An Italian friend of mine once remarked, “I can always spot the Americans.”
I was expecting to hear something about white sneakers, loud voices and fanny packs. Instead, she said, “They smile for no reason. Are super friendly and talk to everyone … they also have nice teeth.”
I remembered her words when I was living abroad … the many, many times I was surrounded by people but felt utterly disconnected. Partly a language barrier, with the onus on me to improve my Spanish. But also a cultural difference. In my experience, most Europeans don’t engage in idle chit chat with strangers the way Americans do.
It is one of the things I missed most about the United States when I was living in Spain — the chance for serendipitous connection.
I received that gift in spades this morning … waiting in line to cast my vote, one day before elections.
Nikki and I arrived in Welles Park a little before 9 a.m. The line had just begun to form. Or so it seemed. The sun was shining on an unseasonably warm November day. And we watched through a window as the voting stations filled before us, oblivious that it would be two hours before we would arrive in that place ourselves.
During those two hours we met the granddaughter of a Turkish immigrant and her beautiful six-month-old daughter, swaddled in pink and strapped to her mother in a Baby Bjorn. She joked about being Muslim. Her husband being Mexican. And that if things went the wrong way, it would be hard to know who would be deported first.
During those two hours I met a neighbor of mine. He seemed familiar to me but I wasn’t sure if I had been looking at him for so long that that was the reason. Turns out we live on the same street. And that he lived in Madrid for a semester abroad in 1988. We talked about architecture, food, travel and the fall out of Franco. How the north feels more French. And how physically safe we felt living there.
During those two hours I learned that our wait was comparatively short compared to the people who voted yesterday. That most voters had been patient and nice. And that Nikki’s shoes will always be a source of conversation – today’s choice, a pair of red, white and black Fleuvogs.
I watched the kindness of strangers as the baby in pink started to fuss and one man volunteered, “Go ahead of us. No one will mind.” And everyone agreed. Instead, she fell asleep pressed to her mother, waking just as it was “their” turn to vote. I took a photograph so mom could tell her about this one day.
When it was finally my turn, I was directed to a voting booth just next to my neighbor. I smiled and whispered to him, “Do it right.” He winked back.
And then I stood in silence. Heart beating wildly. Fingers trembling. Nodding and teary-eyed as I pressed the button casting my vote for the first female president of the United States. A vote I wasn’t sure I’d ever have the opportunity to make in my lifetime. I then completed the ballot and reviewed it once, twice, three times to make certain I had marked the correct box.
I received a paper bracelet with the words, “I Voted. Did You?” on the way out. I quickly peeled off the sticky label, wrapped it around my wrist and waited for Nikki. A few minutes later she emerged, along with the man who had told the baby’s mother to “Go ahead.”
The three of us put our wrists together, took a photograph, and exchanged names – which I promptly forgot. But it didn’t really matter. We had shared a moment together where we had hoped to make history – three smiling-for-no-reason, friendly, talk-to-everyone Americans with nice teeth.
I’ll never vote absentee again.