We are home from a birthday tour of Madrid and Toledo. The photos include many sunny spring memories of food, escapades and ruins, including a 1st-century Roman bath now visible under the transparent floor of a clothing boutique: shopping as an exercise in steady nerves. We thoroughly searched the entire Prado museum, a lifelong goal – every single room, every single piece – which was everything I ever dreamed it could be, and more, but I will save that for another post.
That was the beautiful part of our trip, and we had a great time, but there was more that was not so good. The political winds are full of dread, and you can’t miss it.
It should not have been a surprise, but it was: Travel in Europe is now very different for Americans than it was even just a few short weeks ago, even for those of us who live here.
There are many new security measures that do not make exception for us because of our nationality – rather, quite the opposite.
But the most different and hardest part is the shame which we feel. It’s as though all the gilding and lauding gratitude which the Second World War earned us Americans in Europe, the happy bonus which my generation has skated on without even realizing it for all these decades, is not just gone, but replaced with dread and suspicion.
We are the bad guys now. I have never felt that before. I have never stood in a long line in a foreign nation, holding my little blue book and wearing my best hikers, and felt the eyes of others trained on me in blatant suspicion because of the country I come from.
To be sure no one addressed us directly. And that was the problem, what was so unusual, what we were not used to in Spain (or Italy, or Germany, or at home in France): No one said a thing. No one joked with us or smiled. No one asked about the future or what we knew. No one said anything about it. They just scanned the passports each time, asked for our documents, and returned them with no expression, stone-faced and impassive. Gone are the days when that passport elicited a big grin and a question about our next destination, leading the glamorous and privileged American life envied by the whole world. Nowadays we are under suspicion, a country of crazy people doing dangerous things, not just to ourselves, but to the whole world.
The loudspeakers at the airport said (with no translation to English), “All non-EU citizens, expressly including all Americans, must present to xxxx and xxxx for special stamps before travel, due to changing security regulations…” That means no barcode check-ins by cell phones anymore, but all-paper, with all the correct hand-administered ink stamps, and those only after a personal interview – just to get onto what amounts to a domestic flight. It happened at checkin, and again at the gates, and again at the other end of the flights once landed.
Trust is gone, or rather let’s say our tacit privilege has been forfeited, no more benefit of the doubt. No more cutting to the front of the line. We are cast in with the rest of the global rabble. That is in large part, we figure, because the US is doing worse to them when traveling abroad.
At first I thought I was imagining it, until M said out loud, closing a hotel room door firmly behind us in Madrid, as though it were a safety lock against the outside world: “I have never in my life been ashamed of my American passport. I don’t know if I can do this, now.”
So this trip was different, and I think that it always will be, from now on.
In class back in France first thing this morning, a woman interrupted the lesson to ask me, “Does your new President speak normal English? Because when I try to translate it, I am horrified by what he seems to be saying.”
I confirmed that yes, he speaks a type of colloquial New York English common to gangster films and sitcoms – maybe not formal but very much authentic – and yes, we are horrified, too.