Before COVID-19, my family would holiday in a welcoming village near Boston. But has America’s darkness infected it too?
To go or not to go, that is the dilemma.
For me, planning travel to the United States can be a complicated experience. Perhaps this is true for you, too.
There is a big, brash and beautiful America brimming with kind and considerate people, many of whom are the unforgettable, eccentric characters you can only find in that country.
Then there is the angry, seething and scarred America where guns, hate and extremism are everywhere – ready, on a hair-trigger, to explode into violence and mayhem.
You can encounter both aspects of the country at any time, in any place, in America. That is the risk and reward, I suppose, of going on holiday there. Hence, my quandary.
I have visited America many times – with and without my family.
I have been lucky. During each of those stays, I have enjoyed the big, brash and beautiful side of America and the kind and considerate people who largely populate it.
I like that America.
I have not been to America in three years even though it is only about 90 minutes away from Toronto by car. A lethal pandemic has made sure of that.
Now that COVID-19 has eased its grip on the world, my family and I intend to return to a special place outside of Boston where we have spent almost every summer since my two daughters were born more than 20 years ago.
My wife has asked me not to name the seaside village we visit or when we usually go. So, I won’t.
It is a sweet, sun-bronzed home to mostly sweet, sun-bronzed people who open their old, well-manicured cottages to strangers from around the world and across America with a warm handshake and a smile.
Our trips have been a soothing respite from the hurly-burly of life where we have found rest and quiet for a fortnight each year. We dip into the ocean and walk along a beach that disappears into the horizon and doubles as a toasty, healing blanket for my sun-bath-loving girls.
This magical slice of America is familiar to us. It has grown on us – deeply. And that familiarity breeds a powerful kinship and a longing to return.
Still, truth be told, part of me doesn’t want to go on our belated getaway to America this summer. Part of me would rather retreat to Prince Edward Island (PEI), a distant, beguiling piece of Canada my family has discovered over the past two summers.
PEI is a revelation. The thin, small island is blessed with golden, sweeping hills and vistas dotted with bright-coloured farmhouses that suggest a slower, more humane way of life.
There are, of course, the island’s pristine, calm beaches that stretch along the Atlantic Ocean’s sometimes jagged, clay-red coast. The water is warm and inviting, just like the mellow Maritimers who call this lovely, sanguine province home.
When, late last year, we had to decide where we would spend the most wonderful time of the year together as a family, I was torn.
I knew my younger daughter had made up her mind. As much as she liked PEI, her heart and soul were in that seaside village in Massachusetts she has visited – like her sister – since she was in diapers, but that she hadn’t seen for a few years. She missed it – dearly.
At the height of the pandemic, my wife had arranged for the shop owner of a famous candy store in the village centre to post a note in its window urging my delighted daughter to come back.
I understand the pull of a place that has been the fount of so many joyful moments that are forever fixed in my family’s history and memory.
But I worry that we are making a mistake. I worry that a village we adore that seemed – on its sun-kissed surface, at least – to have avoided the darkness that sadly defines so much of America, may have become infected by it. I worry that the place we knew no longer exists.
I worry, as well, about the threat that America can pose to the mind and body. I worry that America is a risk not worth taking.
I have talked to my wife and elder daughter about my reservations and concerns. They sympathise. They stress that chances are slim that we will be harmed. They are surprised that my usually rational self has been replaced by irrational fears.
I haven’t spoken to my younger daughter about any of this. I don’t want to disappoint or upset her. (Happily, she doesn’t read her father’s missives. She is too preoccupied with the demands of school and navigating a busy teenager’s world, bursting with friends and fun.)
In spite of the reassurances, I can’t shake this disquieting feeling.
Much of America, for all its allure and possibilities, is toxic and dangerous. The country appears broken, consumed by discord and a festering fury that shatters people and places day after disfiguring day.
No one and nowhere is safe.
The divide has deepened between enlightened America and too many other Americans, in too many parts of America, who believe that guns are more valuable than books, and who share in the seething ignorance and bigotry of the false prophets they follow religiously on TV.
This is not a new phenomenon. America has always been a dangerous and divided nation.
But that danger and division appear more acute these days, stoked as they are, by a gallery of grifters and charlatans eager to leverage America’s cleaving into viewers, votes and profit.
Beyond the constant tumult and depressing cacophony, America has become exhausting. Try as I might, I can’t avoid paying attention to the drama and convulsions that jar America one news cycle after another.
I can’t escape America. I am obliged to write about the promise and madness of America.
There is an impulse in me that wants to stay away to avoid being exposed to a nasty, ugly America. Returning to America – even for two weeks – is, in this context, a little absurd.
Then, my family reminds me that the America we know and the Americans we have met, are good and decent.
I will remember this when we pack our bags and head out to an imperfect country that, without fail or hesitation, has welcomed us.
By Andrew Mitrovica – Al Jazeera columnist