A few weeks after my husband and I moved to Lausanne, Switzerland my mom called me to ask about our upcoming Thanksgiving plans. She inquired as to whether we might share dinner with the family. I was working for as an Au Pair. “Uh…Mom…They’re British. I’m pretty sure they’re not too keen to celebrate a holiday started by people who ran away from England,” I announced to her.
And thus it went while we lived abroad. Presidents’ Day, Martin Luther King Day, St. Patrick’s Day – all fondly commemorated in our tiny basement apartment through food, decor and two-person parties, while the world around us carried on oblivious to our little festivities. When July 4th rolled around, I assumed it would be the same – quiet and unremarkable. Instead, it turned out to be the most interesting Independence day I’ve ever experienced.
July 4th, 2003 happened to fall on Friday, my day off, so Brett and I decided to visit the market hoping to find fresh corn on the cob for a little BBQ. When we exited the metro station into the center of town, we were immediately surrounded on all sides by young Swiss college students, chanting and marching. My husband leaned close to me, took my hand and whispered, “Don’t speak in English”. I saw the “Peace” flags and heard the shouts, but didn’t understand. Yet, as we wove through the crowd my brain began to translate what I was reading on many of the hand-made signs: “Down with Bush. Down with America”. Thousands were gathering at the city center, yelling angrily and waving pictures of the president I had proudly voted for, now altered to give him horns and a pointed tail.
The Iraq war, which had begun earlier that spring, had converted this mild-mannered culture into a mob.
We snapped a few quick photos (I know, pathetically touristy, but it was too fascinating to resist) and briskly made our way to a more quiet part of town to do our shopping. On the ride home, I was disturbed. It was dismaying to see my country so disparaged on its own birthday. I was unsure that slinking away while muttering French was the best way to represent our patriotism. This was the first time I had truly seen the US from an outsider’s point of view, and it was unsettling.
Soon after we arrived back home, a friend of ours phoned to invite us to a 4th of July celebration in Geneva, where the American ex-pat community is very active. We were thrilled! We put on our best red,white and blue and caught the next train. Throughout the night there were long lines for root beer and buttered popcorn, a game of football and an orchestral rendition of “God Bless America”. As we sat on the grass watching the fireworks, we struck up a conversation with the couple next to us. They were from Liechtenstein, had popped over to Switzerland for a weekend getaway and were excited for the opportunity to enjoy American culture at this celebration. They asked what Independence Day meant to us and we talked about some of the things that make our country great. Then we got to learn a bit about Liechtenstein’s history and culture. We discussed the difficult political situations our world was facing and amicably agreed to disagree on many issues. I realized that patriotism doesn’t have to be synonymous with superiority or dominance. A love and respect for one’s home is important, no matter where you come from.
Today, on Independence Day 2009, I’m grateful for all the wonderful blessings and opportunities of which I take advantage of everyday living in the US. But I’m also grateful for the perspective that traveling abroad has given me; grateful for the uniqueness the wide world has to offer; and grateful that we, as a global community, can voice our opinions and be heard.
PS – You can bet we’re torn over who to cheer for in tomorrow’s Wimbledon finals!