From Munich to Philadelphia with love
14 December 2020
One of my best friends in the U.S. has a son in Philadelphia. After it became clear that Philly voters were going to tip Pennsylvania for Biden, his son texted him these two words: “You’re welcome.”
His father knew precisely what his son was referring to, a reflection of how intensely Americans experienced this election, one like no other in living memory. Many Americans like me may live abroad, but we experienced it just as vividly from afar.
My election night story begins when my friend Ruth sends me a link to the local Süddeutsche Zeitung. “I’m in the news!” she bubbles. She and other expats had been interviewed about the upcoming election. I learn she would be part of a 40-plus chat group of American expats who were planning on chatting their way through election night together.
Expats following the election? A chat? Intriguing.
Could I join? Yes!
A microcosm of the U.S.
As I scroll down the members, the phone numbers reveal that almost all are in Germany, with one person in Switzerland and one in the UK. I am about to experience just how much energy, agony and enthusiasm is out there, flung across Europe. The group includes several committed women from DemocratsAbroad.org who have been actively engaged in getting Americans to exercise their right to vote back home – especially in this pivotal election year.
I join the chat.
“Welcome, Brenda!” texts someone named Ellen.
“Hi Ellen! Thanks!”
“Are there storks in Schrobenhausen?” she asks.
This might sound like an odd way to break the ice unless you have seen my whatsapp profile. Schrobenhausen is a small town in the Bavarian countryside, more famous for its asparagus than its storks. But asparagus pales next to storks (actually quite literally, since white asparagus is the preferred variety here).
The conversation moves to people’s states of origins.
“Where are you from?”
“Ohio. But I vote in Virginia.”
My friend Maureen joins the group. She quickly bonds with someone else from Michigan, also known as a “Michigander.” I may be from Ohio, but we’re just around the corner so I knew that much. Upon hearing she is a “downriver girl,” however, I realize my Michiganese is insufficient.
“What kind of munchies are good for election night?” asks Ruth. Her religion is food: all problems can be solved with the right kind. She chooses a theme with a blue wave– correction – tsunami – promising to send pictures of whatever she concocts.
Ruth is from Minnesota. Also represented in the chat group are Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Colorado, Maine, Oregon and many more. We’re a cornucopia of Americans who took all manner of paths which all led to Germany.
The countdown begins
Things start heating up as night falls and election results begin trickling in. A flood of texts, cartoons and videos rises up, sweeping us along on an emotional election-night ride. It pulls us relentlessly back and forth between hope and anguish, humor and solace, advice-seeking and advice-giving. It alternates between hard facts and “Did you see this funny video?” texts.
Who’s in the lead where? What is the trend? And what’s all this about a run-off in Georgia?
“Hey, here’s a good website for up-to-the minute results: decision desk.”
“Anyone know a tax guy who knows how to do American taxes?”
I never considered Halloween to be political, but that is so yesterday. A post appears with a jack-o-lantern showing Trump behind pumpkin bars – and I don’t mean the kind you eat.
Someone posts a picture of herself proudly wearing pearls in honor of RGB.
We have all cast absentee ballots, which in many states are counted last. Some states don’t allow them to be opened until election day, skewing the initial results in favor of in-person voters, who tend to be Republican. This is a big incentive to stay up late, and some pull all-nighters to follow the results.
“Did you hear? Dr. Sanjay Gupta spoke to CNN about the looming COVID-19-induced disaster in the U.S.”
A woman posts a picture of a friend’s cousin’s son dressed up as Dr. Fauci for Halloween.
I am relieved to see that some Americans see Fauci as a national hero. Our collective confidence in the sanity of the U.S. is once again buoyed up.
Someone posts a U.S. coloring map for kids as a way to get children involved and occupied during this important election night. If only it were as easy as picking up a blue or red crayon.
“I’m having a back-and-forth with high school friends regarding Trump’s accusation regarding unsolicited ballots,” someone texts. “They clarified it for me.“
So goes the banter. For hours.
It’s hard to describe the lifeline that this chat group provides. Most of us have been abroad for decades. Some came on a junior year abroad, a year that stretched into a lifetime. Others came for work and stayed on. Still others followed their sweethearts and wound up staying, myself included. A few started out by taking a European vacation, a vacation that turned into a new life.
But we all share one thing: We are all still Americans at heart. You cannot change your roots. By virtue of being a member of the chat group we can demonstrate our love for our country. Unabashed and unapologetic. This is hard to describe to people who have never lived beyond their home borders. If you love your country, why did you leave? And why don’t you go back? But countries are not like marriages (unless they’re polyamorous). You can love more than one and still talk about it freely in society. There’s plenty of room for two or more.
