The best part of returning to America after living abroad is the water.
I met my favorite patriot in a dinky Salvadoran restaurant in Washington, D.C.—a little basement dive. I'd been living in Berlin on a reporting grant, and it was my first time returning stateside, for a brief visit, after more than three months abroad. Pupusas hadn't exactly figured into my new Prussian existence, where döners had done their best to fill the void. I'd gotten into D.C. just an hour or so earlier, and I was jet-lagged and filthy and famished.
And then she appeared. My favorite American patriot wasn't born in America. For all I know, she wasn't even in the country legally. I didn't ask. But she was carrying a pitcher of ice water. She placed a plastic cup in front of me, then poured. I drank. A minute later, she returned and topped me off.
I was home.
Spending time abroad crystallizes one’s sense of what it means to be an American—or rather, of what it doesn’t mean.
Germans have a particular way of doing things. In the summer, you drink Weißbier. If you go to a café and the temperature isn’t negative, you sit outside and face the sun. (Some cafés line up all of their chairs facing south, leaving unwitting passersby wondering if there might be some invisible performance taking place in that direction.) You bike in the bike lane; you do not stand in the bike lane. In the spring, you eat white asparagus. But you don't chase it with beer—as a tipsy German told NPR last week, "That's the rule: You have to start with beer and then you have the asparagus later." Come summer, the asparagus disappears. It's no longer in season. And one doesn’t eat imported asparagus. It simply isn’t done.
If you order an espresso, it will come with one deciliter of water. Otherwise, good luck getting your hands on tap water anywhere outside your own home.
The water in Germany is perfectly potable, if you don't mind being gauche about asking for (or serving) it. But of course you do mind, if you’re German. Unfortunately for travelers, waitstaffs at German restaurants tend to be German.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, no countries in Africa have safe drinking water for travelers. Same in South and Central America. In Asia, water’s a no-go from China on west. In western Europe, on the other hand, every country has good water—but hardly anyone drinks it.
Spending time abroad crystallizes one’s sense of what it means to be an American—or rather, of what it doesn’t mean. A trip to Europe during the Bush years was an exercise in self defense; with the election of Obama and the emergence of the Tea Party, the characters changed, but the script stayed basically the same. At home, you might not consider yourself very patriotic. Abroad, you’re suddenly defending the American everyman against stereotypes of boorishness, war-mongering, and monolingualism.
But if it’s easy to pin down what America isn’t, it’s harder to specify what it is. Amid beer and bratwurst in Bavaria, or croissants and café au lait in Cannes, or pasta and prosciutto in Parma, an American starts to lament the absence of equally rich and distinctive cultural markers at home.
To say, “But America has free water!” isn’t a very satisfying rebuttal. Yet it captures the American spirit much better than bourbon or barbecue possibly could because, as every return to the homeland after a period abroad reminds us, the most quintessential American characteristic is the freedom to do things the way we damn well like: to eat breakfast for dinner, or shop for car parts and clothes and seafood all in the same store, or order risotto with a side of spaghetti.
But if freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, let’s remember that some of freedom’s most ardent spokespeople, like Janis Joplin herself, have succumbed to its excesses. The freedom to super-size and re-fill your soda seems great until you end up with a childhood obesity crisis. A transportation system built around individual agency is liberating, except when it breeds sprawl and urban decline and kills a once-enviable rail network. If your sense of gun control is hitting what you aim at, that’s just fine until someone aims at your child or neighbor. Freedom from high tax brackets spurs economic growth until it turns out that it actually spurs just widening economic inequality.
And free water? Ask anyone in California if we haven’t maybe taken freedom a bit too far on this front.
Every moment of American crisis brings out two kinds of zealots: the sensible, and the extravagant. Despite the ministrations of Michael Bloomberg and Jerry Brown, who would impose sensible limits on our beverage-based freedoms we’re also seeing a cultural moment for people like Martin Riese: Profiled last year in Quartz as “America’s only water sommelier,” Riese guides diners at his Los Angeles restaurant through a 44-page water menu, with 750-milliliter bottles running as much as $20.
Riese won’t drink water from American faucets; he says the world’s best tap water comes from—where else?—the north of his native Germany.
Unlikely Patriots is our series of essays for July 4th that celebrates surprising, forgotten, and/or contrarian expressions of love for one's country.