Warning: This one is political. If you want rainbows and unicorns, come back next week.
I read yet another article this morning about US peeps moving to Portugal to start over. They are fleeing the high cost of living as well as the hustle and grind culture of the US, and, as one woman so accurately put it, “lethal racism.” The author of the article got that part right.
In one of my Facebook expat groups, someone posted a question: “I see a lot of posts about what people miss about living in the US. What are some of the things you like about living in Portugal?” (Or something to that effect.) Yes, the lower cost of living was mentioned, but I noticed a recurring theme in the women’s responses: Safety.
“I can walk home at 2 am without worrying.”
“I can cut through back alleys.”
“Little to no street harassment.”
All the things.
We hear about all the gun violence in the US, of course. We’re on Facebook, we have CNN, we can get US news up to the minute.
We share your horror. But not your daily fear.
Escape from the US?
Living in Europe had been a goal of mine for decades. I wasn’t fleeing the US so much as moving to an area of the world that I wanted to explore. The timing was a matter of available finances, not politics.
Watching the US from the outside is… interesting. And some days horrifying. I knew before I moved here that many other countries had all the things we tout as “American”: freedom, good healthcare, first world living, etc. etc. etc. I knew countries like England did not have the gun violence that the US has. I knew Germany was very close to energy independence and its economy was booming. I knew other countries elected female leaders to the top levels of their government.
I knew it intellectually.
Living it, breathing it, is an entirely different experience. And it feels good.
What I Left Behind
Seeing people—overwhelmingly men—with guns was a daily experience in Florida. The supermarket, Starbucks, Home Depot. Those were the open carry guys. Plenty of concealed permits in Florida and throughout the States. I wouldn’t trust these guys with fireworks, much less a gun. Yet, there they were. Fucking everywhere. It’s an intimidation tactic. They’re not saying “I have a gun to protect myself.” They’re saying, “I’m in charge because I have the gun.” These are not “good guys with a gun.” These are “just give me a reason to pop you” guys.
Message delivered. Got it.
For the record, I am not afraid of guns. I am afraid of idiots with guns. I am afraid of people with anger issues with guns. I have a continuing debate in my head whether I am more afraid of an idiot with a gun or a very smart person with a gun. While guns don’t kill people, unstable and angry people with guns kill people. Very quickly. Very easily. And the US is filled with unstable and angry people with easy, easy access to military grade weapons. This is not a good combination. (You think people in the US aren’t angry? See what happens when you pull out in traffic a little too close to someone else.) The rest of the world looks at the US and cannot believe that we allow children to be mowed down in classrooms and nothing is done about it. The US has become synonymous with gun violence.
What I Have Here
I can walk in the early mornings or late at night without fear. Does that mean that I whimpered my way home every time I had a late night in the US? No, it meant that I took the standard precautions that women take: Park under a light or use the valet; never leave your drink unattended, lace your keys through your fingers; check the backseat; make sure there’s not a panel van near your car; check the area to see if there’s a man hanging around; call your friend to tell her you got home safe and make sure she did, too. The usual bullshit.
I have measurably less stress here. I get my work done in less time than it took in the US. The pace is slower, more relaxed. People in general are literally happier here. How do I know this? They greet each other as they pass in the street. They walk holding their kids’ or partners’ hands. I sometimes hear people whistling or singing as they walk past. Are they happy little peasants? No. They are regular people living a life that includes work but isn’t built around it. They have other stuff going on besides getting ahead at the office. Is everyone happy? No. People have the same worries and problems all over. But you don’t have the dog-eat-dog competitiveness that you see in the US. Their self-worth isn’t tied into their net worth.
I am safer here. Crime is low. Drug use is decriminalized; it is a medical problem, not a criminal issue. (Drug trafficking is definitely criminal.) Pickpocketing is the big crime in Lisbon and other tourist areas. Cars stop when you enter a crosswalk. They often stop when it looks like you are about to enter a crosswalk. People know each other and they check on each other.
There are 1.5 million guns in Portugal, the majority of them (estimated around 80%) are rifles and shotguns used for hunting. While there are various classes of gun licenses, everyone applying has to have a medical certificate, a clean criminal record, and certification that the applicant has met the conditions for the safekeeping of the guns (gun safe, trigger locks, etc.). The regulations for removing a gun from your house and transporting it (for example, to a gun range) are strict. The license for a handgun costs more than €300 and must be renewed every five years. Applicants are required to take a gun safety course. Ammunition is strictly regulated. In short, people don’t carry guns to go get their morning coffee and pastel de nata.
