and State. Whether he is willing to say so out loud or not, I think he would like to turn the United States into a fundamentalist Christian theocracy. That’s a strong allegation, I know, but it is my honest opinion.
Let’s forget the fact that the Bush administration is so heavily weighted toward Big Business. Let’s forget that the president has the diplomatic skills of Genghis Khan. And let’s not discuss his leading us into a war that is becoming a worsening quagmire every day based on faulty intelligence, if not out-and-out lies.
This is an administration that is willing to amend the Constitution in order to further his anti-gay agenda. . I fail to understand the argument that gay marriage would somehow erode or destroy the “sacred institution of marriage”. Baloney.
He says he is concerned with the rights of the unborn, and that is his rationale for putting a lid on stem cell research. What about the rights of the already born? My cousin has been suffering from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) for over five years. There is no sign of a cure on the horizon, although stem cell research holds the most promise right now. How should we explain all this to my cousin’s two children, his wife, and the patients in his once-thriving medical practice, which he had to abandon as the muscles in his body froze, one-by-one.
And, if Mr. Bush had his way, Roe v. Wade would be overturned. Do we really want to go back to the days of back-alley abortions? Because that would most certainly be the result.
This is an administration, in short, that would like to shove its extreme Christian fundamentalist views down the rest of our throats. This is an incursion on one of our most basic American convictions – that every citizen has the right to worship (or not worship) according to the dictates of their own conscience, and by extension, that each of us has the right to a lifestyle based on our own beliefs. (I was taught in fourth-grade Social Studies that my rights stop where your rights begin, and this simple common sense principal has always stood our country in good stead).
I’m worried that if the current administration manages to finagle its way back into office for four more years, we Americans will lose something precious. I imagine us diminished in our own eyes, as well as in the eyes of the world. I imagine that our country would be less secure than it is now, since we would have alienated so many of our friends. I imagine us walking a little slower, our gaze lowered, our shoulders slightly stooped. Maybe we wouldn’t be so easy to recognize on the streets of London, Rome, or Madrid. That would be a sad thing.
All of this is only my opinion. I tried to keep silent. Oh well. “You can please some of the people some of the time. . .”