feel like a stupid american


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In 2010, my friend Steffi wanted me to hitchhike with her. We were in Turkey planning to visit her family in Austria, and she wanted us to carry our bags on the highway, stick our thumbs up and trust the kindness of strangers to take us from Istanbul to Vienna.

I thought that was the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.

But I admired Steffi. She was Canadian of Austrian descent and fluent in English, French and German. She was smarter than me, had traveled to more countries and read more books. I was serving in the Peace Corps and starting to build a more global perspective, and Steffi was so deeply anti-American that she was proud to point out how American I was. She stood in opposition to many cultural values ​​that I took for granted or thought to be inherently “right.” We debated everything from God to how to pronounce the word marry. Our conversations made me feel stupid at the time but smarter for having had them. When she suggested that I hitchhike, my reaction was to explain its obvious danger, but as usual, she ended up convincing me to reconsider my decision. She had done it a few times before – alone, no less. And after all, we had met when I was living in northern Macedonia and hosting “couch surfers” traveling in the area who needed a place to sleep. Wasn’t I already trusting strangers?

When our first driver, a middle-aged Turk, picked us up from the side of the road, Steffi and I saved our luggage and sat in the back seat of his car. She spoke to him in Turkish and translated me, and I tried to hide how scared I was. After about 15 minutes the driver said he had to stop to refuel. As he got out of the car and closed the door behind him, I turned to Steffi.

Me, a skinny twentysomething hitchhiking in Turkey. Steffi insisted that we bring her hoops.

“He goes kill we! This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever done in my life! He’s going to kill me first, then he’s going to kill you, and no one will be able to identify our bodies because he’ll take our IDs and we are in the middle of fucking turkey!”

I yelled in a low voice that we had to grab our bags and run while our driver was still inside, before it was too late. Steffi, meanwhile, was laughing. “Is that why you stayed silent?” Is that what you’ve been thinking about all this time?

“Yes!” I yelled back. “Of course! How can you not think about that?”

I spent those last precious seconds trying to convince her, until the driver returned and sealed our fate: he drove us west for about an hour and dropped us off on the road. And then we stuck out our thumbs for the next driver. And the next. And the next.

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