”You’re not really American any more, are you,” my interlocutor observed. He was a suave and polished millionaire named Bryan. We were on a gleaming yacht docked somewhere near Palm Beach Florida, among polo players and Olympic dressage contenders. I was finding out that F. Scott Fitzgerald was right: the rich are different.
The remark stung, a bit. Yes, I’d been out of my native land for more than two decades, covering events great and small in places like Moscow, Kabul, Vladivostok, Samarkand, and Lashkar Gah. But I had not thought that traveling the world required forfeiting my citizenship.
Now I was on a swing through the American South, following the campaign trail in the Republican state primaries. At this point, I was not at all sure which venue was more difficult — Afghanistan or America. Conversations with my fellow countrymen seemed strewn with minefields I never saw coming.
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Another guest at the party, a woman, had been speaking about Kazakhstan, a country I know fairly well, having lived there for two years. I ventured the opinion — fueled by too many glasses of wine — that I preferred Kyrgyzstan, a small and poor country to the South, which had not yet been spoiled by the discovery of oil.
“Are you saying that being rich is bad?” demanded Bryan. He was drinking something a bit stronger than wine, I think. I tried to back down.
“No, er, of course not,” I stammered. “It’s just …” I looked to the woman for help, but she was obviously on Bryan’s side.
“I’m surprised you’ll eat the food of the 1 percent,” she said, looking at the filet mignon on my plate.
Jumping overboard was not an option, so I smiled helplessly and moved on to safer topics, like politics. But this crowd surprised me. Most of them were transplants from the North.
“The best thing I can say about Romney is that we didn’t hate him when he was governor of Massachusetts,” said Paula, who was sitting to my left. “But I am rooting for Obama.”
For the past month, I have traveled the length and a good deal of the breadth of America. From Iowa’s frozen plateaus to the rocky hills of New Hampshire, from the antebellum grandeur of Charleston, South Carolina to the tropical lushness of Florida, I was finding that I knew almost nothing about the land I call home and the people who live in it.
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As a foreign correspondent, you are always on the outside, a supposedly objective observer. You take small slices of a country and its population and make sweeping generalizations, trying to encapsulate in a sound bite the complexities of an entire nation.
Now I am reporting from the United States for the first time in my life, and am finding it difficult. These are not “sources” — they are friends, family, neighbors. I am supposedly one of them.
Or maybe not.
I can quote chapter and verse about the Afghan political system, and bore you with a history of the Russian Duma, but until I started covering the Republican primaries I knew relatively little about the American political system. The last time I was in the United States for a presidential election, Ronald Reagan was running against Jimmy Carter.
Now, after a month on the campaign trail, I wonder what the Founding Fathers were thinking.
Winston Churchill is quoted as saying that “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
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Sitting at a restaurant called Boonie’s, in Loxahatchee, Florida, I think I’m beginning to understand what he meant. The place’s motto is “This may not be the end of the world, but you sure can see it from here.”
My barbecue sandwich comes with a side of flies; I wave them lazily away as I attempt to interview the barman. The only other patrons are men in shorts and cowboy hats, playing pool over by the deer antlers on the wall.
The bartender is very polite, and answers my questions diligently. It is the day of the Florida Republican Primary, and I ask him his plans.
“Yes ma’am, I am going to vote, I sure am,” he said. When I asked whether he’d made up his mind yet on his chosen candidate, he nodded emphatically.
“Yes ma’am, I am going to vote for either Mr. Romney or Mr. Obama,” he replied.
I did not pursue the matter.
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Fiddling with my car radio on I-95 in Georgia, I start to go a bit nuts. The only thing I can find is Country/Western.
I rather enjoyed “Goin’ through the Big D don’t mean Dallas, I got the jeep, she got the palace,” but after the third round of “Prop me up by the jukebox if I die,” I opted for silence.
The food is also a mystery. Grits ‘n shrimp, pulled pork and fried catfish have never been staples of my diet.
Finally, at a friend’s house, I see something with which I am familiar.
“Baamiya!” I exclaim, looking at a slippery green vegetable we ate all the time in Afghanistan, usually sautéed with tomatoes and onion, just like this. “Where did you get baamiya?”
She looked at me quizzically.
“You mean okra?” she asked.
How was I supposed to know? It was not big in Boston, where I grew up.
“Well, at least you’re safe in America,” observed one woman I interviewed in beautiful Beaufort (pronounced “Bee-you-ford), South Carolina. She had turned the tables by asking me about myself, and I ended up talking more than she had.
Safe? I wonder. In Florida I stayed with relatives whose house backs up onto a lake.
“Don’t let the dogs out,” said Deb, my hostess. “There are alligators out there. Our neighbor lost a puppy. She still can’t talk about it.”
Now, sitting on a swing by the shore, I keep looking uneasily at the water. I’ve been stung by scorpions in Kabul, but never had to worry about being eaten by a reptile.
“If they chase you, zigzag,” she advised. “They have a hard time turning.”
I’m now headed North, back to the snow, and the cold. I’ll miss the warm, soft air, the smiles, the waitresses who call me “darlin’” and yes, even the grits.
But at the back of my mind is a sneaking suspicion that maybe I should go back to Kabul. There, at least, I feel like an American.