I started writing this post weeks ago, but I’d stop when I felt I was too little, to have such a big conversation. I revisited my draft a bunch of times – throwing in tidbits, as new conversations about America entered our travels. We are an approachable couple. As such, people seem comfortable bringing up American policy, political tidbits or hot button topics. My intent is to share the thoughts or notions of people we met along the way. The subject matter may be bigger than me, but I’m not too little to talk about it. These were conversations that ring of the Rick Steves’ mantra, “traveling can be a political act.”
Back in the ’80’s
Even way back when, there was an unclear “risk” admitting you were an American while traveling abroad. We had been advised to dress like Europeans – in dark colors. Sew a Canadian patch on our packs, it’d be “much more neutral.” We gave it some thought, and decided we are not the sort to hide behind a false front. Woody had a US flag, I had the California flag. My favorite dress was pastel pink.
It was a Cold War Era. The Reagan administration was selling arms to Iran, a professed enemy, in what was known as the Iran-Contra Affair. President Reagan was perceived to move forward with defense policies regardless of the cost to Europeans in the event of war.
In addition, violence was escalating in Northern Ireland. Hijackings were “always” in the news, from airlines to cruise ships. The Soviet Union was beginning to crumble. It was those travel days which formed our travel opinions and opened our minds and hearts.
We heard the same words of caution. Especially about the benefits of a Canadian flag. But these days our packs have so many patches on them, we appear to belong to several tribes.
And when asked, we don’t hesitate, “We’re from the USA.” Generally we don’t even get a raised eyebrow. When we’re lucky, it generates conversation. Typically we talk about their experiences of travel in our nation, places they fell in love with. Or, their desire to visit the USA. One thing is for sure, Spaniards love New York – whether it’s in person, or their dreams!
Not a single person we met, (today or in the past) held us responsible for the actions of our government. But, they may ask questions. Far and away the number one question on this trip, or conversation, was in regard to US gun control laws. The number two question – granted it came up only twice – was about the Electoral College. I don’t even have a handle on the Electoral College. Those were short conversations, and humbling.
In our country there were 4 mass shootings (resulting in 5 or more dead) during our two month tour. 101 souls lost to gun violence. Every gun conversation was uncomfortable for me. I am the furthest thing from a gun enthusiast, I am afraid of them, and I hate them. How do you answer the question, “Can you explain me (sic) what it means, ‘gun control’?” Woody will talk of his passion for our Constitution. Then we talk of the twisted interpretations we see exploited in our 2nd Amendment. “Gun control” conversations always results in a chorus of head-shaking in sadness. Spain & Portugal do not suffer from this sort of madness. For comparison, the Barcelona Car Attack was the greatest loss of life – with 13 dead – that Spain has suffered in recent memory.
The most uncomfortable gun conversation was with a few Swedes we met in Barcelona. (I’ve learned from previous Sweden travels, they LOVE to get political fast and they know their shit.) Anyway, after some discussion on the matter, one fellow throws a zinger to make his point. “I’ll show you gun control,” he says, and pulls out a cell phone video. In a dark, snowy landscape, you see their SUV getting hung up in the snow. Then it pans back where you see a giant, recently killed moose tethered to the vehicle. Ugh. I was ready to checkout, but their point was made. Guns, not to waste life, not trophy hunting, but a moose for its skin and food.
There was Michael from Prague, an AirBnb host who was headed to Paris for a 2 week UNESCO conference. Essentially he opened dialogue with, “It’s a pity about the US pulling out from UNESCO.” Michael’s role was voting for a new Director General, which is a pretty big deal.
In his opinion, the US has a strong role in UNESCO, and it’s not just money. It includes influence and leadership.
After a little UNESCO Google research, I learned America was one of the founding members of UNESCO after WWII. Interestingly, Reagan also withdrew from the organization at the height of the Cold War (1984) and it was GW Bush who rejoined in 2002. And, here we are again, pulling out.
Antonio from Tarifa is a laid back, surfer-type, and an independent contracted employee. He works from home. He has a guarantee of health care – working, or not. 100% covered, no upfront costs to the patients. The issue is fresh in Antonio’s mind. He suffered a 2 week stay in a hospital for a falling accident earlier this year. He found it hard to conceive a developed nation like ours, can’t figure out universal health care.
Spain, Portugal and the Czech Republic Aren’t Perfect Either
Just like our country, these countries have their own difficulties. As an example, one host explained that Spain may not suffer from gun violence, but they have a serious crisis when it comes to handling domestic abuse. Guns are not involved, but I guess it can be extremely violent and, sometimes, results in death.
Daniel, our Porto guide, explained he is proud of the leaps & bounds his country is taking to join the current century. But, I felt his frustration with government funding the long-term unemployed and whose families seem to keep growing in size. Add the fact that Portugal has whacky rent controls which prohibit landlords to increase rent, as long as one member of the family is still in the unit. Rents are honored from generation to generation, and can be as low as 50EUR/month! You can easily identify these homes, they’re run down and often the doors are held closed with chains.
If you were a government subsidized citizen, and lived in a long-term family unit, you could live comfortably, remaining unemployed indefinitely.
There You Have It
The political side of Passports & Postcards. I wanted to set the record straight. It is risky to travel abroad – you might have to face your country’s “worsts.” But a great opportunity to be a bit of an ambassador too. I am grateful for what we have in our country, but I’m aware we also have a long way to go.