An American Portrait


I was asleep aboard an overnight train from Florence to Vienna when David came crashing into my sleeper compartment. He was the closest thing to the Platonic ideal of American manhood I had ever met — tall, blond, fit, the generically handsome son of a rich CEO from Denver. He was celebrating his acquisition of a Master’s Degree in Business Accounting with a three month tour of Europe.

I was disappointed to lose the quiet solitude I had thus far enjoyed in my compartment, and my initial impression of David was blighted by the enormity of his luggage. I have an instinctive disdain for those who cannot travel lightly.

“Loaded for bear, are you?”

“What? Oh, yeah,” a hearty laugh, loud enough to rouse everyone sleeping in the adjacent cars, “I guess I am, but I’m packed for three months!”

“Oh, I see.” I didn’t see at all. I had spent years of my life owning only what I could carry in a small rucksack.

“Well, goodnight,” I said, rolling over on my bunk.

“Hey, wait,” he started, and, after a pause, “where are you from? I’m so glad you speak English — I can’t believe how many people in Italy don’t speak any English at all!” He spoke like that, in a series of energetic ejaculations, like a hyperactive puppy.

“Imagine. The nerve of some people...” How could I explain to someone like him that I experience a nearly Lovecraftian horror when I hear English spoken in non-Anglophonic countries?

“I mean, you’d think, with all the tourists and stuff, they’d make the effort to learn, you know, at least the basics.”

He carried on like that for some time: loud, vulgar and monolingual; a stereotype in tope. I grew ever more sorry I hadn’t pretended to be an Italian. Still, I made every effort to be polite and he finally tired himself out and went to sleep.

We parted company the next morning in Vienna. David had reserved a room at a hostel and I had plans to stay at a friend’s apartment.


I met David twice in Vienna, both times for drinks. It was a fascinating sociological case study: he simultaneously argued against socialist central planning and for unlimited corporate mergers; his grasp of history was limited and in unflinching support of American foreign policy; he had studied Spanish for four years at university, but spoke none of it; his pleasure reading was limited to books on management theory written by former military commanders. He was less stupid than gullible, and rude only because of his egocentric naïveté. He was, in short, the American ruling class writ small.

This entry is part of my journal, published July 1, 2003, in Baltimore.