I'm walking through Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam on the last day of January, looking for someplace to get tea. I realize my dark-blue passport is still in my hand. I slide it into my pocket. I'm not embarrassed to be an American. But right now, at this particular moment in history, I am embarrassed for America.
I executed the exact same move—quickly sliding my passport into a pocket, hoping no one would spot it—once before, a long time ago.
I was checking into a youth hostel in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on the Fourth of July in 1988. The person at the counter gestured toward the lobby, where a group of young men was watching the news on a wall-mounted television. All the other students staying in the hostel that night were from Iran, the receptionist said pointedly, as she handed my passport back to me. I slid it into my pocket.
A United States warship had shot down an Iranian passenger jet the day before I went to Belfast. Iran Air flight 655 was headed to Dubai from Tehran on July 3, 1988, and was in Iranian airspace when the commander of the USS Vincennes, mistaking the passenger jet for a fighter plane, ordered his crew to fire on the plane. One of the warship's helicopters had taken fire from an Iranian patrol boat earlier that day, after "wandering" into Iranian airspace. There were 290 people on board flight 655—all civilians—and every one of them died.
I wasn't embarrassed to be an American in 1988. But right then, at that particular moment in history, I was embarrassed for America.
I'm pretty pessimistic—actually, that doesn't quite capture it. I'm exhaustingly pessimistic. I suffer from an acute case of Worst Case Scenario Disorder, and I make sure everyone around me suffers, too. I believe every plane I get on is going to crash, every condom I use is going to break, every driver my husband passes is going to run us off the road. But I let myself believe she would win. Even after Nate Silver gave Donald Trump the same chances of winning the election that he gave the Chicago Cubs of winning the World Series, which seemed totally JAF ("jinxy as fuck") to me, I believed she would win.
Who to blame? Not for her losing the election. I blame Comey, Putin, Fallon, Stein, Sarandon, and other horrible white people for that. No, who do I blame for me letting myself believe she was going to win? I could blame just about everything written by just about everyone in the final weeks of the campaign. Everyone thought she would win. Even Donald Trump, on Election Day, reportedly thought she would win.
I blame it on Saturday Night Live.
Not, again, for Trump winning, but for my misplaced, uncharacteristic, and JAF optimism. Jon Lovitz, playing Michael Dukakis in a presidential debate sketch in 1988, looked at Dana Carvey, who was playing George H. W. Bush, and said, "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy." Kate McKinnon, playing Hillary Clinton in a presidential debate sketch in 2016, looked at Alec Baldwin, who was playing Donald Trump, and said, "I'm going to be president." So JAF. But it didn't play that way at the time. It looked like a not-at-all-JAF straightforward acknowledgement of a sure thing. She was going to win.
And when Lin-Manuel Miranda hosted SNL a few weeks later, a month before the election, Miranda paused before a framed photo of Trump in the hallway outside the studio. "Never gonna be president now," Miranda sang, "never gonna president now."
Video clips of both sketches should be in an online idiom dictionary next to "whistling past the graveyard [of your republic]."
Almost everything is behind the counter at a pharmacy in Austria. So if you arrive with a bad cold, worse German, and a desperate need for cough drops, the same clerk who doesn't know what you mean by "cough drop" or "lozenge" isn't going to suddenly produce a box of cough drops when you ask for "the thing you suck on."
It's not her fault, of course. You're the foreigner. You're the one who doesn't speak the language. You're the migrant.
I lived in Europe for a couple of years in my early 20s. I liked being an expat, and at one point thought I'd always be an expat. But then, during what was supposed to be an 18-month return to the United States, I met the people starting The Stranger, temporarily moved to Seattle to help launch the paper, saw my jokey/smutty sex-advice column take off, met a guy, fell in love, had a baby, covered a few elections, and wrote a few books. Two and a half decades flew by.
I've always wanted to move back to Europe. And last year it occurred to me that I could. Our son was an adult, my husband wanted to go, and The Stranger had a new editor. Now I could do it. Now I could go back to Europe. Not forever, not for the rest of my life (that ship had sailed and sank), but maybe for a few months. Maybe for a year.
After Donald Trump won the election on November 9. I heard myself, on my podcast and elsewhere, urging my listeners to act up and to fight back. To resist. But two weeks before the election, when I believed she would win, I'd purchased a plane ticket to Austria. I had friends over there, and I had a place to stay. Just a five-week stay, a trial run, to see if this could work.
I felt like a hypocrite. I was encouraging people to stay ("Don't move to Canada!") and fight ("Go to the march!"), knowing I would be leaving shortly after Trump's inauguration—not leaving forever, and I wasn't going on a vacation or anything. I would be writing in cafes in Austria, instead of writing in cafes in Seattle, and recording my podcast in an improvised podcast recording studio over there, instead of our improvised-but-much-improved podcast recording studio at Stranger HQ. And I would be raising money for the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and the International Refugee Assistance Project selling ITMFA wear from a studio apartment in Austria (more than $100,000 raised so far) instead of from my dining-room table at home.
