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American Amb-ass-adors

Katlyn Roberts
Feb 2, 2019 · 7 min read

What it’s like to be an American abroad in the time of Trump

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If you want to see some phenomenal English stand-up in Barcelona, you need to hunt down the Hush Hush Comedy show wherever they are. This particular night, they occupied the basement of the Casa Gracia, a funky hostel with a basement that looks like someone turned an old 1920’s art-deco bank vault into a bar. At the bottom of the stairs is a donkey fountain with the water pouring out of its giant donkey-dong. If you linger, you’ll hear a toilet flush and someone will come out of a nearly-hidden unisex bathroom to wash their hands in the sink, which is carved into the donkey’s stomach. You’ll notice that the water they’ve just washed their hands with is what trickles out of the foot-long dong into a basin below.

If you continue past the schlong-donkey, pay €5 to the super-chill American guy at the door, and stuff your bag into a locker (€1 buys you the key and you get that € back when you’re done), you’ll find yourself in a cave of a performance space/bar. Comedians perform surrounded by audience members who drape themselves wherever they can find room- on a low stool, a bench, or cross-legged on the ground. If you haven’t arrived early enough for a seat, you can stand by the bar. It’s a fire hazard, but it’s intimate. It feels like hanging out in someone’s living room.

American host Hannah Becker works the room like your best friend hosting a house party (“Guys! Shut up!”). Hannah founded Hush Hush along with Lucy Martí to ensure that there would be a quality English-speaking show run by women still in Barcelona after a similar show called Just Kidding closed. Tonight, she introduces an English comedian. He steps gingerly over people on his way to the stage. Above cheers, he yells — “Where are all my fellow Brits!”

Whoops and hollers from the Brits.

“And how about our Americans? Where are the Americans tonight?”

… Crickets. I half-raise my hand and give a little woo! but quickly lower it back down into my lap when I don’t receive any back-up.

I know for a fact that there were plenty of Americans in that audience. If you ever move abroad, you’ll be shocked at how your senses become acutely attuned to the sound of your own accent in the same way that blind people get super-human dolphin-bat hearing. I often find myself pointing people out to my Spanish boyfriend.

“That guy was American,” I’ll whisper to him in a restaurant.

“How can you tell?”

“He said he wants to get shit-faced and he called his friend an asshole.”

“You do say ‘ass’ a lot.”

“That we do, Cutie-Patootie.”

“…I don’t know what that means.”

Anyway, the Americans in the audience that night were feeling shy. I looked around and saw a couple people laughing nervously into their drinks.

The comedian smirked. “Yeah, not so loud about it now, are you?!”

No, sir, we are not.

There’s no denying it. It’s embarrassing to be an American abroad these days. And not just because of Trump and all the human rights atrocities, though that is a significant aspect of it.

The first week that news broke about the family separation policy on the U.S./Mexico border, I was devastated. Protests were breaking out all over the U.S., but all I could do was listen feverishly to news podcasts and donate to various legal councils that were doing their best to represent those families in court.

I’d kind of assumed that my friends here in Spain (Catalonia, if we’re being politically correct) weren’t paying attention to any of this. They had their own crazy politics to deal with and I don’t like to assume that North America’s news is the world's news. I’ve gotten enough blank stares at my pop culture references to put me in my place.

But the weekend all this border news was breaking, I went over to my boyfriend’s place and noticed that his flatmate was looking pretty depressed.

“You ok?” I asked her. “Rough week at work?”

“No. I mean, yes, always. But no.”

Turns out she’d been reading about the family separations. I was a bit shocked and it showed. “I guess I just didn’t realize you (that’s the collective “you”, referring to all of Europe) were paying attention to that.”

“Of course. The US has a very large impact on the rest of the world. It’s very scary to see what is happening.”

Well, now I felt dumb. And embarrassed (that’s the collective “embarrassed”, referring to the fact that I’m embarrassed for my country).

Public opinion of America was doing pretty good for a minute back in Obama’s day. I’m sure I could look up some stats, but I’m going off of what I observed when I went to England in 2014. I saw multiple people wearing Obama t-shirts. One or two of them almost every day I was there.

Kinda makes you think, right? I mean, nobody in America was just casually wearing Obama t-shirts at the time unless you were going to a rally or a speaking event. Why? I don’t know, I guess it would have been too easy to run into someone who thought he was a terrorist nazi liar from Africa who was responsible for 9/11. Those people didn’t wear bright red hats back then to identify themselves so you had to be careful.

Looking back, I feel like I probably could’ve shown the guy a bit more t-shirt love.

But the world’s opinion of us has shifted right back to what it was in the Bush era and then some. Here’s what typically goes down when I introduce myself to someone here in Barcelona:

Them- “¿De donde eres?”

Me- “Los Estados Unidos.”

Them- “Oh. Do you mind if I ask where?”

Me- “California. And I didn’t vote for Trump.”

Them- “Ok, thanks. I wasn’t sure how to ask.”

Me- “Yeah, no problem.”

Of course, it depends on where you go. Trump was all the rage when I went to Israel last January. At least with the over-50 crowd.

I was traveling with a guide by the name of Baruch, a jolly fellow who, according to tradition, never touched a razor to his long gray beard. He took absolute delight in telling me to turn on my voice recorder whenever he had something important to say.

He’d been watching a lot of Israeli news about the presidential elections and the resulting protests. He didn’t understand the problem one bit. Trump was a successful businessman, he said. How could that be bad for the country? And why did we have to be so violent? Apparently, the news in Israel, much like Fox News in the U.S., had been portraying the Black Lives Matter and anti-Trump marches as riots, not as the peaceful protests that they were.

“Just be one country,” he bellowed with a laugh, like he was explaining a simple concept to a child. “Stop fighting amongst each other and have faith in who you elect.”

I’m told by my European friends that Americans are far more likable as individuals than as a country. This was evident that night at Casa Gracia.

Those of us in the audience may not have wanted to identify as American, but when American Grace Jung got up with her raunchy review of the menstrual cup, complete with a demonstration on how to insert it (“I just love the planet so much!”) and her version of a realistic Disney princess movie (Hint- there’s a lot of blood and sex), we all felt a bit of pride. At least we know how to make fun of ourselves.

Actually, my favorite comedian of the night was Israeli comedian Daphna Baram, who charmed us all with her high-energy take on moving to England and becoming assimilated by way of that all-important English tradition — the pub quiz. She also made fun of her own accent, noting how it made it hard for her to make friends abroad until Gal Gadot came along and made it sexy. “We were both trained to kill by the same organization. Only she went on to make a career out of it while, for me, it’s just a hobby.”

There’s no escaping the reputation of your home country while traveling abroad. It’s something you carry around with you like a backpack. Sometimes it’s an incredible burden and sometimes it’s a utilitarian, even attractive asset.

With luck, our reputations as Americans will be restored soon. How will we know this has happened? Perhaps I’ll start to see t-shirts with the face of whoever gains the presidency after Trump is impeached (hint — it won’t be Pence. Nobody wants a Pence shirt). Or perhaps, like Daphna suggests, I just need to keep watching the “Sexiest Accents in the World” list for when we move up from #10.

In the meantime, my advice to other Americans abroad is to stay aware of what’s going on back at home, be as open to learning about the world as possible, and approach your travels with humility.

Be an ambassador.

Don’t be a giant donkey-ass dick.

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