It’s been a week since I woke up in Bulgaria (for no real reason) to the news of a new president-elect back home. During this week, I’ve had lots of dinners with Italians – not because of the election but because in Italy, there are almost always lots of dinners to be had – so I’ve heard a lot of Italian opinions about the election.

The headline in the Italian Huffington Post last Wednesday morning was, “Apocalypto.”

Despite the headline, I haven’t talked to many Italians who think this is the apocalypse. Most of them do think it’s a really stupid choice we’ve made. And a lot of them joke about it, but the most common sentiment I’ve heard is this: We didn’t expect this from America.

People here are used to putting up with their own joker politicians, but they know that Italy’s international power pales in comparison to the United States’, and we are way too powerful to make a decision this brash.

Here in Italy, Trump looks like another Berlusconi, the conservative super-wealthy business man who owns lots of media outlets and who spoke to the common people and got elected prime minister, despite being notoriously corrupt and known for partying with prostitutes who should still be in high school. Everyone has been pointing out the similarities to me, not just since the election, but since I arrived in Italy in September. There is even a trumpusconi.com. (From the about page: “This website started as kind of a joke. It is less funny every week.”)

Another comment I’ve heard a lot of is, “Don’t worry, it’s only four years. Or eight.” But not 20.

After all, Italians dealt with Berlusconi for almost 20 years before he was finally brought down a notch – just like Al Capone – for not paying his taxes. But he’s still around, 80 years old and leading a major political party after doing his assigned community service time.

My boyfriend and I were in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, when we woke up last Wednesday. We read the news, looked out the window to see if the world had ended, and drug ourselves out of our crappy hostel and onto the gray, rainy, even-more-graffitti-covered-than-Milan streets of Sofia. It wasn’t a very fair introduction to this country neither of us had visited before. 

Bulgaria, it’s not your fault we didn’t fall in love with you. ©KettiWilhelm2016

We found a corner cafe that smelled like fresh bread. The waitress asked us where we were from. “Oh, Italy?” She said, “That’s nice.” Smiling at Lele, my boyfriend.

“And I’m from America,” I added sheepishly. (Why did I say that? I always say “the United States,” because, as everyone in Latin America knows, “America” is actually two continents, not just one country. I think I wanted the moment to be over faster.)

She looked surprised in a blank, nearly expressionless way. And then she said absolutely nothing, finished setting our table, and walked away.

To Bulgarians, Trump probably looks like their own anti-immigration, pro-Russia president-elect. Based on her evil-eye, I doubt our waitress voted for the Bulgarian Trump.

And so it began. I fear I will soon understand how lots of older-than-me travelers have told me they felt during the Bush years: Embarrassed to be an American abroad.

When I was in Guatemala in 2010, people’s responses to me telling them I’m from the US were usually like this: “America? Obama!” Accompanied by a thumbs up or a big smile. The same thing has happened in maybe a dozen countries I’ve been to since then. I’ve concluded two things:

  1. Everyone loves when we elect intelligent, thoughtful, inoffensive leaders.  And,                                                                          
  2. Electing a leader for the United States and saying, “This only affects us,” is like farting in a crowded elevator and saying, “The only thing that’s changed is that I’m more comfortable now.” And then following it by the indignant, “Hey, why do these people hate me? Oh, it must be because they’re Muslim, or communist, or don’t like freedom, or it’s just part of their culture to be hateful.”


Found in a park in Sofia. ©KettiWilhelm2016
Found in a park in Sofia. ©KettiWilhelm2016

We don’t have the luxury of electing bad leaders and being left alone about it. I know this because I live in one of those places that is not in the US, and people here care.

People I meet abroad have been asking me about the election since last summer – meaning the summer of 2015. Can I vote from here? Who will I vote for? Do I think Trump will win? Questions from travelers in hostels, my boyfriend’s aunts and friends, the bartender at the café where I go for an espresso every morning, even the security screener at the airport in Milan when we were flying to Bulgaria on Election Day. I walked through the metal detector with my passport in hand and he took it from me, looked at it only long enough to be reasonably sure it wasn’t a bomb, then looked up into my eyes and asked very slowly and with great concern, “You don’t vote today?”

