When I arrived at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, I saw an enormous placard reminding travelers of basic precautions to take if visiting a country "touchée par la grippe avion," for example to eat poultry only if it has been thoroughly cooked and to avoid handling birds. It was a simple public health measure that would probably cost a few hundred dollars to put in place nationally. Back at JFK, the closest thing I could find was a small flyer in the baggage claim area that read, "KEEP HOOF AND MOUTH DISEASE OUT OF THE US!" with no other instructions except, cryptically, a clip-art icon of an SUV.
Passing through the airport in Brussels, I saw a piece of artwork depicting the New York Times masthead at the top, some luggage claims with JFK written on them, airline ticket stubs, and postmarks reading "Sept. 11 2001." My uneasy feeling dissolved a minute later when I realized why the piece had bothered me: No humongous flag. No yellow ribbons. No jets, no towers, no symbols of American pre-eminence, resilience, perspicacity at all. Just documentary evidence of a day when time stopped.
Do you know what the slowest part of getting through the security screening at a European airport is? Kissing all the guards on both cheeks. By contrast, when I reached the American Airlines wing of the terminal, I was shunted by a round-about route along a walkway where I had to double-back and wait in a confusing series of lines to reach an additional security checkpoint. There, they asked me in what towns I had stayed; in what town I had last packed my bags; if it was at a hotel or a private home; how many bags was I carrying; how many had I checked; may we see your claim tickets please; what electronic devices are you carrying; what electronic devices have you checked; do you have anything that could be used as a weapon; who were you visiting here; where will you be staying in the U.S.; what is the name of a contact person in the U.S.; what is his phone number? All of which, undoubtedly, will go into a large government database to profile my travel habits and personal associations. Perhaps it will also be sold to a commercial firm to help me receive valuable offers of pre-approved credit cards and discount car insurance. Ultimately I suppose it will be leaked to some nefarious individual who will steal my identity and ruin my credit record.
There is a moment when you return to someplace special, your hometown, your parents' house, an old stomping grounds. It is a moment when the intervening years and the troubles of the day shrink in perspective and you are transported, a little bit, to an earlier version of yourself. Things just fit. Voices have the right timbre, the right inflection. Buildings and trees are the right sizes, the right shapes. Time beats to your rhythm. It's a moment when you know you are home, when you know where you stand and what's coming next. Like it or hate it, you fit.
There's a lot wrong with America. Our public health system is wasteful and inefficient. Our national pride has become shallow and jingoistic. Our security systems are as likely to endanger us as to protect us. And there have been plenty of times lately when I've thought about moving abroad. But having been gone even briefly, there is little question in my mind now of leaving for good. Because there's a lot that's right with this country too, and I found that despite all my problems with it, when I returned to its ugliness, its sprawl, its bureaucratic inefficiency, that I still experienced one of those moments -- that feeling of coming home.