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Americans Abroad

Guess where the gringo is going

“I don’t mean gringo in an offensive way,” he said. I did a combination of waving my hands and shaking my head, searching for some internationally recognized gesture for “no offense taken.” Daniel continued: “Gringo used to be a slur. But now we use it to mean outsider.”

He could have used it as a slur for all I cared, as I enjoy indulging in one of the favorite activities of the American abroad: judging other Americans abroad. There were plenty here in Medellín to judge. The day before, my husband Nico and I had gone to the bar to drink cocktails and play cards under a sign that said “WE DO NOT SERVE SEX TOURISTS.” The drinks were all designed for spectacle and social media, luring in the tourists with ‘grammable moments and envy bait. Nico ordered something with strawberries, and it was inexplicably set on fire in front of him. My drink came in a goblet the size of a fishbowl yet must have had only a few drops of real booze, as I stood up after two without even the slightest wobble. But we stayed because the view was hard to beat.

Medellín’s nightlife district abuts the red-light district, and from the bar’s terrace we saw groups of young American men, probably from the military or the oil industry, drinking together and gathering courage for their collective trips to the brothels up the hill. We started to play Guess Where the Gringo is Going, placing bets on whether the staggering, loud men would turn right or continue straight to the street with all the trendiest restaurants. I always bet they’d turn, and I was doing pretty well.

Daniel was the guide we had hired to take us through Comuna 13, the neighborhood that went from being one of the most violent places on the planet to a huge tourism draw. Daniel did a couple of tours for gringos a day. By midday, the tourists would vastly outnumber the residents, and the small streets, now lined with murals, bars, and souvenir shops, would be clogged with visitors. During the pandemic, Daniel had taken work at a customer service call center for Amazon; now demand for private and small group tours of the new arts district gives him the freedom to turn down work if he wants.

Medellín was becoming that most cursed of things: trendy. Its flourishing arts scene, renewed food culture, and past notoriety and exposure on the hit Netflix show Narcos made the city a destination. It didn’t hurt that a leftist had just been elected president in Colombia, leaving the currency shaky. YouTube channels and blogs and forums sprung up, urging digital nomads and the kinds of people who call themselves “expats” instead of “immigrants” to move to Medellín, where the exchange rate and the thousands of rentals available on Airbnb mean anyone with access to dollars or euros could live like a king. “Medellín is magnetizing to many expats with its matchless vibes,” said one such guide to the nomadic life.

And it’s true, its vibes are matchless. But Medellín as a city was participating in an increasingly noisy conversation about who gets access to a city’s resources, both material and atmospheric. When the rootless and the rooted clash, who determines which person is more deserving of calling a place home?

A Moveable Lease

Photos of posters in Mexico City started showing up on social media: “New to the City? Working remotely? You’re a fucking plague and the locals fucking hate you.” Mexico City became a hot spot for expats, for both artists and tech workers, during the pandemic. And problems quickly followed. Rents were rising, an entire neighborhood was turning Anglophone, resources were being stretched thin. Mexican activists started asking, “What are you guys even doing here? Why can’t you just go back to where you came from?”

When the rootless and the rooted clash, who determines which person is more deserving of calling a place home?

The pattern was also repeating in places like Athens, Berlin, Bali, Buenos Aires, and other cities in which I have found myself occupying hotel rooms and short-term leases over the years. Portugal’s American population has more than doubled in the last five years, and the reasons for moving are pretty basic. They can afford bigger houses in Portugal, the European way of life is more attractive than the American rat race, they saw YouTube videos from fellow expats about how easy and comfortable it is to relocate.

Nico and I were in Medellín because from time to time we have had conversations about moving to Colombia. He was born and raised in Bogotá, but Bogotá would probably not be the subject of any Living the Digital Nomad Life vlogs. The traffic is hideous, and there is chaotic public transportation. It’s at a high altitude that can be very difficult to adjust to, and the weather is less stable. But Medellín has all the basic infrastructure for a comfortable, “creative” life. And our conversations about moving there echo the arguments digital nomads make for living abroad. Living through America’s first real sense of decline and disempowerment is less than appealing, our health insurance is both terrible and shockingly expensive, and earning money in dollars and spending it in pesos might be the only way that two people who work in the arts can live without regular end-of-the-month anxiety attacks.

Also, Colombia would make it easy bureaucratically. Getting a residency visa would not be a struggle, even if I wasn’t married to one of their citizens. And if the move were more permanent, Colombia and America both allow for dual citizenship. After a painful, expensive, time-consuming, and exhausting four-year ordeal of trying to sponsor my husband’s citizenship in America, the process of establishing myself in Colombia would feel by comparison like a spa treatment.

