But the relative weakness of the physical love of the Americans for their country shows itself most strikingly in very trivial manifestations, which, I believe, puzzle every European observer.
For instance, to travel in America is a psychological experience which cannot be compared with traveling in any other country. Having visited in the last three years approximately one hundred cities for the purpose of lecturing, I find today that I have no memory of more than about ten of them. They are mere names in my notebook connected with a few incidents, but very seldom with any characteristic impression of the places themselves. If I were transported today on a magic carpet to most of these towns, I should be at a loss to identify them.
The explanation is obvious: there is more monotony in American towns than in those of Europe. There is also the question of distances. Landscapes and the general surroundings change very slowly in this huge continent. Someone said that Switzerland would be the largest country on earth if it were not folded. America is completely unfolded, and gives the impression in some places of being positively stretched out.
The European traveler experiences another strange feeling: that his ignorance of the geography of the country is usually shared by most of his traveling companions, who, moreover, seem to be considerably more indifferent about it than he is himself. This does not mean that the average American one meets in a Pullman lounge does not know where he is, or where he is going. As a matter of fact, he is usually more accurate concerning distances between various points and the time it takes to get from one to the other, either in a train or in a plane, than a Frenchman would be in his own country. But his knowledge is abstract. The railroad timetable and the esoteric map therein seem to give him all the information he requires. What actually happens between two given points, what the physical make-up of the land is, interests only a few.
Here again I suppose the question of size intervenes. Human senses cannot focus on a whole continent the way the painters of the Italian Renaissance could depict on one piece of canvas, and with all its details, the whole familiar area around them which was, in fact, their country. The American must be content with a simplified and purely convenient kind of blueprint of the forty-eight states and the broad outlines of endless plains, tremendous mountains, and gigantic rivers.
However, when one is in an American train, the impression of traveling on nothing more substantial than a network of railroad tracks under which there may or may not be America is very disturbing to the European—as disturbing as the obvious fact that the American male reaches the maximum of happiness when, after a night in a Pullman, he goes into the smoking room to wash and shave in his undershirt, splashing and singing like a morning bird for no other apparent reason than that he is nowhere in particular (except far from home), detached from this earth along which he is being carried very fast with the minimum of awareness of its reality.
Nostalgia is not an American feeling. True enough, it has been the luck of Americans never to know all through their history the ordeal of exile from America. At one time or another, practically all nations of Europe have expelled some of their citizens for political or religious reasons, and these unfortunate minorities have known this curious human capacity for longing to "go back" where they came from. In recent years this form of suffering has been imposed on larger and larger sections of human beings. Americans, luckily for them, have been spared this experience. Nevertheless, some of them have had to live abroad for more or less lengthy periods. During the 1920s, for instance, several thousands were established in Paris, but, although they occasionally yearned for "home," this yearning was momentary and generally explainable by some local cause of irritation, such as the difficulty of getting accustomed to French coffee, or the amount of rain which falls in France. The imperfections of Parisian steam heat and the difficulty of obtaining orange juice or cereal at breakfast at the Hôtel de la Poste et du Nègre (although it is marked with three stars in the Michelin guidebook) may indeed give a pang to an American heart and bring sweet memories of the faithful radiator thumping away back home and of the corner drug store; but this is a far cry from the horrors of Biblical exodus.