Then free-association kicked in and went something like this: Apples. Ideas. Ideas. Apples. Ideas are like apples. Apples are like ideas. Ok, not really. Apple pie. How did that jingle go? Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Cheverolet. Cheverolet? Ugh. Wait. Corvettes are Cheverolets. Cool! What's so American about apple pie anyway? It preceded us by thousands of years. Maybe apples are like ideas. Can America really be summed up by those four things? They aren't very inspiring. How are ideas inspired? Inception. Where do dreams come from? Probably not all designed by brain hackers. Good movie. It would suck not to be able to go home. Home sweet home. These apples are really sweet. Need to buy organic sugar...
Later, I attempted to make a coherent post out of this mind muck.
In summary, this is what my stream of consciousness yielded:
I'm an all-American girl.
I really, really am.
The more time I spend in Europe, the more obvious this little cliche becomes.
Europe is beyond awesome. The diversity of its history, culture, and natural beauty is truly mind-blowing. The expansive world-views of the people I come across is fascinating, enlightening, humbling. And the food...don't even get me started on the food. There isn't a morning that I don't wake up excited about my life here.
As I watch the corny airplane video on the long approach to O'Hare and see the Chicago skyline growing larger on the horizon, I start getting a little teary-eyed. Although it's mostly boring instructions on how to successfully navigate the immigration holding pen, the closing montage of people from all walks of life saying "Welcome" like, 100 times, literally gives me goosebumps.
By the time they get to the end, every hair on the back of my neck is standing up and I have chills down to my fingertips...
"Welcome to the United States of America."
My heart is practically bursting out of my chest.
It gets me every time.
In fact, I'm getting all teary-eyed and goosebumpy just writing this.
Sadly, I'm told the actual customs officers aren't nearly as cordial in reality as the actors who portray them in the video. This absolutely breaks my heart.
So every time I go through Passport Control (which is a lot these days) I've started asking whether they really say that to visitors. And while they are staring through me like human neural-scanners trying to determine whether I have some illicit motivation for distracting them or am just being a smart ass, I tell them I'm asking for my friend Edi. Yes, that Edi. An awesome kid who lives on a small island in Croatia whose dream of coming to visit America very specifically includes hearing those exact words. I tell them it's important. That it's not just marketing crap. I tell them that people really do love to hear it. That I love to hear it. That it means something. And I thank them in advance for remembering, just in case Edi ever makes it over for that visit. Then I move on before I start bawling my head off.
Why am I so proud to be American?
This is a question I ask myself a lot lately, contextualized by the irony of me seeking life elsewhere. There are many reasons, but ultimately they all boil down to one thing.
Of all the forces that make for a better world,
none is so indispensable, none so powerful, as hope.
I love this quote. And I love that no single person is credited with authoring it. It could have been said by anyone. It holds true for everyone. This is American ideolody at its core.
In the timeline of history, we are infantile in our 200+ years of existance compared to thousands. But whereas other countries are often defined by the past, I believe America is better defined by the future and the infinite potential, not only to envision and imagine, but also to chose and to change.
Endless and achievable possibilities. "Achievable" being the operative word which marks that tangible point in time and space where dreams and reality can begin to converge. The inception of hope.
Americans are famous for our belief that no matter who we are, where we came from, what we have or what we have to overcome, we are individually and collectively empowered to create and control our destinies. Of course, this means that the accountability for our lot in life pretty much lies in our own hands, thus making us responsible for our happiness rather than a government, monarchy, religious leader or some other such blame-magnet.
Personally, I'm ok with that.
Americans are also stereotypically known throughout the world to have an overdeveloped sense of ego. I'm told it is perceived to be a somewhat unsavory arrogance, this drive that propels people to have more, do more, be more. To be dissatisfied with the status quo. To question authority. To challenge the system. To defy limitations. To pursue happiness. To dream, perchance to dare.
To this I can only say, "Absofreakinlutely."
So when Dad asks me why...why, when both my parents' families worked so hard to come and build a life here, why would I turn around and go right back to a place they chose to leave? If I'm so bloody proud to be American, why am I living in Europe? Why? Why? Why?
The answer instinctively wells up from the bottom of my heart and reverberates in my soul like the echo of a thousand whispers:
Because I can.
My father's family didn't want to leave Italy. They left because they had to. My mother's family endured years of separation, parents from children, husbands from wives, as they slowly immigrated from the Philippines, saving for one plane ticket at a time. They didn't have the luxuries of frequent flyer miles, Facebook or Skype to maintain their connections to home. It is because they left everything behind that I can enjoy everything that lies ahead.
My homage to their bravery, their tenacity and their dignity is to do what they couldn't: to live a simple, peaceful, quiet life in il bel paese. Not because I don't have a choice. But because I do.
Andrea and I talk a lot about the differences between here and there. The cultures, the politics, the societal norms - they are vast and many and always provide fodder for a healthy debate. The dark side of relentlessly passionate ambition is that it's hard to know when enough is enough. When is it ok to sit back and enjoy where you are and what you have, here and now? When should you stop seeking something better and simply be happy with your life?
Admittedly my definition of happiness was severely out of whack for a quite while (I'll let my eBay store serve as further elaboration on that particular point), and I credit my time spent living and working abroad with helping me find a healthier balance between craving and contentment.
But the choice of where I fall on that continuum on any given day is mine, and mine alone. That is beyond priceless.
I never lose sight of the fact that what I really love is being an American living in Europe.
This is not to say that I'm not terribly embarrassed by the narrow-minded attitude of emperialistic entitlement that characterizes the "Ugly American" traveler or that I wholeheartedly (or even half-heartedly) support the actions of some of our leaders.
But America is not and cannot be defined by its leaders or even by its people. Nor is it a place that can be defined or contained by its boundaries and borders.
America is a collection of ideas, values, and dreams. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Fortunately, all of the above are portable.
And it for this reason that I can feel at home no matter where in the world I am.
I don't live in America.
America lives in me.
May I offer you a slice of pie?
Crunchy Caramel Apple Pie
This awesome recipe comes courtesy of Lenore DeMaria & the Crocodile.
9" or 10" pastry crust for a deep dish pie (someday I'll make my own, but not today)
1/2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon salt
6 cups apples, peeled and thinly sliced (I use Fuji, but dying to try HoneyCrisp)
crumb topping (recipe below)
1/2 cup chopped pecans (or candied walnuts for a super sweet treat)
1/4 cup caramel topping
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup quick-cooking rolled oats
1/2 cup butter
First, the topping: Stir together the brown sugar, flour and oats. Cut in the butter until you have a bowl of coarse crumbs. Set aside - ideally out of reach if you share my tendency to taste-test the entire batch.
Then, the pie: Pre-heat oven to 375. In a large bowl stir together the sugar, flour, cinnamon and salt. Add the apple slices and gently toss until coated. (Free-association is optional, but pleasantly cathartic.)Transfer the apple mixture into the pie shell and sprinkle crumb topping on top.
Put the pie on a cookie sheet so the drippings don't jack up your oven. Cover the edges with aluminum foil and bake at 375 for 25 minutes. Your kitchen should be smelling like Heaven right about now. Ditch the foil and bake for another 25-30 minutes.
Remove pie from oven, sprinkle with chopped nuts and drizzle with caramel. Cool on a rack and enjoy this gooey bunch of deliciousness warm or at room temperature.
Don't forget to count your blessings.
Note: Unless you are a baking wizzard (or I am just a moron) you may find yourself with a hot mess that lacks the consistency you seek. It took me seven years. But don't stress. It's still delicious. Just serve it in a bowl instead of on a plate and be thankful that this is the worst thing that happened to you today.