At this time of such a pivotal national election, I keenly feel the distance between myself and my homeland and so do the others. We all like living here, but just now, at this particular moment, we are straining to be a part of what’s going on all the way on the other side of the Atlantic.
The easy banter reminds us all of who we are. We can make language jokes easily, poke fun at ourselves, be proud of being from Nevada, Vermont, Florida or Virginia rather than just “from the U.S.” The others know exactly where those states are and what distinguishes them. We’re all home away from home and the bond is strong.
I don’t have to explain that Ohio has no cowboys and never did (the “O” conjures up visions of Oklahoma). And no, the country is not empty in between California and New York (incidentally exactly the part of the country I come from). It’s a relief not to have to field a barrage of questions about the bizarre political situation back home, something that Germans are very well informed about. Everyone else in the chat has faced these same questions and agonized over this same topic.
As a foreigner, you automatically become an Official Representative of the U.S.A. It’s an undetectable transformation at the border that cannot be prevented. This role gets foisted upon you as a matter of course upon leaving the country, like it or not. Because of this, we’ve all done the soul-searching and are in the same political boat. Each one of us is desperate for our country to succeed and feels the pang of the distance and the powerlessness that goes with it. We can’t demonstrate on the streets of Washington, so we shout, laugh, rant and rave in the chat instead.
The pride that we feel about country has been frayed over the past years as the U.S. has slid in a direction that makes it less and less familiar to the one we left behind.
Back in the chat, someone bemoans her sister back home who she suspects voted for Trump. Others quickly chime in.
“My brother, too!”
“So did my Dad!”
“We just don’t talk politics in our family. It gets us nowhere.”
“Thank God my parents aren’t around to see what has happened to the Republican party!”
That last one was me. My parents were members of the Republican Party – the old one. They would surely not recognize its current state.
For this and the next three nights, I continually bolt awake to consult my smartphone.
Any news? Anything happen? Has Arizona, Georgia or Pennsylvania been called? No? OK, then back to sleep. Right.
But what if, just what if the trend reverses, and…no, no, don’t go there! It’s looking good, and there’s nothing you can do about it now. You voted and that’s it. Go back to sleep.
Three hours pass. Wake up. Panic slightly. Repeat. Go back to sleep. At least try.
Ruth posts a picture of her blue shortbread tsunami, which has turned out to be more like a gentle green wave lapping at electoral shores. She created it to explain to her German colleagues how the U.S. electoral college works, a topic which has temporarily eclipsed news of the pandemic here.
Waiting, waiting, waiting
The days and nights grow increasingly excruciating. Our nerves are frazzled. What is happening? Is there something going on behind the scenes to jerry rig the ballot counting? We were all warned about the length of time it would take for the election to be called. But nobody wanted to believe it.
Just like Veruca Salt in her demand for an Oompa-Loompa in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: We want a change in the White House and we want it now!
“My home state of Minnesota once again has the highest voter turnout!” says someone.
“Why is that?”
“Because it’s…Minnesota! We’re always highest!”
We all so desperately want the U.S. to vote in a president who will make the country normal again. For those of us who have been abroad for 10 years or more, the U.S. has drifted away from the country we knew. And the one we knew was better. The thrill of Obama’s presidency turned out to be a bit like a high, followed by a hangover that was unexpectedly severe and lengthy. How did that happen?
Joe Biden may not be the freshest face in the Democratic Party, but it’s like finding a bridge to take shelter under during a tornado. Or more like one of those multi-twister storms that obliterates everything in its path. The bridge is not exactly a warm cozy fireplace, but we’ll survive. We just have to hang on until the battering ends.
On Saturday, the vote is finally called. It’s as if my child had a fever and finally recovered.
He won! He won! HE WON!
My phone turns into a fireworks display, lighting up with whooping, shouting, and hooraying.
We can hardly fathom the news. Our worst nightmares have turned out to be just that – scary visions that disappear in the morning. Change is on its way!
Ruth chooses the food of the hour – Philadelphia steaks – and issues an invitation to an impromptu outdoor corona-style get-together. A handful of us meet the next day at the bus stop across from her apartment. The guard at the nearby building doesn’t quite know what to make of us standing in the cold, plates balanced on an electricity box, happily munching away.
We whoop and shout out “Joe Biden!!” at unsuspecting passersby. When it hits them who we are and why we’re shouting, they break out into smiles and some even applaud. We weren’t the only ones who breathed a huge sigh of relief when the final result came in. The whole of Germany did, too.
Sharing Philadelphia steaks with a homeless man
One woman strides straight up to the group, plants herself in front of us, puts her hands on her hips and exclaims:
“Thank God that’s over!”
Our sentiments exactly.