Not the United States of America, not the U.S.A., not the U.S., not the States, not les etats unis.
It seems fitting that my last trip in America before moving to France would be New York City. We went to visit an avant garde music school — a jazz school for my older son. It’s true that we did some touristy things like the Empire State Building, but we also ate ramen at a local noodle shop in the West Village, had dessert at Big Gay Ice Cream in the meatpacking district, and my son played sax in a jam session until the wee hours of the morning at an old and famous New York jazz club, the Fat Cat. It was a time, as he would say.
I woke up the first morning in NYC a little tired after a restless night listening to the city sounds — it’s true what they say, the city never sleeps. There were people talking and horns honking and sirens blaring all night. I walked a couple of blocks down to the closest Starbucks to pick up my mobile order and had to wait a few minutes in the morning rush. As I stood there listening to the music and watching the barista work, people ducking in and out of the drizzle on their way to the subway, it hit me — this is America. I have stood in line at Starbucks everywhere from Paris to Dubai, and while all the stores look similar, the people are organic to the place. I never stood in line at Starbucks in my neighborhood mall in Germany and was confused about what country I was in. Besides the obvious things like the language and the clothes, it’s hard to put my finger on what it is that makes Americans… American. But as the Supreme Court says, I know it when I see it.
Americans are louder for one thing. I can’t tell you how many cringy moments I have had in other countries when I have tried to blend into the woodwork to distance myself from the stereotypical American tourists making a scene at whatever restaurant in whatever country I happened to be in. We just have a different norm about how we speak in public. In contrast we tend to be better about queuing up, to stand in line. Line cutters in America are treated harshly. Unless you’re driving; then Americans suddenly forget how to queue up, and act like they were never told about the zipper merge in drivers ed.
We also have more overweight people here due in part to the amount of sugar in processed foods. When we moved back from Germany, I noticed that even the tomato sauce in pizza was sweet. At the same time, we also have the largest populations of the healthiest people, especially over on the west coast. My sister lives in the Bay area; she calls it the island of California. When it comes to food, it’s hard to identify what is American cuisine except burgers. We are mocked the world over for this, until you notice that one of the hottest, top selling menu items in restaurants all over Europe right now is our burger. Barbeque is big over there now too, and it doesn’t get much more American than that. In the U.S. we are comfortable thinking of Italian and Chinese as “our” cuisines, and if you live in a big enough city like I do, you also have your favorite Ethiopian, Afghan, and Korean restaurants.
I think you’re seeing the theme here — diversity. America is a huge place compared to all of the western European nations, both in terms of area and population. We are a nation of immigrants — such a cliche, and yet it truly informs what we look like as a population, literally and figuratively. As a result, we have diverse ideas about food, how to decorate our houses, what kinds of cars to drive, and what politicians to elect. We don’t like being told what to do and, collectively, we’re pretty good at breaking rules. Watch people cross the street in New York, darting out into traffic and playing chicken with taxis, and compare that to Germany where you will be subjected to the vocal, collective judgment of the public if you are reckless enough to cross against the little red man. It’s considered not just unsafe, but asocial. I have had countless conversations with my German husband where he has described some fantastically practical law they have, but my response is, that can’t be done here. Would be nice, but c’est pas possible. Because usually whatever it is would be unconstitutional here, and politically, it would be a non-starter. Consider how long it has taken for photographic radar and red light enforcement to get a toehold here, something that Europeans have been doing for literally decades. But we’re inherently resistant to the idea of a camera nailing us — no chance to argue your way out of the ticket; all violators caught indiscriminately in the same net. It violates our sense of fair play, constitutional issues aside.
And make no mistake, it is our constitution that really sets America apart. I never understood how unusual it is until I lived in Europe, especially the fundamental concepts enshrined in the Bill of Rights like freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of religion, and all of the nuanced, fleshed-out manifestations that grow out of that bare-boned framework. I mean, all western democracies have freedom of speech, right? To a certain extent, but consider that in Germany until recently it was a crime to own a copy of Mein Kampf, and in Spain, speaking for Catalonian independence will land you in jail. We take it for granted that the government can’t directly support churches, but in Germany, religious (Christian) education is taught in public schools, and there is a church tax which funnels public funds directly into the hands of private religious entities. Certain ideas are regulated out of the public marketplace in almost all of the world, while in America, essentially the only outlawed speech is that which incites imminent lawless action. Whether you think that criminalization of hate speech is a good thing is a separate issue (and I personally think that the time has come for this debate) — but what sets us apart is that our constitution protects the widest realm of public discourse in the world, because the framers intentionally erred on the side of the protection of the minority. Speech may be hateful, erroneous, baseless or absurd, but it is not illegal. The views expressed may be held by only a handful of people, and may be grossly unpopular as a result, but that is the speech that our framers thought it most important to protect: to shield the views of minority from the tyranny of the majority. This is the legacy of country resettled by religious refugees. This is in especially sharp focus right now as we confront speech online from other corners of the world that are swaying our public discourse — the problem is much more easily dealt with in other countries, where the speech and its perpetrators can simply be outlawed, investigated, tracked down and prosecuted. In America, under our current constitutional framework, this kind of protective response simply isn’t possible.
I have probably managed to offend most everyone by some or all of what I’ve said here. But I’m a lawyer, raised in a family of lawyers, and I was taught to believe in our justice system. I’ve worked as a public defender representing the poorest, most wretched and defenseless of those among us. The vast majority of them were guilty of what they were charged with, but I am not ashamed of my role in providing their constitutionally-mandated defense. There are a lot of reasons to question the value of that defense due to structural reasons better left to another conversation, but I still embrace the underlying concept. In many countries, there is no such defense at all.
I was never patriotic until I lived in another country. I saw firsthand through comparison what is different about America, what makes it unique. I also saw the problems more clearly from afar. There is much to improve upon and much progress to be made. As I say goodbye to America, I am not abandoning my citizenship. If anything, living abroad strengthens the ties that bind me here. Be looking for my absentee vote.