I spent an afternoon last week at the Museum of Natural History in Helsinki, which is three sprawling floors stuffed with an interesting and diverse collection of exhibits about biology, zoology and paleontology. If I were in charge, I would have arranged the exhibitions by whether or not you could eat the animals (and maybe by their recommended cooking methods), but the curators instead opted to group them by habitat, showing a wide range of environments stretching from the Arctic circle to the Amazon rainforest.
The Finnish museum is also a working research institution that is affiliated with the University of Helsinki, so in addition to providing photo ops for people who want to put their heads in a plastic hippo’s mouth (I may or may not have done this), many of the staff members spend their time researching everything from evolution to biogeography to climate change. The focus on the environment was reflected in the introductions to almost all of the exhibits, explaining how the world’s vast and varied animal habitats would be — or had already been — affected by global warming. Basically every paragraph just helped to explain why the polar bears looked so sad.
Later that night, I went to my Airbnb and slumped farther into my chair every time I read one of the headlines from the United States. It was the same day Congress decided to start trashing some of former President Obama’s environmental regulations, starting by repealing the one that stopped coal-mining operations from emptying waste products into otherwise clean (or clean-ish) streams. The next day, Florida Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz pitched a bill that would eliminate the Environmental Protection Agency entirely.
That was not the first time I’d felt disconnected from America, the country where a disturbing number of our elected officials ignore environmental warnings from actual scientists, but have no problem taking weather predictions from a confused looking groundhog. (No, not Steve Bannon.)
This trip, maybe more than any other, made me profoundly depressed about being American. I spent the better part of the week feeling like I should’ve just apologized to everyone I came into contact with, including the artificial polar bears and penguins I stared at through a glass panel. I kept seeing Donald Trump’s misshapen orange face in Finnish newspapers and I didn’t have to translate the headlines in 100-point font to know that it wasn’t good news. In restaurants and coffee shops, I’d see someone scrolling past the words Amerikka or Yhdysvallat — United States — on their iPhone screen and I’d keep my head down and walk past. (At one point, I considered spritzing myself with maple syrup and good manners and trying to pass as Canadian.)
In the days that followed President Babyhands’ controversial and unconstitutional travel ban, it felt even stranger to be in another country. As a freelance travel, food and culture writer, I’ve been fortunate enough to collect a fair amount of passport stamps and, in the three months (holy hell, has it just been three months?) since Lord Voldemorange was elected, traveling abroad has been significantly different.
Pre-Trump, I’d talk to strangers somewhere in Europe, they’d hear my ridiculous accent and would want to talk about their relatives who lived in the US, about our struggling national soccer team or about flying over to Christmas shop at Concord Mills (no, really — this was when the pound was routinely pinning the dollar to the mat). I had a long talk in Reykjavik, Iceland with a tobacco shop owner who told me that he used to work for RJ Reynolds and once lived in a small Southern city called… Winston-Salem.
But last month, when I started a conversation with a record store owner in Cardiff, Wales, he immediately asked “You’re American?” I nodded. “Trump! How?!” he responded, his eyebrows ricocheting off his receding hairline.
A few days ago, at a sandwich shop in central Helsinki, the Indonesian server told me how terrified he was of Trump. He was worried that his message of hatred and intolerance would spread across the ocean, like some kind of communicable disease. “My wife and I have decided that our children will use her surname,” he said. “It sounds more European. Maybe that will save them some trouble.”
I know that it’s anecdotal evidence, but they can’t be isolated incidents. Most people aren’t willing to share their fears with complete strangers. I’ve never had someone stop me to say that they were afraid of Mylar balloons, but they’ve been quick to share their concern about the current president. And my fear — one that I was just as willing to tell Finns I’d just met — is that things will only get worse. (This is a sentiment that has been echoed in the world press: the cover illustration on this week’s issue of Germany’s Der Spiegel shows a defiant Trump holding the Statue of Liberty’s severed head.)
I do agree with Donald Trump that we need to Make America Great Again, but it just needs to be as great as it was, like, 18 or 19 days ago, when we didn’t ban desperate refugees from starting new lives here, when we didn’t have Steve Bannon —a man who believes he’s from a superior race despite looking like a moldy, rain-soaked sofa cushion — pushing his xenophobic agenda and when a significant number of us didn’t wake up every morning wondering what was going to be terrible about today.
If things continue at this pace, by the end of the year, America will be fondly flipping through its own yearbook, insistently pointing out to people that it used to be pretty great back in the day. I don’t know what the solution is, other than refusing to give in or to accept that any of this is normal. Call your senators, call your representatives, continue to make your voice heard. If you can, contribute to organizations that are trying to fight this, whether that’s the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center or the New York Times.
And seriously, stop listening to that stupid groundhog.