There's something disturbingly cozy about the news void during a trip. Whether you're truly out of CNN's range, caught up in your travels, trying to put some distance between you and a computer, or just not picking up a newspaper because the English-language ones are priced like they've been printed on Microsoft stock. Whatever the reason, the news blackout is a fairly common occurrence on the road.
Travelers will discuss, sometimes even brag about it, as though it's somehow a measure of cultural immersion or Western detachment. In hostel lounges it's not uncommon to hear comments like "I have no idea what's going on in the world and it feels good." Or "Don't know, don't care."
I've been there myself from time to time. These days, I more often engage the locals in a little political discussion. It's hard to avoid. After confessing that I'm an American, I feel the need to quickly follow up with a statement to distance myself from George W. Bush. If their English skills are excellent, I might say he's barely qualified to be a urinal-cake replacer, let alone president. With a slight language barrier, a simple "Bush bad" accompanied by a thumbs down or the swirling-finger-near-head sign for crazy does the trick. And by trick, I mean it will more quickly endear you to any local even faster than sharing a bottle of the best home-distilled firewater. In an instant, you've gone from "American nut job" to "this person is alright, and may not even be concealing a handgun."
In this respect, W has been fantastic for Bush-hating travelers. It's an easy, natural conversation starter and you can ingratiate yourself to locals in mere seconds by demonstrating disdain for him.
You should probably think twice before saying something like this in Israel (the only country where Bush could win an election at the moment) or the Red States (the Bible Belt of the U.S., not former Soviet Republics, where a picture of W on a urinal cake would be a big seller). Anywhere else, you're in good shape.
Here in Sweden where I now live, Swedes don't discuss Bush with each other any more than they start discussions about Hitler. No one will pick up the opposing viewpoint, not even to play devil's advocate. Before the last election in the US, one of the major newspapers here in Sweden conducted a poll to determine which US presidential candidate Swedes would vote for if they could. As I recall, the results were 95% for Kerry, 4% for Nader, and 1% undecided. In other words, the sort of place you'd be proud to call home. (And by "you", I really mean "me" or any of the other 62% of Americans who currently prefer anchovy-and-discarded-brake-fluid pizza over their president.)
But when Swedes find out I'm American, they have plenty of political questions.
When I began traveling in 1991, the questions other young travelers had for me were about American's fascination with All-Star Wrestling (was it real?) and monster truck competitions (how do they fill entire stadiums for that?) and why we continue to use a ridiculous jury system instead of a panel of professional judges when most of the clever people get out of jury duty and the rest have to sacrifice months for these prolonged trials.
Now it's all about Bush. What do we see in him? Why aren't there more protests, especially on university campuses? Do I think he will ever be sitting in Miloševic's old cell at The Hague?
This is a bit of a turn. Typically, we Americans know embarrassing little about the politics in other countries while everyone seems to be an expert on ours. Okay, this part is still the case, but before I was doing most of the asking and was impressed that these travelers knew as much about the internal workings of their government as they did. Now I'm expected to pony up the answers, often to the very same questions American professional political commentators can't answer.
To do this, I feel a pressing obligation to keep up with the American mindset. And since most Americans live within a multimedia and fast-food biosphere, it's possible to do this even overseas. I watch the Daily Show on the web, see the opening skit to Real Time with Bill Maher, read his latest New Rules. I check out the Onion and The New Yorker's Shouts and Murmurs weekly. I listen to NPR over the web, read pieces from several major newspapers, browse the Huffington Post, and catch up on any can't-miss video clips on crooksandliars.com. We have a basic Swedish cable TV package that includes CNN, Fox, and Swedish TV channels that air reruns of Simpsons, Mash, Friends, Cheers, ER, West Wing, and Seinfeld every day.
We also get 24, Lost, Desperate Housewives, Sopranos, Six Feet Under, American Idol, Oprah and even Doctor Phil.
If I had time to watch all this, I'd be leading a more "American" lifestyle than many Americans in America. There's even a special shelf at Swedish supermarkets (like the ones that have Thai or Indian specialties) that has exclusively American food: marshmallows, maple syrup, generic root beer, Paul Newman's salad dressing, Skippy peanut butter, brownie mix and a jar of chocolate frosting. Hell, as I write this, there's a Peruvian and a Cuban downstairs fixing a few things in my basement - what could be more American than that?
It almost requires effort to keep from leading an American life while abroad. I try to read the Swedish newspaper. Only one of my friends here is American. I speak Swedish much of the day.
Now if I could just get a decent bagel…
Doug Lansky is a widely-published travel writer who has also appeared as a travel show TV host, a regular NPR radio guest, and a lecturer. He has been based in Sweden for four years, where he has a wife and three daughters-all purchased at Ikea. See more at DougLansky.com
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