02 May 2011

Forging a National Identity

In light of this morning’s news that Osama bin Laden is dead, I am posting an article I wrote almost 10 years ago, just after the events of September 11th 2001. 

Forging A National Identity 

I am an expat. An expatriate American mother living in Monaco, that tiny glistening principality on the Mediterranean, a place with more money per square mile than probably any other on earth. It is a village, where I live, but one of the most sophisticated villages ever created. I left the United States in October ‘94, following my wedding to an expatriate Swiss then living in the Bahamas. After four months of sun, sandy beaches and island life we moved to Monaco -- to sun, rocky beaches and almost anything else it could occur to us to want. I haven’t lived in the United States since. My three sons were born in Monaco. I remember shouting “ca fait mal!” to my French-speaking doctor during delivery, just to be certain he understood me, and later laughing with a French friend who had screamed in English “it hurts!” We realized, of course, both doctors would have understood us had we been speaking Swahili. 

My sons have dual nationality: Swiss and American. Or American and Swiss. Because following the 11th of September and the search for meaning the day provoked, I found it brought one thing to the forefront of my deepest priorities: that my boys know and appreciate that they are Americans.

I wonder how that will happen. Where does it come from, a national identity? Will it even be important to them, growing up in an international village in an increasingly global world?  Their Swiss father might argue that as America is the only country to tax its citizens on worldwide income, being American is not always an advantage. Yet to me, giving my sons their national identity is an unarguable, irrefutable necessity.

The day after the attacks, I retrieved our American flag from storage. Normally we use it at our annual 4th of July party, when we invite friends to come dressed in red, white and blue for a good old American barbeque. The party usually comprises guests of at least 20 different nationalities, for whom hamburgers, corn on the cob, coleslaw and all the rest of the fare so common in the U.S. is a bit more exotic.

This time I hung the flag from our terrace, not for decoration but for defiance, out of pride, pain and a burning love. It flew high over the port of Monaco. I felt a bit better, a bit more connected to home. Later, discussions with expat American friends revealed the same immediate feeling of wanting to be there, to do something to help. But that night, glued endlessly to CNN, I remember getting scared, panicked really, with that horrible fear that overcame us all. Terror – from what had happened in my backyard, had hit the beloved New York where I grew up – made me realize for the first time that despite being American, so safe, secure, heedless and happy, bad things could happen. And love of family overcame patriotism, and I asked myself – did I really want to advertise the fact that three little Americans boys were living under this roof? A few days later the International Herald Tribune advised all Americans living abroad to lie low, not to talk loudly in public places, to wear unremarkable clothing - eschewing cowboy boots and hats. My cowardice was somewhat vindicated. The fear had swept us all and I’m afraid it will never go away.

I moved the flag indoors, to our landing. Within a day, my boys could recite the pledge of allegiance. For a while we sang the national anthem instead of our usual bedtime songs. I remembered my childhood, and how every morning in school we would sing the anthem, and I wondered, is this where love of country comes from? Or is it remembering my father and how quickly he would stand at a ball game when it played, how quickly his cap would come off and be placed over his heart? Is it because my father went twice to war for his country, or simply because it was my home? And how can I give my sons the identity that means so much to me, when they are growing up so far away?

I couldn’t even explain this need to my husband, a man who has lived in and loves the United States. A week after the event, we were trying to find our way back to normal, to resume our lives. We were going to the Cannes Boat show, where the American flag was still at half-mast. It moved me, yet again, to tears. The boat show being one of my husband’s most favourite events, however, he asked me please to try to put my sadness aside for a while – to have some fun for a few hours. After all, I “wasn’t even really all American, I was half Greek.” (My mother was born and raised in Greece, and became an American citizen after marrying my father more than 40 years ago.)

I went from tears to fury. Did he really understand so little of what America was about? Who I was? I tried to explain the difference between my heritage (half Greek, quarter Scottish, eighth Irish, eighth Swedish) and nationality. That most Americans were like me, with blood from somewhere else. That said difference is why foreign nationals deserve to live in our country, and lastly that I, his wife, born and raised in the U.S.A, was one hundred percent American.

