A few weeks ago I was returning from Turkey to the United States via Germany. I didn’t mind the eight-hour layover since it meant that I could drop into one of my favorite cities in the world, Munich, and have a relaxing summer stroll around the city. When I got to the border of the European Union I handed my passport and boarding pass to the police officer on duty. He took a look at the boarding pass and reminded me that I had a connecting flight in eight hours. I assured him that I was well aware of that, and that I was only going to take the train into the city for a few hours. He looked at the pages of my passport and just shrugged (probably thinking “this guy won’t miss his flight”); then he stamped me in and handed back the passport and boarding pass with a smile. And that was that. No elaborate questioning, just two people interacting.
I got a day ticket for 13.75 Euros and took the S1, getting off at Moosach. Since I am interested in seeing the famed Munich Olympiastadion, built for the 1972 Summer games, I head in the direction of the Olympic Park. The wide tree lined streets which feel like a mix between central and eastern Europe are peaceful and I take in my surroundings, my last tastes of Europe before returning to the United States. It is one of those times where the traveler thinks “what would my life have been like if I grew up here?”
The Olympic park is off the main street and when I finally enter it feels like a secret garden. The rolling hills and small pond make for an idyllic setting, one of those that could only be on the “old continent”. I hike up the tallest of the park’s hills and, at the top, am rewarded with a stunning view of urban Munich on the one side and natural Munich on the other. The day is calm and peaceful, August in Germany, and I feel as if my senses have been heightened by virtue of these few moments in this small pastoral greenery in the middle of Bavaria. I decide to grab an 11am beer at a beer garden—one of those things that would be impossible to do across the Atlantic—and think about my route to the center; after all no trip will be complete without a few jerseys.
Beautiful Park, and the Beautiful Munich Olympiastadion. Images Courtesy of the Author.
Among the tourist hordes in central Munich I find a couple shirts from last season on deep discount—a Puma Borussia Dortmund shirt and Kappa Wolfsburg shirt. For lunch I head to one of the Turkish kebab places in the red light district by the Hauptbanhof; to my surprise the man behind the counter speaks Turkish to everyone in line except me (I am spoken to in German—guess I’m not Turkish looking enough). I eat my doner and watch a group of Turkish construction workers come in for their lunch, like the Mexican construction workers at the Mexican restaurants I would frequent in Texas. I can’t help but think how strange it is that societies get stratified like this, cheap labor from abroad creates a social hierarchy based on ethnicity—the economic system comes to define the ethnic group and create a new social reality where none existed before. Knowing its nothing I will change, I go back to my doner—the must-try snack of Germany that has overtaken the traditional German snack of bratwurst as the nation’s most popular fast food. Of course, the popularity of the street food itself shows how the imagined ethnic hierarchy can take on a mind of its own.
The Shirts Spread Out on the Counter at a Munich Airport Bar. Because…I wanted to. Images Courtesy of the Author.
Back at the airport I myself get stratified into another kind of imagined hierarchy, this one based not on ethnic background but on nationality. I take the long trek to gates H43 through H48 at the Munich Franz Josef Strauss Airport. It feels like a Japanese death march, the long grey nondescript corridor leading to the special zone of the terminal where flights to the United States depart from. At the ID check kiosk I ask the man if there is anything beyond me—I do it every year, just hoping—praying—that it will change. But it never does. “Just a vending machine. And toilets. There is no restaurant or bar”. Since the disappointment on my face is noticeable, the gentleman levels with me: “I’ll give you the stamp—you have a while until boarding, it won’t board on time. Go back to one of the bars and when you come back just show your stamp and walk to the gate”. I thank him for being a human being and head to the convenience store for a Lowenbrau to pass the time. Its 3.25 Euros, and the lady accepts the 3.20 Euros I give her.
Its a Lonely Walk to the End of the Line. Image Courtesy of the Author.