Our reasons for not moving from Philadelphia to Medellín, at least not yet, are all personal. We have focused only on what each city and nation have to offer us, not the other way around. Never once has our conversation about Medellín included the words “housing crisis” or displacement; we just share apartment listings that look better than where we live now. When we talk about currency exchange rates, it’s because we’re excited by the possibility of being more financially powerful in Colombia, not because we are thinking about what effect American money has on the local economy. We haven’t decided to move because we like our jobs and our apartment and our lifestyle in Philadelphia well enough, not because we’re taking a principled stance.

I lost my temper at a colleague a few years back. I had been fuming over his social media posts about the housing crisis in Berlin, a city I had once lived in and he currently did. He had been ranting frequently about his struggle to find a long-term lease in the city and about the “greedy and provincial” landlords who preferred to rent to professionals and families over freelance or creative workers. It’s a real problem, finding a stable situation in a place where rentals in the fashionable neighborhoods often get hundreds of applications. But I found something tasteless about the complaints coming out of the mouth of an American with a PhD and a high-ranking position at an artistic institution.

“But if it’s hard for me, imagine how much harder it is for a Turkish immigrant.” Americans in Berlin are always doing this, inventing the plight of an imagined Turkish immigrant to deflect any accusations of complicity in the gentrification happening in the city. Once at a party I had complained about how many of the coffee shops in my neighborhood had changed their menus from German to English, and an American man bellowed at me, “Would you complain about the menu being in Turkish?”

I wasn’t trying to point out hypocrisy. There’s nothing more boring than a smug “well aren’t you a little hypocrite.” I just find it particularly convenient for an American to believe that every inconvenience or disappointment they encounter is a form of oppression, and that every problem for others they are contributing to is a “structural issue” that they have no power to solve. At any rate, he blocked me on social media.

Escobar Tourism

Both the American in Berlin and I are members of the cosmopolitan class, used to traveling easily and cheaply, used to being accommodated and subsidized by disruptor apps like Airbnb and Uber, turning every city—from Barcelona to Lviv, Buenos Aires to Mexico City, Montreal to Hong Kong—into an extension of their living room. Over the course of the 2010s, it became easy (and not just easy but desirable) to develop a casual, consumerist relationship to the rest of the world. It was fun to slide down the surface of the globe, thrilling to go clubbing in a city that had only recently finished rebuilding from a civil war, tempting to blur the rise of authoritarianism outside your vacation rental from the background of your selfie. And even as people complained about their apartment buildings being turned into off-the-books hotels, the replacement of services for long-term residents with cute shops catering to tourists, and the constant clatter of roller bags being dragged over cobblestones, cities struggled to manage the problem. They had established policies to attract tourism dollars but hadn’t been prepared for the influx of tourists and their expectations.

Instead, international travel often becomes a new, expensive version of provincialism, with expats making friends mostly with other expats.

The pandemic brought those issues to the forefront. A mindset of abundance turned to one of scarcity. Housing crises hit urban areas worldwide as rents and property rates skyrocketed. Cities like Mexico City, Johannesburg, and São Paulo struggled with water shortages. And places like Bali, which had become a digital nomad/spiritual tourism/party girl hot spot, soon discovered that your average Westerner uses exponentially more water and electricity than your typical Indonesian. Western travelers are not used to being asked to go without, and they are paying good money to be here ($10 a night or whatever), so they are going to run their shower as long as they want.

In Medellín the issues are clean water and housing. When rents are raised in the city center, it pushes people to higher altitudes on the outskirts, in zones already susceptible to landslides, even before the land is deforested and developed. But tackling these issues can be somewhat paradoxical. The more services and resources the city tries to provide its less prosperous citizenry, from public transportation to improved housing, the more appealing the city becomes to outsiders. Medellín built escalators throughout Comuna 13 to help residents travel up and down the neighborhood’s steep roads and trails; making the neighborhood accessible brought in a new wave of tourists who have been driving away long-term residents.

Americans are naive. Babies, really. We are barely taught our own history, let alone the history of any other part of the world. Many Americans, whose mental image of a drug cartel-dominated Colombia was created half by 1980s Hollywood films about cocaine and half by Narcos, want to see their expectations met in the real world, and they will pay people to recreate them.

