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Americans abroad congratulated, not targeted

She was a stranger, and she kissed me. Just for being an American.

It happened on the bus on my way to work Wednesday, a few hours after compatriots clamoring for change swept Barack Obama to his historic victory. I was on the phone, and the 20-something Austrian woman seated in front of me overheard me speaking English.

Without a word, she turned, pecked me on the cheek and stepped off at the next stop.

Nothing was said, but the message was clear: Today, we are all Americans.

For longtime U.S. expatriates like me – someone more accustomed to being targeted over unpopular policies, for having my very Americanness publicly assailed – it feels like an extraordinary turnabout.

And it's not just me.

An American colleague in Egypt says several people came up to her on the streets of Cairo and said: “America, hooray!” Others, including strangers, expressed congratulations with a smile and a hand over their hearts.

Another colleague, in Amman, says Jordanians stopped her on the street and that several women described how they wept with joy.

When you're an American abroad, you can quickly become a whipping post. Regardless of your political affiliation, if you happen to be living and working overseas at a time when the United States has antagonized much of the world, you get a lot of grief.

You can find yourself pressed to be some kind of apologist for Washington. And you can wind up feeling ashamed and alone.

I'll never forget a ride in a taxi in Vienna when the world was waking up to the abuses wrought by U.S. troops at the detention center for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay.

My driver, a Muslim, was indignant. “You are American, yes?” he asked in that accusatory tone familiar to expats.

“Uh, no, Canadian,” I said.

And it wasn't the first time I fudged where I was from. I speak three foreign languages, so I have a bit of flexibility when it comes to faking. At various times, I've been a German in Serbia, a Frenchman in Turkey, a Dutchman in Austria.

I'm not proud of it. But when you're far from home, and you're feeling cornered, you develop what you come to believe are survival skills.

Last spring, after the Bush administration recognized Kosovo's independence, a Serb who overheard my American-accented English lobbed a beer can at me in central Vienna.

That's what made Wednesday's unsolicited kiss so remarkable.

I don't want to read too much into an innocent smooch, but it didn't feel particularly pro-Obama, even though the new U.S. president-elect enjoys broad support here. No, it seemed to impart two sentiments I haven't felt for a long time: friendship and admiration.

Obama captured it in his acceptance speech – this sense that despite holding America's feet to the fire, the rest of the world is rooting for it and wants it to lead and succeed.

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