If you want to know what it means to be an American, lose your passport in a foreign country.
No incident but a near-fatal trauma is more demoralizing to an American traveling abroad than the loss, or imagined loss, of this precious document.
On our recent trip to Europe, I saw an example of what the supposed loss of one's passport on alien soil can do to a person.
I'd been sitting by the lake below Neuschwanstein Castle, in Bavaria, reflecting on the hubris that moved hereditary kings to erect such extravagances, and I got up to walk back to the tourist center up the hill to wait for my wife. She had elected to climb the steep road through the forest to the castle.
I passed a solitary woman who was standing at a low fence, looking out over the placid lake, and I noticed a tan purse propped against the fence at her feet. I assumed it was her purse and she would be picking it up. Women almost never lose their purses. Purses are like appendages.
Just about then, a man coming down the path alone saw the purse and asked the woman if it was hers.
"Why, no," she said, looking startled. She hadn't noticed it.
The man picked up the purse and started back up the path behind me.
Just then a young woman came toward me, walking rapidly but uncertainly, a look of painful anxiety on her face.
"Is this it?" the man yelled from behind me.
The young woman stopped. She clenched her fists. She burst into tears. She darted toward the man. She snatched the purse from his hands and threw her arms around him and kissed him fervently.
"Oh, God!" she cried. "Thank you! Thank you!"
Then, as if to explain her emotion, she cried, "My passport's in there!"
She turned to shout the good news to a woman who had been following her down the path. "I've got it!" she shouted. "This nice man from the bus found it!"
Evidently she didn't even know his name. He was just a nice young man from her tour group. Evidently he had been aware of her distress and was keeping an eye out for the purse.
The three of them followed along behind me: the hero and the woman whose purse he had found and her friend.
I thought the histrionics were over, but she couldn't settle down. All the way up the hill she carried on, laughing, crying, shrieking her joy, explaining over and over that the money hadn't mattered; it was just money. But her passport !
Something like that happened to me several years ago on a bus in front of the Leningrad Hotel, when we were about to leave for the airport to fly out of Russia. The bus had actually begun to pull away from the curb when I missed my passport.
Instant panic. I began that desperate searching of pockets that one has just fruitlessly searched. My mind wheeled with the possible consequences. I would be held up at the airport. I would not be allowed to fly home. I would be thrown into prison and tortured. At best, I would have to appeal to the U.S. ambassador, who would be cool and profoundly annoyed.
Just then, when it seemed that my whole life was on a precipice, a man across the aisle from me pointed down to my feet. I looked down. There, between my shoes, lay my passport.
The relief was like sudden drunkenness. So I knew, in Bavaria, how that woman felt.
It isn't simply that losing one's passport poses technical problems, and at the least can cost two or three days and a missed flight.
The truth is that you feel suddenly that you have lost your identity as an American, with all the rights that American citizenship implies. You have no proof of your birthright. You are naked--a stranger in a foreign land, where the principles of freedom, as you know them, may be withheld.
Of course these fears are mostly illusionary. It is, after all, merely an inconvenience. But nevertheless, it gives you a start; and when the thing is safely back in your pocket you know a moment of the purest patriotism there is.