Carl Fears, a chatty African American man who grew up in Chicago, spent Tuesday night in a South Burlington hotel room watching the election results on television. His shy Italian wife, Maria, nervously studied for a test that she was scheduled to take on Wednesday after years of delay — the U.S. citizenship exam.
Many foreigners are recoiling in horror at what American voters wrought on Wednesday. Immigrants and minorities and their supporters are alarmed. People are joking — or maybe not joking — about fleeing abroad.
The Fears aren't oblivious: They've lived in Germany, where his U.S. Army career took him, for most of the past three decades, and have been getting texts from friends concerned about Donald Trump's win. While he's no political zealot, Carl said he figures that, if he had done some of the things Trump has been accused of, he would be in prison.
But that didn't diminish their excitement about Maria finally taking the citizenship test.
And so on a gray Wednesday afternoon in the nearly empty U.S. District Court in Burlington, Maria became an American, one of the first to take the oath since Trump became the president-elect. She couldn't keep her eyes off the certificate proving her citizenship for more than a couple minutes.
"It was not something I was worried about," Maria said of Tuesday's election. "And I have him," she added, indicating her husband. "Everywhere we go, we make it work. We look forward, not back."
The two met 28 years ago in a little town in southern Germany where Carl was stationed after enlisting in the U.S. Army. Not long after laying eyes on Maria, Carl knew his days of roaming Europe, young and single and footloose, were over. They've been married 25 years and have two adult children, one in Texas, the other back in Stuttgart, Germany, where they live.
The Fears led the itinerant military life, including stints in Colorado and Texas. But she long resisted becoming an American: She was proud of her European roots and close to her family.
But it was awkward, she said, being the wife and mother of Americans, while she was something ... different. The final impetus came when Carl retired from active duty, and they decided they wanted to live full-time in America within the next several months.
Some weeks ago, they started scouring the internet for information on applying for citizenship and taking the test. (It cannot be taken abroad.) They stumbled onto the site for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Vermont, a place they had never visited and knew little about. They emailed the office, asking for more information. They were surprised when local officials quickly replied with dates when Maria could come take the citizenship test and, assuming she passed, be sworn in by a federal judge.
And so on Sunday, the Fears checked into a South Burlington hotel suite to begin a few days of exploring and, for Maria, cramming.
To pass the citizenship test, applicants must answer six of 10 questions correctly. Maria's test proctor stopped the test Wednesday after she answered her sixth question; she needed to proceed no further.
The Vermont USCIS office usually hosts about 15 naturalization ceremonies a year, officials said, and most of them have a couple of dozen participants. But as a cold drizzle fell outside, Maria stood alone in Judge Christina Reiss' courtroom, her right hand slightly shaking as she held it aloft to take the oath of citizenship.
"It just ... hit me," she later explained. "It's really, really happening."
"I want you to know that you're not alone," Reiss told Maria. "We're all people from other places, including me. Our ancestors all went through the same process and made the same decisions."
Reiss reviewed constitutional principles as she does for all new citizens.
"You violate the First Amendment not only when you stay silent and don't voice your opinion," Reiss told Maria, "but also when you don't protect the rights of others. We don't stand by when someone's rights are violated."
As the judge spoke, Carl, barely holding back tears, walked around the courtroom, camera in hand. He took pictures of his wife, and then he trained his camera on the federal officials in the gallery who had helped with the application, and then on Reiss and everything else in his view.
When the oath was finished, courtroom security officers clapped, and Reiss invited the Fears to stand at her bench for still more pictures.
"I'll stand between the two of you and look like your child," she told them.
Afterward, the Fears asked a reporter for a Burlington restaurant recommendation. They wanted to pop a champagne cork to celebrate.
They will be in town for a couple more days before flying to Germany.
But they have found themselves, unexpectedly, taken by Vermont. They have walked Burlington "from one end to the other," Carl said. It reminds them of some of their favorite places back in Germany.
They're thinking of coming back to settle down when they return to the United States.