But I wasn't staying. I was going. Just for five weeks this trip. Longer next time.
Ten days after Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, I headed to JFK. I left for the airport early because there were crowds at the international terminal protesting Trump's Muslim ban.
I should have joined the protests. Instead, I headed for my gate.
"It will not be easy to transform the debate on migration," Owen Jones writes in the Guardian. "Successive British governments have failed to build housing, provide the secure well-paid jobs people need, defend living standards, and—in recent times in particular—properly invest in public services. Immigration has become a catch-all narrative to explain problems caused by the powerful."
The powerful have done the exact same thing in the United States.
Back in the 1980s and early '90s, as an American living in Europe, keeping up with the news from home required effort. You could listen to the Voice of America, if you had a radio (I didn't), or you could buy a copy of the International Herald Tribune, if you could spare the money (I couldn't). If you were a student or an artist living in Europe back then, news was a luxury. And if you were poor—and any expat worth knowing was poor—news was a luxury you couldn't afford. Or wouldn't prioritize. Artists spent their money on beer and food and shows, not on newspapers.
I've heard from some friends since I got to Graz, the city where I'm staying, all writing to tell me they're jealous. Not that I'm in Europe, but that I'm away, out of the country, spared the daily outrages. How wonderful it must be not to have to listen to Donald Trump. How wonderful it must be not to have to hear Kellyanne Conway's voice.
Back in the 1980s and early '90s, I didn't follow the news because I couldn't. Now I follow the news because I easily can—they have the internet here, too—and so I'm spared nothing. I walk around Graz listening to Rachel Maddow and Slate's Political Gabfest and The Gist and Real Time and Fresh Air on my phone, I sit in cafes and flit back and forth between the New York Times and JoeMyGod and Slog and Talking Points Memo, I lie on the couch in the apartment where I'm staying and watch SNL and John Oliver and Stephen Colbert and Samantha Bee and Seth Meyers. I fall asleep at night listening to NPR, just like I do at home. Sometimes Kellyanne Conway's voice is the last thing I hear at night. She lies me to sleep.
Austria is happening all around me, but I spend my waking hours in a news and information bubble that's all Trump, all the time.
Graz is the second-biggest city in Austria. There are two gay bars in Graz, fewer than 10 buildings over 15 stories, and no buildings over 30 stories. The city center—the baroque old city—is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a network of trams knits the old and new city together, and there are bakeries on every corner. I could see myself living here. A river runs through the center of town—the river Mur—and there's one large hill called Schlossberg, which means Castle Hill, but there's no castle on it. Napoleon had Graz's castle pulled down after the French defeated Austria during the Napoleonic Wars. He left the castle's clock tower standing—but only after the distraught citizens of Graz paid the French a ransom to spare it.
There's a warren of tunnels under the Schlossberg, where the citizens of Graz hid from air raids during World War II, tunnels built by slave labor. Look down as you walk the streets of Graz, and here and there you notice that one of the small granite cobblestones in the sidewalk has been replaced with a shiny brass square, of the same size and shape. Each of these brass cobblestones bears the name of a resident of Graz who was murdered during the Holocaust—a daily reminder of the human cost of fascism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia, a reminder you have to step over when exiting your apartment or entering a bakery.
They catch the eye, they prick the conscience.
There was a genocide in North America. There are few memorials in the cities we built on the land we stole, no daily reminders woven into our landscape, nothing we have to step over on our way into Nordstrom or the Comet.
"There are a lot of killers," as someone or other once said. "You think our country is so innocent?"
Confidential to Seattle restaurateurs: The first one of you to put kaspressknoedel soup on the menu is going to have a hit on your hands. It's a clear, salty beef broth served in a large bowl with a couple of hockey-puck-size dumplings made out of old rolls, eggs, cheese, and herbs. It's an Austrian staple, it's hearty and filling, and it's perfect on cold, wet days. So fucking good.
Trump, Trump, Trump. All roads—all thoughts—lead back to Trump.
You know why very few Americans have heard of Graz? Because The Sound of Music wasn't filmed here. And speaking of The Sound of Music, the man Trump plans to appoint as ambassador to Austria isn't a diplomat with any relevant experience. Few ambassadors are anymore. But this guy's qualifications? Besides being a major Trump donor? He's a fan of The Sound of Music. That's it. He's seen that movie, which is despised by most Austrians, more than 75 times. In Trumpland, that more than qualifies him to be the ambassador to Austria.
Did I mention the Voice of America earlier? The GOP-controlled Congress recently disbanded the nonpartisan board of governors that oversaw the VOA and its $800 million budget. A political appointee will now oversee the VOA, which can now legally broadcast in the United States, and Donald Trump selected a couple of low-level, twentysomething campaign staffers—aka partisan hacks—to run the formerly respected news organization. Into the ground.
The last time I ordered the kaspressknoedel soup, the waiter—a black Austrian woman—set it down, glanced at my computer, saw that I was reading a story about Donald Trump's press conference in the New York Times. "Him," she said, shaking her head, and then she walked away.
