I am going to go full American on you for a minute. Or two. Bear with me. But it’s Saint Patrick’s Day today. And with 32.3 million¹ self-proclaimed Irish-Americans, myself included, it’s a fun day to do so. That’s 1 in 10 Americans people. But wait. Isn’t St. Patrick’s Day Irish? Like from IRELAND. Yes. Yes. It is. Did you see what I did there? Claimed it for my own? Pretty American eh? Hang on. Don’t be offended yet. Let me explain. I have learned a few things living abroad.
Growing up, Saint Patrick’s Day was a pretty big deal in our family. My given name is Erin Kathleen. Kind of Irish. My brother is Michael Shannon and my other brother is Colin Patrick. We had an Irish Setter named “Paddy” growing up. And as cliche, groan-worthy, or just downright confusing as it may sound to actual Irish people, every year on March 17th my mom made corned beef and cabbage, soda bread, and a side of green jello salad. I now know how Irish-American that meal is. Especially the lime jello. There was nothing grown from the earth in that “salad,” just saying. My own children made leprechaun traps at school and my sister-in-law puts green food coloring in the toilet as “evidence” of their sneaky appearance overnight. Think of it as the “Elf on the Shelf” of March. Thanks, Pinterest. March 17th is a big day. To us Irish-Americans. “Kiss me, I’m Irish.”
So when my husband was recently asked to fly to Ireland for a meeting, I jumped at the chance to join. With a day in Dublin to explore by myself, I set across the Ha’Penny bridge to Trinity College and on to St. Stephen’s Green and Grafton Street. It was sunny and blue-skied with birds chirping and daffodils poking open. Brilliant. I thought I’d found my pot of gold, sans the rainbow. Lunch with an Irish friend and her mother proved just the craic I was seeking. (That’s Irish for awesome.) It was quite a quick trip and by no means a tour of essential Ireland or even Dublin for that matter, but it whet my appetite (as well as my whistle) and kick-started a desire to dive into my family’s Irish past.
Walking past the National Library of Ireland with signs asking “What Will You Find Today?” I was pulled inside to discover the most beautiful green domed reading room. AND. The genealogy room. And Christina. The most knowledged and friendly and helpful librarian in all of Ireland. Ok. I’ve only met one. But she was fabulous. And when I told her my name was Erin and what I was searching for, she smiled and understood. She knows how to find your Irish relatives. If you have them, that is.
To start the process of mining the free databases of Ireland’s National Library, you do need to come armed with a few essential facts. Like names. That’s usually a good place to start. After a few quick direct messages to family members in the States, I soon had the full names of my Grandfather’s parents. This was where I had always believed our Irish family roots had relied. Christina helped me discover that I am from… where? Uh. Missouri. Yep. Oh. Ok. I mean, I knew we were from Kansas. But I now know that we go back further to Missouri. That’s. Like. Next to Kansas. Ok. So I’m Midwestern. Got it. Thanks to Ireland did I discover exactly what I already knew. Ok. But why then was St. Patrick’s Day such a big deal in our house every year?
I thanked Christina profusely and left the library still befuddled. My confusion was salved soon enough by an excellent meal with my husband at a lovely pub in Stoneybatter. If in Dublin, don’t miss L. Mulligan Grocer – so yummy (and not actually a grocery store). We returned home to Copenhagen the next day and I was determined to discover the basis for our annual familial obsession with corned beef. I mean my mom brought corned beef in her carry-on bag for a spring break vacation in the Bahamas. The Bahamas, people. She didn’t think she’d be able to find it down there. Talk about a confused customs agent. What is this? Um. Corned beef. You know. For St. Patrick’s Day. Disbelief and blank stares. Keep moving.
For about two days straight I poured through scans of United States Federal census records from the early 1900s and late 1800s. It’s all online. It’s remarkable. And right there in the hand-written lists from 1880 – the evidence I was seeking. My grandfather’s father’s father. He wasn’t from Missouri. He. He was from Ireland. And so was his wife. Where in Ireland I can’t confirm. Yet. Time to revisit with Christina! My husband was also quite pleased to have discovered that he is actually MORE Irish than me. His Grandfather’s father emigrated from Sweden with his Irish wife. Along with the Irish and Swedish, we uncovered evidence of English, German, Scottish and Swiss emigrants in the family. So as it turns out, we’re all mutts. American. In the words of Will Farrell on Saturday Night Live,
“The way I see it, unless your name is Running Bear or Chief Two Rivers, we’re all anchor babies.”
– Will Farrell in character as George W. Bush, SNL
As an American living in Europe for the last 3.5 years, it has been made plainly clear to me that my claims of heritage are constant sources of amusement to the growing collection of international friends I spend time with. If I were to ever say I’m not just American, but “Irish-American” or that my husband is “Swedish-American,” it becomes cringe-worthy and may even induce eye-rolling. (PS – I don’t actually claim that.) But I have learned, quite quickly, that where you are “from” in the international community can be a truly complicated thing.
