Thursday, February 9, 2017

On the New Conversations in Europe, Accompanied by a Description of the Ugliest of Ugly Americans

From 2005 to 2008, when I was living in Central and Eastern Europe, I found most political discussions irritating. I rarely started them. Usually, they would involve an Australian, Canadian, or Western European, whose justified hatred for the Bush administration would serve as the basis for a worldview which defined his or her own moral superiority. They would talk about obnoxious American tourists, while conveniently ignoring the p***y-grabbing British and Scandanavian budget-air weekenders who made life miserable for locals from Tallinn to Prague. The Germans were the worst. They loved asking me how it felt to live under a fascist dictatorship, let me know that 9/11 was an inside job, and warned me about Dick Cheney's plans to suspend the 2008 presidential election. The subtext was usually something along the lines of "We may have a history gassing Jewish babies, but you're not much better. YYYYaaayyyy!!!!" I have no defense for the 2006 bombing of Lebanon, but their condemnation of Israel's behavior had a tinge of "You see, the Jews do it too." My unspoken reply was always "well, congratu-fucking-lations. Enjoy your slightly cooler place in hell."

I was looking forward to this trip, but I was worried that my conversations would involve a sequel to those old pseudo-debates. No. In the time I've been here, the name Trump is accompanied with dread and despair. The Croats have their own ascendent neo-nationalist movement. Its leaders are taking their cue from our neo-Nazi fuckers, and a few see Franjo Tuđman as a wishy-washy centrist. People here are complaining about the Serbs and the Jews more loudly than they used to and they're telling more and uglier jokes about black and Asian people, even though the country has very few black and Asian people. Just about everyone I know here is a liberal and all of them are terrified about where their country, which was involved in two genocidal wars within living memory, is headed. The well-educated, Murakami-reading, arthouse-film loving liberals here share the same bubble with their counterparts in the States. Many of them have sweet Titoist, Yugonostalgic grandparents. They tend not to hang out with "those people." Now that a real, brandy-distilled fascist has become president of the United States, there's no safe quarter.  

The conversations are more intelligent, but I miss the mid-2000s.


Of all the Americans who travel abroad, there's one type that I hate the most. I call him the Steven Seagal American, named for the C-list actor who admires Vladimir Putin. This is the American who shows up in X Country. He meets some locals and they're awesome, friendly guys. And he goes drinking with them and he's having more fun drinking with these guys than he's ever had drinking back home in the States. And these guys take him out to the country and they show him some awesome parts of their culture and things he's never seen or heard of before. They play great music for him. Cook him good food. And they talk politics. And all of the sudden this American, who has never bothered to open a history book, now knows the REAL story of X Country. He knows that X Country has for hundreds of years lived under the domination of Y Country. He knows that X Country has done some not great things in its past, and maybe made mistakes when it went to war with tiny, neighboring Z Country, but you know, the media back in the States doesn't know the whole story. It definitely doesn't know about certain important aspects of international law, let alone the important battle of [year he can't really remember] that explains all territorial rights in Z Country. Often this American can't get a job back in the States, because of the usual suspects (cough cough black people coug cough Mexicans cough cough) and, you know it's amazing that they have the same problems here in X Country except with other usual suspects (cough cough Gypsies cough cough Jews cough cough citizens of Z Country cough cough). Oh, and all the racism he hears in X Country isn't really racism. I mean, you have to understand the culture.

I've learned to smell these particular Americans from a mile away and when they approach me I walk away.

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