In 1993 I was widowed with two young daughters. Broken and bereaved, I dreamed of rebuilding a simpler, less cluttered life. After months of debating possibilities, I decided that the newly independent country of Estonia was a perfect location to construct this new life. Some said I was overreacting and should continue living in my rural Virginia community. I chose a different path: Within 2 years I packed up all of our earthly necessities and, with my daughters, moved to this tiny Northeastern European country. It never crossed my mind that my goal wasn’t achievable. I believed that anything was possible; so it was.
By 1996 I had bought a small flat and was settled into my new life.
As I walked through an outdoor market in Tartu, Estonia, in 1998, a Russian man yelled: “Hey, American, say us about Clinton and Lewinsky!”
“There’s nothing to say,” I replied. “You read the news and know as much as I do.”
“No, no; say why Americans think this story so big interesting?”
Before I could reply, his friend answered him in Russian, “Because they’re Americans,” as a small crowd nearby laughed.
Typically, Americans are thought to be judgmental and have puritanical attitudes towards sex. But, I walked away with my head held high, that day, because I knew something he didn’t know: I was not a typical American!
Three years into my Estonian adventure, tightened immigration policies dictated that I apply for official residency. Because there was no I love the simple life I’ve created here box to tick on the form for requesting a living permit, I couldn’t even begin the process of applying. I was quickly asked to leave the country.
Wait one damned minute, here… Hasn’t this government been encouraging foreigners to buy property for years? And now, are they just expecting me to walk away from my friends, my life and my property?
I knew I’d emerge victorious, as I entered my battle with the immigration department, stubbornly fighting against what I saw as injustice. More than one time I heard a supervisor say, “She is American!” in reply to a head scratching subordinate asking questions like: “Why does she keep coming back acting like we’ll change our policies?” and “What exactly is she doing in our country, anyway?”
In this context, she’s American meant she’s a warrior and doesn’t surrender easily. It also meant, she has reasons for her choices and behavior that are not necessarily logical. I wasn’t about to explain that my crusade for fairness had nothing to do with being American (certainly not with my pathetic Estonian language skills, since Europeans endlessly ridicule Americans for not mastering foreign languages!). So I allowed the bureaucrats their beliefs, that I was a typical American, as I continued challenging their system.
A few weeks into my battle, a well-known local magazine published an article about my daughters and me, asking pointed questions like: How can Estonia evict a poor widow and her children? And Are these what we call enemies of our state? This was the magic bullet I’d been waiting for, instantly piercing and rewriting the immigration department’s ironclad policies. I was later told—although I never received official confirmation on this—that the country of Estonia adopted a new criterion for immigration based solely on my needs: Anyone owning property in Estonia has the right to request residency thus providing a box for me to tick on my application for a living permit.
I lived quietly in Estonia for several more years after receiving my residency permit—traveling, writing, home-schooling and teaching English as a second language—before moving to Latvia in 2001.
One day while browsing a bookstore in Riga, Latvia, I found a series of books, describing—in sweeping stereotypes—different cultures. I laughed out loud as I read What Is An Italian? Oh those Italians… God bless ‘em. They’re just so Italian… And on to the French… how can you not laugh at, and love, the French?
Then I saw it: What Is An American? The thought of reading about those Americans had me laughing before I opened the book.
Number 1: All Americans think they’ll die of cancer and worry about it constantly.
Wait a minute; I stopped in mid-chuckle. That wasn’t actually funny… I thought of how many things I ate, didn’t eat, supplemented with, and didn’t smoke, in hopes that I’d beat the big C.
Okay, so maybe I had something in common with those Americans.
Number 2: All Americans tell you that they are not typical Americans.
My late mother-in-law once said to me, “I just can’t stand people who speak with accents. I have worked very hard to speak proper English with no accent.” This was said in a refined New York accent. When I attempted to tell her that, to a Midwesterner—or even to me, for that matter—she had a significant accent, she impatiently replied, “That’s simply not true. You, however, do have quite an accent and you might work on that!” I loved my mother-in-law, but I despised her horribly limited worldview—so restricted that she couldn’t see that she was exactly like the people she couldn’t stand.
So there I stood in a bookstore in Riga, Latvia, reading: All Americans tell you that they are not typical Americans, in my decidedly American accent, thinking: Oh shit!
Another widely accepted fact: Americans have coarse vocabularies.
That day—standing in the bookstore—the shutters surrounding my worldview slammed open. And I began the process of embracing my inner-American.
During our time in Estonia and Latvia, we washed our clothes by hand, shopped in open-air markets and lived in some extremely tight quarters. For many years we didn’t own a car; we used public transportation and bicycles. Our minimal wardrobes fit in four drawers and one closet. But through it all we had affordable, if not free, medical care and my daughters had free dental care until they reached 18.
The good times in Estonia and Latvia looked a lot like hard times in America. We struggled financially just to live very simply. Without a high expectation imposed by society, however, there was no stigma on living simply and small, making our modest life manageable, sustainable and joyful—until the time that it ceased to be any of the aforementioned.