Where are you from? The answer, as it turns out, is relative. What are you asking me? Where was I born? What does my passport say? Where have I lived? Where did I move HERE from? What answer are you looking for? And why do you want to know?
Here is actually the crux of the question. Why do I want to know? Why do I care? Where people are “from?” I think this is the essentially American part of the question. We’re a relatively young country. For me? This is our first posting abroad. My answer is simple. I’m from America. Although I rarely have to tell anyone as my ubiquitous accent reveals it immediately whenever I speak. Ah. You’re American. Yep. Stamp on my forehead. Where in America – a whole other ball of wax.
I live in Copenhagen. Denmark. Happiest country of hygge, Lego, beautiful lighting, and a healthy bicycle lifestyle. But I’m not Danish. Can’t even claim the tiniest bit of Danish heritage. Because of my husband’s name – Gustafson – everyone here assumes we are Swedish. We went to Stockholm, we saw Kong Gustav. It didn’t necessarily feel like home. But we do love Sweden. (And at least my husband can claim a bit of heritage there – per recent genealogy traces.)
Back here in Denmark, we have adopted and adapted lots of the Danish lifestyle and truly appreciate Danish approaches to life and living. For instance, we don’t have a car. We ride our bikes and take the bus. Every day. Even on Saturday. And while we don’t speak fluent Danish – we can get around the grocery store without Google translate and always remember to put down the divider after our goods. That’s important here. We’re fitting in. Or trying to. We have an advantage we look like the locals. Until we speak, the assumption is that we’re local. I’m more than aware as a foreigner living here of the connotations that come with titles like “expat” or “immigrant” or “refugee.” They are just as pertinent and ultimately defining in Denmark as they are in the US.
Our ability to stay here in the seemingly delightful Denmark isn’t definitive. Every day, it seems, this little Scandi country is making it more difficult to gain access to all things Danish. Those specifically Scandinavian benefits of free universal healthcare and free higher education that come with residency, be it permanent or temporary – are a challenge to secure. These are benefits that you want to hold on to when your job is based here.
We recently received a reminder that our carefree (gun-free) idyllic bicycled life here is not a given. Our residency permits are expiring. Soon. A dramatically worded letter addressed only to my youngest two children alerted us to the urgency of this fact. If we don’t apply for extensions, like yesterday, we can and will be forcibly removed from one of the happiest countries on earth. That doesn’t sound so happy. Or hyggeligt. Remind you of somewhere else you might know?
Don’t worry, we are submitting all of our paperwork and getting our Danish ducks in a row. We will be required to have our mugshots registered (again) and our fingerprints taken (again) and our signatures signed and sealed. Again. To be able to live here. It is a visceral process that enforces your NOT belonging. Not really. You are not us. It will be a very difficult process to be us. Remember that.
And maybe this is why I find the question of where you are from interesting and important. For me, it is less of an identifier or classifier or separator and more of a connector. Maybe it’s because I have moved so many times. Each time forced to make connections in the next “home.” The more we can identify with each other, the closer we can become.
So the next time you meet an American who claims Irish heritage or Dutch heritage or Scottish or Korean or Kenyan, even if they’ve never been to those places or spoken one word of the native tongue or even remember the names of those distant relatives, embrace it. You want Americans to connect outside their borders. I want Americans to connect outside our borders. I do not want walls. And I believe in bridges and love and acceptance.
Maybe give them a little gentle lesson in actual cultural heritage. Explain to them that you would never serve corned beef and cabbage at a real Irish celebration and you’ve never had green jello or colored your toilet water green. Or the milk for that matter. But you do drink Guinness. And you will wear green and possibly attend a parade today. 100,000 expected to line the streets of Dublin! And give them an opportunity to show you the diversity that makes up the melting pot called the USA.
We won’t be serving corned beef tonight in Denmark. My husband tried to find some and truly couldn’t. Darn it. But it’s ok because I will be raising a glass with women from around the world at my International Cooking Club dinner. We’re making Thai tonight. And while it may not be my traditional March 17th meal, it will be a celebration of culture and heritage, and friendships. Beyond borders. With friends from Italy, The Netherlands, Belgium, Chile, Germany, Poland who have lived in as many more countries and have multiple answers to “where are you from?” and make my community in Denmark diverse. For them I am grateful.
So whatever your background, wherever you are from, however you celebrate, whatever you bring to the table – let’s make it a big table. In the words of my all-time favorite band, U2, who happen to be Irish, “It’s a beautiful day.” Build bridges, not walls. Happy Saint Patrick’s Day. From Copenhagen.