Since I was away and didn't get to write on Tuesday, here's a double-shot, double-wide, grande latte of a blog for this week, complete with visual aid.
So, with the world economy in a death-spiral and the upcoming election giving us palpitations, the Amazing Bob and I had absolutely no choice but to go to Paris this week to crash our friends' honeymoon. To be fair, our friends, Carolyn and Susan, actually invited us. (They were married in San Francisco, held a reception in the Blue Ridge Mountains, then headed to the City of Light to recuperate.) This is all the more reason for voters support gay marriage in California, by the way. More weddings=more parties. Free food. Flowing booze. Good for the spirit, good for the economy. Why these slogans aren't a part of the battle over Proposition 8 in California, I'll never understand...
But anyway, Paris is only a three-hour train ride away. To say, "we spent a couple of days in Paris" when you live in Geneva is like saying "We spent a couple of days in New York" when you live in Baltimore. And the parallels, in many ways, continue from there.
But alas, there was little respite from politics in Paris. The French are almost as obsessed with the American election as we are. All Europeans are. Ironically, they experience the daily effects our government far more palpably than we glassy-eyed Yanks do.
So far in the West, except for American troops and their families, it's been European civilians who've borne the literal scars of current U.S. foreign policy. The Spanish commuters on trains in Madrid, the Londoners aboard the buses and tubes that were bombed.. they've experienced more direct payback for Iraq than we have. When an American president decides to wage a war, much of the violence, Europeans know, will take place on their soil first.
Until recently, every building constructed here in neutral Switzerland was required to have a bomb shelter. Why? Because in the event of a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the Swiss figured that some of the missiles would inevitably fall short of their targets and land on Geneva and Zurich instead. (I shit thee not. Our apartment building, constructed ten years ago, has a bomb shelter. It now doubles as a storage locker for people's Christmas decorations and bicycles).
Similarly, people here in Geneva who do field work for the UN see the most intimate ways in which U.S. policies directly impact the world. Want to try saving the lives of women in Africa who routinely die of AIDS or in childbirth? Well, okay, but we'll give you funding only if you agree not to distribute condoms or discuss abortion...
And then, of course, there are the financial shock waves of the mortgage crisis flattening banks in every direction.
For a bunch of flag-wavers and chest-pumpers, we Americans are strangely oblivious to our own power and impact in the world. I've regularly heard my fellow citizens saying things like, "I don't see how our elections are anyone else's business," "All politicians are the same in the end," and "Politics really don't affect me." But you're not going to hear those sentiments here in Europe. Well, at least not about the American government, anyway.
During the French election in 2002 between Chirac and Le Penn, Bob and I listened to French citizens interviewed on tv bitch bitch bitch about how all French politicians are corrupt, and how none of them represent the 'real people,' and how they don't see how their vote makes a difference, etc. It was strangely comforting. We almost felt like we were back home.
But not now, not with the American elections. 95% of the French polled say they'd vote for Obama if they could (which, unfortunately, is probably the kiss of death for his campaign. Nothing like the French liking something to kill it back home...) Some towns even sport campaign posters for him. In a tony boutique in Paris, Bob and I saw a crystal etching of Obama with the world "HOPE" engraved on it for sale.
Europeans often resent Americans. They see us as the global teenagers we are, full of energy, creativity, optimism, and strength -- which they envy -- as well as arrogance, narcissism, aggression, and dangerous naivete, which they fear. But as insufferable as teenagers are, everyone wants them to be okay in the end, to grow up, to succeed, to shine. Because if not, what's the alternative? The death of our collective future, the death of our hope.
On some level, I believe, the Europeans want to see the American Dream survive, even as they begrudge us it, because again: what is the alternative, really? On some level, they're as besotted with our best visions and hopes as we are. They want to believe -- in spite of their cynicism.
For eight years, they've seen an American president who personifies everything Europeans themselves loath and have struggled to overcome: imperialism, a sense of divine right, thuggishness, unilateralism, religious fundamentalism, small-mindedness, parochialism. Bush and the Republicans' policies have diminished US standing across the globe and undone 60 years' worth of good will.
Obama, in the world's eyes, stands as a direct antidote to this: biracial, global, visionary, articulate, broad-minded, brilliant. He represents what other nations believe to be the best of America -- our promise that anyone can thrive here, that "only in America" is such audacious success possible. If Obama were elected, he would "rebrand" America over night. He would restore our country's image and become a living embodiment of our best, symbollic selves. This isn't me speaking. This is what I hear from Europeans.
But lest I've made it seem like everyone on this side of the pond is high-minded and Democratic-leaning, there is at least one person who's been stunningly, politically petty. French headlines this week have also been fixating on President Nicholas Sarkosy having a hissy-fit over a bunch of voodoo dolls that have been manufactured in his likeness. Buyers can stick pins in parts of him labeled "Travailler plus pour gagner plus" (work more to earn more) and "texto" (SMS messages), as well as other references to his recent policies, mini-scandals, foibles.
A politician with thicker skin and a broader sense of humor (dare I say an American, perhaps?) might have seized upon the dolls as a chance to make light of him- or herself and thus further endear himself to the public. Have the lyrics "That Voodoo that you do so well" playing in the background at every public appearance for the next few weeks or so, and just yuk it up. Embrace the humor, own your own silliness -- exploit it, even, for effect. See what a good sport you are? But no. The French might call Sarkosy "President Bling-Bling" because of his American-style political aspirations, but as far as this Yankee is concered, any president who isn't proud to have an action figure made for him -- albeit one with pins stuck in its head -- isn't really one of us after all.
In closing, I'll just add this: for three days, we celebrated Carolyn and Susan's wedding all over Paris. Whenever restaurant owners heard that our friends were honeymooning, they didn't bat an eye. They simply smiled and said enthusiastically, "Congratulations" and raised their glasses. Vive La France. Vive love everywhere.
Bestselling author of "Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress," "Kiss My Tiara," and "Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven." Her debut novel, "The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street" will be published in June 2014 by Grand Central Publishing-Hachette. You can also hear her commentary on NPR. Go to www.susanjanegilman.net for more info.