Even if Americans were curious about Colombian history, they don’t have many places to go. Almost no historical works by Colombians or even South Americans have been translated. When a country is invaded, politically manipulated, drone bombed, or economically hijacked by the United States, the intellectual community that might protest our government’s actions tends to show little interest in making sure the country’s stories, texts, and ideas are preserved and distributed. At best we’ll get something pedantic, a scholar or just some guy who decides to travel across the nation being vilified by politicians and the press to offer a more human perspective. Think Rory Stewart walking across Afghanistan, or Wade Davis traveling down the Magdalena River through Colombia. Or Rebecca West, of course, traveling across Yugoslavia between the World Wars, in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. This is what the public wants, a complex history and culture told, without too much complexity, by one of their compatriots.

This creates the less tangible issue of disrespect. The company Daniel works for does have a Pablo Escobar-themed tour of the city. But, as they make it clear on their website, their tour is not a celebration or a revisionist story of the drug wars. There are other companies that will happily sell you Escobar-themed T-shirts, shot glasses, toy guns, postcards. They’ll drive you around and tell you how generous Escobar was to his community, building houses and acting as a Robin Hood for the poor. And gringos love these tours. But the tours and the memorials that try to get across the toll the civil war and the drug trade and political instability and international interference had on this city, the forty-six thousand “confirmable” lives lost in just ten years from bombings and kidnappings and state violence, you might get a bored and quiet “wow” from the tourist—or maybe he’ll just ignore you and take a selfie with the memorial wall, spotted with bullet holes to represent the dead, in the background.

Triple Expat

There is a recognizable cycle to cities that attract people who refer to themselves as expats instead of immigrants. First, the city suffers some kind of collapse. A large percentage of the population is driven away by war, political instability, or violence. This leaves behind structures and institutions that become neglected and depleted. It also drives down the price of resources like housing. Berlin post-reunification is a good example of this process, but also Buenos Aires post-economic crash at the turn of the century and New York City after the AIDS crisis and Paris between the wars.

I wanted to put my face in the painting.

A segment of the population who decides to stay participates in establishing a dream of the city. They create art, “scenes,” and films about the coolness of the city. Or they romanticize the bravery that it takes to live in such a place, or glamorize the strife that caused the migration out of the urban center. People who don’t live there start to interact with this dream and let it colonize their imagination.

Then the situation stabilizes. The threat passes, the war ends, the violence gets under control. People who had been attracted to the scene but not able or willing to live under a constant threat of death see their opportunity to move in. Soon it’s not so much the culture of the city but the lifestyle that makes up the dream. Rents are still cheap because the population has not yet recovered to its previous highs, and politicians, developers, and institutions start to see potential in the new growth. They use the dream to attract new residents, companies, and foreign investment. They offer more lenient residency visas or offer pathways to citizenship for those who buy property.

Then resources that had once been plentiful start to become scarce. Soon tensions mount between those who have and those who need or want. The rootless population becomes a target because their connection to the city seems tenuous, but also because of their visibility. New populations tend to cluster in the same neighborhoods, and struggle or don’t bother to pick up the language. Yet their supply of foreign currency means businesses, housing, and local politicians will cater to their needs before those of the locals.

Postwar West Berlin lived in fear of nuclear annihilation, as well as the instability that followed World War II, which drove out a large part of the population. The population continued to decline slowly but steadily through the second half of the twentieth century. Germany’s policy of allowing Berlin residents to avoid military conscription attracted a certain type of individual (hippies, pacifists, activists, artists), and cheap rent gave them an incentive to stay. Music, film, and visual art all flourished during this time. Then came reunification, and the population spiked. An international community was reintroduced to the city; people wanted to buy into the dream. There is also a second tier of cities that go through similar cycles, like Lisbon or Medellín, whose allure is dependent on these first-tier fantasies but are more about compensating for what Americans feel their own society lacks.

I grew up in a very small conservative town in Kansas that was a strong supporter of just about every military action America committed, despite residents not being able to find the invaded countries on a map—and also despite the fact that, the town lacking career opportunities as it did, it was often their own neighbors, friends, and sons fighting in those wars. People from my town didn’t speak a second language. They didn’t own a passport. If they ever left the country, it was on a cruise ship. These, I used to think, are the bad Americans. They were homebound, rooted in Kansas, a place not even that interesting or diverse or progressive. But were the unrooted Americans the good ones? Nomadism, expat culture, cosmopolitanism—this was widely seen as the antidote for the poison of nationalism. Hadn’t the twentieth century’s wars been fought over arbitrary divisions and imaginary boundaries? Wouldn’t transgression, then, be the way forward? But travel also carried that maniacal American need to label any pursuit as a form of self-improvement. It would make you more sophisticated. It would “build empathy.”