Everyone asks.

I don’t tell people to mind their own business, because US policy is everyone’s business, whether we like it or not. It’s a fact I used to deny, because I don’t like the history of imperialism and interventionism on which it is based, but the US is a superpower in both good and bad ways: We invade countries. We export movies, books, music, ideas, products and other pop-culture consumed all around the world. We create policies on trade and migration that affect everyone.

And when a superpower elects a leader who shows no respect for human (read: black, women’s, gay, immigrant) rights, we give countries like Syria, permission to not care about human rights either.

When we elect a leader who doesn’t pay his taxes, we tell countries like Italy, with its notoriously mafia-inbred, tax-evading politicians, “Yeah, we don’t think integrity is important either.”

When we elect a leader who doesn’t want to fight climate change, we tell countries like China, “Yeah, we don’t really care about pollution either.”

And to top it all off, we’ve elected someone who blatantly says that my right to not be freaking touched if I don’t want to be is less important than a man’s. I don’t think I know many men back in the States who actually agree with that, but yes, I have encountered a few of them, as a fellow Montana writer friend describes so well.

Our problem now is that whether that slimy view of masculinity represents the majority of US men simply doesn’t matter abroad. What matters abroad is we just told Saudi Arabia, “Yeah, we don’t think women deserve much respect either.”

Sure, not every country is going to follow the worst of our example, but we’re no longer giving them any reason not to.

Just some street in Sofia. ©KettiWilhelm2016
A street in Sofia. ©KettiWilhelm2016

So I don’t tell people to mind their own business when they comment on US politics, because our politics are everyone’s business.

What I do tell people is that more of us voted for Clinton than for Trump. Because I’d rather people think we’re ridiculous for having an antiquated system for electing the president than think my people are all a bunch of neo-Nazis, like some of Trumps loudest supporters, while I live in Europe, where actual Nazism started.

(Trump acts like disavowing endorsements from these people puts him in the clear. But his endorsements are a reflection of his philosophy, whether he disavows them or not. So doing things neo-Nazis like and then saying you don’t want neo-Nazis to like you is not disavowing, it’s bullshitting.)

Even though I understand some NON-Nazi reasons why some people wanted change this election, the rest of the world doesn’t care.

Still, I am continually surprised by how many people I meet in Italy who tell me they would love to go to America – to live, to work, or just to see it – and by how many people tell me not to worry, it’ll all be okay. From what I’ve heard, people here seem to have a calm perspective that tells me, “We will all get through this, whatever this is,” even when people at home seem to be losing their minds, for one reason or another.

So I’m going to try to stay calm over here as well. I’m going to pay attention to politics and read news written by real journalists, editors and fact-checkers. And I’m going to continue to be like the majority of Americans: Not a Nazi, a sexist, an extremist, or a xenophobe or bigot of any sort. And, as SNL reminded me, I won’t give up.

The rain finally let up in Sofia, if only briefly. I'm pretty sure this photo is by Lele.
A rainy day in Sofia, Bulgaria. This photo is definitely by Lele.
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2 Comment

  1. Lois Wagner says: Reply

    Hi Ketti,
    Just read your blog for the first time and you are an amazing writer and photographer. As I prepare to set off on my around the world trip I look forward to reading and following your blog. I too find myself embarrassed by our country at this time and wonder how that will affect my reactions as I meet new people in other parts of the world. It still does not seem real to me. I keep hoping I will wake up and it will have been a bad dream. May we continue ways to promote love, justice and peace in our lives and our world. Keep up the good work! We need it. I look forward to following your blog. I’ll send you mine in an email.

    1. Ketti says: Reply

      Hi Lois,
      Thank you! Please do send me your your blog, I’d love to read it. Enjoy your travels!
      – Ketti

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