On Being American

I am the sort of man who will try not to fart while standing at a urinal.

I'm traveling abroad for the third time in my life. First time was honeymoon, then came an international baby-making cavort, and now it's work. Three trips over a decade, and every time I have gone shod in self-consciousness about one fact: I am an American.

I feel like people see me coming, and it turns out they do. I wear logo-free, unassuming clothing, but everyone speaks English the moment they lay eyes on me. One guy mistook me for an Englishman. He was, appropriately enough, a fellow American.

Over here, everything is something I'm likely to trip over. Partly this is because I'm a bumbler, and I have in fact run smack into people twice in the last week, but it's at least as much to do with my nationality. It's worrying about associations with this guy:



I'm no less American, mind. I made my own lurching flumpdraggle from isolated Midwestern kid to young man desperate to look worldly in international forums. Watched others throw my own assumptions and biases at my feet. Stumbled around, bumped into shit. Brayed like a jackass, which we're sort of known for.

Now, exceptionalism aside, I'm proud of my home. We invented John Lee Hooker and the Internet and moonwalking and 501s. We thought up Batman and Huck Finn and both Homers Simpson. We split infinitives in space. America is, in short, pretty great, if you're not one of the least of these.

If you are, America's heart often beats with the winter dead-leaf rattle of the Ozark countryside I grew up in. Unyielding, unsubtle, and downright Darwinian when it gets cold. But it is also porches and peach pie and funeral potlucks. A place of scarred and self-admiring beauty, unconcerned with what it does not know but pleased to make your acquaintance.

I tow that legacy off the plane. I do my damnedest to choke down the boorishness. I say "excuse me" more than is probably warranted. I overcompensate. I try to conjure a hex of unobtrusiveness. I've seen our tourists.

My country is my skin. I can't hide it and don't want to. But I barely contain the urge to blurt out that we're more than our foreign policy and YouTube comments and loud complaints at the Marriott Starbucks. Most of us have too much self-respect to don a fanny pack.

Well. A lot of us do.

But then, maybe this:

You get on the 61 tram from the hotel, northbound to Széll Kálmán Tér. From there it'll be the 4, eastbound to the bridge over the Danube. You're in running shorts, a t-shirt and a pair of FiveFingers, about which everyone can keep their judgy fucking chuckles to themselves. Phone strapped to your arm, Welcome to Night Vale in your ears. You're going to run around an island.

You there, on the tram in your Under Armour and toe shoes. You get looks. You wonder how soggy your tram ticket's going to get in that tiny pocket at the small of your back. You fumble for the right way across the bridge because you screwed up and got off a stop too early. You pretend your podcast is drowning out the kids in the park giggling at you as you go down the stairs, out, look around, back up the stairs.

But you find your way, and now you're with your people, the Jognerds. Armbands, tech fabrics, hideous shoes. Running tracks transcend borders and embarrassment. You can probably even fart, just check your six first.

Your feet and lower back are already tired from days of touristing, but they insist that no, no, we're good, let's do this. You have your doubts but start your loop.

It's longer than you thought. You're in worse shape than you thought. But then you do finish, and you stretch your calves, bracing against a lightpole. Easily six people in your vicinity are doing likewise. Your breath's a torn bedsheet, your quadriceps bags of hot gumbo. And then you look up.

There's Budapest. There's the Danube. You smell of questionable parentage.

A middle-aged woman is sunning herself on the rocks below. A kindergartner who looks like the pride of Norway pushes a pedal-less bicycle and hollers LALALALA. Your groin muscles are bowstrings. It hits you: where you are, how you got there, how improbable it all is.

You want to cry, pathetic damnable fucking soggy cliché or not. You want to cry because it's...well, Jesus, look at you. Look at this. And you're alone. There's no one you can turn to and show your dogpaddling eyeballs to and say my God, look at what we got to do, because it's not we right now. The only one who understands and would give you room to do that is having lunch a lifetime away.

You really are foreign here. Displaced in time, not space. Surrounded by people who know exactly what you know, and yet there's not a one of them you can let the dam burst over.

To hell with what I'm wearing, you think. To hell with apologies. You dread the day when you'll lose sight of this moment and start whining about inconveniences. Please let this last just a little while longer. Please.

There's grit in your shoes from last summer's trip to the lake. You take one off and shake out a milligram of home on the ground.