Watching history unfold from afar

(I started writing this the day after the election and then one thing led to another … it finally feels right to finish now.)

The day after the election. Walking out the door of our apartment, I hear the downstairs neighbor talking with his daughter. She is maybe three.

(in German)

(child’s voice): “…und, Obama??”

(dad’s voice): “Ja, he won. Obama won.”

(child): “Yah, yah, Obama!! Obama won!”

(door closes, sounds of childish celebration continue to come muted into the hall)

To overhear my German downstairs neighbors have that conversation with their toddler gave me pause. A child that age is of course only echoing the interests and sentiments of her parents. But still. Her parents obviously cared about it so much and spoke about it so often that she picked up on it.

That morning after, I had at least seven German colleagues come to congratulate me on the outcome of the election. Most of them had stayed up late and gotten up early to follow the results. One got up three times during the night to check.

I spent election night at Amerika Haus, a house meant to serve as a cultural ambassador for my country in this one. It’s been owned and funded paid by the Canadians for about 20 years, ever since the US decided such things were not important. Canada, our super polite neighbor, then stepped in and graciously took over promoting us.

The election party was by invitation only. When we got there the line snaked around the block.  Entering the building we cast mock ballots and were offered campaign buttons. Looking into the basket, the guy at reception grinned, shrugged and admitted that only McCain ones were left. Several people around us improvised and pinned them on. Upside down.

Inside was rock concert packed. To move about the room meant weaving and shouldering your way past people sardined up against one another. Oliver, being taller, located the bar and navigated us into the slow moving stream of people headed in that direction. Other than a handful of faces, and a few words caught here and there, it was clear that the overwhelming majority was German.

We listened with half an ear to the speeches from the US consul and other local diplomats – all of whom had likely been placed there by Bush and were doubtlessly aware of the fact that the election would influence their job security. Most of the audience put on polite bi-partisan faces, but when they read the mock election results it was clear which way the crowd leaned:

785 Obama
53 McCain

Sponsors for the evening were Maker’s Mark and KFC. In addition to whiskey and fried chicken, hotdogs, chili and beer rounded out the refreshments. Was this what they considered to be typical American food? It was surely naively unintentional, but I couldn’t help drawing a mental connection to a few choice stereotypes that one could claim this to be a nod towards, and I was reminded of the fact that this election wasn’t just about a change in political parties. For it to go to Obama it would require a demonstrated change in mindset. A historically significant culture change.

I under-estimated you America. I honestly did not think you had it in you yet.

When Hilary Clinton started making noises about running I was quick to say that I was doubtful America was ready for a woman as president. I said the same when a black man joined the race. Regardless of what I may have wanted personally, I did not think that we were far enough along for that.

I left the country after a privileged white man had arguably stolen the election. The old boys’ club seemed firmly in place.

Waking up early the next morning and seeing the election numbers was an amazing feeling. People’s reactions around me here were really remarkable. If the majority of America was euphoric and even tearfully joyful that day, the Europeans around me were even more so. A lot of people abroad wrote in the following days that they were feeling proud to be Americans. For many, it was the first time in a long time. I felt some of that too. It’s a major step, but I feel cautious about feeling too proud. It’s one thing to vote a person into office, it’s another to stick behind him and knuckle down to change what needs changing and get through what can’t be helped. I’m hopeful that this is all a sign that America is growing up and getting past its narrow mindsets and selfcentered arrogance that’s gotten it nowhere in the last few decades. It’s a wonderful feeling to not have to defend my country for once, but instead accept congratulations and watch people get visibly excited about the next fours years.


A few months later, I’m sitting in my apartment watching the events unfold on CNN. It keeps hitting me anew what this means, what it meant to get here, what it could mean in the coming years, that this man is president. Voted in, fair and square, the country solidly behind him. I’m humbled and deeply impressed.

And (cautiously) hopeful.


One response to “Watching history unfold from afar

  1. Watching both events from thousands of miles away was definitely interesting.

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