Feeling Foreign

American students pledging to the flag in a fo...
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It’s taken a while, but I’ve started to find blogs written by other women living outside their home countries — one in a regional Spanish city, one in a small Italian town and even a Peace Corps volunteer in Armenia.

I love their posts because hearing other women describe their lives in a country other than the one in which they were raised helps me feel less foreign. I live only a nine-hour drive away from my hometown and a six-hour drive to the border, but sometimes it feels very far away.

I left Canada, where I was born and started my journalism career, more than 20 years ago to live in the U.S. in a small town 25 miles north of New York City.

I love it — I stare north up the Hudson River to astonishingly beautiful views, can enjoy all the things Manhattan has to offer and have a town so charming its main street has been featured in several films, like The Good Shepherd and The Preacher’s Wife and Mona Lisa Smile.

But even after all these years, I still sometimes feel foreign. I love Thanksgiving — family, friends, gratitude, pumpkin pie — but am left cold by the insane commercialism of Black Friday. (Although Canada, and others, has instead the commercial insanity of Boxing Day sales, which have nothing to do with sports.)

I don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance, although I can sing the national anthem. I now know what a “do-over” and a “Hail Mary pass” and “step up to the plate” mean — all these sports references! I know that New Yorkers stand “on line” and that ordering a “double, double” (two sugars, two milks in coffee) or a bloody Caesar (a cocktail) here will elicit only blank stares.

It’s easy enough to memorize the number of senators or why there are so many stars or stripes in the U.S. flag. It’s much more  challenging to play cultural catch-up!

But I never (thank Heaven) had to write the SATs nor freak out over which college to attend and whether or not it was affordable — I attended the University of Toronto whose annual cost (no, this is not missing a zero) was $660 my first year. It now still costs only $5,000 a year for Canadian residents.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe, as I keep a running video in my head of what life might have been like had I stayed in Canada. Of course, there’s no way to know, is there?

I visit Canada up to six times a year, as my parents live there (in separate provinces), as well as dear friends going back decades. Every time, someone asks if or when I’ll move back. With a green card, I can only leave the U.S. for  year at a time, so it would take an amazing job offer to lure me north, and for the moment, none is forthcoming.

In my adolescence, I lived in Cuernavaca, Mexico for four months and, at 25, lived in Paris for 10 months. In Mexico, men hissed at me on the street and in buses, two words: juerita and fuerita: little blondie and little foreigner. My very appearance marked me as foreign with my waist-length blond hair and pale skin.

Both experiences changed forever how I saw the world and my place in it; once you’ve made the break away from everything you know, you discover how adaptable you are. You find kind people live everywhere and realize that you can thrive many time zones away from where you’ve always felt best understood.

Have you ever lived outside your native land? Did you enjoy it?

How has it changed you?

10-Year-Old Boy Says Pledge Of Allegiance Unfair to Gays, Won't Stand For It

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Here’s a CNN video clip of Will Phillips, a 10-year-old boy in Arkansas who thinks gays should be able to marry.

He’s a passionate and articulate guy who invoked his First Amendment rights to take the stand that he did  –(sheepishly admittedly suggesting, very politely, his teacher jump off a bridge for forcing him to conform.) He says he’s now the brunt of jokes at his school calling him a “gaywad.”

The Pledge of Allegiance, which every American schoolchild knows by heart, is something that gives those of us who grew up in other countries pause. Canadian schoolchildren don’t pledge allegiance to anyone or anything. They just start their school-day, whatever their feelings of patriotism.  We’re never asked to say them aloud, nor forced to do so by peer pressure and social custom. As an adult, you decide what you believe and vote (or withold your vote) accordingly. I’ve always wondered why young American children are compelled to do this.

Is Will Phillips crazy? Unpatriotic? Brave?

A Wet Normandy Field Taught Me The Meaning Of War

A LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel) fro...
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No one in my Canadian family served in World War II, so why did I end up in a wet, green field in Normandy, weeping uncontrollably at the Canadian cemetery?

My American partner, whose uncles did serve, took me there. “You need to know your history. You have to understand what your country did,” he insisted. So, in late October 2008, we went.

Unlike Americans, Canadians are generally raised and socialized to be pretty undemonstrative. We don’t generally wear flag pins. We don’t have a Pledge of Allegiance, nor do we officially and publicly place our hands over our hearts for anything related to our country. Our patriotism is usually quiet, modest, understated.

And so we’re not told what extraordinary courage and heroism we brought to the battles of D-Day, the same day, June 6, as my birthday.

It was a cool, gray day when we visited. The site is marked by a grove of maple trees, the same tree that centers our flag, one of few symbols we all immediately recognize as ours. My heart caught a little at that unfamiliar sight here in France, the wet grass blanketed with the familiar and beloved shapes of fallen red, yellow and orange leaves.

The Canadian cemetery is not, as I’d expected, a row of plain white crosses. It’s much more heartbreaking because it’s so deeply personal — curved headstones, each deeply incised with a maple leaf inside a circle. Row upon row upon row of our symbol. And many of the stones bear personal messages from their families.

Canada is a country forever, stupidly, riven by regional differences. Tell people out west, or east — anywhere, really — you’re from Toronto (Tronna. i.e. snotty and Type-A and a workaholic) and you can feel a chill in the air. Here, French Catholics from Montreal lie forever beside Jews from Winnipeg — their stone marked with a Star of Israel — or Anglicans from Alberta. Small-town boy lies beside big-city slicker. Here, there is unity.

I grew up knowing almost nothing about what we did there. Canadian students’ history classes still don’t make clear what a contribution Canada made to D-Day — 1,074 soldiers were injured, 359 of those killed.

I recently asked a family friend why. “We don’t celebrate militarism,” he said, without hesitation.

But what about honor and courage and impossible bravery and sacrifice?

Walk through the narrow cobblestoned streets of Bayeux, the first French town to be liberated and signs still read: “Thanks to our liberators.”

Walking slowly among all those white gravestones, I finally understood something of what had been accomplished on those sands and soil.

I cried so hard I could barely stand up. I almost never cry. The magnitude of this sacrifice — and the impossible  distance, forever now buried thousands of miles and an ocean away, from these soldiers’ homeland — was overwhelming. This was no film or movie or book or representation of war. I’d seen “Saving Private Ryan”, and so I thought I knew this place.

I did not.

This place, amid the neat, square fields of Normandy, so near the ocean you can smell the salt in the air, is theirs now. They were buried — as was planned — near where they fell. I wondered how many of their sons and daughters and grandchildren had ever come to visit.

It is a place everyone must see. I’m not sure how else you can ever understand.