VIENNA, Austria – She was a stranger, and she kissed me. Just for being an American.
It happened on the bus on my way to work Wednesday morning, a few hours after compatriots clamoring for change swept Barack Obama to his historic victory. I was on the phone, and the 20-something Austrian woman seated in front of me overheard me speaking English.
Without a word, she turned, pecked me on the cheek and stepped off at the next stop.
Nothing was said, but the message was clear: Today, we are all Americans.
For longtime U.S. expatriates like me — someone far more accustomed to being targeted over unpopular policies, for having my very Americanness publicly assailed — it feels like an extraordinary turnabout.
Like a long journey over a very bumpy road has abruptly come to an end.
And it’s not just me.
An American colleague in Egypt says several people came up to her on the streets of Cairo and said: “America, hooray!” Others, including strangers, expressed congratulations with a smile and a hand over their hearts.
Another colleague, in Amman, says Jordanians stopped her on the street and that several women described how they wept with joy.
When you’re an American abroad, you can quickly become a whipping post. Regardless of your political affiliation, if you happen to be living and working overseas at a time when the United States has antagonized much of the world, you get a lot of grief.
You can find yourself pressed to be some kind of apologist for Washington. And you can wind up feeling ashamed and alone.
I’ll never forget a ride in a taxi in Vienna when the world was waking up to the abuses wrought by U.S. troops at the detention center for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
My driver, a Muslim, was indignant. “You are American, yes?” he asked in that accusatory tone so familiar to many expats.
“Uh, no, Canadian,” I said.
And it wasn’t the first time I fudged where I was from. I speak three foreign languages, so I have a bit of flexibility when it comes to faking. At various times, I’ve been a German in Serbia, a Frenchman in Turkey, a Dutchman in Austria.
I’m not proud of it. But when you’re far from home, and you’re feeling cornered, you develop what you come to believe are survival skills.
Last spring, after the Bush administration recognized Kosovo’s independence, a Serb who overheard my American-accented English lobbed a beer can at me in central Vienna. He missed, but spat out an unflattering “Amerikanac” and told me where to go.
On another occasion, an Austrian who heard my teenage daughter chatting with a friend pursued her, screaming, “Go Home!”
Physical attacks on Americans overseas are rare. Yet some of us felt vaguely at risk.
Maybe it was just the hostility we’d encounter even in friendly venues such as cocktail parties, when our foreign hosts would surround us and demand to know why U.S. troops were roughing up inmates at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. Or refusing to sign the U.N. Convention Against Torture. Or rejecting the Kyoto accord on climate change.
Maybe it was the State Department, which issues regular travel advisories urging Americans to keep a low profile even in tranquil Austria.
Often, of course, I’ve pushed back — reminding critics that most Americans are decent and generous souls, quick to respond with money and manpower whenever and wherever in the world catastrophe may strike.
My children came of age in Europe, and in a hostile post-9/11 world we had to teach them to avoid being too conspicuously American. Don’t speak English loudly on the subway. Don’t wear baseball caps and tennis shoes. Don’t single yourselves out, guys, and even worldly wise Americans can unwittingly become targets.
We didn’t overdo it, but there’s always been that tension. That difficult-to-describe sense of vulnerability. That nagging instinct that maybe we’d better watch it, because our government is intensely unpopular and we’re not entirely welcome.
I know Americans who at times have felt that way even in laid-back Vienna, where the greatest danger is probably eating a bad pastry.
That’s what made Wednesday’s unsolicited kiss so remarkable.
I don’t want to read too much into an innocent smooch, but it didn’t feel particularly pro-Obama, even though the new U.S. president-elect enjoys broad support here. No, it seemed to impart two sentiments I haven’t felt for a long time: friendship and admiration.
Obama captured it in his acceptance speech — this sense that despite holding America’s feet to the fire, the rest of the world is rooting for it and wants it to lead and succeed.
“Our destiny is shared,” he said, “and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.”
Overnight, Americans did something their harshest critics in Europe have yet to do: elect a person of color as head of state and commander in chief. That gives U.S. citizens some bragging rights, even if a lot of us would just as soon eschew hubris and embrace humility.
I’m a marathon runner, and I have a red, white and blue singlet that I’ve seldom dared to wear on the Continent. Marathons are difficult enough without enduring catcalls and jeers from spectators.
But my best friend and training partner — who is French — just gave me his stamp of approval.
“Will you wear your Stars and Stripes shirt now? You’re allowed!” he told me.
EDITOR’S NOTE — William J. Kole, AP’s Vienna bureau chief, has covered European affairs since 1995.