It can be a difficult concept for a European and is particularly interesting now in this period of European nation building. I had been struck since I came here by the various cultures and their strong nationalistic feelings. It’s hard to imagine Europeans will ever truly identify as Europeans over and above their individual countries. After six years of marriage to my husband, I could apply for dual nationality to acquire Swiss citizenship, but like all other naturalized citizens – I would never truly be Swiss because I wasn’t born of Swiss parents and raised there. And I can appreciate the truth of that, while knowing in my heart that my mother, despite her Greek birth – is truly an American, every bit as much as my father, who was born in the town where I grew up.

I must admit I gave little thought to nationality when I first came to Monaco. I was newly married, living on the Cote d’Azur, and feeling so privileged to have followed Grace Kelly’s path. I’d wake up in the morning and have to give myself the proverbial pinch. We have a beautiful apartment overlooking the palace, the hills and the harbour, while the sea spreads around us more than 220 degrees. Life had become a new and unexpected adventure. I had stopped working when I left the U.S., but in typical New York fashion, spent my first year here trying to justify my existence without a career. It took a while to catch on to the Monaco modus operandi. Work, in the traditional sense, did not have to be the focal point of one’s existence. It was considered typically American to make it so, and more than a little rude to ask someone “and what do you do?” upon first making their acquaintance.

I kept busy. Adapting to new surroundings, brushing up on the French that despite four years at Middlebury and a semester in Paris always seemed to elicit an English response. I began another language so I wouldn’t be left out when conversation shifted from English to French to German to Italian. I couldn’t get used to driving 100 miles an hour on the autoroute, or even to driving my stick shift Miata among the Monaco hills, where the slightest backward roll might damage someone’s Ferrari.

What struck me most was how privileged everyone felt to be living here, for its beauty, its myriad offerings and its safety (now a relative term.) Where you came from wasn’t that important. I had always loved growing up in America, but I can’t say I missed it, at least not at first. What I did miss were the American people: their openness, ease and friendliness. In Europe you could be on a kissing basis with someone for years, know intimate details of their lives, and still not address them by a first name. I remember my shock when one couple, who we saw frequently that first year, invited us home for dinner. Suddenly, the host paused the conversation, rose to his feet and made a toast. He gave a slight bow, spoke of our friendship, and asked that we please be so kind as to call him and his wife by their first names. My husband immediately stood, returned the bow, and said how honored we would be. I fortunately managed not to laugh, but despite my restraint, was lectured all the way home as to the serious significance of such a gesture in that particular cultural environment. It was a different world and a rather complicated one. Now that we were on a first name basis with this couple, did that mean that we could tutoyer (the informal address)?  Not necessarily. There was a lot to learn.

In the ensuing years we have become at home. We’ve found our own circle of friends, more relaxed and on our wavelength, with whom the first name basis came about immediately. They are tremendously important to us. We’ve discussed many times how living in an expatriate community creates friendship that is closer to extended family. We’ve noticed how our children love to be together, how secure they feel, how they love the ease with which we call on one another. Holiday celebrations that in America would most likely be with family take place here with these friends. And the traditions we are creating are rich and meaningful in a different way, not necessarily better or worse.

But it was on becoming a mother that homesickness struck for the first time and which gave rise to patriotism that only intensified on the 11th of September. During my pregnancy I found myself dwelling on the most unlikely events: 4th of July parades, lemonade stands and the Fireman’s Carnival. Basketball in your next-door neighbour’s driveway. Hometown stuff.  Suddenly I just couldn’t imagine my children not knowing what I grew up with. We bought a weekend house, with grass to play on and a street where we can ride bikes. It’s not the same but I’ve come to realize it doesn’t have to be. All children lead lives different from their parents, and though my sons’ lives are less American than mine, they are compensated by activities that come from a great range of cultures. Nonetheless, it does seem to be mostly the Americans who, out of our collective past, organize most events. There is a giant Halloween party on the beach each year, and trick or treating. We’ve held Easter egg hunts, and even baby showers, despite some nationalities’ fear that buying a gift for an unborn child is risking fate. 

