A few days ago, I was sitting on the steps outside our apartment, and I heard a bird I’d never heard before. It had a restless call, full of fluster. And, just as I realized what it was, I spotted it’s huge dappled wings wafting down through the pine tree.
It was an owl.
The big bird echoed the kind of restlessness I’ve been feeling. Me, just hanging out, waiting to leave Switzerland, thinking about stuff.
We are finally coming home in late September, so that may be a part of it. Now that I know our time is up, I’m a bit antsy.
The word repatriation is used to describe the process of returning to one’s native country. From what I understand it isn’t easy. A lot has changed while I’ve been away, so things will look and feel a little off, like having only one contact lens in.
My friends have moved on to places I don’t know about. My dog prefers my daughter.
Essentially, I am a different person, and no one will really understand the ways my time abroad has shaped me.
And I will mourn the loss of my host country, having learned to love a lot of things about it. I will grieve for the memories, the good times, the spectacular sights.
And home will never truly be home again. And in a sense, I will always have one foot placed across the ocean.
I’ve read that people who live abroad never feel fully integrated again. It’s almost like once you’ve done it, you attain international citizenship. Your passport is stamped child of the world.
I’ve been watching the U.S. news – the violence, the gay marriage vote, the health care law – with a gimlet eye. But I’ve been holding back on the celebrating. I’m sort of suspending my criticism. I’m muting my pride. Because it isn’t completely mine to celebrate. It comes from a land that was once unabashedly mine, but doesn’t feel so anymore.
Because the world feels so much bigger to me now, and the news from home is just that – news – but from some foreign place.
Yes, I’m ecstatic for my gay friends who can now get married – but do you know how many countries throughout the world have been allowed that freedom for decades?
I’ve always felt like an outsider when it comes to American politics. My country has never felt ’tis of me. I’m sure I’m not the only one. But in so many ways I grew up isolated from my country’s sins.
Here’s a memory, a snapshot from 4th of July, 1973, a typically American one: I am ten, running through the yard with sparklers crackling and sputtering in the dusk. And feeling happy, and safe and loved. And never knowing anything different.
I’m wearing a silver bracelet on my pale wrist that bears the name of a P.O.W. and just feeling cool because of that. But not knowing anything about the Vietnam War, really.
And when I look back now, of course, I never made the connection between me lying on a blanket looking up at the sky, waiting for fireworks, sucking a popsicle, feeling free and alive – and a war fought all the way across the world. What did it have to do with me?
I still don’t know, really. And I am ashamed.
A few months ago, we went to see the movie American Sniper. It was showing at the foreign film cinema, and presented with Swiss-German and French subtitles. I know I’m sensitive, but I felt self-conscious sitting in my seat. I felt very Yankee Yucky Doodle.
And while it was a wonderful relief to hear my own language on the big screen, the pleasure was mixed. I felt self conscious. I felt like a sniper supporter. I felt almost like a proponent of murder. I half expected the Swiss people around me to start hissing. And if they had, I’d have understood.
Switzerland is a pacifist country, at least in name. And they have a very conservative approach to war, to firearms, to violence.
But to me, patriotism is not about war. It is a love for my country that sees the reality beneath the hype. It appreciates, but is critical of, our bitterly divided history – one that is full of tragic, blood-soaked mistakes and deep-seated problems.
Patriotism is dropping our blind pride so that we can actually figure out what we stand for. Patriotism isn’t a lock step with military allegiance, nor is it saluting a flag waved in support of prejudice and hate.
It isn’t synonymous with capitalism.
Loving my country means knowing full well its potential for violence and so never abusing that power.
And thinking back to American Sniper, I feel sad that one of the biggest narratives we have to offer the world is one saturated with violence and war. I’m ashamed when I try to explain why Chris Kyle is a hero. I’m not sure myself.
I only know that he killed a lot of people, some women and children. And because I’m a woman and a mother, I can never raise my hand to my heart in support of that.
And I’m ashamed.
And while I love my country, my world has expanded to so much more now. I’ve witnessed air and water in the mountains that is clear and drinkable. I’ve seen firsthand how vigorous crops can grow without pesticides and fertilizer. I know that glaciers truly exist, but they are melting.
I understand what a true democracy is (except I could never explain it). I’m absolutely certain that Swiss-German is the ugliest language ever spoken.
I know it is possible to limit household waste. And that taxes make for an amazing community. And it’s easy to live without a car.
But every day when I look at the Swiss mountains, my heart sinks when I think of the Appalachian mountains where I grew up. And how they will never be as beautiful as these Alps. Because their majestic tops have been stripped and torn off, fracked and mined. They aren’t really mountains anymore. They are scorched hills full of buried lives that were sacrificed for greed. The mountains have gone the way of the glaciers.
But I also know that my hometown has the best food in the world, especially barbeque. And the friendliest people.
And on a sticky summer night, I can sit on my front porch and hear the cicadas sing. Those crazy-ass looking critters, ones I’ve never encountered anywhere else in the world.
And they scratch and chirp the lullabies of home – my American South, the divided land of guns and racism and religion and sweet tea, and big-hearted people who stop to talk to you on the street.
My home. The country I love. Oh, how I’ve missed you.