Early one morning last month my husband and I jumped into a taxi in Oslo, Norway to catch a flight from the airport. It was pre-sunrise dark and rainy. Our driver, a man in his 60s, asked us the usual polite questions: where we were from, whether we had liked Oslo, what other places we'd seen.
Then he turned to the American presidential election. He knew vivid details about the race. He'd watched parts of at least one debate; he had thoughts about the candidates; and he could quote some of what each had said. Like everyone we met, he was bilingual, having studied English for years in school. But, like so many people all over the world, he seemed virtually bi-cultural too — as focused on the United States as on his own country.
I was unprepared for the level of concern people we met expressed about our elections.
It was my first visit to Norway, and while I learned about its art, landscape, history and economics, I remain shamefully uninformed about its current government and contemporary governing issues. Yes, it's a country of 5 million people and the United States has 320 million, and that makes a big difference. And yes, I understand that those with less power always — for their own survival — are wise to pay close attention to more powerful nations. Nevertheless, the difference between my insular ignorance, and the Norwegians knowledge of my country felt awkward.
But more to the point, I was unprepared for the level of concern people we met expressed about our elections. Everyone seemed intensely aware of, even riveted on, our campaign. I've traveled during elections before, but this visit felt different — with eyebrows raised to a higher level. A middle-aged woman from Bergen shook her head with worry and observed succinctly, "Who you choose as your president has huge repercussions not just for you, but for us all."
Some folks we met also seemed aware how tied in knots Americans are right now. A hostess in an Oslo restaurant laughed warmly as she told us how many tourists from the United States expressed embarrassment about Trump's candidacy, and came across as eager to reassure anyone they encountered that they weren't among his supporters. It seemed like a no-brainer to her: anyone who travels sees more of the world; and once you see more of the world you wouldn't support Trump.
Lest I portray our encounters as all vanilla, a young woman selling tickets in an Oslo art museum offered an edgy reality check when I mentioned the election: "Who cares who wins your election? Trump and Hillary are the same. They were friends before they became enemies. In New York City, they live in the same social world. Why does it matter which one wins?"
I ended the trip reminded again how large the United States looms in the world...
My more radical self appreciated her perspective, shared by a number of my Bernie Sanders-supporting friends — but it didn't keep me from pressing on, and telling her how the future of our Supreme Court was hanging by a thread. She shook me off and turned to the next customer.
Nor is it simply the Norwegians who were ready to converse about our politics. An Australian couple we met on a ferry trip told us that several of their cities are actively inviting Americans to resettle there if Trump is elected. I'm too much of a homebody to contemplate such an exile without more imminent peril on the horizon. But I appreciated the invitation.
All in all, we were glad to flee our toxic political air for a week, but surprised to encounter such jitters on our behalf. Of course it makes sense. Just when the future well-being of our globalizing world requires a particularly skilled and steady leader, people in countries that count on us can't believe we're even considering handing the wheel to someone like Donald Trump. I ended the trip reminded again how large the United States looms in the world, and how, if we actually wish to live up to the greatness we keep claiming, we had better match our power and influence with wise governance.