Notes of an Ex-Pat 1: View From the Bridge

Notes of an Ex-Pat 1: View From the Bridge
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From my window I see sheets of ice floating down the Danube. It's mid-winter, and I am finally here in Budapest. Last week I went with a Hungarian lawyer to the Immigration office, where we applied for a residency permit, making it official. At last I can send for the personal effects and few pieces of furniture I left waiting on a pallet on the Boston Harbor. It wasn't easy, but after months of logistics --I've done it.

Watching falcons dive for food outside my window, I can see the Szabadsag, or Freedom Bridge, connecting Buda and Pest. Bright green under the lights, it looks like it leads to the Emerald City of Oz. It bears the emperor's crest of Franz Josef, who presided over its opening just before the turn of the last century. German forces bombed it during World War II, but after years of construction, it was finally completely restored in 1980. Directly across the bridge, on the Buda side, the golden Gellert Hotel and Baths are built, like much of the city, in gracious Belle Epoque style. Across from that, standing high atop snow-covered Gellert Hill, is the Citadel, erected by the Hapsburgs as an act of domination after putting down an uprising in 1849. Alongside the old fortress is the statue of a woman holding an olive branch over her head, left over from Soviet times and ironically called the Hungarian Statue of Liberty. It's quite a history to look out on every day. It gives me a longer view somehow, of what I see happening in what is still, after all, my own country, even if it seems far away.

Nothing lasts forever, and I think the days of the American Empire are over. I'm not alone in observing this, nor is it necessarily a bad thing in the long run. But regardless of anyone's opinion, yay or nay, it seems too late to do much about it. Its demise won't be pretty. America can step down gracefully or go down kicking and screaming, in massive debt from fabricated wars and waste, doing the dance of the headless chicken. I have little hope for the former. I campaigned for Obama in 2008, but in spite of the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell , I am deeply disappointed by his inability or unwillingness to stand strongly for much of anything.

I've been expecting this crash for quite awhile. A lot of what anchored us in the last few centuries is on the wane, from newspapers and some attempt at accurate reporting, to Christendom, mainline Protestantism, Sunday dinner, and civility. Yesterday a friend sent me a piece about Harry Truman, who made not a penny from the private sector (and didn't get rich in the public sector, either) by being President. I sigh. It's never going to be that way again. There are too many self-serving forces, like foreign governments now permitted to finance American elections, multi-nationals and government cozying up together, the world-wide domination of large pharmaceutical companies, and the medicalization of nearly everything (including more than 10% of the US population on psychotropic prescription medication, just like Huxley predicted in Brave New World) to go back or save it. America has cancer of the soul, caused by greed and entitlement, her leaders are fighting over which symptoms to try to suppress.

In the three months I spent in the US sorting out my affairs, I sensed a desperation I don't think most people were aware of---undistinguished, poisonous, and ubiquitous, like toxic water poisoning fish as they swim---people flailing as they drown, or running in place, trying to survive, trying to get ahead. You can find that other places, too, but there it seemed like a way of life. In restaurants and cafes, people obsessed with winning talked loudly about business and sports---not music, not art, not politics or social life. Conversations were more transactional than relational. Even with the economy in tatters, everyone was doing some sort of a big deal. I was constantly in and out of cars and freeways. It was all about getting somewhere---anywhere. Maybe I'm just getting old, but it made me tired.

The American Dream wasn't supposed to be about making a killing. It was about a fair shake for everyone, grounded in a shared sense of citizenship and concern for the common good. That ideology is vestigial now---mere political window dressing. Now it's about cars, houses, trophy kitchens, and the biggest, fanciest birthday party for your kid. The American dream is as broken as Humpty Dumpty, with people scrambling to get their share of the spoils while they still can. Some are angry because people at the end of the line are trying to take what they consider theirs, while others are angry because they're last in line and they can see the supplies are going to run out before they reach the front. I don't think all the king's horses and all the king's men have much of a chance, or even much care. What is shattered can never be repaired; it can only be transformed.

So why watch from a land-locked, small Central European country while Rome burns? I have no illusions that Hungary is a model of democracy. Some of my friends tell me it could go Fascist any day, since Fidesz, the party in control, can do pretty much whatever it wants, with their two-thirds majority--they've already done some pretty scary things. The economy is in trouble. Greed is on the rise among the new, young capitalists of Buda. But Hungarians have lived though good times and bad, as I can see from my window. They know it all passes, while Americans are used to getting their way. I worry about how that will play out, as times get tougher in a violent, gun-packing culture. Call me a wuss, but I don't want to be there.

America lacks simple graciousness. Knowing a fair amount about shattering, I have learned the value of graciousness. I have come to believe that much of life is made up of small moments and simple graces. Here in Budapest, the embassies have Christmas parties to which they invite their local citizens and guests. I went for cocktails at the British embassy, hot chocolate and desserts at the Canadian Chamber, and a lovely symphony concert at the Duna Palace, given by the Azerbaijan Embassy. But I received no such invitation to the American Embassy. Nor did my friend, who was, not so long ago, a State Department appointee. When I finally got the low-down about what the richest nation in the world offered for the holiday season from a diplomat of another country, I learned that the food and drink consisted of some chips, cheese bits, and soft drinks. There was no music.

Yesterday I had to wait while a seamstress sewed a hook onto my coat. I was about to leave the store to wait in the café across the street when the proprietress ushered me into a chair and brought me fresh espresso in a china cup. I sat there for an hour while we talked of many things. The only time I recall a similar experience in the States was many years ago on a rainy day in NY, when I arrived late for an appointment with my Viennese doctor. Instead of berating me, he saw my bedraggled state sopping wet from the rain, and asked his assistant to please bring in coffee and little cakes, while I dried myself. This is the European sensibility. It may be on borrowed time, but I am enjoying it while it remains. I want a longer view and friends who have time for dinner, serve on real dishes, and take the time to celebrate life in all its glory and imperfections.

There is another, more inchoate reason I am in Europe: If any sort of positive change is to happen now, it will probably not originate in the US. We have passed the era of nation-states into the international era. Unless we entirely devolve into tribes--the other direction it could go---we need to think in larger sweeps, trends, and trajectories. Europeans are more international in their world view. The smartest young people I know are living on edges of nationalities, doing as much good as they can, creating a global future. I think the best chance I have of hearing the call of the Phoenix will be from a distance. Odd as it may sound, I have hope. It is not hope for America or any nation. It is hope for the soul of the world. It is hope that comes with Advent, for a new birth. Something is dying; that is the way of things on earth. But God isn't done with us yet. Something new and surprising may be arising from the ashes. I look for it in the mist as I watch the ice breaking and sip my tea, slowly.