The Corner

Negotiating the Continent

Interviewed on television, Michael Chertoff, the former homeland-security chief, had some advice for travelers to Europe: “Don’t walk around with the American flag on your back.” In my observation, that has never been much of a problem. I mean, Americans have never been too guilty of self-identification. For years, they have slapped the Canadian maple leaf on their backpacks, trying to “pass.”

It’s obnoxious to quote one’s own bons mots, but what the hell: When President Obama made his “apology tour” toward the beginning of his presidency, I said he had done everything but slap a maple leaf on his backpack. Ha, ha, ha (but at the same time, not so funny).

This summer, while I was in Europe, an Australian tried to twit me, I guess. He said, smirkingly, “So, what part of Canada are you from?” Unsmirkingly, I said, “I’m from Michigan, but have long lived in New York.” He seemed just a little nonplussed. It was a bizarre exchange, one that I don’t yet fully understand.

Allow me to excerpt a piece I wrote long ago — about the experience of being a student abroad:

On the train down to Florence, I had one of those encounters — small-seeming — that stay with you forever. I sat across from a young American woman who was a fellow student. (I believe she was from Berkeley, but that would be almost too perfect.) She had a broad face, sandy hair, and a splash of freckles. And she was deeply ashamed of her country. Reagan was president, you see, and he had planted missiles in Western Europe, and everything was grim. She confided to me that she could hardly bear to be associated with America. Then she uttered the (to me) immortal words, “I’m hoping I can pass for German.”

Please pause a second to consider that statement. Here we were in Europe — in France, actually, traveling through — only 39 years after V-E Day; only 39 years (less than two generations) after the ovens at Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen had stopped belching. And this creepy, but, sadly, typical, girl — from the United States — was saying, “I’m hoping I can pass for German.”

I was not yet fully formed, politically. I was certainly no flag-waver. But I wasn’t like that, not like her. That I knew.

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