I wrote an open letter awhile back to folks who wanted to leave the United States if Trump was elected. One of the reasons I cited to not leave was heartbreak from afar. And after only one week, I can promise that is absolutely true. But there is more. Weird feelings I never considered have surfaced, and I think they’re worth sharing.
I hope you find my perspective worthwhile, and I would love to hear other Americans’ experiences living abroad during this time.
My phone buzzes and an SMS from one of my good friends pops up:
Will I see you at the event tonight?
Ugh, I think. It isn’t that I forgot. Who can forget with everyone from radio news (I listen to improve my German but has the added bonus of a European perspective) to coworkers to acquaintances to social media reminding me that today, Friday, Inauguration Day, will be some sort of infamous event. No one can stop themselves from talking about it. It seems Donald Trump has that effect on people.
My husband has already said he won’t participate in anything “celebrating” (air quotes his) the inauguration. But I don’t think it’s a celebration, rather an observation, and a necessary one. A series of texts from Ashley saying she checked out in 2000 when Bush took office reminds me that I better go. No more of my history repeating itself.
I arrive a bit before 7 p.m., Central Euro time, and the room is almost full. I sneak over to the far side of the room where there are still a few seats open. By the time I flag down Ashley and her husband Alex to sit with me, they have to climb over people sitting on the floor. We watch the projector screen and hold hands. I do my best to stop tears. With more than 100 people here, the odds are good that there are some Trump supporters. No need to get all melodramatic amongst people I don’t know.
There are only a few brave souls who speak up as pro-Trump, and they speak English to voice their opinions, although they are German. The German-American institute in town, a cultural center that incidentally is now worried about part of its funding, put on the event. The two supporters are women, and their reasons are identical: Hilary would’ve started a world war with Russia. That puts their country in the center of that. As much as I disagree with the fundamental logic of this, I see their perspective when it comes to Russia. The two countries have an ugly past, and women in particular have fallen into the crosshairs. But neither of them seem too worried about the strange relationship between Putin and Trump, which I think is more disturbing. Then again, what hasn’t been disturbing about the past few months?
Of the 100 people, only 10 or so hold U.S. passports. This surprises me. I guess I thought it would be an event where Americans could show our camaraderie or seek refuge together. Which we do, after the event, with Ashley drinking champagne in quiet irony, straight out of her single-serving bottle. Alex has brought beer, and another guy jokes that even though he is an Eagle Scout, he forgot to prepare. Alex says as a German he was born an Eagle Scout. We laugh. I leave feeling upset but not devastated.
The weekend brings stories of pages wiped from the new White House website, and I allow myself to spend more than a normal amount of time on social media. But I need to go grocery shopping, so I head out to stumble through another set of interactions with butchers, sales folks and check-out people. Only this time does it occur to me that maybe people won’t be so keen on tolerating me butchering their language. Germans, at least the ones in the west I have been told, have a pretty good opinion of Americans and the U.S. That, I think, might all change. I smile, then don’t smile, because that is a dead giveaway I’m not from here, and try to avoid full sentences. It is hard to discern an accent from the word “Hallo.” I think of the foreigners in the U.S. and what they are going through. But certainly President Trump won’t be as aggressive as he sounded on his campaign trail, right? I mean, conventional wisdom says candidates are always a bit more verbose before they’re elected.
I say a prayer for everyone marching in the women’s marches that night. I don’t march in the nearest one, even though we are driving in that direction for dinner. We made plans before I found out about it. I feel guilty. I ignore it, pray some more and turn up the radio. Edward Snowden comes to me in a dream to ask how I sleep at night, but he means it more literally than figuratively. I am about to answer “on my side with three pillows,” when the alarm wakes me up for work.
I have made a habit of driving to work with the radio playing, trying to prime the German part of my brain before a day in the office. It’s like stretching before going for a run. The news comes on, and the lead story is always Trump. The U.S. didn’t usually lead before these past few weeks. It came after Syrian negotiations, British parliament shenanigans and German politics. But Monday through Friday the announcer has something new from my country, and it is most often concerning international policy. Trump really plans to build that wall. He wants to pull out of NATO. There is no talk of ridiculous copy-cat inauguration cakes, although to be fair, the Netherlands welcome video does make the cut.
