When I was in high school, my family lived in Scotland for a semester while my father, a professor, was on sabbatical. Over spring break, we decided to go to Spain, taking trains to London, then Paris, and then a sleeper train from Paris to Madrid.
This was in early April 2003, in the early weeks of the invasion of Iraq, and anger at the U.S. was running high in Europe. In St. Andrews, where we were staying, there were demonstrations in the streets against the war and against British involvement, and we figured it’d be worse when we got into continental Europe. My parents talked with my siblings and I about possible anti-American sentiment and told us to be careful about advertising our nationality—to use common sense, basically. I think we talked about identifying ourselves as Canadian, but no one seemed eager to lie.
When we board the sleeper in Paris, the compartments were divided by gender, four people to a compartment. My father, my little brother, and I got found ours and made ourselves comfortable, and my mother and sister went to theirs. Just as we were thinking we might have the compartment to ourselves, another guy showed up with a friend, both speaking Arabic, dropped his stuff, and left. A little later, as the train got underway, he came back and introduced himself in halting, accented English. His name was Hassan, and he was Egyptian. He asked where we were from. My dad, thinking quickly, said we were living in Scotland, which had the virtue of being true without identifying us as Americans. Smooth, right?
About five minutes later, the conductor came around and asked for tickets and passports, at which point the three of us had to hand over our (very obviously) American passports.
Hassan didn’t call us out on the half-truth, but he was curious to know what we thought of the war. He was opposed, and he insisted that all Iraqis loved Saddam Hussein; my father replied that he was not a fan of President Bush and had not voted for him. That defused some, but not all, of the tension for everyone. I can imagine Hassan was nervous, too. Here he was in a tiny compartment with three Americans, who thought God knows what about the war and Arabs in general.
It was my 7-year-old brother who brought everyone together. Blissfully unaware of geopolitics (or, at that age, much else) he heard “Egypt” and immediately thought of the book on King Tut he had in his bag, which he proudly showed off to an amused Hassan. Then he pulled out a magnetic chess set, and soon my dad and Hassan were playing a friendly match. One great thing about an ancient, international game is that is easily translates across cultures. (The only difference, we learned, was that in Egypt “bishops” are “elephants.”) I can’t remember who won the game; as in the Iraq war, the winner is sometimes unclear.
The war didn’t cast a pall over the rest of the week, but it was a constant, strange presence. There were sporadic demonstrations in Spain. We watched the famous demolition of the Saddam statue in Firdos Square on Spanish TV while eating lunch in Santiago de Compostela, as I struggled to translate for the family. People expressed disgust and horror at the war everywhere we went, but they were uniformly kind and polite to us—they didn’t hold the U.S. government’s policies against its citizens.
Still, we were painfully aware of our Americanness. On the way home to the UK we made a brief stop in Paris and went to Palm Sunday mass at Notre Dame, where a woman turned to my father and asked, in French, where we were from. “L’Écosse,” he replied.