When I enter the boarding area at Gate H45 it feels like I have entered another world. Indeed, there is nothing to eat save for what one can scrounge from the vending machine with their left over Euros. My fellow Americans count their (Euro) pennies to perhaps purchase a small bag of potato chips as sustenance before boarding. There are not enough seats to accommodate all the passengers bound for a transatlantic flight so everyone stands around like refugees awaiting their departure to a new future. In the bathroom, the paper towel dispenser is broken and it is clear that the single rest room cannot possible satisfy the demand of four gates worth of passengers. I marvel at the chaos all around me that marks my trip to the United States, sequestered in a small corner of one of the world’s most modern airports. When I ask why we are sequestered as such, a Lufthansa employee tells me that it is for “security”. I can only nod, finding myself wishing I was back in the Olympic park taking in the fresh air of Munich instead.
The Toilets Have Seen Better Days While We Stand Like Refugees. Images Courtesy of the Author.
After an eight-hour flight full of romantic comedies I find myself waiting in line for one hour at the Boston Logan International Airport. U.S. citizens are left in a hallway, being let inside to the main “processing area” in fifteen person groups. I marvel at the tight security—certainly the tightest I have seen on my journeys over the past summer. “These guys are crazy” mutters the gentleman in front of me, an Italian-American, and we begin talking. I find it amusing that entering countries in Europe rarely necessitates as much song and dance as entering the United States—my own country of residence and birth—does. The man uses the word “dystopia” to describe the proceedings and I have to admit that its an apt description.
As the “cowboys” of U.S. Customs & Border Patrol “herd” me into the “processing area” where I wait to use one of the automated self processing passport scanners, I wonder how efficient this system is. While the process to enter the United States at airports is one of the most draconian I have ever experienced on my travels, the Mexican border is still porous and many Americans are up in arms when talk is made about increasing security on a border that has become so world famous that even people from as far as Africa are flocking to it. The man in front of me is as frustrated as I am when he mumbles “I don’t think they even catch anyone”. I have to agree—the police state mentality only exists in the world of airports, a realm that is dis-engaged from life on the ground outside. It’s a sort of nether region between the Orwelllian world and the real world. But it is also this emphasis on “security” that allows the United States to portray itself as an oasis of stability in a world rapidly becoming characterized by seemingly random outbursts of violence; it is a city on a hill while chaos swirls below. And that is where I now move into discussing this in the context of the sports world.
On 14 August 2016 four members of the U.S. Olympic men’s swimming team accused Brazilian police of robbing them at gunpoint in Rio de Janeiro when they were returning from a party. American Olympians Ryan Lochte, Gunnar Bentz, Jack Conger, and Jimmy Feigen claimed that their taxi was stopped by people posing as police officers and that money and personal belongings were demanded from them. The state media organ of the United States, the New York Times, was quick to frame the story as one reflective of security concerns in the Brazilian city when they wrote that the robbery heightened “anxiety over violent crime in the host city of the Summer Games” in the article’s opening paragraph. It is not surprising that the New York Times was quick to denounce Brazil and play up its instability, but they may be regretting their decision now.
Four days later, on 18 August 2016, it emerged that the swimmers had actually fabricated the whole story. In fact, if it was just a mere fabrication it might not have been so bad; instead it was an outright lie trying to cover up the fact that the swimmers themselves had been the ones in the wrong. They allegedly urinated on the wall of a Shell gas station, then vandalized the bathroom in a drunken rage and refused to pay for the damages. Mr. Lochte himself then claimed that he mistook the gas station’s security guard for local police—something I might have believed had I been born yesterday.
Police in Rio didn’t believe it either and charged Mr. Lochte with filing a false robbery report, and the swimmer was forced to admit that he “over-exaggerated” parts of the story which, I imagine, is the politically correct way of saying “I lied through my teeth”. On 19 August 2016 Mr. Lochte wrote on his Instagram (the post-modern form of apologizing, in which the most crucial part—looking the one you offended in the eye while asking forgiveness—is impossible): “It’s traumatic to be out late with your friends in a foreign country — with a language barrier — and have a stranger point a gun at you and demand money to let you leave.” For some reason, his defense hinges on his being in “a foreign country with a language barrier”; in Mr. Lochte’s mind this simple fact exonerates him for vandalizing someone else’s property. In all honesty it is an embarrassing defense, but one that cannot be separated from the situation perpetuated, in part, by the United States itself.
