What nationality would you like to be if we werent American? I asked Jason a couple of years after we moved to New York. He pointed out that we werent, in fact, American.
You cant be Irish unless you were bred there. My home town of Limerick has both a Claremans Association and a Tipperarymans Association for the lonely exiles from bordering counties 20 minutes drive from the city. My parents moved to Limerick 25 years ago, but they carry a whiff of the outsider still.
Being American is different. Its like being Buddhist or extroverted. It doesnt preclude other loyalties, though it flavors them like garlic. She may not know it yet, but a girl selling bun bo hue on the streets of Hanoi can be as American as Jackie Robinson. Youre a New Yorker the moment you decide and declare it. The city just shrugs.
I lived in London for two years before moving here. I loved London, but only because I hadnt met New York. I thought I would live there for years, shopping in Jigsaw and the Conran Shop, Eurostarring to Paris for minibreaks, grumbling at the rain during Sunday afternoons in the pub. The day Id realized Id never belong there, I was sitting in the Lamb & Flag at Covent Garden with my two favorite English friends, talking about their ideal marriage partners.
Well, first off, obviously, theyd have to hold a British passport.
The other nodded in that English oh-yes-absolutely way as I grew sulky. They couldnt understand why I was tetchy about this sudden proof that we Irish were still just imported personalities in their country. We used to build their roads and literature, now we built their tv programmes. But we werent pukka yet.
Then I got the sliver of a chance to spend a year in New York. My last eight weeks in London were a flurry of work projects, wedding plans, movers, and forms. My last day was spent sobbing through Dianas funeral. Weeping for ditzy Di, no doubt, but also for the end of my time in Blairs hopeful Britain and the start of an unknown life. I left the soggy country that looks so much like my own and havent been back to London since or even thought about it much until these past few weeks.
Now here I am again with a sudden scheme to take off on a six-month adventure. Im buried in travel tales rather than my beloved novels. Speed-reading Lonely Planets, wincing at vaccination requirements—rabies, yikes—fretting, as ever, over what to wear there. Calling travel agents, lunging through work projects, making lists of bills to look after and storage lockers to rent and friends to call and visas to apply for and letters to write and luggage to buy. Locks! Money belt! Passport photocopies! Mailing lists! Travelers checks! Tylenol! Picture-postcards! Mosquito nets!
And then some nights I lie in bed listening to the rain and think about floating down the Mekong, and I wonder how I can be so sure that Ill come back. That Ill still want to, that theyll let me in. I make neurotic lists of my friends and ties here, losing count and starting again over and over. I wonder if these caffeinated days are my last as a New Yorker. Ill always be an American, right? Who else would have me?