When I registered for my absentee ballot in the summer, I didn’t really think about what it would be like to vote outside of the United States or be outside of the country on Election Night.
I applied for it when I was in the middle of filling out a bunch of other paperwork for studying abroad and then scanning it and sending a copy to each parent. At that moment, and in that state of mind, it was just another piece of paper requiring my social security number—nothing more, nothing less.
This apathy righted itself as soon as I came over to Paris. But even then I didn’t become swept into the upcoming election by choice or desire; it was the French pushing me into caring about it, or at least carrying on a conversation about it.
One of the first things my host father asked me at our first dinner the day I moved in was whether I would be voting for “Rom-i-ney or O-bahm-a.” Later, my host mother would ask if I did everything I needed to in order to get my ballot. And when I did email in my ballot (thanks, always-forward-thinking Massachusetts), I knew I would have to tell her and I did—twice, since she wanted me to explain it to her husband at dinner that night after I had already described it to her when I came home from school.
My very liberal, very politically minded parents—my host mom went to a protest once, even though she’s in her ‘60s … and she judged me so hard when she asked me about Occupy Wall Street and I had to confess that I never actually participated it. So in the beginning, at least, I thought that maybe it was just them. At that time, it was only a couple weeks into the program and I hadn’t had any conversations with French people who weren’t required to talk to me because of their job (i.e. my professors and people behind the counter, whether the counter was in a restaurant or a clothing boutique).
But then I learned that I was being silly. French people liked talking to be about Obama and the election, and I’m assuming that it’s simply because I was American. Even if people didn’t know enough English to carry on a conversation with me, they knew enough to say “OBAMA!!!!!” and shake their fists in the air like they were Rocky in the city where the Declaration of Independence was signed. And the ones that did know English felt more than comfortable in their language skills to start a political conversation with me—and even the ones who didn’t speak English knew enough to try and start a political conversation in French with me, those poor, unsuspecting people.
No matter who I was talking to or where it was taking place, I always felt guilty, because I never felt as impassioned as my conversational partner did.
Most of the time, they would just talk about how great Obama is or how terrible Romney is. No one ever mentioned Dubya, for all of the stuff he did to make the French hate him. In these occasions, I would just shake my head and say “Oui, je suis d’accord avec toi”—which in my translation means “Yes, I agree with you, so there’s no need to keep talking about this!!”
But then there would be someone who knew facts and percentages and could quote from the debates and knew where the candidates were speaking that day. Those would be my oh shit moments. Oftentimes, they’d know more about the election or the candidates’ talking points before I did.
My host mom would stay up late to listen to coverage about the debate on the radio, and I would have nothing to contribute when she would ask me about it the next day. Sure, I’d watch the video the next day, but I wouldn’t stay up late to stream it live or wake up early the next day to watch it before school. And every time I had to explain this to her, I felt like she was disappointed in me.
I never encouraged these conversations. Even in America, I would never start a political debate or mention politics. I never liked debating in the political science class I took in high school that took place in Massachusetts after Ted Kennedy died and before Scott Brown was elected as senator.
But because I’m American, it’s not only assumed that I would want to talk about Obama, or that I would be capable of having something to say about Obama. I found this to be truer the closer it got to November 6, 2012.
And then once it did get to Election Day—or night, in my case—then I got the biggest idea of what is expected of me as an American abroad.
It was my Irish professor that first told me about Harry’s New York Bar, the American bar famous mostly for three things:
1.) It was one of the many hangout bars of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. But a lot of bars can claim that in Paris. So …
2.) It is the birthplace of the bloody Mary and was the first place in Paris to sell hot dogs. But I don’t like tomato juice and I always publically say that I don’t like hot dogs. So that leaves us with …
3.) Since the Hemingway/Fitzgerald times, it has conducted these straw polls for presidential elections that only Americans could vote in. During the whole 80-something year history the results have only been wrong twice, in 1976 and 2004.
When I googled this point, I read on blogs that it’s usually pretty hard to get into Harry’s New York Bar on election night, since the actual bar itself is reserved for V.I.Ps and media types. But I also read that the whole street is closed off and there are giant screens that play CNN all night, so I thought it’d be fun to check it out with a couple of friends.
When we got there, we saw that the boxed-off smoking section outside the bar had a bouncer in front of it, and the makeshift entrance had two people with clipboards standing in front of it. I didn’t even now what to call a V.I.P in French to try and worm my way inside, and I didn’t have my “News Editor” press badge from The Triangle, not that I thought it would work. But it wasn’t too cold out and we were waiting for some friends to arrive, so we just stood outside the bar and talked about how we weren’t hearing any English from the people loitering in the streets.
We probably would have done that all night, except then this woman came up to us and said, in stilted French English, that she did PR for the bar and they needed to fill their American quota and we were American, right? Yes? Well, then, would we like to go inside and maybe talk to the media? There will be free champagne!
