A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Travelogues don’t typically interest me. I cringe when I ask someone (just to be polite), “How was your trip?” and they give a blow-by-blow of the sights, activities, and food. I don’t enjoy looking at the dozens of photos returning vacationers scroll through on their phones, as most scenes I could better appreciate in National Geographic.
So, imagine my surprise when on a recent vacation in Canada, I pulled out my journal and started chronicling my trip. And now, I feel compelled to share it even though you haven’t asked how my vacation was. I do this without encouragement because it sheds light on how Americans may be perceived by people in other countries.
My trip got off to a sober start. The woman next to me on the plane was headed to Appalachia to help improve housing conditions. “The poor are getting poorer,” she said. “And they have no idea how directly their lives are being affected by our national political landscape.” A grief counselor, she described the linkage between fear and rage, explaining that America is a rageful nation because of the politics of fear. That dangerous combination makes foreigners afraid to visit, she said, as evidenced by an international conference on death and dying, originally scheduled for Minnesota, being moved across the border to Canada because professionals from around the world didn’t feel safe coming to the U.S.
Apparently, visiting the United States is scarier than death and dying. Sheesh. A reminder that Rome is burning.
“Enjoy your visit in Canada,” the handsome Trudeau-esque customs agent sang out as he handed back my passport. I continued to stand in front of him, despite the long line behind me. “Thank you,” I stammered. “No matter what our president says, we still love you.”
“We still love you, too,” he replied with a grin.
“How was your trip?” the shuttle driver, a middle-aged man from India, inquired in perfect British-English.
“Great,” my companion responded. “It feels good to be back in a democracy.” And it did. I can’t explain it, but I felt less tension, less anxiety. I didn’t worry for the safety of men wearing turbans and dark-skinned children. I saw a rainbow flag on an investment firm’s building.
Our driver was cautious at first, not wanting to offend. Then he offered, “I don’t understand why your country’s picking fights with your neighbors. You’re lucky – you have good neighbors on this continent. You have peaceful borders, unlike where I came from. Why is Trump creating problems?”
We didn’t want to throw our country under the bus on foreign soil (only the president can do that without reprisal, apparently), so we sheepishly replied that we couldn’t justify his actions. We felt the shame and the truth of what our driver had said. Why is Trump alienating our allies? Perhaps a question best answered by the Special Counsel.
In the Rocky Mountain National Park, we took a bus tour to a Canadian town where you can only live if you work there, due to the environmentally-sensitive location. As the driver explained the logic, an American woman spewed, “Well, that would certainly take care of the immigrant problem!” Clearly more concerned about immigration than the environment, although the latter presents the threat.
“Really? What immigrant problem, exactly?” I asked from across the aisle, my eyes bugging out of my head.
A few miles down the road, an RV was illegally parked in a spot designated for tour buses, so our driver couldn’t park close to our stop. “Want me to tell him to move? He’ll be sorry he parked there,” another “helpful” American volunteered.
“No, thank you,” the driver responded. “I’ll just park over here and ask him to move. We try to be polite in Canada.”
His barb was well-placed. It seemed the Ugly American has been replaced by the Mean American. While we’ve often been accused of being ignorant of other cultures, traditions, and languages, I don’t believe we were considered mean, although continued ignorance of other cultures would justify such an accusation.
As we were leaving the parking lot, an Asian woman casually crossed in front of our bus. The same passenger who wanted to take on the RV driver spat, “She didn’t even look when she crossed – you should’ve run her over.”
“I didn’t realize I had a bunch of American road-ragers on my bus. That woman had a baby in her arms,” the driver chided, letting his justifiable disgust bleed through.
“Why don’t we try to be nice Americans?” I feebly suggested.
“I haven’t seen many Canadian flags,” someone declared. “Everyone flies a flag in America.”
“Yes, I was surprised by the number of flags I saw in the States — on private property and even on vehicles,” the driver responded. “I guess we don’t feel the need to do that here.”
Fortunately, nationalism hasn’t taken hold in this democracy. In that moment,I longed to be Canadian.