"One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all," Andrew Sullivan writes in New York magazine. "The president of a free country may dominate the news cycle many days—but he is not omnipresent—and because we live under the rule of law, we can afford to turn the news off at times. A free society means being free of those who rule over you—to do the things you care about, your passions, your pastimes, your loves—to exult in that blessed space where politics doesn't intervene. In that sense, it seems to me, we already live in a country with markedly less freedom than we did a month ago."
I mostly lived in Germany back when I was briefly/almost an expat in the late 1980s and very early 1990s. My German, which was never great, is now completely gone. At best I had pretty decent "sex and supermarket" German: I could get groceries, I could get laid, but that's all I could get—I couldn't get a job, I couldn't get into one of those free German universities. So when I got to Graz, I could say only three things in German: "I'm a gay man." "I'd like a bratwurst, please." "Please don't shit on the floor."
After two weeks of practice, I can now say, "Check, please" and "I'd like a box of throat lozenges."
The last time I lived in Europe, walls were coming down here.
Some of the local news in Graz is managing to penetrate my all-Trump news bubble. For instance, there's something of a housing crisis in Graz, one that echoes the housing crisis in Seattle—but the Grazers I've spoken to about it don't want me calling it a crisis. That sounds too overheated, too partisan, too American. They prefer to call it a housing situation.
Graz is Austria's fastest-growing city. Nearly 320,000 people live in Graz proper, another 400,000 live in Graz's larger urban zone, and rent is rising faster in Graz than anywhere else in Austria. Walking around town, I've seen graffiti that says "Schieß Miete!" ("Fuck Rent!") and posters glued to the windows of empty buildings that say "Die Häuser denen, die sie brauchen!" ("Give this house to those that need it!"). Clearly some Grazers seem to be experiencing the housing problem as more crisis than situation.
The Communist Party—Graz is the only city in Austria where communists do well in local elections—made housing its issue in city elections that took place right after I arrived. The commies won 20 percent of the vote, coming in second and gaining additional seats on the city council. Graz doesn't have one Kshama Sawant. Graz has a dozen Kshama Sawants.
The local chapter of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPO)—the country's anti-immigrant, hard-right, neo-fascist party—didn't pass out hats at their rallies, but their main slogan had a Trumpian ring and could definitely fit on a hat: "Holen Wir Unser Graz Zurück!" ("Let's Take Back Our Graz!"). Take it back from immigrants, of course, but foreigners who don't know the German word for "lozenge" get a pass, so long as they're white. The FPO hoped to ride immigrant-bashing to power here, but they came in third and gained no seats on the city council.
The Christian Conservative Party, Austria's version of the GOP, won. They didn't win a majority, so they have to form a coalition—which they're most likely going to do with the FPO. Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the national FPO, is an ally of Donald Trump's. He was at the inauguration in Washington, DC. He lost Austria's recent presidential election to the former head of Austria's Green Party, which is an actual party here and not a quadrennial stunt.
Another echo of politics back home: a local construction project opposed by a loud group of impassioned activists. It's not a youth jail; it's a dam.
The Green Party—which is, again, a real political party here, nothing like the grandstanding, guilt-tripping, purity-testing bullshit "Green Party" we have in the United States—came out against the project before the election and led protests to block its construction. But it's not the first dam on the Mur; the new dam is being constructed a mile or two upstream from an existing dam. And they're not building another dam for shits and giggles—it's a hydroelectric power plant. Which means the Green Party of Graz staked its electoral fortunes on blocking a green energy project. It didn't work. Graz's Greens came in last, losing seats on the city council to the communists. It seems the people of Graz support green energy projects, even if the Green Party doesn't.
I'm sitting on a sofa with an Austrian friend, three weeks into my stay here, watching what may be an illegally downloaded episode of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.
My friend has given me a choice between a Full Frontal marathon—he's Austria's biggest Samantha Bee fan—and The Crown on Netflix. I choose option Bee. Somehow I can't look away, even when I have the choice to.
Bee runs a clip of the protests at US airports that were going on when I left. Thousands of people are crowded into arrival areas chanting "Let them in!" and holding up signs that read "No Wall! No Ban!" Lawyers are sitting on floors, hunched over laptops, working for free; translators are holding up signs in English and Arabic, offering their services to worried family members of detained travelers.
My friend notices me, sitting across from him, starting to tear up.
"Are you okay?" he asks.
"Not really," I say.
Over the last three weeks, not one person in Austria had asked me a direct question about Donald Trump. Which seems odd, since Europeans are being threatened by Trump, too. He wants to break up the European Union and undermine NATO, and the man who helped get Trump elected—Vladimir Putin—is currently at work undermining elections in Germany and France. But people here don't want to talk about it—they don't want to talk about him—any more than I do.
"Do you think Americans can stop Trump?" my friend asks.
I believe we can. But I believed she would win. I don't want to jinx it.
"I don't know if we can stop him," I finally say. "But we're gonna goddam try. And I think I need to be there for it."