It was 2008 when Latvia collapsed economically. The political system, always dodgy, quickly followed the economy down the tubes. Americans can’t imagine the depths of depression reached by New Europe during those hard times.
In the midst of this societal implosion, my Latvian partner, Egils, and I packed up our tiny car and fled to the west, landing in Scotland. Both daughters had relocated—one to begin a family in England and one to attend university in the USA. Egils and I moved in with friends, Jim and Thilda, who opened their home to us until we found work. Although we loved Scotland and our dear friends, being without work, money, or our own home—while looking into the face of our golden years—was an abysmal prospect.
So here I am, living in Scotland, adjusting, learning, and reflecting…
The UK has an interesting relationship with America. They find us fascinating—frequently in a WTF-are-they-thinking kind of way—a bit like parents viewing their teenagers.
Our household is watching BBC news. President Obama is discussing his ideas for building a new healthcare system to replace the broken one… cut to the next frame: A group is protesting in the street against Obamacare. I’m not paying much attention until Thilda turns to me, her mouth slightly open, and says: “Holly, they make it sound like some Americans dinna want free healthcare.”
“Yes, that’s right,” I reply.
“No, I mean, like they don’t want to have a national healthcare system … like they’re not entitled to be healthy …”
“Yes, that’s correct. Some Americans don’t want that,” I say. Then realizing Thilda is having trouble wrapping around the fact that there are people on this planet who believe children are entitled to an education but not healthcare, I continue, “Those very people, who are protesting national healthcare, point to you guys and the way you gripe about the NHS [National Health Service], as a reason not to have national healthcare.”
Thilda’s mouth opens wider, “Surely you’re joking! We want to improve our system, no doubt, just like we want to improve everything. But no one wants to do away with our healthcare, altogether! That would be insane…”
Thilda turns to her husband: “Jim are you hearing this? Do you ken there are some folks who dinna want national healthcare?”
Jim doesn’t look up from his paper. “They’re Americans,” he mutters.
I know what Jim means: Americans are impossible to understand. They are illogical and stubborn as mules. There is no explaining why they vote against their best interest and create horrible messes while declaring they have the best country in the world; of course, in America everything is declared. Loudly. Life is one big fat overreaction…
At least I think that’s what Jim means…
I stop trying to explain Americans, as I feel myself sliding down that slippery slope that begins with explaining, before plummeting into a defense. Why should I defend American insanity? What the hell is wrong with them, anyway? Those stubborn, emotional, opinionated, incapable-of-managing-their-own-lives poor excuses for… I seethe at the images of these Americans on the BBC.
Suddenly I’m aware that I’m sitting in someone else’s living room, because the country I chose to live in for the past 14 years just collapsed; a fact that came as no surprise to most folks, but blindsided me. Some might say that I was incapable of managing my life… Hm … I’m also aware that my stubborn, emotional, opinionated thoughts about Americans, a moment ago, were delivered in an American accent. Shit!
“Is there any hope that this can be solved?” Thilda’s voice interrupts my thoughts.
“Of course,” I say, unsure if I’m referring to my shattered life, my relationship with my motherland or the broken American healthcare system. Or all three.
“There’s really hope?” Thilda sounds skeptical.
“Yes!” I say and, oddly, I mean it.
Because as an outsider looking in I’ve learned a few things about myself from observing my country:
Americans are crusaders, believing in an abundant, safe, clean, country that will be proudly handed down to their grandchildren, although they seldom agree on how to achieve their goals. Americans are emotional, opinionated and extreme, with a stubborn refusal to compromise. This keeps us moving forward; it also plagues us with endless conflict along the way. But, our common denominator is, Americans believe we can forever survive—to dream new dreams and make them come true—and so, somehow, we do.
We believe in alleviating the suffering of others; by now it’s probably a marker in our DNA. The Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore DNA Sequence… And so we will.
Americans are… um… just so American: Frequently crude and loud, forever opinionated, illogical and stubborn. But we are also mighty warriors, capable of creating great change and endlessly reinventing ourselves, particularly when we stop fighting with one another. We are the youngsters of the Old World cultures—high-energy, impetuous children—bumbling, stumbling, as we barge head long into virgin territory, unwilling to take advice from our elders… It’s what makes us innovators and leaders. With youthful exuberance we believe in ourselves—for better or worse. So when we fall we hop up. After behaving badly, we reconsider, undo and reinvent—forever rushing into the unknown with a passion that often destroys us and recreates us simultaneously. We do not believe we can be broken beyond repair; and so we can’t.
I sit here in Scotland watching Americans fighting against national healthcare, with 50 million uninsured Americans and an abysmal economy. They’re broken and battered, in need of a reinvention on many levels—just as I am. But as hopeless as we seem, I know, in my bones, that we will somehow survive these hard times and live to fulfill new dreams and fight another day, because we’re Americans, damn it. We believe in our power to find solutions, rise above challenges and flourish; so—in spite of who we are and because of who we are— we always do!