I pull into the parking space trying to reset, to do my work without thinking about what I had just heard. But the company Twitter feed shows trends, and my colleagues are also strangely silent toward me at lunch. Only a week ago, they sat around the lunch room table and asked about my opinions about the situation in the U.S., or how my friends and family there felt. Now, whether they are stunned by the situation developing or that they can sense I am close to tears or something completely outside of my understanding, they say nothing. In this last week my colleagues as me one question during lunch: Do I like to go the movies?
My inability to answer eloquently sends me scrambling to get signed up for German lessons again. I was planning on taking them this year regardless, but something has shifted in my desire to speak and write more accurately. It is not as much to be better at work or even make life easier as it is to blend in. To not remind anyone that I am American and maybe I don’t deserve this job or this work visa. Shit. Our visas are up for renewal in the fall. I email the immigration lawyers to ask what we need to do to get permanent visas. Their answers are vague, but yes improving language skills would definitely help.
Not that permanent visas will mean anything, Sante and I decide. If a war breaks out between the U.S. and Europe, an American passport would most likely guarantee the German government would ship us out, and I wouldn’t blame them. Behind “enemy lines.” We Google “German citizenship.” I try to dig out my German drivers license as proof of ID as I board a bus to Switzerland. My hand closes around my passport, and I hesitate. My name, Watson, could easily pass as British, but an American passport leaves no room for doubt. My embarrassment grows when the ticket checker gives me a look and says, “Ahhh, aus den USA.” As I sit watching Swiss border agents go through people’s bags, I am grossly aware of my privilege in all of this. I feel relieved I am not in the US. I feel intense guilt for the treatment of foreigners in my country. But I worry more about whether Germany will let me back in the country after the weekend is over.
I talk to my therapist about these extreme worries in vague detail. They embarrass me. She reminds me that the very reasons I am in therapy are now enjoying a renewal of power in my home country, and terror is a very normal reaction to that. What must the women be going through in America? I don’t want to go back. I am terrified of emboldened men. I enjoyed reasonable rights when I lived in the U.S., and still an ex-husband raped me, an ex-lover beat me, a random man sexually assaulted me, trying to pull me into the bushes next to a slough. A stranger roofied me in a club, and I was lucky enough to be brought home by friends. I had to take out a restraining order on my college professor. I could go on. Most women could. What would the emboldened men do now, with this leader boldly announcing his misogyny? I have to keep from tearing up too much, because although my therapist’s English is excellent, she has a difficult time understanding me when I cry.
On my way from work every evening I turn on my English music, both because my brain is tired and because I don’t want to hear what has happened in America’s first hours of waking up. But still I cry driving home. Instinctively I wait until I exit the autobahn, where the speed limit is lower, and it is safer to see through tears. The emotions radiating around the world break through the music. The Cranberries Zombie makes me sit up at attention, listening to every word.
Desperately I pray to the forests and the ancestors of this land. They know tragedy. What would they have me know? What can I do? They answer back so calmly, like trees and people outside of time tend to do:
Don’t despair. There is light there.
That is all. There is no more to this message and at first I feel let down. Then let off the hook. But I get home and see more and more standing up. Park rangers start rogue Twitter feeds in direct defiance of fascism and censorship. Engineers and scientists at NASA follow suit. There is more. My friends, people I know, are not just posting on social media. They are protesting. They are connecting. People are moving their energies, their life forces, in a more mindful way, whether it be through donating time or moving their money (literally the collateral this world trades life forces in).
I get to see Hidden Figures before it comes out in theaters. I am saddened by our country’s past but am impressed, no, astonished, at what humans can accomplish with everything stacked against them. If you want to see the true spirit of America, look to the men and women who were stolen from their homes, forced to build this country, given absolutely no breaks and still managed to do things like send rockets into space or invent air conditioning.
I meet up with Ashley again. This time it’s dinner and music and chatting about life. Ashley and Rebecca time, we call it. We watch music videos; consider the Id, Superego and Ego; and analyze my latest tarot reading. It has been too long. I leave feeling restored and ready. I wake up this morning to plan my grocery list, eat my breakfast and read about the Muslim Ban. I take a deep breath, and I do not despair.