Obviously, we said “Oui.”
All in all, there were nine of us American girls, and when I brushed past the people waiting in line to get to the bar I reflected on the irony that we were being brought inside not because of our looks, but because we would be good interview subjects.
How many other girls can say that, am I right?????
I’d say that media types cornered us as soon as we walked in the door … but for me, there was a guy with a camera tapping my shoulder as I waited in line to get through the door.
“American?” he asked.
I nodded. Le Duh.
And he continued to ask, all in French, if he could talk to me. Okay, I said. And then he started asking all of these questions.
Who did I vote for? Where was I from? Who did I think was going to win? Was I stressed about the election? What was I doing later that night (in terms of the election)? What was it like being abroad on Election Night? How long had I been in Paris? What was I doing over here?
“You speak very good French,” he told me after I stumbled through those answers, which would be hard for me to answer in my own language. “Can I record you now?”
“Um … I have friends inside. I’ll see if they want to talk too. You can ask all of us,” I said, hoping then the spotlight would be taken off me and some of my more politically-minded friends could take over for me.
He grinned. “Parfait!” he said, and followed me the two steps I could make into the door. And I did find two friends—two out of the nine who weren’t already talking to reporters—to cover for me. But after we all said our names (for me, this was the first time the guy even asked my name) and they realized this interview would be in French, they pretty much ran away, leaving me with this guy and the camera he was holding about six inches away from my face. Thanks, guys.
So he asked me the same questions he did outside and I gave my same answers.
I voted for Obama, and I thought he was going to win. I was from Massachusetts—the state where Boston is. I was nervous about the election, but not enough to stay up all night and watch the results because I had class the next day, because I am a student studying French in Paris. This was the first presidential election I ever voted in and it was a little sad that I wasn’t in my country the night of the election but I was glad to be in a country that cared about the election as much as France.
Then he said okay, and I asked what this was for. Le Parisien online, he said—aka, one of the major French newspapers. It should be up tomorrow, he said. And then he thanked me and ducked out of the bar.
When I met up with my friends, they were watching the bartender pour us free glasses of champagne. And as we sipped the drink, we talked about how weird it was that we all had to give interviews—and then, how unfair it was that most people’s interviews were in English! Some people spoke to Reuters, others spoke to a French radio channel. I was the only one with the newspaper.
I understand why we were singled out. A tour around the bar would reveal that it was still mostly French media types, and the little bit of English we heard were coming from old people. In this campaign, as young girls, we were the perfect people to give sound bites. But it felt really weird to be twenty years old and considered an expert on American politics, especially just because I am American!
I didn’t get to fill out the straw poll for the bar. And I didn’t want to, after I saw my friends and other American girls who came in later do it and get swarmed by French people, media or not, recording the moment with video cameras and regular cameras and even iPhones.
The bar was tiny and crowded and hot, and no one talked to us for the hour we spent there. Once we were recorded, we were no one. We sipped the last of our free champagne knowing that we wouldn’t be able to go to the bar and get a refill now that the PR lady was standing next to a new group of American girls. It was awkward, but I was glad because it meant I didn’t have to talk about Obama for a while.
And since CNN wasn’t even talking about the election since there was still almost two hours until the first polling station closed, there really was no reason to be there anymore. When someone suggested we go, I went.
Don’t get me wrong, it was a good night. I got into a bar I didn’t think I would be able to get into. I got a free drink. And not only was I interviewed by a major newspaper, but the whole thing was conducted in French and I was able to keep up and sound reasonably competent. It was a personal success and I hoped the good luck would transfer over to Obama.
I woke up at 6 a.m. to check the results—Obama won!—and then went back to sleep at 6:03. I’m gonna need to know everything about the election for breakfast tomorrow, I thought to myself.
And it was “OBAMA!” as soon as I walked up the stairs. And I had to explain that I won because a Democratic state senator was elected in Massachusetts. And I had to try and explain what the electoral college system was like and how technically there are people who vote for us.
When I searched Le Parisien the next morning, I didn’t see a video of me—or anything from Harry’s New York Bar—on the homepage, or in the search results.
Oh well. You win some, you lose some.
P.S. One of the girls in my program got interviewed and literally this is all the article says:
Champagne toasts accompanied by cheers of “Four more years!” broke out in Paris at 5:20 a.m. local time, when President Barack Obama’s re-election was announced at a results-watching party in a chic nightclub just off the Champs Elysees.
Gabriela Reno, 20, applauded with a group of other American exchange students who’d spent the entire night watching returns come in at an event sponsored by the Democrats and Republicans Abroad.
Reno and her friends didn’t spend a lot of time celebrating, though.
“We’ve got class at 11 a.m.,” Reno said, as the partygoers filed out into the dark pre-dawn Paris streets.
See? All you need to do is find an American girl, and baby, you’ve got an election-night article going.