As election nears, U.S. expats share their thoughts on ending the nightmare

Tom Leitner and his wife, Ilaria, on Rome's Tiber River with Castel Sant'Angelo in the background.
Tom Leitner and his wife, Ilaria, on Rome’s Tiber River with Castel Sant’Angelo in the background.

I saw my old friend, Tom Leitner, last week. I don’t have many American friends here in Rome but he and I have bonded more these last four years. From afar we’ve watched our old country go up in flames like the forest fires on our beloved West Coast. Then we watched Donald Trump blame them on management failing to rake the leaves. 

Tom and I met up at Ennioteca, a cute, tasteful wine bar near his home not far from Piazza Bologna. Tom, 55, from Cupertino, Calif., has lived in Rome 16 years and has traveled the world as a 12-time world freestyle Frisbee champion. With curly, shoulder-length hair and constant beach vibe even as nippy fall air descends on Rome, he can be mistaken for a hippy-dippy surfer dude.

His appearance belies his seriousness, especially when it comes to the election. It’s a week from today and the United States’ future, not to mention world stability and the sanity of all expats overseas, hangs in the balance.

Election begins the healing

“These are probably the toughest times we’ve had since the Second World War with the pandemic,” said Tom, an English teacher. “Having probably the weakest leader we’ve had in the last 100 years doesn’t help. But my overall feeling is the importance of this election is to give America credibility in the eyes of the world again. That would be the first step towards healing.”

Yes, we expats are wounded, too. I retired to Rome in 2014 and after Trump won two years later, I vowed never to live in the U.S. again. Never have I been more grateful to live overseas than I have these last four years. With only 4 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has more than 20 percent of the Covid cases and deaths. The racial divide is the biggest in two generations. Trump has peeled back most of Pres. Obama’s environmental regulations. 

More than anything, I am grateful I’m not around the mask-less morons who still support Trump. Yes, Joe Biden should beat him like a cheap rug next Tuesday but even looking at the polls, nearly two of every five voters in the U.S. still believe this racist, sexist, narcissist should lead the free world. 

Yet with social media bringing the U.S. catastrophe to our cell phones every day like Walter Cronkite did to our living rooms during the Vietnam War, we find it hard to get away from it over here. I’m not the only one. I recently reached out to various American expats around the world. If misery loves company, I found it in phone calls from England to Vietnam, from Switzerland to the Republic of Georgia. All are Democrats. (I’d talk to Trump supporters but I couldn’t find any. Only 2 percent of 9 million American voters living overseas are Republicans.)

John Gottberg Anderson, with his girlfriend, Tracy Thuy, in Ho Chi Minh City.

John Gottberg Anderson, 70, is a fellow travel writer and Oregonian. We both graduated from South Eugene High School (“GIVE ‘EM THE AXE!”) and moved abroad to start radically new lives In October 2019, he moved to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where he’s teaching English and writes a terrific travel blog called Travels in Vietnam (www.travelsinvietnam.com). He dates a beautiful Vietnamese actress, lives in a country that flattened the Covid curve and enjoys some of the best weather and cuisine in the world.

I caught up with him Saturday in the village of Buon Ma Thuot in Dak Lak province where he had a teaching assignment. His life is something out of an adventure romance novel but he said he can’t cut off his bloodline, either.

“I have no real reason to return to the States to live,” he told me. “Neither do you. Why is (the election) important? I still consider myself an American.”

The world is watching

This election isn’t just on the minds of American expats. Much of the world is thinking about it. 

“I have a group of expats who I hang out with on Friday,” John said. “The Friday before last we had Australians, an Indian guy, a Brit, a Kiwi, a couple Canadians, a couple Americans. Everybody wanted to talk about the American election. At this point you say, ‘What do they think?’

“Basically, orange hair is not popular right now.”

We can shield ourselves from America’s misery with another glass of wine in a dimly lit piazza or a bowl of pho in a jungle setting or some fondue in a snowy chalet. But American politics do affect us, regardless of our distance from Washington.

Brook West and her husband, Dan, outside their local King William pub in Yorkshire County, England.

Brook West, 44, married a Brit and moved to England’s Yorkshire County in 2008. Living in the village of Laughton, she revels in the English atmosphere where most everything closes on Sundays, health care is affordable and police still don’t carry guns or murder unarmed Blacks.

She’s a freelance designer and is helping her husband launch a game design company. At one point they considered moving back to the U.S. and she says now, “I am so glad we chose not to move there.” Still, concern remains.

Could he start a war?

“I think we have a national security risk in office,” she said. “A massive national security risk. We are under prepared for an onslaught of issues in a militaristic sense with North Korea, with Russia, with China. We are definitely escalating military tensions that don’t need to be escalated. If anything we need to reduce those tensions. It’s just constant one-upmanship with Trump, and he’s dumb enough to start a war.

