‘I am a citizen, not of Athens or Greece, but of the world’ – Socrates
I get to cross yet another ‘thing to do in Budapest’ off my list this week – attend a citizenship ceremony. My good friend, who shall from now on be known as MGJ, took the oath and is now officially a Hungarian citizen. Along with eight others, (one Austrian, one Serb, and six Romanians/Transylvanians), and presided over by the district Mayor, MGJ was given the keys to the EU kingdom with Hungary as a portal.
It reminded me of the day I became a card-carrying American. There were 80 or so in the room and, to my shame, I was the only one doing it to get out of the country rather than to stay there! I had won a Green Card in a lottery some five years before, under the terms of which I couldn’t leave the States for longer than 364 days at a time. And this bothered me. Not that I had anywhere to go for longer than 364 days, but that I simply wasn’t allowed to.
Once I’d clarified that I would NOT have to give up my Irish citizenship, I decided to take the plunge. There are very fews times in my life that I look back on with shame. I’ve long since realised that the key to an easy conscience is not to screw up in the first place, so I have few regrets. But this ranks up there.
It’s not that I’m ashamed to have a US passport – far from it. Uncle Sam and his family have been extremely good to me; I have second homes in many states where I know I will always be welcome. I enjoy the country, its accents, its idiosyncrasies. I even like country music, jalapeño poppers, and digging for clams on the Kenai. On my list of things to do before I die (which I intend crossing off this summer) is to sip a mint julep while a swingin’ on a porch in the South. I also want to stick my feet in the Rio Grande and go to a real, live, rodeo. But those might have to wait.
Back to my swearing-in. An old Korean woman in her 90s with what seemed like a string of 90 relatives cried with happiness when she took the oath. Some young Asian families announced their new easier-to-pronounce American names with pride. Everyone but me had an army of well wishers; and everyone but me saw this as the opportunity of a lifetime.
I can’t change the fact that, at the time, it didn’t matter to me. As I watched it all from the fringes of fervour, I mentally chastised myself for treating such an important occasion with what bordered on disdain. What had come so easily to me, others had had to work hard for. What I was treating as yet another piece of identification, others saw as the Holy Grail. I was ashamed of the fact that I had failed to recognise the true meaning of taking another country as one’s own. Although I was there, in body, I missed out on the whole ‘welcome to the brave new world’ experience – and looked on those celebrating with some degree of pity. How arrogant of me. In my smug Irishness, I failed to recognise that not everyone has had it as good as I have had it. Not every country has made its people proud enough for them to want to remain citizens. And not everyone has had the same chances, opportunities, and good fortune.
I was humbled then and I am humbled now. Citizenship is a big deal, bigger for some than for others, admittedly. But it’s not something to be taken for granted or treated lightly. I’m glad that I was there to see MGJ take that step.
At the end of what’s been a good week for me, I’m grateful that I’ve been reminded not to take for granted those things that make me proud to be Irish. I’m grateful, too, that I’ve been reminded of all I’ve gained since Uncle Sam gave me the key to his front door. To my American friends – at home and abroad – ta much for the experience. And to my Irish friends for keeping me grounded – go raibh mile maith agaibh.
Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52