The Night I Became An American

Sunday, March 19th, 2006

Lee Harris describes The Night [He] Became An American:

I became an American when I was forty-nine.

No, I did not become an American after immigrating from another country, passing tests, and taking an oath of loyalty, as millions of other Americans have to become Americans. My people were born here, and as far back as any of them could remember, their people had been born here as well. They were farmers, and like most farmers, they were convinced that they had sprung up from the soil, like corn-stalks. No, I became an American during the course of a conversation that I had on a night train from Innsbruck to fabled Vienna.
After so much musical and literary seriousness, my traveling companion explained to me the litigious history of the famous Sacher Torte, one of Vienna’s miraculous pastry confections. Then, while he was on the subject of food, he looked at me and asked with a laugh: “What do you Americans do when you go to a foreign city? Do you only eat at McDonald’s?”

The laugh had a mocking and smugly superior edge to it; and, like the question itself, it disconcerted and befuddled me. Being a good American, I expected him to break out into a grin and say something like the German equivalent of, “Oh, I’m just joshing you.” But he didn’t. It was embarrassingly obvious that he was quite sincere. After all, where else would we Americans eat in a foreign land except McDonald’s? Isn’t that all we eat at home?

Suddenly I realized that to my young Austrian companion, it made no difference whether I knew Bruckner’s symphonies backwards and forwards; it mattered not in the slightest that I could appreciate the poetry of Grillparzer in the original German. I was an American, and, therefore, I had to be the kind of person who, when in a strange land, would make a bee-line to the closest McDonald’s, out of fear of tasting the food of foreigners.

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