“I’m definitely concerned about starting an absolute World War III at this point. It will be something truly heinous that will happen with him in office.”

Emma Pratt near the village of Mtskheta outside the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.

Emma Pratt, 33, lives in one of my favorite countries in the world. The Republic of Georgia is a former Soviet republic that has become a vastly underrated destination. It has more beautiful mountains than the Alps with a wine and food culture that earned it the label of “The Tuscany of the Soviet Union.” The Ohio native moved to Georgia 8 ½ years ago with a masters degree in Slavic and East European Studies. Now married to a Georgian and teaching English at Georgia’s International School of Economics, she said they’d like to move back to the U.S. 

The United States’ immigration policy worries them. It’s not the only thing.

U.S. mirrors Republic of Georgia

“I’m living in a developing country, not a rich country, and to see America having more of what you would say are considered developing-country problems than we have here in a developing country, yeah, that worries me,” she said. “I’m still optimistic. But I’m worried about some of the things that I see in American democracy that are things we criticize in Georgia as showing that it isn’t a consolidated democracy.”

Such as?

“Like difficulty voting,” she said. “One of the big criticisms in Georgia right now is the judicial branch isn’t as developed and democratic as the other branches of government. And so seeing all these discussions of the Supreme Court in the U.S. and saying, Is that a good example of what a democratic judicial system should be?”

We all have something else in common besides having Donald Trump on our dartboards. The influence of U.S. politics stretches to nearly every corner of the globe. If you think the country’s image has been shaken overseas, you should hear what they’re saying behind your back.

Everywhere I go I ask locals what they think of Trump. I’ve asked bartenders in Iceland, merchants in Tajikistan, Buddhist monks in Laos. They all do the same thing.

They laugh.

Loren De Feo on Lake Zurich.

Loren De Feo, 40, is an old friend and fellow AS Roma fan who has bounced between Rome and Switzerland teaching English for 18 years. Now living outside Zurich, the Long Island, N.Y., native is as much European as American. Her mother is Finnish. Her father is Italian-American. Her stepfather is Swiss. 

She said a Swiss newspaper recently polled locals about who they would vote for and 79 percent said Biden and 18 percent said Trump. I asked her if U.S. politics affect her overseas.

“Financially? No,” she said. “Emotionally? Yes. I feel we’re a laughingstock. People don’t take America seriously anymore. I don’t want my country to be known as a country of illiterate degenerates.”

Swiss middle schoolers don’t like him

It’s not just people at Friday night expat gatherings who have opinions about the election. Loren asked her group of middle school students, aged 12-13, if any of them like Trump.

“No one raised their hand,” she said. “I asked, ‘What do you know about Trump?’ One said he was a racist. One said he hates women (I said the word is ‘misogynist.’)  One said he’s against the LGBTQ community. One said environmental reasons. Another said he was stupid and arrogant.

“I had about eight people give different reasons.”

Added Brook in England: “I am sometimes quite nervous to tell people I’m an American nowadays because our opinion of who we used to be was more revered than we are now. Now people see us as bullies, as idiots.”

Marina and I at Rome’s Pantheon.

In Italy when we discuss Trump with Italians, we’re greeted with the Italian catch-all phrase “Che cazzo!” That’s Italian for “What the fuck!” Meaning, how could you elect this guy? Then I must discuss how the Electoral College works in Italian and the locals are even more flummoxed.

Let’s say when it comes to politics, we expats in Italy have been put in our place.

“When I first moved to Italy, I used to make fun of Italians and go, ‘Man, you know what? Your leader (Silver Berlusconi) is a womanizer. He acts belligerent and he breaks the law and is immune. This would never happen in America! They’d kick him out of office!’” Tom Leitner said. “Now I’ve been eating humble pie. 

“I will never say a bad word about anyone else’s politics ever again.”

Vietnamese like his China stance

It’s not all negative. John said many Vietnamese like Trump because of his tough trade stance on China, saying, “Even before the Vietnam War, Vietnam always considered the No. 1 enemy is China. The Vietnamese always hated the Chinese. They were just the giants across the northern border. They feel Trump being tough on trade policies and stepping up on naval surveillance, such as in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, he must be really good because he’s standing up to the Chinese.”

Somehow we will all find a way to follow the election. I will be six hours ahead of Washington and coverage here usually begins at about 10 p.m. Rome has a midnight curfew. I have no cable. I’m hoping Italian TV carries it. John in Vietnam will be 11 hours ahead and Ema in Georgia eight. They can wake up and catch the results.

We’re all optimistic. Then again, we were optimistic four years ago, too.

Said John as he finished his glass of wine, “I can hardly allow myself to imagine what it’ll be like when he’s gone because it’s been such a nightmare. I can hardly allow myself to go, Oh, my God! It’s ending! 

“Because I won’t believe it until it actually happens.”