Traveling around the world for over 30 years, I've felt the reputation of our country shift back and forth. During the Vietnam War, doing graduate work in London, I had to fend off in-my-face anti-American arguments and insults even though I was young and against our involvement. I just tried to Zen-out as the vocal Brits vented away.
Later, through the Clinton era, I basked in the glow of the "specialness" of being from the US. And almost anywhere I went, if I mentioned that I lived in New York City, waiters would chat me up about their uncles in Astoria or sisters in Seattle and tell me how they hoped, somehow, some day to visit. I remember drivers acting giddy, shopkeepers smiling and handing me little gifts, chefs sending out an extra dessert. Being a New Yorker meant I was specially blessed: a symbol of hope and opportunity to many who did not have a chance for these precious ideals, and knew they never would.
For me the apex of good will came right after 9/11. About half a dozen of us from New York, including a deputy mayor, were invited as symbolic guests of the government of Florence, Italy. We were feted for several days, and the Florentines expressed that they were New Yorkers too in our time of trouble. The Pitti Palace was opened at night for us, their mayor felt our pain, we met the Ferragamos in their home. We were toasted and praised, and left feeling supported and healed. As Americans we seemed to be loved.
Then, rapidly, the nadir. The world's silences, glares, disappointments, shock, hatred.
To avoid stress, as a frequent solo traveler, and especially since Bush's reelection, I've sometimes avoided mentioning that I'm American, and have even resorted to saying that I'm from Ottawa, a lovely capital city I know a bit about. This desperate ploy has saved me from unwinnable tirades and arguments in hostile lands. I"ve avoided the shame and frustration of having to answer why we reelected GWB, or why we have a congress that has led us so far off course, and why the war effort remains in the wrong place.
And so, seeing the immense crowd cheering our presidential candidate in Berlin on a golden July afternoon brought tears to my eyes. The world wants to love us again. It is still on our side! Despite it all we remain a beacon of hope, and Barack Obama represents the best of us, an American creation of youth and grace and possibility.
I feel proud. So Ottawa, you have deflected the blame and have been a safe haven, but I will not need to hide behind you any more. I hope.
Lea Lane is founder/editor of sololady.com, and author of Solo Traveler: Tales and Tips for Great Trips (Fodor's).