The twelve days I spent in Athens, covering the Gaza flotilla as an embedded journalist, were stressful and confusing. I was still trying to wrap my head around things as I left Tel Aviv for a visit to the United States.
Hearing others’ thoughts and feelings is one way we can process our own, especially when we’re struggling to sort things out. So, I decided I would spend the 24 hours of transit time asking Americans what they think about the flotilla, the Israeli blockade of Gaza, and US foreign policy vis a vis the Middle East.
Yes, I’m one of those annoying plane-talkers. No, I don’t sleep. (I can’t sleep sitting up. And as a broke writer—excuse me, freelance journalist—I can’t afford first class. I can only look, with great envy, at those seats-turned-single beds as I shuffle off the plane, bleary-eyed and exhausted.)
I sat next to an Israeli couple for the first leg of my journey—good for getting a last shot of Hebrew before leaving, bad for talking about American understanding of the flotilla. On the second flight, I was next to a young African-American woman. As the stewardesses—excuse me, flight attendants—shut the overhead compartments, I mentally rehearsed some small talk, a social nicety that I still haven’t mastered. We taxied down the runway. I turned towards my unsuspecting interviewee…
Who promptly put a blanket over her head.
My expectations were low when I set out for a cafe a couple of days later to conduct some man-on-the-street interviews. They were so low, in fact, that I left my digital voice recorder at home. I figured that I was unlikely to find anyone in this small Florida town that knew or cared much about world events.
It wasn’t just the blanket over the head. Some of the American activists I’d met in Athens had mentioned that—before they’d gotten involved with the flotilla—many of their family members, friends, and acquaintances didn’t know anything about the blockade. Some didn’t even know where Gaza was.
I ordered a latte. As I paid with (the now foreign-seeming) dollars, I tossed a question to the guy behind the counter. He had dirty blonde hair, blue eyes, and was just a tad bit over weight. He wore his baseball cap—emblazoned with the company logo—at an earnest angle. I sized him up as the typical American. I didn’t bother to take my notebook out.
“So, what do you think about the flotilla?” I readied myself to give a concise explanation of both the blockade and the attempt to challenge it.
“It’s awesome,” he said.
My head snapped up. I squinted at the guy.
“Yeah,” he said, with that dogged enthusiasm that can only be found in the New World. “I’m crazy about the Arab Spring, too. I honestly think that Americans could learn something from it.”
I pulled out my notebook and dug through my bag, looking for a pen.
“Wait, can you repeat that?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said.
He did, adding that Americans ought to take to the streets to demand change rather than waiting for it; that US citizens should use words as bombs.
This guy, who turned out to be the manager, had read about the flotilla in the local newspaper, which is a New York Times subsidiary.
“It’s the same thing with 9/11,” he continued. “We walked away from that thinking that there are terrorists when we should have been thinking about our foreign policy.”
He talked like someone who was political active, so I asked him if he was.
“I used to be, very much so,” he said, explaining that, in university, he’d double-majored in interpersonal communication and women’s studies and, after graduation, had been involved in the struggle to combat global sex-trafficking. “But it got so depressing.”
Because he felt unable to actually affect change, he’d disengaged from the world of news and political happenings. Nowadays, he limits himself to the local paper.
“I do what I love,” he said, shrugging. “And that’s making coffee.”
As we said goodbye, I admitted to the manager that he’d surprised me. I’d expected total ignorance. Not because he worked at a cafÃ© but because he was American.
“It might have been a little condescending or pretentious of me to leave my recorder at home,” I mused aloud.
“Yes, maybe it was,” he answered.
But it was all in good humor. We smiled, shook hands, and he introduced me to an employee.
Sarah is a 21-year-old who will major in history this fall at Loyola. She has just returned to this small Florida town after a stint at an acting school in New York (“I slept on a mattress in an apartment I shared with five other girls in Harlem. I realized one day that I didn’t want to be an actress that bad”). Like the manager, she’s blonde-haired and light-eyed. While she hadn’t heard about the flotilla, she echoed some of his sentiments.
“I stay abreast but I try not to get too into it. I feel like I can’t do anything about it,” she said. “I waver between apathetic and angry. I have moveon.org send me emails. But I just delete them.”
“I’m going through a personal journey right now,” she added.
Her journey has been shaped, in part, by the economic crisis. Her family was upper middle class before the recession, Sarah explained. But her mother, a kitchen designer, has been out of work for some time as both the real estate market and renovations have ground to a stop.
Sarah has been through three rounds of college applications, hoping to get scholarships each time. “I got into really good schools,” she said. “But I can’t afford 53,000 dollars a year.”
So she’s slinging coffee and will attend a less expensive university. She acknowledged that she’s lucky to be going at all.
I told Sarah that during my last visit back, I’d been shocked to see families having massive yard sales—apparently selling everything in their homes. The year before, I’d noticed more than one person driving around town with hand-written cardboard signs taped in their windows: WILL WORK. A phone number was scrawled below.
This time, I’ve been shocked to see people standing on the sides of the roads wearing black signs around their necks that read, in yellow letters: WE BUY GOLD! An arrow points to the nearest pawn shop.
“People are selling their jewelry now, too?” I asked.
“Yeah, it’s gotten really bad here,” she said. “You know, there are so many areas of our country that need to be fixed. It’s frustrating to me how much money [the US government is giving] to other countries. What about our people and our country?”
Sarah is not interested in sustaining an upper middle class lifestyle—“My goals are to sing, write, and travel,” she said. “I’ll be broke even if the economy improves.” Rather, she’s concerned about the quality of education and the lack of funding for pre-kindergarten programs.
“So why don’t you go out and protest?” I asked.
Sarah answered that rallies “meant something” in the 1960s. “I feel like the people in charge aren’t listening anymore.”
She stood and put on her green apron and her company baseball cap. As she pulled a black wristband onto her arm, she explained that it’s corporate policy to cover up tattoos.
“Yup, I’m working for The Man,” Sarah said.