Take this small excerpt from ABC News’ 30 August 2016 story as an example:
“I think it’s everyone blowing this way out of proportion. I think that’s what happened,” Lochte, 32, said today on “Good Morning America” when asked whether he embarrassed the United States with his actions in Rio de Janeiro.
“Like I said, I did lie about that one part,” Lochte said of his claim that a gun was held to his head at a Rio gas station. “I take full responsibility. I’m human. I made a mistake. A very big mistake.”
Here Mr. Lochte is still downplaying his actions when he says it was “blown out of proportion”, and when he does admit lying it is only about “that one part”, the gravity of the situation—that there is a larger lie that is insulting to another country—is missed. Even when admitting responsibility, it is only on an individual level. “I take full responsibility”. ”I’m human”. “I made a mistake”. Of course, this focus on the individual can be traced back to the American ideals of individualism and “freedom”. But don’t think that Brazilians aren’t, rightly I may add, a bit perturbed. In a 18 August 2016 New York Times story Brian Winter, vice president for policy at Americas Society and Council of the Americas, tells the truth in no uncertain terms: “[The episode] has tapped into one of Brazilians’ biggest pet peeves — gringos who treat their country like a third-rate spring break destination where you can lie to the cops and get away with it”. Although Eliseu Padilha, the chief of staff for Brazil’s interim president, Michel Temer, said that “This episode will not in any way interfere in the relations between the U.S. and Brazil . . . This could have happened with individuals of any other nationality,” I do not believe it. I’m not convinced that it could happen with individuals of any other nationality.
And this is where I return to the immigration line at Boston’s Logan International Airport. I have been fortunate enough to have been able to visit many interesting international (and domestic) destinations around the globe, something that I owe my parents a huge thank you for encouraging no matter the destination. Therefore, I have been able to see that all is not what it may seem. Of course the United States is a safe, stable, country. Of course in the United States things run fairly smoothly and with (comparably) minor disruptions when compared to some other places in the world. But—and this is important—that does not mean the United States is without its flaws, and it does not mean that other countries do not have their positive sides as well. And it certainly doesn’t mean that you can commit a crime in a foreign country—like vandalism—and expect not to be held accountable for it. Like the golden rule in life, doing unto others as you would want done unto you, there is the golden rule of travel: Do not do in foreign country what you would not do in your own country and expect to not face the consequences.
Too often in the United States we hear about “how bad it is over there”. “There” can be anywhere. It can be Mexico when we hear about the drug cartels. It can be the UK when we hear about the Brexit. It can be Africa when we hear about Ebola. It can be Greece when we hear about the financial crisis. It was Turkey when my neighbor, having heard the news about the 2013 Gezi Park protests, told me “I heard its really bad there”. Unfortunately, the judging that is implicit in such comments comes without any real knowledge of the situation. Just like the reporting done by the state media organ The New York Times, which rushed to emphasize security concerns in Brazil following the first reports of the swimmers’ “robbery” so as to frame the swimmers as innocent victims, U.S. newspapers are often all-too-quick to frame events taking place in foreign countries. (Note the use of the term “state media”—you might hear it mentioned in many publications in the United States, but never in reference to domestic media. This is an example of that framing). And, given that just 35% percent (a generous figure) of Americans have passports, many Americans are unable to visit places to see the truth for themselves. Although the number of passports in circulation is increasing, I tend to believe this is more due to the increased global interconnectedness of the world that necessitates a passport—if only for one trip—that then stays in circulation albeit unused. I even have friends who have passports but have never used them.
It is this combination—the desire to portray the United States as somehow above the fray of the world and the population’s relative ignorance of international affairs—that creates a dystopian reality at airports. It is also one that, unfortunately, sometimes results in people acting out and confirming the image of the “ugly American” abroad that is already present in people’s minds. Perhaps the most absurd thing about the whole incident is that Mr. Lochte really didn’t face any repercussions for his actions. Instead, he was handed a role on the reality TV show Dancing With the Stars. Only in America can you embarrass yourself, your team-mates, and your country and…be given a role on TV in the end. Life—and the American Dream—go on.