Von Doderer, too, was exploring these same forces of attraction and conflict in his novel of intersecting lives in early twentieth-century Vienna: a world hung like an embroidered curtain between east and west, where Hungarian accents mingled with German, Orthodox Christianity shadowed Catholicism and German reformation protestantism, and Judaism flowed like an ever-present undercurrent...
Thinking about the American president embarking on the first of his foreign travels, I remembered a dialogue I'd read the previous night, two thirds of the ways through the novel's second volume, in which the narrator, Herr von Geyrenhoff, is in a cafe talking to Edouard Altschul, a bank director. The year is 1927. The two men are professional, not personal, friends, but they've always instinctively liked each other, and during this conversation they both make a decision to reveal quite a bit, though continually to speak formally. Geyrenhoff, very Viennese, is curious about Altschul's German origins, and asks if he's been back in his "venerable Frankfurt of late." The bank director remarks that he's been living in Vienna for twenty years - his wife is Viennese - and likes it very much. But he says "a light has gradually dawned" on him, and what it revealed only became fully clear the last time he went back to Germany - which, in Vienna, they call "the West."
"Out there, people are simply writhing and thrashing themselves to death," he says. "Not out of diligence, or efficiency, or joy in work, or out of necessity, because they have to. Oh no, that's not it, not at all. On the contrary. It's done out of weakness, out of a kind of neurotic compulsion..." He searches in his breast pocket for a notebook and reads a partial phrase he has copied from a recent book, but which sums up this malaise for him: "The much praised strong modern man, in truth so much infected by his own efficiency that his weakness..."
And then he goes on to say that living in Vienna has taught him this, about other people and about himself: "There in the West I would never have become conscious of this condition...but when you go from illness to health - though only a relative state of health - and then return again, as I often return from Vienna to Frankfurt, you see how things stand."
And that is just it. Travel, of the sort most of us undertake today, is far more like Obama's temporary disembarkation from his airborne American world than it is an immersion in another culture "until the light dawns." We simply aren't in the soup long enough to become stewed ourselves; our flavor never blends with the pot nor the pot with us. Travel changes and enlarges us, for sure, as Sarah Palin demonstrated to the contrary; we come home with a new spice to put in our kitchen, so to speak. But we do not really see "how things stand." Neither do the congressmen who jet off on weekend tours of the Middle East, or the rich college kids on the latest version of the Grand Tour -- though there is a modern compulsion to posture about travel as if it is life itself.
Even now, after four years of life in a French and international society (North American yes, but one that tends to lean out the window), I'm sure I see only partially, compared for example to these Romanians for whom the differences, and the accompanying adjustments, must have been enormous. Unless someone has actually lived elsewhere long enough to gain sufficient perspective to see his native society through fresh eyes, he will be like von Geyrenhoff, the native of Vienna, who listens to what Altschul is saying and finds himself "looking across a gulf."
But the other side of this is the enormity of what we do find, in travel so slight as to involve a mere step across one's neighborhood into a different one. And that is the astonishment of the universal embedded in what is strange and foreign: the willingness to find a way to communicate, the small unspoken ways of saying "welcome", the palms on my face that say not only, "don't worry", but "I see you, and here I am too." I suppose those hands are what we sometimes feel reaching toward us out of the books and music, art and languages of other cultures, carrying just enough warmth to sustain the hope that the desire to create and to connect is stronger and more human than the other forces we know so well from our fears.