By Ernie McCray
Maria and I just spent 38 days in Europe with a stop in Philly on the way home, a vacation that had a combination of both joy and misery and ended with notions of hope.
It began with a man driving us from the Madrid-Barajas Airport to our hotel, talking about politics all the while. He wanted us to know that Spaniards, as we Americans do, have a few Donald Trumps around town. He had a lot to say about our president, a man he admired “for how he stepped up and got the U.S. out of the recession.” He finished his praise with “Great man, that Obama.”
All that made us feel very welcomed and eager to explore the city. As soon as we got our luggage in the room we strolled along streets and plazas built a very long time ago, and dined on the tastiest of tapas. We got a good nights sleep and got up the next morning in an easygoing mood, ready to take in as much as we could.
Then came Orlando, news that weakened our knees. Our tragedies, kind of, I think, seem even more dismal when you see them from far away, in another culture. You kind of feel that it reflects on you in some way.
But we managed to have a lovely time, anyway, and after a few days we took a train that zipped us past a desert and canyons of rich brown earth and large farms and let us off in Barcelona.
And, oh, what a city Barcelona is, so diverse in so many ways, rooted in medieval times, noted for its quirky art and architecture like what we saw at the Antoni Gaudi inspired La Sagrada Familia Basilica – and at the Hospital de Sant Pau, which was built in 1401 and is now a magnificent museum and cultural center.
And then we were off to Arles, in France, an excursion that was filled with views of mountains and vast marshlands and ruins, leading to a hotel that was on a narrow street that seemed to have been around since the beginning of time, a street near where Van Gogh created many of his masterpieces.
Next stop, Paris, where we and Maria’s kids and their spouses and their children and a stepdaughter spent a little over two weeks in an absolutely gorgeous spacious apartment full of art work and books – in an upscale neighborhood next to pricey department stores and the American Embassy and the Presidential Palace with armed soldiers here, there, and everywhere. Reminders, in these moments of privilege, of the realities of our times.
We began taking in the wonders of the city like born-again Francophiles, in and out of museums and cathedrals and gardens, the Arc de Triomphe, an old Jewish neighborhood, a cafe frequented by Picasso and Hemingway and Henry Miller and Josephine Baker, the Latin Quarter (the Eiffel Tower came later) …
Everywhere we roamed, considering that France was hosting the European Soccer Championships, we could hear the cheers of soccer fans from all over the continent filling the air, coming from bars and cafes and open apartment windows – with France eventually losing to Portugal for the championship.
I’ll forever remember the charged up energy of it all, the sheer joy of feeling a history, of being in a city that’s been around since the 3rd Century BC.
In keeping, however, with what was to come in the days ahead there had to be, at least it seems, something to dampen the spirit and it came with the news that the UK had voted to leave the European Union. The anti-immigration aspects at the center of all that played in my mind as I compared it to the xenophobia that has our country in its grips. It’s sad to see people in our world separating when the need for people to come together has never been so evident in the history of humankind.
But, hey, my apprehensions were not going to solve that problem so I got back to enjoying, back to exploring, back to eating some of the most delicious meals on earth, back to watching bicycles and motorcycles and cars and buses competing for lanes in the heavy traffic, back to watching stylish people move about the streets, back to the apartment where I turned the channel on the TV to BBC.
And there, for me to see, was a video taken by the girlfriend of a black man who had moments before been killed by the police.
Two days later another brother was slain while he was restrained by the police. Two days after that, 5 cops, in Dallas, who were protecting and serving protesters, were killed by a deranged black army veteran who was “fed up with white people.”
You shake your head like a boxer whose bell has been rung and you move on, according to your itinerary, to your next stop: Frankfurt. Germany.
We fell in love with the country. I don’t know what I expected before arriving there but I hadn’t been around so much warmth and glee and greenery in a long time, if ever.
Sailing down the Rhine, feasting our eyes on castles and wine orchards growing on the side of steep hills, was divine. Listening to a jazz band do justice to Duke Ellington’s Satin Doll and Take the A Train in a park on a Sunday (a day honored in Germany with most businesses closed) in a park was a delightful surprise. Receiving no bad news from home was a much needed relief. Being chauffeured around towns in the country with Bill, one of Maria’s friends and ex-student and one great guy, are memories I will hold dear forever.
We left Germany for Brussels and arrived there at about the same time as the word about bailiffs being shot in Michigan was making its way around the world.
By the time we got to Amsterdam the horrors in Nice, in France, unfolded and then Baton Rouge was in the news again the day before this trip abroad had ended.
It was when we landed in Philadelphia on our way home that all the tragedies started really registering in my mind. When we took off from the City of Brotherly Love my mind roamed far and wide as I looked out the window of my plane down on Pennsylvania and Delaware and Ohio… Beautiful and billowy clouds were all aglow in the sun, in formations that played with my imagination, making me, for my emotional well-being, and in keeping with the wonderful time I had enjoyed for 38 days, look at the bright side of life.
I wondered what we, as a nation, could hold on to that’s real and promising and I was reminded of how Bernie Sanders had, for months, gone around the country turning on millions of people, so many of them young, to wanting to contribute to their world and make it better.
I remembered how, just a week before, he had un-enthusiastically endorsed Hillary Clinton (knowing, I’m sure, that not doing so would lessen his chances of ever continuing his agenda in the Senate).
But what he had done was monumental. He had advanced a conversation that needed to take place ages ago and had gotten the democratic party to commit to: offering students free college tuition; expanding access to health insurance; raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Such are the kinds of endeavors – people being educated and kept healthy and having enough money to meet their needs – that can lead people in a society to treating each other with more respect, allowing the violence we seem to feed on to die over time.
What Bernie did, in his authenticity, essentially, was write a new chapter in our country’s history, giving us, We the People, a starting place for keeping hope alive.
The very first step in doing that is rejecting Donald Trump resoundingly but there seems to be a lot of folks who aren’t willing to do what it will take to accomplish that. And I fully understand. I’m usually not a “lesser of two evils” kind of voter. But if we “vote our consciences” or mark a ballot in any way that might give the presidency to Trump, that would be an immoral error that could lead to tragic consequences for our society in a world as troubled as ours. And what hope we have for a better world could wither away rather rapidly.
A trip to Europe has made that crystal clear to me.