Happy Birthday, America!
“Good morning America, how are ‘ya?’ Don’t ‘ya’ know me, I’m your native son?” I’ve borrowed the lines from an old Arlo Guthrie song called “The Train They Call the City of New Orleans.” It sums up how I feel about you, America. You and I are in a relationship that’s been going on for 74 years. And although I’ve taken on a mistress – Sweden (more on that later) – I still love you dearly. I hope you know that. It’s a bright, sunny and pleasant (23C/73.4F at 0700) 4th of July morning in Stockholm, Sweden. As an American, the 4th of July has always been a special day for me. Before I head out for a long bike ride through the beautiful green areas of this fantastic city, I decided to reflect on who I am and how I became one of the many people worldwide who live with a heart and soul in two countries and two cultures. I was born in the USA (an excellent name for a song, don’t you think?) in 1947. In many ways, that seems eons ago, but in others, just like yesterday. I like to think that I have an international family. My first wife was born in Sweden, as was my first son. My second wife was born in Norway; my second son was born in New Zealand; my daughter-in-law was born in Brazil, as was my first grandchild; and my second grandchild was born in Sweden. Just keeping track of when to renew all the different passports is a full-time job. Anyway, as I drank my morning coffee, it struck me that at 74, I have now lived many more years in different countries than I have in the US. And that’s what prompted me to write this post.
An American in Sweden
When I arrived in Sweden as an exchange student at Stockholm University, I had already completed my military service and was on a quest to figure out who I was and to complete my university education (I still had two years left). This was in the 1970s when anti-Americanism was raging among Swedish (and lots of others worldwide) university students, primarily due to the Vietnam War. I lived in a student dormitory with a shared kitchen and social area. The war was always a subject of heated and passionate discussion over wine, “other” substances and the accompanying munchies. I decided that it was best not to talk about my years in the military, especially if I ever hoped to get lucky with the opposite sex. Most of the students simply assumed I was a draft-dodger or a deserter, as that seemed to be the case with many Americans I met over here in those days. I never intended to stay more than one year, but since I had already served, I didn’t have the specter of the draft looming over my head. And I was in no hurry to return to the US, complete university and join the rat race. Days became weeks; weeks became months and before I knew it, months had become years – somewhere around 45 plus years (cumulative)! So, where does that leave me now? Am I American, Swedish (I now have Swedish citizenship) or some sort of “bastardized” mix? And does it matter?
Perhaps the biggest challenge I faced as a young man from the deep south (although many won’t consider Florida to be the deep south) was the overwhelming usage of British English in Sweden at that time. That was all that was taught in schools back then. I needed to quickly gain a grasp (oops, a split infinitive which is a definite no-no in proper British English) of the wonderful common language that separates us instead of uniting us. Here are just a few: rubber and eraser (significant difference in meaning there); lift and elevator; curb and sidewalk; and my favorite – an old expression not heard much today – “I’ll knock you up,” which meant I’ll come around and see you – not “I’ll make you pregnant!” Luckily, I joined an “ex-pat” rugby club filled with players from England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, America and even a player from Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe for my historically challenged younger readers. It was intense but I soon picked up the vocabulary (but not the accent) I needed to converse with my teammates. We were all “ex-pats,” which struck me as odd. How was it that native English-speaking people were “ex-pats” when everyone else was an immigrant or a migrant? What determines whether you’re an ex-pat, immigrant or migrant? Is it where you came from? Is it the status of your job? Or is it the level of your education? I still haven’t figured that out.
Holding on to my culture
I wrote earlier that I never picked up the accent, and I still haven’t to this day. I just insert the appropriate words I need when I’m speaking with another English speaker from somewhere else. I’m happy to say that American English has made huge inroads in Sweden, thanks to Hollywood, music, MTV, satellite TV and the many Swedes who have visited or studied in the US. I feel much more comfortable using American spellings and even American colloquialisms than ever before. But whenever I return to America, I seem to confuse my friends by inadvertently using “non-American” vocabulary, “Anglicized” Swedish words and other strange forms of communication that I don’t realize I’m using. I guess I’m more international/Swedish than I realize. When proofreading this post, I noticed that I have replaced “college” with “university.” And while I think I’m international, most of my English-speaking friends say I sound like I just arrived in Sweden and my American friends don’t know what to think of me. Go figure!
Proud to have two homes
I’m proud to be an American, especially on the 4th of July. I’ve represented my country in the military and later in life as a diplomat. Have we got a perfect country? Nope, far from it, but we’re still working on it. But that’s true with most countries today. They are and will continue to be a work in progress. America is going through some major changes – some good and some not so good. What’s been extremely valuable to me is the opportunity to observe America from abroad and to try and see her as other countries do. It’s a humbling experience and one that I highly recommend to all Americans. I’ve certainly gained a different perspective. I’m also proud to be a Swede (my mistress I mentioned earlier), with all that comes with citizenship. Becoming Swedish has opened my eyes to a whole world I hadn’t seen before. And I like to think it has made me more open-minded and tolerant, although I’m sure my children, wives and friends will disagree.
So, am I an American-Swede or a Swedish-American? Who cares? I don’t. “I am what I am and that’s all that I am.” These “Zen-like” words are from a childhood cartoon character – Popeye the sailorman. My many years in Sweden and other countries have made my life richer in many ways. I treasure my memories from my early years in Sweden. I remember when the first McDonald’s opened in Stockholm in 1973. I was delighted as I hadn’t had a decent hamburger since I had left the USA. It was hilarious to watch the Swedes ask for knives and forks to eat with. The idea of eating a hamburger with your hands was incomprehensible to them – at first – but they caught on quickly.
Food trumps politics
I remember asking a young Swede sporting a large “USA -out-of-Vietnam” badge on his US Army surplus military jacket that McDonald’s was an American restaurant. He didn’t seem to mind at all. Guess he was “all in” for the burger. I remember sitting on a small hill by the US embassy watching Jane Fonda lead an antiwar protest and being surprised when a young Swede suddenly emerged from the crowd and dumped a bucket of red paint on her head. I also remember getting taco shells and spice mixes sent from home so I could make tacos. I was an instant success in the student dorm. Little did I know that many decades later, tacos would be the go-to cozy meal for Swedes on Friday nights. Who would have thought? I was stunned to find out that Swedes didn’t consider bacon and eggs breakfast, serving it as lunch instead. I loved Swedish food from the get-go, except for Surströmming is a lightly salted fermented (rotten) Baltic Sea herring. I still hate it! I also thought it was strange that Swedes ate basically the same dishes for Midsummer (June) and Christmas six months later. It had never crossed my mind that Americans eat the same thing for Thanksgiving (November) and Christmas one month later. See what I mean about viewing your country from abroad? Happy Birthday, America. I still love you with all your faults. Have a great day, America!