by Shari MacDonald Strong
They like her. They really, really like her.
I was in my twenties when I first visited Paris and proceeded to offend by switching breakfast tables – joining friends for café au lait at theirs -- without asking first. Later, I ticked off a shopkeeper when I couldn’t count out correct change for my crepe. I didn’t wear a fanny pack and I didn’t bug Parisians to take my photo while I hammed in front of the Eiffel Tower. But I was perceived as an Ugly American nonetheless.
Not so, Barack and Michelle.
In their first European tour, the new millennium's quintessential Americans have managed not to step on many toes. (Unless you count those of squabbling Czech leaders, whose competing dinner invitations Barack deftly dodged by begging off in favor of a romantic dinner with his wife.) Star-watchers determined to tease out a rivalry between Michelle and Carla Bruni admitted the two said farewell what looked like genuine regret. Sarah Brown acted like a long-lost sorority sister. Even the Queen seemed unfazed by Michelle’s unrestrained show of physical affection. (Who else could get away with actually hugging the Queen?)
Just as President Kennedy once called himself “the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris,” President Obama is the Prince Charming to Michelle’s Cinderella at this ball – and we all know who was the real hero(ine) of that story.
One can speculate about the many reasons for her warm reception – and the continent’s intense interest in the two of them. Are Europeans enamored with the change and hope the new administration represents, and are Michelle and Barack the embodiment of that change and hope? Is it her sense of style that has captivated the masses? Her relative youth – or her beauty? Is it the fact that she and her husband are our country’s first black President and First Lady -- or the fact that she’s an immensely inspiring, intelligent, and likable woman?
I can speculate. (e. All of the above.) But it doesn’t matter to me why Europeans appear to like her so much. I just feel incredibly relieved that they do. It’s been a long time since I perceived a wave of love wafting West from Europe. Since just after 9/11, in fact. Blame George W. Bush for the previous iciness – or don’t. But both conservatives and progressives know, the relationship between us and our European allies has been cool for some time. And yet. Look around. The trees are budding again. Spring is in the air. This has been the longest winter I can remember, and it’s over. I hope.
If Europe’s love affair with Michelle is based on her Gap sweater and her Isabel Toledo dress, it will be short-lived, that’s certain. But maybe, just maybe, they’re connecting with something that progressives and even many conservatives did in the last election. Her genuine warmth, her desire to make a difference, to help take things in a new direction.
At a girls’ school in London, Michelle referenced her own history, citing the unlikeliness of finding herself in the position she finds herself today. She is, indeed, like some kind of optical illusion. One minute you look at her and think, How strange that a girl from her background became the First Lady! Then your perception shifts, ever so slightly, and you think, Of course! How could it have turned out any other way?
This is how I feel while watching Michelle steal hearts across Europe. How strange that Europe seems to like the U.S. again! And then: How could they not, when they see her as she truly is? Young. Undaunted. Strong. A risk-taker. A trend-setter. The girl next door.
Whatever Michelle Obama’s faults and flaws – and she undoubtedly has them; she’s human, like the rest of us – she is anything but an Ugly American. And, at least for now, Europe seems determined not to see her the way they often seem to see so many of us.
So, go ahead, Michelle: Hug the Queen! Foil the plans of national leaders who want to ensnare your husband in their personal feuds. But don’t ask for Freedom Fries, and be careful when you count out your crepe money. The honeymoon isn’t over yet. And – undoubtedly, like you -- we’d really like to keep it that way.