People share their culture and their time. A trip to the States is a communal event where shopping lists are submitted to the voyager. When our third son was born and travelling with three boys under five became distinctly less appealing, I solicited friends to bring back baseballs and catcher’s mitts. I figure it’s up to me to teach the kids how to play, as it’s one of the few sports that doesn’t come naturally to my Swiss husband. He can teach them hockey and snowboarding and I’ll make sure they’re ready for Little League. 

In addition to coaching duties, I’m self-appointed minister of education. School is a complex issue living abroad. We’ve put the boys into International School, whose mission statement encourages students to have an international outlook with respect for other people and cultures, to recognize their responsibilities as members of the community and as citizens of the world. This is an area in which Americans are only now becoming fully aware and one in which my children gain so much from being in a small multi-cultural environment. They are completely bilingual. I help with homework and thrill with pride as they learn to read in both English and French. I am delighted to be a class representative of the PTA – an organization not always present in the French system. It is so nice to have a say – something Americans tend to take for granted.  

Still, it is unlikely my sons’ national identities will or should come from school. It is enough for me that the school fosters a love of learning, and does not concentrate primarily on amassing vast quantities of information. School should be about opening up to life’s various cultures and experiences, and most likely isn’t the appropriate context in which to forge a national identity.

Living here, we talk a lot about nationalism. Some blame it as the cause of our global problems, just as others blame religion, and others, human nature. Monaco is a little microcosm, but it is a remarkably open society, at once a tiny village and a highly developed international community. We see all kinds of people. There are Muslim women in my gym that work out wearing scarves, sunglasses and long sleeved t-shirts, and on the treadmill next to them might be Ringo Starr. There are other women, who don miniskirts on private jets, arrive to shop for a few days and put their chadors on back at home. There are Russians, English, Germans, Indians, Israelis, Americans, Australians, Italians, Maltese, Scottish, Dutch, Danes, Norwegians, French and Swiss, just to name a few. There are tourists that come off buses with sandwiches in hand and luxury yachts with heli-pads that people disembark to watch the Grand Prix and dine in Ducasse’s Louis XV. And amongst it all my husband and I have three little boys we are trying to raise into thoughtful, globally aware citizens that we can only hope will do their part to make the world a better place. Who they will be as they go forward, what forces of their childhood will ultimately shape them I do not yet know, but I know I want to give them the best I can from the best I have, and inspire them to do their best with it.

I still say home when I talk about America, but less and less. Life here has taken on its routines, friendships and bonds deepen, and the desire to return to the States to live recedes.  It goes in bits and pieces – it’s almost unthinkable to imagine we will never return home to live someday. But it is not in our foreseeable future, and in the present we are extremely happy. Love of America, however, grows deeper despite the distance. I must, and I will give it to my sons, who will never know their country the way I do – but whom I hope will love it nevertheless. For ultimately, that is the bond that forges a national identity. Perhaps they cannot grow up to be President of the United States, but they are Americans, and if they want to badly enough they might find a way.  In any case, they can learn to love and serve their country from an international perspective.

Even if America never becomes home to my boys, it can still be a part of them. I, of all people, should be prepared to give them that, since having a foreign born mother gave me so much: a wonderful sense of my Greek heritage, an additional language, and a part of my identity. Yet for my children I want more “America” than I have of Greece. I want them to have what I’ve come to see as the foundation of the American spirit – the sense of possibility that one can make life better. That sense of possibility, or the lack of it both individually and collectively, is the biggest difference I see after several years of life in Europe. In spite of all the ways the world has changed, September 11th wasn’t able to take that away. And no matter where in the world Americans might find ourselves, for that we are thankful.

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