What is “nationality”? It’s a question I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.
From the late nineteenth century, up to the mid-twentieth, my ancestors came to the United States. For most of them, I imagine it was a decision inspired by the hope of a better life, whether that was because of the things they’d heard about “the promised land”, or simply because it meant that they would be able to be by the side of someone they loved who had already fallen in love with America. Most of them tried hard to be as “American” as possible – even though they clung to so much from their past; I’ve learned firsthand that cuisine and language are two of the hardest things to give up. They worked to provide for children who understood them when they spoke, but who were told to only learn English, so that they could be true Americans.
When I think of it that way, I can’t say my being born in the U.S. is a total accident. It was a way that was prepared for me. But growing up, I never felt particularly American. Or particularly anything for that matter.
There’s a novella called “The Man Without a Country”. The minute I heard the title, it struck a chord with me. I have a basic idea of what the story’s about, though I have to admit, it sits on my bookshelf, waiting to be read. But that title sums up so much about my own life. I don’t hate America, even though there are some things I really dislike about it. But there are also so many great things about my native country. Some, like a pretty decent degree of freedom compared to a lot of other places, I learned to appreciate early on. But I came to appreciate other things only by living abroad.
Before I moved to France, for example, I never truly understood the dynamism and open-mindedness that make up a key part of the American mindset. Some people reading this might scoff. Yeah, “open-mindedness” is a good word for a country where most states don’t allow certain people to marry, simply because of the gender of the consenting adult they love. “Open-mindedness” makes it okay for the mayor of New York to shut down an art exhibition because it includes a painting that’s considered blasphemous. But that’s not what I mean. The open-mindedness I’m talking about is the way you can put forth a project, some huge idea, like the Transcontinental Railroad, or a skyscraper, or building a mansion in seven days for a family in need, and though people might be skeptical, no one will just shut the project down before it even starts. Open-mindedness is allowing people to express their emotions. I don’t mean that every American is emotive, just that, if you are, that’s perfectly okay. It’s all right to be enthusiastic about something, or guffaw over something you think is funny, or cry during the national anthem.
If you’d asked me when I was younger if I could call myself American, I would have said probably not. But after having lived in France for a while, I realize more and more that, no matter what, some part of me has been so molded by the culture I grew up in that, yes, to some degree – maybe even to a great one – I am American. And that’s not so bad.
But I still don’t – and can’t – use that as a way to completely define myself. There’s some elusive part of me, a rather big part of me, that doesn’t feel like it’s a part of anything. I’m “a girl without a country”. Sometimes people meet me and say “You’re so French!” I’m never quite sure what they mean. I think they mean it nicely, most of the time, but now and then it makes me worry. I love my adopted country for its history and culture, for its appreciation of the eccentric and bizarre, for its offhanded acceptance of sexual preferences and curse words and other things that might be taboo in other places, I love France for the fact that you can take your dog with you just about anywhere, and for the fact that people generally seem to respect art. I love that there is so much vacation time here, and that it’s more or less expected that if a holiday falls on a Tuesday or Thursday, of course you’ll take that Monday or Friday off, too. I am a big believer in Socialized medicine and fresh baguettes for less than a euro. These are ways the French and I see eye to eye. But there are so many other instances where we’re looking in completely opposite directions. I don’t like the role women typically have here. I don’t like the lack of free public toilets and certain creature comforts – all explained by the French as unnecessary, even though if you dig more deeply, most admit they’d feel more comfortable with air conditioning, or toilets on suburban trains. This self-deprivation is baffling to me. I don’t like the French disgust for overtly expressed happiness or enthusiasm. I don’t like their poorly advertised television line-ups or fact that gum is so incredibly expensive, or how there’s so much cigarette smoke everywhere (Are the latter two linked? Hmm…).
I guess ultimately I’m about as “French” as I am “American” – that is to say, not not-at-all, but not entirely.
On my mother’s side, my Italian-American family is full of pride about their roots, like most Italian-Americans from the northeastern U.S. I grew up thinking Italians from Italy were friendly distant cousins, who’d be happy to welcome me back to the homeland. Cut to a few decades later, when I briefly worked for a small Italian movie company. One afternoon, while sitting down to our daily pasta lunch (really), several of my Italian co-workers started mocking how flashy and crude Italian-Americans seemed. This was the pre-Jersey Shore era, so there were no specific targets or examples; I realized this was just how these Italians thought of their “cousins”. As I started to travel in Italy, and to pay (a little) more attention to the international news, I also realized that, though they have many good qualities, Italian-Italians aren’t as perfect as Italian-Americans often picture them to be. Many are chauvinistic, vain, and hypocritically pious.
So I’m not Italian, either.
But recently, I found out that, actually, I am.
There’s an Italian law which states that, if an ancestor going as far back as the unification of Italy immigrated to America and never renounced his (Note: some restrictions apply for women ancestors) Italian citizenship, technically, by juris sanguinis, their descendants are all Italian, too, and would have dual American-Italian citizenship.
Learning this was a boon for me; if I’m European, I won’t have to worry about going through the complicated process of renewing my visa every year anymore, or of applying for French citizenship (which, like Italian citizenship, would allow me to also remain an American citizen). The only problem is, as with anything else involving government procedures, proving you’re Italian involves a lot of documentation, official stamps and translations, and quite a bit of money, too.
In the end, after looking into it more deeply, it’s probably easier and more practical for me to try to get French citizenship. It would also make my in-laws and boyfriend happy; they seemed sort of offended that I would prefer to be Italian rather than French. “It’s not that,” I told them, “it’s just that, being Italian is my birthright. I don’t have anything to prove: I’m Italian already.”
But deep down, there was more to it.
I’m a girl without a country, but if I founded a country of my own, one of its guiding principles would be to enjoy life as much as you can. Not at the expense of others or anything like that, but just be happy with life, and if you’re not happy, do what you need to, to make it better, always carrying hope within you. I’ve come to realize that this might just be qualified as “American”. I also believe that this mindset is fairly Italian, as well. Although we have our differences, Italian culture puts a lot of value on family, food, talk, and laughter. In this culture, I believe, over-emoting is not a problem. The French, on the other hand, don’t seem to have the same thought process. They have a pretty great country in just about every way I can think of, yet even they consider themselves complainers.
“It takes life to love life,” Edgar Lee Masters, one of my favorite poets, once wrote. If I had my own country, those words would be in its anthem. And so, becoming French is hard for me to conceive of. Which is quite stupid, since I live here, and love a Frenchman, and have French friends and in-laws, and work for a French company, and eat French food (well, most of the time), and watch French TV, and read French books and celebrity gossip magazines, and passionately love Paris and French history.
Getting French citizenship is practical, I tell myself. Nothing personal. That’s all I have to remember. According to the list of requirements for obtaining French nationality, being French mainly consists in speaking the language at at least an elementary school level, and knowing basic things about the country’s history and culture. In that sense, I could say to myself, I’ve been French for a while.
But still, it doesn’t feel completely right. Nationality is just a label, and not always one that fits the person it describes. And yet, a part of me is rebelling, even while another part of me reasons me right back to where I started: What is “nationality”, anyway?