"Happy birthday," my Norwegian friend said. He gave me an enameled lapel pin with side-by-side Norwegian and American flags. It was November 3, 2008, and I was waiting for Obama to win.
I can wear this now, I thought. I wouldn't have dared before. I've lived in Oslo for eleven years and, although I've rarely feared for my physical safety as an American abroad, I've taken pains not to advertise my citizenship. It's been easy to blend in: I come from northern European stock and I speak Norwegian, so people don't always know I'm American until I tell them. My Norwegian husband is part of my camouflage, of course. So are our blonde, blue-eyed daughters.
I moved to Europe during the Clinton years, when the most irritating attitude I encountered was a pervasive weariness of being grateful to America for having entered World War II. Then there was my seventy-year-old Norwegian landlord who literally bowed to me in my living room, saying, "All I can say is thank you." Because I was American. Because he remembered the war.
Before George W. took office, before I really stepped into my camouflage, I acquired a sort of cultural belligerence. Back then, most America-bashing had to do with cultural imperialism -- fast food and Hollywood -- and I wasn't having it. "Take the hamburger out of your mouth and vote with your wallet!" I would rage privately, figuring Europeans could actively squeeze out any American import they found truly vapid or undesirable. I was waiting for Europeans to wake up to themselves -- waiting for them to acknowledge that America and Americans were their furtive, guilty pleasure. I knew we were the teenagers of the world -- noisy and solipsistic -- why didn't they?
As the Clinton administration ended, I found Norwegians around me asking questions. "If it's not broken, why fix it?" my chiropractor demanded, baffled by the idea of Americans having elected a Republican to White House. I could only shrug and say, "I had nothing to do with it."
Then people started avoiding my eyes. Whenever America and "Baby Bush" came up, people around me looked the other way. By the time Kerry ran, I had become politically active. When Bush won a second term, I was ready for the questions and took to saying, "I was working for the other guy." Still, I was chastened when I heard things like, "We should vote for your Presidents. They affect our lives more than yours." I would have preferred to dismiss this as bitter overstatement, but realized I'd also be dodging the grain of truth behind it.
It's not like Norwegians don't have their own political dramas. The same two men have been dancing in and out of the Prime Minister's office since I moved here, taking turns relieving each other of duty in a bloodless, revolving-door farce. It's just that when America splashes, Norwegians -- like the rest of the world -- catch the ripples.
After 9/11, I started to hide. Not from Norwegians. From whoever was out there. Thinking mostly of my then-two-year-old daughter, I spoke only Norwegian in public. I shushed my daughter when she outed me on the bus, exclaiming in English, "I see a traffic light!" I was anxious when we had to visit the embassy -- a potential terrorist target known locally as "Fortress America" -- to renew our passports. I stayed away from social events that attracted large groups of Americans, like the 4th of July celebrations in a downtown park. Of course, Norway was part of the Coalition of the Willing, initially deploying troops in both Afghanistan and Iraq. If anything, this afforded me a kind of protection as an American in Norway: we were in it together. Us against the invisible bad guys.
I'd seen America from the outside as a teenager when my mother and I traveled to Romania. "I want you to see a Communist country," she had said. I saw the long lines of people waiting outside shops whose shelves were mostly empty; I saw enormous pictures of Nikolai Ceausescu everywhere; I saw the tearful faces of hotel staff after my mother had tipped them in dollars; and I saw relieved Americans literally kissing the tarmac after the plane home had landed at JFK.
But that was back when I was unconditionally proud of America. I had evidence that we were doing it better, and could never have imagined the protracted interval of shame I would experience as an adult, when people around me would ask, quite rightly, just what Americans thought they were doing.
I've spent Bush's second term of office, along with a majority of voting Americans, waiting. Waiting for November 4th, 2008. Waiting to feel less embarrassed. Waiting for someone like Barack Obama, of whom I could be proud. Waiting to be able to wear, without worry, an American flag on my lapel.