A Certain Brashness

Immigrants at a naturalization ceremony in Faneuil Hall, Boston, Mass. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)
Thoughts and stories about America, Americans, and others

Editor’s Note: The current issue of National Review features little pieces about America: lovable aspects of it. Below, Mr. Nordlinger expands his own contribution.

Some years ago, a man at Davos was singing the praises of America. He was from East Asia — I can’t remember exactly where. One thing he brought up was the matter of group photos. “In my part of the world,” he said, “everyone knows where to stand. There is a hierarchy. Everyone knows his place. In America, no one knows where to stand. They just fall in, and somebody takes the picture.”

I thought this was a very interesting observation about our country — one only a foreigner could make.

You recall what Aunt Eller says in Oklahoma!: “I don’t say I’m no better than anybody else, but I’ll be danged if I ain’t just as good!”

At naturalization ceremonies, the presiding officer — could be a judge, even a Supreme Court justice; sometimes it’s the president of the United States — often says, “You are now just as American as descendants of the Mayflower Pilgrims.” (Sometimes they are more so, in outlook and appreciation; sometimes they aren’t.)

A few months ago, I landed at JFK Airport after a trip abroad. As I was making for a cab line, I saw an airport official giving a vendor a hard time. The vendor was clearly an immigrant from Africa. He said, in his accented English, “I know my rights!” Made me grin.

I have encountered George W. Bush a few times: before he was president, while he was president, and after. You can say “Mr. President” to him. But it’s also natural, somehow, to say, “Hey, man.”

Bush is the son of a president (and the grandson of a U.S. senator). He is Andover, Yale, and Harvard. He is also a downhome American.

Once, I was sitting with a group of journalists, questioning the prime minister of Egypt. The Middle Eastern journalists were addressing him as “Your Excellency.” This struck my ear as odd, especially considering that Egypt was then keen to be seen as a democratic country. Happy to play the brash Yank, I said to the prime minister, “How did someone in your position come to be called ‘Your Excellency’?” The people around me bristled, audibly. But the prime minister was a good sport, saying with a twinkle in his eye, “Well, 50 years ago it was ‘Basha’” (i.e., “Pasha”).

I knew a young German woman who worked for an American executive in Germany. (The executive was also a woman, perhaps I should note.) They worked in both languages — German and English — all day long. Speaking in German, they addressed each other as “Frau Smith” and “Frau Schaefer.” (I have changed their names.) Speaking in English, they called each other “Betty” and “Julia.”

They did this utterly unconsciously; it was simply natural.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Angela Merkel visited America for the first time. She was in her mid-30s, about to begin a political career. In San Diego, a clerk in a store said to her, “How are you?” This startled the visitor from Germany (East Germany, actually — an important difference). She found herself saying, “Great!”

I like being an American abroad. For one thing, you can get away with a lot. When the weather is hot, or even warm, I crash around in my shorts — even when everyone else is in long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and jackets. I think in particular of India, and also Egypt. It’ll be 74 degrees, and they’ll think it’s chilly. They look at me with astonishment, but tolerance, too.

In Salzburg, Austria, where I do some annual work, the concert halls are very, very hot. Most people are dressed to the nines. I always take off my jacket. As a rule, something happens. The men around me look at their wives as if to say, “Well, if the crazy American is doing it . . .” The wives will shrug, and the men will remove their jackets, in grateful relief.

Is that not American leadership?

In Austria, a pedestrian waits at the intersection if the sign says Don’t Walk. It doesn’t matter if it’s 2 in the morning, with no car for miles — he waits. My American feet won’t do it. They just won’t. They itch, and I have to cross. And I’m sure I’ll be excused as the American who doesn’t know better.

One exception: I am loath to do it — I won’t do it — when children are waiting with their parents. I don’t want to set a bad example. I don’t want the parents to have to say, “Don’t be like that bad man.” But even then, I chafe, I itch, I bridle . . .

I hate to tell you this, but I’m sort of proud of America’s role in Europe, and throughout the world. When I was a student in Italy, the teacher was saying something negative about America — I don’t remember what, and it may well have been true — and then he said, “And now Jay will defend America.” I said, “America has no need of a defense, especially on this continent.” Everyone went “Oooooh.”

Almost certainly, I would not say that today. But, hell, I was 20, and feelin’ it . . .

Americans like ice with their drinks, they just do. There are exceptions among us, of course, but ice is a cultural trait, a national trait. I like ice with my drinks, and I also like butter with my bread. Abroad, I routinely ask for these things, explaining, “American, you know” — and people happily, kindly, and often smilingly oblige. I have watched it a thousand times.

Once, in France, I was with a group of National Review friends. We asked for ice for our drinks. The waiter — charming young guy — brought a large bowl of ice. Enough for a small army, really. We also asked for butter for our (already delicious) bread (and is that butter delicious?). The waiter brought a whole vat — enough for several loaves.

Soon it was time for dessert. The chef, advised by the waiter, had a special decoration around our plates, swirled in raspberry sauce. In beautiful cursive, he had written “U.S.A.”

I’m glad to be made in the U.S.A. (and was glad the dessert had been made in France).


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