It’s strange, this feeling safe. On my early morning walks when I see a man coming I remind myself that he is just out for a walk, too. It’s strange when you realize that you don’t have to work fifty or sixty hours a week to stay even financially. It’s downright nice to go to a networking meeting that is NOT about business but about making new friends. It’s cool to see families walking hand-in-hand, having a beach day in the middle of the work week. It’s a throwback to my childhood to see the old men gather on the park benches across the street to shoot the breeze.
And that’s what that feeling is. Living here brings me back to the feeling of safety that I had as a small child in my neighborhood.
So does that make me long for the US of the past? Partly. At least that aspect of the past. I didn’t expect to find it here. It’s a bonus.
I feel a bit guilty about leaving. Conflicted in a way. I didn’t leave the US because it was a horrible place for me. Disregarding the standard second class citizenship of being a woman, I had a lot of privilege going. I had built workarounds that I shouldn’t have had to build. I say that with a shrug because there are many, many marginalized people in the US who have had to do so much more to stay on the playing field, much less even it. I had a good life but I knew there was something better, not just different, elsewhere.
With the perspective that distance brings, I see the US going down a very dark path and I am not sure that it will pull itself out. The country split at the Civil War and, unbeknownst to white northerners, it never really reunited. But there’s a reason those “ignorant rednecks” stand up whenever Dixie is played: You’re not a loser if you are still fighting. They have never stopped fighting for a south where the white man is at the top of the heap simply for being a white man. They do not want competition from people of color or women. They do not want to have to work for their position. And yeah, not ALL white men, blah blah blah. But enough white men. If you don’t believe me, go watch the January 6th footage. The foot soldiers on that day are not the guys in suits with full bank accounts. They were the men who sensed that their position in life is slipping and they will not make it if they have to compete. They are, in a sense, fighting for their lives. And they use violence because deep down they fear they cannot compete any other way. More than that, they feel they shouldn’t have to compete for their position, for women, or anything, really.
I feel guilty for not staying in the States and working to fix the country. What can one person do? More than I did. You start with voting. That is the least you can do. You can work locally to get out the vote, to prevent gerrymandering, to make your corner of the world a little safer for everyone. You can run for office. You can protest. I am not sure these things are effective anymore.
As one person or one small group, you are fighting an uphill battle. There are powers well beyond our level that are maneuvering and it’s a clash not between good and evil but a battle between not-as-bad and evil. We are also battling ignorance, willful or not. We are trying to rally people who have been beat up on a daily basis just trying to survive in the thinly disguised Hunger Games hellscape that is a capitalist society turned corporatocracy. We are not fighting for our country so much as fighting for the much-promised and undelivered potential of our country.
I don’t know if I believe in that potential any more.
Outside observers have thought that the US would crumble before. So far it has hung on. And it may pull through again. But it will never really move forward until it admits and addresses the fact that the states are not united and haven’t been for over 150 years, if ever. It will continue to fall further and further behind the rest of the world unless it rediscovers its vision and embraces the progress that today’s world demands.
Mostly we are battling the sheer size of the United States. We live in a fast-changing world of technological advances that create new opportunities every day. Smaller countries can move and adjust more quickly to take advantage of these new opportunities. I have often used the “turning around an aircraft carrier” analogy to describe trying to bring about change in the US, but even aircraft carriers have become more nimble. The fact is that the United States is too big and too disparate to implement change at the pace the world now demands—whether it is a national gun policy, energy measures, or basic women’s rights which WE THOUGHT HAD BEEN FUCKING SETTLED ALREADY.
Carving the US into regional countries with trade agreements between each other might be a solution. It’s a solution that will never happen, of course. (Admit it: Every time Texas yells about seceding, you reply “Good Riddance!” Just me?) The US likes being a big country. Size matters. Unfortunately, that slow-moving, oversized mass is its own vulnerability.
The US, from a distance, is hot mess. Up close, it is worse. When you are living there, that bizarre culture of guns and glorifying work and winner take all mentality is normal. So yes, I feel guilt when I look at the United States. But not so much guilt that I would return to live there again.