Instead, international travel often became a new, expensive version of provincialism, with expats making friends mostly with other expats. Before the pandemic, I had traveled to Bali to profile a community of digital nomads there. They listed all the typical reasons for being on the island: the weather, the other “creatives” in the neighborhood, the cost of living. And a whole district had popped up around them, with American-owned yoga studios, markets, restaurants, coffee shops, and coworking spaces to meet their needs in a language and level of comfort with which they were familiar. They talked about what the other cities they were thinking about moving to had to offer—public transportation, “the art scene,” vegan options—like they were listing the amenities in one of those housing developments that keep getting built in my Philadelphia neighborhood, the ones with their own restaurants, food markets, pet-sitting services, laundry, and community rooms so a resident never has to interact with the city at all. And yet for these amenity-conscious Americans, “world traveler” was an integral part of their self-identity.

It doesn’t take much theorizing to notice that this banal cosmopolitan approach to the world isn’t a form of rebellion or a noble counter to the prevailing capitalistic, nationalistic business as usual. It’s very much aligned with the dominant system. The expat who moves to Portugal because they’ve been priced out of their American housing market uses the same logic of a multinational corporation transferring their operations to Bangladesh. They’re both trying to get more bang for their buck. And neither tries to argue they owe something to their new locale. Their money should be enough.

No Ficción

Nico and I went to the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín. I was reading all of the wall text, helpfully translated into English, because I knew almost nothing about Colombian art. OK, I knew about Botero—he was kind of hard to miss. Fat birds, fat nuns, fat Escobar, fat priests, they were all over the place here.

I was taking notes. Artists to look up later, the names of movements and institutions. There was a lot of art about narcos, guerrillas, the aftermath of violence. There was a tribute to the previous version of this museum that had been damaged in a bombing. There was a reference to a kidnapping of a journalist, and when I looked it up I was recommended a book by Gabriel García Márquez. (I clicked “buy.”) I was trying to orient myself, to understand what I was seeing.

Then I came to a collection of small works by Ethel Gilmour. I had that moment of instant affinity: your eyes are scanning, you’re taking in a roomful of work, but this one thing is the only thing you really want to look at. It was her painting No ficción, a depiction of the artist and her husband, lying in bed for a nap, with their poodle curled up on a cushion at the foot of the bed, the window of the bedroom cracked from a stray bullet. She included the bullet fragment, dug out from her wall, in the work itself. It was small, square, maybe seven inches by seven inches. I wanted to put my face in the painting.

Who is Ethel Gilmour, and why had I never heard of her before? I was almost angry. I pulled Nico back into the room he had already passed through and pointed it out. Who is she? He didn’t know. We bought a book in Spanish at the museum shop, and at every museum we visited for the rest of the trip we would look for Gilmour. She was American, as it turned out. “But Medellín claims her as their own,” read one of the wall text descriptions. Born in 1940, she moved to Medellín when it was one of the most dangerous places in the world because she met a Colombian man whom she loved.

There is a kind of fury in Gilmour’s paintings, albeit one that is ornamented brightly. She directs much of her anger at American symbols, with Uncle Sam and Andy Warhol used interchangeably as patriotic icons. She shows American stability and frivolity, its obscene carelessness, as dependent on the bloodshed in Colombia. The man she loves, her husband, often shows up in her paintings with beatific peacefulness, but with his body vulnerable to the violence her own country allows to continue. She paints her bedroom as invaded also by a menacing Pope figure—the Catholic church’s complicity in the violence waged by narcos and paramilitary groups is a recurring theme—and Colombian warlords.

There is a Florine Stettheimer-like whimsy to her color choices and her figuration, but instead of parties, she’s painting massacres. What looks like an expressionist landscape becomes menacing once you notice the outline of a body under the tree. Every peace is disrupted, every moment of calm has an underlying tension. Again and again, she just wants to take a nap with her husband. She just wants the simple domesticity of feeding and being fed, of the embodied rituals of sleep and bathing, but here is a bombing down the street, and now she has to think about geopolitics again.

Meanwhile I think through Gilmour’s paintings, wonder how to be an American abroad without waving away the consequences of that. I, too, just want to play cards and eat fried plantains and take a nap with my husband in the big hotel bed, but here I am having to think about geopolitics again, about where any of us belongs, about what we owe to the place we might call home.