Canada has more money to spend on infrastructure because they’re not handcuffed to the military-industrial complex. We saw high speed rail and bike paths, complete streets. There were fences along both sides of the Trans-Canada Highway to protect wildlife from cars and vice versa. There were grassy overpasses and underpasses to help wildlife cross the road without danger. Another travel companion told me he’s been working on creating one in southern California as a corridor connecting mountain ranges for cougars because they’re currently landlocked, leading to inbreeding and poor health. A coalition of environmental groups is raising private funds to buy land, with no financial support from the government. But they still face opposition from those who don’t value the ailing species. “I don’t think it’ll happen in my lifetime,” he lamented.
We stopped at a tourist center where orange t-shirts were on sale, causing me to comment to the clerk that it’s the color adopted by American students to protest school shootings. The young woman with multiple piercings and purple hair walked away without responding. When she returned, she pointedly said, “Your NRA thinks the answer to gun violence is more guns. How does that make sense? I’d worry about sending a child of mine to a school in the States.”
Afraid to send a child to school in America. Because of my NRA.
“There’s a lot of us who agree with you,” I said, feeling the responsibility of ambassadorship. Does she think we’ve all gone crazy?
Back on the bus, the driver explained that indigenous people in Canada are called the First Nation, respecting that they were here before Europeans. Although that nomenclature is somewhat controversial because nation doesn’t reflect the natives’ cultural structure, it does validate their pre-eminence. “People should be called what they want to be called,” he declared. “They are decidedly not Indians.”
I wondered if he was trying to model cultural sensitivity.
The bus tour ended in a small town. A gift shop offered neckties of a smiling Canadian prime minister and a screaming U.S. president. (I apologize, but please scroll to the photos I took with my phone.) They also prominently featured Donald Trump toilet paper in the window, which I’ve also seen in the States. The clerk told me it was a brand-new item and quite popular. I understood but felt a little defensive, my own innate sense of nationalism kicking in.
That evening, we watched the BBC, known for its objective reporting of world events. Yet, every time the anchor said our president’s name, it was accompanied by a subtle sneer. I believe it was involuntary, instinctual. Because mine is.
Returning to the airport one week later, we shared a shuttle with another couple. As they exited, they told us to have a good trip. A tear rolled down my face as I wondered how this Middle Eastern couple would have been treated in my country. I heard myself admit to my companion that I wasn’t sure I wanted to return to the United States, to my homeland, the only place I’ve ever lived. Because it doesn’t feel like my country anymore. I recalled a neighbor telling me she bought a house in Mexico and keeps her passport in her car in case she needs to escape. An American who lives in Canada sent me a map of how to sneak into the country in case the borders are suddenly closed. He provided the name and phone number of someone who’d help me across should the Underground Railroad need to be resurrected.
We saw children sleeping in the airport. I was jarred because they resembled immigrant children in the U.S. separated from their parents. But these kids were safe – they were in Canada, with their parents nearby, awaiting their flights. If I’m traumatized by the photographs I’d seen, I can only imagine the trauma of those separated children and parents.
The American customs agent didn’t make eye contact when asking the requisite questions about my time in Canada. I wanted to tell her how I felt about returning, why I was grieving America. But I was afraid. Afraid of detention or some other punishment for dissidents. I’m not convinced it won’t come to that.
Two days after arriving home to New York State, I learned that a friend is being targeted by a white supremacist. With a Confederate flag on the back of his pick-up, he drives past her home shouting “Nigger” while raising his middle finger. This truck shows up outside the senior citizen center where her 87-year-old mother attends classes, a woman who’d witnessed lynchings in the segregated Deep South in the 1940s. The police say nothing can be done – his actions are not a crime.
From Ugly Americans to Mean Americans. Perhaps we always have been, and the thin veneer has been stripped away because our president has modeled cruelty toward children, women, gays, the disabled, journalists, minorities, immigrants, and Moslems. Our president has modeled cruelty toward the world. Perhaps his face does belong on toilet paper; he’s shitting all over everyone.
If home is where the heart is, America no longer feels like home.
Patricia A. Nugent is the author of They Live On: Saying Goodbye to Mom and Dad and the editor of the anthology Before They Were Our Mothers: Voice of Women Before Rosie Started Riveting. Her blog can be found at www.journalartspress.com.
(photo: Patricia A. Nugent)