“I’m not super into conspiracy shit right now, but do you want to hear something?” begins New Yorker Malcolm Simpson, as he watches two grey haired men play French Billiards across the room. The sound of Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’ fills Groningen’s Wolthoorn Cafe like a smoky haze while Simpson takes an unexpected pause, letting his offer hang in suspense. He watches as one competitor waits for the other to take his shot. The balls clack together and a yelp of ‘fever!’ floats overhead. A fever seems to be in the air right now. All over. An election fever.
Simpson goes on to explain how Democratic presidential nominee Hilary Clinton, her running mate Tim Kaine, and former DNC chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz were all involved in a plot since 2008 to rig the democratic primaries. It’s all interesting, believable stuff, but also fairly standard talk to hear from a 22 year-old, politically engaged student from the US. Like many young Democrats who are watching Clinton stream ahead in the polls, Simpson is ruing what might have been.
He sits at the right-angled corner of an L-shaped seat, with his arms spread along its wooden frame, looking too relaxed to be comfortable. Bobbing his head along to each word, the Environmental and Infrastructure Planning Master student finishes the story with an anti-Clinton flourish.
“She cheated in this election, and she cheated in the primary,” says Simpson, nodding his head once more. When asked if his postal vote would still be sent in favour of Clinton, the nodding stops, and his voice softens. “Well, yeah.”
Roll on November 8th
Simpson’s position as an American student abroad has still not been enough to save him from the onslaught of US election coverage, analysis, counter-analysis, satire, predictions, and polls. In his second spell at the University of Groningen, after previously taking a student exchange to the Dutch city during his bachelors, Simpson has struggled to distance himself from the topic.
“It’s the first thing everyone wants to ask me about,” he says, with his permanently sleepy eyes doing their best to light up. “I just really want it to be over. I just want it to be done so we can then talk about real problems.”
You get the sense that, for all of his protests, Simpson’s submergence in the murky waters of American politics is also self-inflicted. When people ask him about the election the conversation seems to quickly unravel into a mini-lecture.
Between condemning Trump as someone who “has only ever been good at losing” and holding out hope for a Bernie Sanders led reform of the Democratic party, Simpson backs each assertion with evidence. Like a scientist showing his methodology he rhymes off facts, names, places, dates, and figures with the same casual nature you would use to place an order at a McDonalds drive-thru.
In the same moment Simpson can just as easily switch and talk beyond the election. From explaining the “crossroads of ancient civilisation” in the Middle East, to the fall of Constantinople or even outlining the effects of urban sprawl on the American East coast, he has an encyclopaedic knowledge from the most fascinating topics to the most mundane. You feel like you should be taking notes when listening.
“I like to read. And if I find something interesting I tend to remember it,” says Simpson. “I like telling stories.”
Attributing where this passion for learning comes from is easy when accounting for the facts. A father who is a former history teacher, actor and carpenter, and a mother who’s occupations ranged from Asian medicine and massage therapy, to university lecturer and dancer, make it plain to see that the Simpsons have a far ranging thirst for knowledge.
This outlook supplied by his parents has in turn led to his travels, which have took him to Tibet, China, Senegal, Ireland, and now, the Netherlands. Such an outlook, Simpson concedes does have its pitfalls, particularly now as he faces his first Thanksgiving and Christmas away from home.
“I’ll not get back for Christmas. So I might start feeling it next semester sometime,” he says, again looking to the billiard players as they stack up their cues. “We don’t have a very big family, but we are very close. So yeah, it’ll be sad.”
You get the impression that, for all of Simpson’s authority on politics, history, and geography, that there is an underlying uncertainty about his own position in the world, much like America itself.
“It’s the year right after college so all my friends are living in New York or Rochester, taking a break, working in Delis and as waiters and living,” he says, with a distant pang of regret. “They have that breath of calm after college, but I don’t get to do that right? I’m straight back into it.”
But as soon as the conversation gets too emotional, Simpson checks himself and returns to issues of impenetrable fact. Issues of social change, gun control, and minority rights, are where he rediscovers his comfort zone.
“The US is in a moment of turmoil right now. A lot of things are changing, and I’m glad they are changing,” he says, “but I’m also kind of glad that I don’t need to be in the middle of it.”
Drawing a line over all the madness of the past 2 years of campaigning and divide across America, Simpson finds solace in the fact that, at least for the next few months, he will not be a part of it. “Being here is like an extended vacation where I can just see what happens then come back,” he says leaning heavy against the frame of his seat. “It’s like sinking into a nice comfy bath of ignorance for a little bit.”