About two weeks ago my Danish husband and I went to the U.S. Embassy in Paris with tons of paperwork to declare the birth of our child and ask for her first passport. The consular officer was pleasant and efficient, and the process was fairly painless. We left with a tiny American flag.
When I received her passport I excitedly shared the news, and many people asked the same question: But isn’t she French? The answer is, no. She is not French, even though she was born in Paris in the 15th arrondissement. It is not like in the United States, where if you are born there you are automatically a citizen. Children born to foreign parents in France have to wait until age 18 to ask for naturalization, after five years’ habitual and continuous residence in France.
It’s the same in Italy, at least for now. If Cécile Kyenge has her way, that will change. Kyenge, Italy’s first black cabinet minister, wants to make it easier for immigrants to gain Italian citizenship by backing a law that would automatically make anyone born on Italian soil a citizen. (Her proposal has subjected her to constant racist and sexually violent insults, including one last week in which opponents used mannequins covered in fake blood.)
I have never been concerned about my children having French nationality. (My son is French because his father is. My two younger children are half American and half Danish. All three of them were born in the same Parisian hospital. It’s complicated.)
I was born and raised in America, and in the Deep South, to boot. Even with this country’s painful racial history, I have never regretted being a citizen. My grandparents always taught us to keep Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream alive and to strive for the best, for ourselves and for our country. When my high-school band director instructed us to play Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” it meant something to me and my bandmates.
When I married a Frenchman and moved to Paris in 1999, I was confronted with an entirely different view of my home country. I learned what the French and other Europeans sometimes think of us, things that I had never before considered: Americans are loud. Americans don’t recognize any countries outside of the United States. Americans are rich. Americans are fake. Each time someone French presents these arguments to me, I listen and learn, and explain that not all of us are loud or fake or rich or geographically challenged.
After more than a decade living in France, I have an even greater appreciation of being American.
I am encouraged to see President Obama and French President François Hollande working together to address the Syrian crisis. It’s far different from 10 years ago, when a congressman renamed french fries as “freedom fries” on the House menu after France refused to back the invasion of Iraq. During that time I walked around Paris hoping no one would ask me if I were American. I was no longer wearing my Old Navy T-shirt on American holidays and I had delicately put all my U.S. flags in a safe place. I took these drastic measures not because I was ashamed of being American, but rather because I couldn’t explain to the French why Americans were going into Iraq.
Hollande seems ready to stand with Obama now, and let’s hope they are in successful in their diplomatic efforts.
I love France very much. The history, the architecture, the food, the French way of life, and being in close proximity to other fascinating European cities is a dream. But my relationship with America is like a marriage — I’ll stand by my country through good times (Barack Obama, Gabrielle Douglas, Oprah) and bad times (Hurricane Katrina, Sandy Hook, George Zimmerman). I would like my children to be able to contribute to this country that has so much potential; this country, which has come a long way but still has a long way to go. Keeping them connected to America while living in France is a must.
Americans are determined, driven, resolute and able to overcome the most difficult situations. We are dreamers. We create. We invent. We persevere. We work hard, and we know how to have fun. Super bowl? Easter egg hunts? Halloween? Thanksgiving? None of these parts of our culture should be taken for granted, and these are among the things I miss most.
France, for the moment, remains our home, and I am elated that the littlest one in our family has the opportunity to grow up here, too. As fellow expat author Carolyn Moncel, who lived in Paris before moving to Switzerland, recently told me: “Our kids are citizens of the world. They have opportunities, especially as children of color, which we could have never imagined.”
I totally agree. If my daughters one day decide to obtain French passports (or Danish ones), I won’t discourage them. In the meantime, and especially this week as we observe the anniversary of the September 11th, God Bless the United States of America.