The Night I Became An American
by Lee Harris
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.
Across from me, in the compartment I was riding in was a young Austrian. He noticed that I was reading a German magazine, and we began a conversation, half-German, half-English, in which I explained to him that I had never been to Vienna before, and how excited I was at the prospect of seeing the city that I had so often read and dreamed about. I started off by explaining my passion for the great nineteenth century Austrian composer, Anton Bruckner, a farm boy whose majestic symphonies I had long regarded as one of the pinnacles of human achievement. Yes, my traveling companion, being Austrian, knew about Bruckner. Then I asked the young man if he had been to St. Florian, the Catholic monastery where Bruckner often played the organ, improvising out of his head — like a jazz musician — great cathedrals of sound, and whose earthly remains lie embalmed in a crypt directly beneath the organ itself. But, much to my puzzlement, the young Austrian did not seem to know about St. Florian: he said he had never heard of it.
Perhaps I had gotten my facts confused, I thought. Was I absolutely sure that I had gotten the name of the monastery right? Once or twice in my life I had been wrong before. Maybe I was wrong this time too. (I wasn't.) So I changed the subject and asked the young Austrian what he thought about another great Austrian symphonist, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century composer, Franz Schmidt. Which of his four symphonies did the young Austrian like best?
Once again, I struck out. My companion had never heard of Franz Schmidt.
Undaunted, I proceeded to turn the conversation to two of the greatest of Austria's nineteenth century writers, the poet and dramatist Franz Grillparzer and the novelist and short-story writer, Adalbert Stifter. Here, at last, I found that I was on safer ground. Yes, he had heard of them, and I proceeded to explain my enormous admiration for Grillparzer's Medea trilogy, and for Stifter's beautiful autobiographical novel Nachsommer (Indian Summer.) I remarked on Stifter's tragic fate — how he deliberately cut his throat one morning with a straight razor, and how terrible it was that such a gifted genius could come to such an end. (Not only was Stifter a great writer, but he was also one of the foremost landscape painters of the nineteenth century.) After that, I turned to twentieth century Austrian writers, and I expressed my enthusiasm for Arthur Schnitzler, Robert Musil, and Joseph Roth.
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.
Of course, I tried to explain that Americans weren't like that. I tried to tell him that in any American city of any size there were restaurants that specialized in the cuisine of virtually every culture under the sun; but I sadly realized that all my efforts at enlightening the young Austrian were in vain. For him, it was a self-evident truth that all Americans eat at McDonald's, both at home and when abroad. What else can you expect them to do, being crude and vulgar Americans?
I said at the beginning of this piece that I became an American on that night train to Vienna; but I must take that back. I became an American on my return from a concert at the Musikverein, where Kurt Masur had just conducted the Gewandhaus Orchestra in a radiant performance of farm boy Bruckner's sublime Seventh Symphony.
For nearly a week, I had dutifully been eating at authentic Austrian restaurants, and I was beginning to get a bit weary of the tiresome monotony of Viennese cookery. Across the street I spotted the familiar golden arches of a McDonald's. I hesitated, then I strode resolutely toward it. Yes, I was an American, and I was going to eat at McDonald's, by God, and be proud of it.
It was the best Big Mac I have ever had.
The Night I Became An American by Lee Harris
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