In the ancient Italian village of Santa Vittoria, in Matenano, Mark Hinshaw, 73, and Savina Bertollini, 50, are the only two Americans among 1,300 people. Amid the tranquillity of the rolling green Apennine foothills, they could not be farther removed from the rainy, grey city life of Seattle, Washington. Yet they feel at home.
The couple, two of about 1.6 million Americans living in Europe, were hoping to escape the chaos of their lives in the United States and enjoy a peaceful retirement after arriving three years ago. But the turmoil of 2020 found them, both with the coronavirus pandemic and the bitter divisions over politics and race in the run-up to the presidential election in their former country.
"I spend as little time as possible discussing politics and stressful subjects. I prefer to spend my time meditating and healing," Ms Bertollini, a herbalist and language tutor, tells The National.
“Covid in Italy was out of control, caught everyone by surprise,” says Mr Hinshaw, a retired architect and journalist for a local publication. “It was horrible. But Italians changed their behaviour. They stopped hugging and kissing – a big cultural change for Italians.”
Italy was one of the worst-affected countries at the start of the pandemic, and is facing a second wave and potential new government lockdown measures. And yet, even after 38,000 deaths, the virus was rarely politicised.
“There was never debate [on mask wearing]. There was this social philosophy of collective responsibility.”
Mr Hinshaw wonders when that was lost in the US, where the virus has killed more than 200,000 people and safety measures are observed largely along party lines, according to research done by Pew. “Growing up, that used to be part of our culture,” he laments, “a balance between individual rights and public responsibility. The latter seems to have diminished.”
Andy Adams, an American who has spent three decades working in finance and higher education in Luxembourg, has also watched his homeland, and its politics, change immeasurably.
“I came over during the Reagan presidency, and there was a lot of anger in Europe at the time. But what people didn’t understand about Reagan was that although he came across as a cowboy and had been an actor – he had also been governor of California for 12 years. He was an experienced politician.”
Mr Adams, 54, is not registered to any party, and has voted for both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates since he first picked Reagan over Walter Mondale in 1984. He voted for George W Bush in 2000, and Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
In this election, he says, the Republican party’s shift right under President Donald Trump, and double standards on processes like the Senate voting to confirm a Supreme Court judge just days before an election, have lost them his vote.
“For the first time in my life I’m voting Democrat blindly, since the Republicans haven't given me a choice.”
Mr Adams is also harsh on the incumbent’s qualifications, or lack thereof. “Trump is not a politician, which is somehow what people think is his virtue. But I don’t get on a plane where they say the pilot is not a real pilot.”
He is not alone. With less than a week to go, the national polls show former vice president Joe Biden with a sizeable lead over Mr Trump.
Americans abroad, who tend to lean towards liberal, seem to be following that trend. For Kelsey Hopper, also of Luxembourg, her decision in this election was a no-brainer.
“I voted for Biden and Kamala [Harris], and everyone else who was either a woman or ethnic minority.” For her, this election is about women’s rights and health care.
“If women are supported in their reproductive health and their family planning, it’s better for everybody. Especially the economy: everything gets better if women are supported.”
Ms Hopper, a 29-year-old private music teacher and yoga instructor, says she is afforded a stable career and life, in part, because of Luxembourg’s social support system. “I’m able to have an artistic freelance career that works.
All of this happens because of support by the government, and then I give back by paying my taxes and being a robust business. I love Luxembourg for that – they support people.”
Health of the nation critical
Healthcare and quality of life are election issues that, perhaps unsurprisingly in the midst of a pandemic, are universally important. Mr Biden has promised to protect and expand the Affordable Care Act, while President Trump has campaigned on stripping it back.
To Americans living in Europe, whichever candidate wins will play into their decision on whether or not to move back at some point.
“I don’t foresee moving back to the US unless health care is sorted,” says Kevin Raub, a 47-year-old travel journalist and guidebook author who has lived in several European countries. “This time it’s not about one’s political views or party affiliation – it’s about life and death and the future of the country.”
Carli Williams, 29, works as a higher education consultant and has lived in Luxembourg and Italy.
She also worries that moving back would be risky. “I’ve come to appreciate the healthcare system here, and know that, no matter what happens – if I lose my job or things are unstable – I don’t have to worry about my health and being able to pay for it. Moving back to the US and dealing with the lack of universal health care is quite scary, and would be a major concern.”
Even though 92 per cent of Americans have some sort of health coverage, more than 43 per cent between the ages of 19 and 64 were found to be inadequately insured, according to research by the Commonwealth Fund. “Lack of universal healthcare limits job mobility,” Mr Adams says.
“Nobody would set up our health system at all if they were creating it from scratch. Not Republicans, nor Democrats. Nobody.”
Distance lends a different perspective on other, less tangible issues that are front and centre in this election. In particular, President Trump’s “America First” policies and rhetoric frighten Americans in Europe and the people they live among.
“Europeans are absolutely terrified of America first and this rise in nationalism,” says Ms Williams. “Americans don’t realise that they affect change elsewhere.” Given the history of Europe, “It’s an issue they take very seriously here.”
Preventing a 'fascist regime'
Back in Santa Vittoria in Matenano, Ms Bertollini cringes at the mention of the election. In 2016 she “deliberately didn’t vote” due to her displeasure with both candidates on offer. But four years on, abstaining for her is not an option – she voted for Biden/Harris.
“I want to prevent the rise of a fascist regime. I don’t like Biden. Were I given another choice, I wouldn’t vote for him. But I don’t have the luxury of voting for anyone else, because the system is broken, and it’s not gonna be fixed today.”
Mr Hinshaw, who also voted Democrat, avoids the “f” word used by his wife. But he does acknowledge the importance of this election to the future of the country and wonders how to bring back the American values that he saw and felt growing up.
“Will it be more of the same, or are we going to continue on an earlier track? The one of collective responsibility, and shared rights and privileges, the things we had hoped to see in the evolution of the country. It’s a big turning point, it’s a Rorschach test of what is the collective psychology of America.”
The couple also worry about their family and friends back home.
“No matter what election scenario you choose, there’s gonna be painfully difficult situations – chaos. I think Biden wins by a landslide, but there will be attempts in swing states to contest,” Mr Hinshaw worries.
He often spends afternoons sitting in the village piazza and shops, drawing sketches of the medieval buildings and age-old hills for locals. It is a picturesque view, much different from the one he sees for his country, at least in the short-term.