As I stepped into the Bohemia Bagel Café in Old Town a few weeks ago, I heard a man seated at one of the front booths call out, “Hey, are you guys Americans?” My Canadian friend swiveled her head around and remarked, “No, sorry!” as she led us back to a table by the kids play area. I followed her, but then stopped suddenly when it hit me that I was actually an American.
I walked back to the man who’d spoken to us and said, “I am an American.”
Without skipping a beat, he inquired, “So, are you registered to vote?” When I replied, “No,” he proceeded to give me a short, informative pitch on why I should register on the spot. I noticed he was wearing an Obama campaign tee-shirt, and I assumed he had been recruited by the campaign to track down non-registered US travelers and expats. I wondered how many Democratic Barack Obama volunteers were canvassing the streets in other major European cities and if Republican John McCain had any supporters engaged in similar due diligence.
“How long are you going to be here?” I asked, trying to hedge my way out of either accepting or refusing his offer.
“I’ll be here all day,” he said. “But it only takes 5 minutes, I promise. What state are you from?”
“Virginia,” I replied.
“Oh, a swing state. Your vote is going to matter. It’s just a few questions, you’ll see.”
Reluctantly, I acquiesced. Radek agreed to watch the kids, and I headed back to the empty computer where my new-found registration friend pulled up the www.votefromabroad.org website. He assured me (again) that the online process was fast and confidential and left me to fill in my data.
As I breezed through the questions, I thought about how this would be my first-ever vote not cast in the US. I felt notably more detached from the current presidential race than I had in the 2000 and 2004 elections, but I wasn’t sure if my lack of involvement could really be related to living abroad.
While I was living in the US, many of my close friends were involved in one way or another with the presidential campaigns, and I faithfully read news articles and followed the debates on television as much to improve my political literacy, socially, as I did to inform my actual vote. At the time, I was also single and had time to read the newspaper and check online news during my lunch break at work.
Although I knew the election was coming up this fall, I had forgotten entirely about applying for a ballot. Since my time for English language news and internet is restricted to evenings after the children are asleep, in truth, I’ve hardly followed the presidential race beyond watching the occasional CNN update. However, after listening to the recent buzz among other American females living in Prague particularly over Republican female candidate for VP, Sarah Palin, I determined it was time to me to become informed (and registered), if I wanted to contribute to the discussions.
Applying for a ballot was one step in the direction to becoming more politically responsible. Just as I was finishing up my application, the volunteer appeared at my side again. “Are you ready? If so, I’ll print out your application. Then all you have to do is sign it and mail it back to your home state.”
I was surprised he offered to print my application for me since I assumed he’d have to pay for the copies. But he returned a few minutes later with a 9-page print out and further instructions for mailing. Although it seemed redundant to go through all the instructions since I had them on the print outs, I listened dutifully, hoping the procedure wouldn’t be complicated.
When he finished, I couldn’t resist asking, “So how long are you here?” I expected the answer to be a week. I was surprised when he replied he’d lived in Prague for 16 years and had registered voters a few times before. After exchanging a mutual thank-you, I found Radek and the children and we left the café. As we walked out the door, I heard him greet the next English-speaking group with his signature question, “Are you Americans?” and his follow-up “Are you registered to vote?”
At home later, I found an internet article entitled “Voting Abroad,” published last month on expats.cz. The self-proclaimed non-partisan article outlines the procedure for applying for an absentee ballot and features interviews with the current chairmen of the Democratic and the Republican committees for voting abroad in Prague. Both men have lived at least 10 years in the Czech Republic and share strong feelings about voting, calling it a “basic responsibility” or a “privilege” equally, if not, even more important for Americans living abroad as for those living state-side.
Reading the article made me glad I’d started my application process. Now I just needed to mail the hard-copies of my form and sit back and wait 30 days for my ballot to arrive in the mail. Although I didn’t feel any more political than I had before my encounter with the volunteer at the cafe, I was glad that I hadn’t missed the opportunity to exercise my privilege/responsibility as an American citizen this election.
Every Friday Half-n-half highlights personal stories of bilingual families living in the Czech Republic. The main contributor is Emily Prucha, an American living in Prague with her Czech husband and two children. The Prague Daily Monitor and Emily welcome your feedback on Half-n-half; please send comments to [email protected].