A business trip to Europe last week forced me to take a break from American politics and the nightly canvassing and phonebanking that has consumed my life for the past two months. I thought being away from the USA for six days would allow me a bit of respite from ever-increasing drama and intensity of the presidential campaign; that the global financial meltdown would be the one and only topic on the minds of Europeans.
I could not have been more wrong.
My trip started in Brussels, Belgium. My first clue that American politics reach firmly across the Atlantic ocean was in the pub where we had dinner. In the corner of dining room, a small television played. There, of course, were images of banks and stock markets and stern-faced commentators clearly discoursing on the collapse of some European bank or another. But equally prominent were the familiar faces of Barack Obama, John McCain and Sarah Palin (Joe Biden seems not to have their interest.)
My coworker nodded at the television. "So," he said, "It looks like Obama has it in your election, eh?"
I agreed that things were looking good for Senator Obama but told him that the Obama campaign was making no assumptions and continued to campaign hard all over the country. As our conversation continued, it became clear that he was a bit puzzled why the race was even close, given the demonstrable failings of the Republican party over the past eight years.
Later in the week I was in Germany and here, too, Obama and McCain's faces were on the television, in the newspapers and on magazine covers. Conversations with Germans inevitably turned to the election and everyone seemed eager for me to reassure them that, this time, America was going to get it right and elect Barack Obama. As one person put it, "I can understand how you Americans could make a mistake once [by electing George W. Bush.] But twice? That's hard to understand."
During another conversation, one of my German colleagues asked me, "What do you think of Sarah Palin?" Once it became clear that I thought she was a terrible candidate, he felt free to share his opinion that she was seen in Europe as a joke and not a serious choice. As if to confirm this, the next morning I opened a newspaper from Hamburg. In it was an article titled "Sarah Palin: Disasterous fur McCain". This country wasn't just watching the debates, they were focused on the details of the election.
The final event that made me realize just how international our presidential election has become happened in a tiny village nestled next to the Alps in northeastern Italy. Gemona del Friuli is best known for having been nearly leveled by an earthquake in 1976. It has been completely restored and this small town of about 11,000 is the quintessential Italian village complete with a Catholic cathedral and narrow cobblestone streets. I was there the night of the last presidential debate and, being a political junkie, I set my alarm for 3:00 a.m. to get up to watch it. I was relieved to find that the hotel's television got CNN International and that they were showing the debate. However, that wasn't my only choice. In this small Italian town at the base of the Alps, I could watch the debate in English on CNN, in English on the BBC and on no less than THREE other channels shown with a slight delay and translated instantly into Italian!
While Americans have been consumed with the presidential election for the past 20 months, it appears that the rest of the world has also been paying attention. Although they don't have a vote, the Europeans I spoke with clearly feel they have a stake in the outcome of this election and every single one of them was excited at the prospect of a President named Obama.