Asked by a European friend to define the American spirit, one American lady, AKA the Antiques Diva, finds the answer herself.
I just received a call from a good Dutch friend asking what I was doing to celebrate the 4th of July and I realised that I haven’t celebrated America’s Birthday in years.
During our first year living overseas (we were in Paris at the time), my husband and I would turn up our noses at French food for one day of the year to go to Planet Hollywood on the Champs-Élysées with a couple of American friends. We’d celebrate with an orgy of fried foods, laughter and music so loud that we had to shout to hear one another.
My own independence day
I remember another year in Paris when we went to a 4th of July Party/Going Away Party for an American friend who was returning to the States. The party was held on a roof top terrace overlooking the Eiffel Tower and then just a few weeks later we sat on a 5th floor fire escape on Rue Reynaud overlooking Trocadero watching the Bastille Day fireworks display with an Englishman, a Frenchman and a Chinese woman. That year somehow the two events merged in my mind as my very own Independence Day celebration – a melding of the American me and my French sensibilities. Maybe that was the year that I started to become an “international citizen”.
The following year, the 4th of July happened as if it were any other day. It wasn’t that I forgot to celebrate it. It was just that without the makeshift stalls selling firecrackers at the edge of town, or the American flags waving from front porches, I simply wasn’t reminded of the holiday!
As American as Apple Pie
The 4th of July is as American as apple pie, baseball, parades, back-yard BBQs, red and white chequered tablecloths and ants invading the picnic! The date technically commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776, declaring independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain, but it is much more than a federal holiday. In all the parades, fireworks and enthusiasm, Independence Day defines the American Spirit.
As my Dutch friend and I chatted on the phone, discussing the meaning behind the American Independence Day, she asked me a difficult question… the type of question that foreigners often ask, which took me by surprise: “How do you define the American spirit?”
I’ve lived outside the USA for almost a decade, but my birthright remains strong providing a framework in which I find and define my identity – I am an American through and through! An Irish friend, who spent a few years living in New York, told me, “What I love about Americans is that they step into a room and expect to be adored! It’s a wonderful trait Americans have – a confidence and a belief in themselves that defines the American spirit.” Whether it’s a Nike slogan “Just do it!” or the ragged self assurance of the now politically- incorrect iconic Marlborough Man, as Americans we possess a “can do” attitude that often translates into an entrepreneural spirit.
My dad always says that the last two words in “American” are “I can” and the longer I am overseas the more I realize how this self-empowered, do-it-yourself attitude truly is an American trait. As Americans we are self starters. The American dream is based on the belief that all people are created equal – essentially anyone can do whatever their personal skills and desire allows them to do. While European friends who watched hours and hours of video post Hurricane Katrina might disagree with this statement, I believe that the social hierarchy found almost everywhere else in the world is not as readily in effect in America as it is elsewhere.
I think my European & Asian friends wrinkle their brow in confusion at me sometimes – asking me, “Why do you do it?” – It being any number of things from moving to one new country after another, volunteering as the president of an international club, or helping to organise my towns antique fair, starting a new company or writing a book (which, fingers crossed a publisher will someday fall in love with and publish) and in the meantime blogging about my life as The Antiques Diva™. More than once a friend has said, “Wouldn’t it be easier to have stayed home in Oklahoma? To have ‘read the book’ rather than ‘try to write one’? Why bother to learn Dutch when you are only here for a few years? Why waste the time and effort starting a company, for that same reason?” What do you get out of volunteering on the board of your women’s club? Why not merely be a member and reap the benefits without so much bloody work?”
Finding the way
But to do any one of these things is in my very nature as an American. An elderly Japanese friend who is a member of the same women’s social club as I am, remarked one day after I returned from a solo trip driving back from England (and taking car on the ferry) to Holland by myself, “You’re so good at finding your way around Europe. Americans are always good at finding their way. In our club, American members always know where to go, how to get there, and then they are the first to volunteer to coordinate a group activity to go out and do or see something!”
As a foreigner living abroad, I don’t take my new home for granted. I go to the museums, I visit the tourist sites, I eat at the best restaurants (I like to say “I’m eating Europe, one bite at a time”) and try to learn as much about the area as I can. Part of the joy of day to day life in being a foreigner living abroad, is that you get the excitement of being a tourist while dealing with the drudgery of day to day issues such as a plumbing repair in a foreign language (trust me, that teaches you vocabulary you never wanted to know) or grocery shopping without being able to read the labels.
So now, while living in Holland and France before that, I’m still an American, red, white and blue, but through cultural absorption of the surroundings of my new countries a part of me becomes “Almost French” or “Almost Dutch”. But to be “Almost any other nationality” is in fact, part of what it means to be an American.
When you are American, you are always through your ancestors something else. I’m English, I’m Irish, I’m Scottish, with a little Native American somewhere down the road thrown in. I’m certain a German fell in the pot at some point, and I must tell you I can’t walk through the streets of Istanbul without someone thinking I’m their cousin! A Russian friend was recently granted her American citizenship, an Indian friend waits to take their nationality test, and my former Afghanistan housekeepers immigrated to America with hopes of someday becoming American.
The United States is a cultural melting pot with many nationalities thrown together to form a new nationality – perhaps it is the very nature of how America was founded – by pioneers – that defines the American Spirit. Perhaps our Pioneer Past is the reason why we as a nation, tend to be self-starters and entrepreneurs. And perhaps the very fact, that as pioneers we succeeded in forming our new land gives us an inherited internal confidence that my Irish friend spoke of.
Seeing America clearly now
I’m not sure that I have the answer to my Dutch friend’s question on the definition of the American Spirit – but as my friend and I chatted on the phone I realised that, for me anyway, when I look through a lens at my home country across the pond, I almost feel I can see America more clearly now. Even though I forget to celebrate the 4th of July, I think I’m more patriotic than I ever was when I was living in America. Just like the person in the forest, who couldn’t see the forest for all the trees, I couldn’t see America for all the Americans! America was normal to me – so I didn’t realise what was special about it or Americans.
Now when I visit my family in Oklahoma each year, my mom laughs at my desire to ride horses. As a child, or teenager, my interest in life on the ranch was non-existent. But through the wisdom of adulthood, I look back and realise how good I had it! I now appreciate so many things now that I realise how special and unique to my home town they are – I appreciate the horses, the rodeos, the cowboys, even the cows, the Friday Night Fish Fries and Church Potluck Dinners. Without having these elements in my life – I’m even more aware of them when I do have the opportunity to experience them! I’m more of an Okie now that I ever was when living in Oklahoma! In part because being away helps me to realise what’s special about my hometown.
And it’s the same with America, I feel sometimes through moments of homesickness for the USA that I am better able to see what makes America – or Americans – so special!
Happy 4th of July!
The Antiques Diva ™