We were about midway through a horseback-riding, wine-tasting tour through the hills of Tuscany when I decided it was as good a time as any to address the elephant in the nine-person Mercedes van: What do people outside the United States think of our new president?
The answer was laughter. But not the congratulatory type, as if to say “Excellent choice, America,” or a derisive “Good job electing an orange clown” guffaw. I’d say it was more a nervous chuckle.
“We really couldn’t believe it,” a woman from Finland said. “It was the last thing we expected.”
That makes two of us.
Last year – in the height of our election season – I took a wine-and-tapas crawl through Madrid. By the third pub, with tongues loose from excellent Spanish wine, two couples from Australia and I began talking. One of the men is a lawyer, and we talked some about the similarities and differences in our systems of justice.
The chat eventually turned to America’s obsession with guns, and the tragedies they cause. My new lawyer friend noted that a mass shooting years ago in his home country prompted a complete ban on guns, and asked why on earth U.S. politicians didn’t do the same especially in the wake of so many dead children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Little did we know that the United States would be rocked again just days later by the deadliest mass shooting in our nation’s history to date, at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
I didn’t have an answer for him. I still don’t.
By the final stop in our wine-bar tour, the talk had turned to politics and the presidential race. Then-candidate Donald Trump had just clinched presumptive-nominee status for the GOP.
“Do you think he’ll win?” the lawyer’s wife asked.
“Heck no,” I replied with the typical confidence of an American tourist. “He’s a joke. I don’t even think he takes himself – or this race – seriously.”
The tour ended with me promising my new Australian friends that Americans would never be so silly as to make Donald Trump leader of the free world.
Fast-forward a year, and I found myself in Europe again – and apologizing for the election everywhere I went. I felt compelled to do so because the shift in Europeans’ attitudes toward Americans is palpable.
During a tour of the United Nations’ office in Geneva, Switzerland, I asked the tour guide if the multinational relief agency headquartered in New York had contingency plans should the United States decide to pull out of the U.N., as Trump has done by executive decree from the Paris climate agreement.
“Why would the U.S. do that?” the guide asked, wide-eyed. Perhaps she’d forgotten that in April – at a meeting with ambassadors to the United Nations Security Council – Trump dissed the agency as “an underperformer” and has tweeted that the U.N. is “a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time.”
Because, you know, global peacekeeping in a world of despots and the Islamic State – and feeding starving people – is a rip-roaring good time.
On a high-speed train through Italy, with vineyards and crumbling fortresses a blur in the window, I remarked to my traveling companion that I’d started longing for the George W. Bush days – a period in our recent national history that was an embarrassment at the time but now seems positively halcyon compared to the last eight months. An outspoken critic of Bush when we first met eight years ago, my companion unequivocally agreed.
Our stock in the world’s eyes has plunged to record lows since the November election, and it’s unmistakable beyond our borders. In previous annual trips to Europe, the people I met were warm and welcoming. This time, while still civil and courteous, I felt like just another tourist. A customer in a long line of other customers from across the globe.
To them, we’re now just a collective people who – for reasons I still can’t wrap my head around all these months later – voted for a man who once threatened to pull out of NATO, a move that would leave our longtime allies in Europe twisting in the wind like ripe fruit for his buddy Putin’s plucking. That he’s since walked back that threat means nothing to Europeans. You can’t erase a threat like that with a “just joking” tweet.
As the Tuscan tour came to an end and we parted ways, I called out to my new Finnish friend from across a busy Florentine intersection: “We’re sorry about Trump.”
She and her husband smiled and waved. “It’s OK. Good luck,” she yelled over the din of traffic.
I suspect we’re all going to need it.