Uncle Sam

Janine di Giovanni explains how there’s no place like home – and what it took to realise where it was9/11: the Twin Towers aflameLong ago, as if almost in a dream, I see myself leaving America. I see someone with two cheap post-college suitcases full of clothes and books. I see a new blue American passport. I see someone very fresh and very young.

In those days, I was married to a photographer. We were leaving for England, where I had gone to university for six months and where his mother came from. Old England was meant to be for a year. We thought we would have an adventure and then come back and live in a big house in New England, with a white porch near the sea.

We went to London giddy. The first night we slept in a grotty bed and breakfast near Paddington. A massive hurricane, the worst in hundreds of years, hit the southeast of the country.I awoke in the night, dreaming of thrashing wind and rain that pelted the window like shards of ice. Then I stood by the window and realised it was not a dream.

My husband slept through it. In the morning, the streets were littered with fallen trees. The Underground did not work. Kew Gardens was nearly destroyed. A few days later, the stock market crashed. It was the big one, October 1987. It meant little to me with a few hundred American dollars tucked up in a money belt. The newspapers predicted apocalypse.

We lived in St John’s Wood, then Islington; Fulham, then Maida Vale. We split up and I moved to West Kensington, then Shepherd’s Bush; then for many, many years in Notting Hill. We never spoke again, my American husband and I. The last thing he said to me was, “I don’t recognise the person I got on the flight to England with.”

I got a job, a circle of friends. I got an agent and a publishing company. I wrote books and won awards. I lived eight months a year in Sarajevo, then moved between wars in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. I did not allow myself to think too hard about the things I saw. I had five passports: two British, two American (to alternate between Arab countries and Israel), and one diplomatic passport I bought in Mogadishu for a hundred dollars. I used it once at a roadblock in Iraq. It worked.

I had no idea where my roots were. I woke up in so many countries so often that sometimes I did not know where I was – Gaza, the Congo, Liberia? When people asked where I came from, I had a long answer: Italian father, Italian American mother, born in USA, British resident. Or in French, I would say, “Je suis une macedoine.” I am a fruit salad.

“I went back to America often and baffled my family. Why wasn’t I proud of the greatest country on earth?”

I did not want to admit to being American. What did I possibly have in common with the anorexic, blonde bankers’ wives I saw eating breakfast at Tom’s in Notting Hill? Or the Texans braying about George Bush, or the Irish Catholics from Boston with their flat freckled faces?

I went back to America often and baffled my family. Why wasn’t I proud of the greatest country on earth? My father was the most confused. He was the son of an Italian anti-Fascist who had escaped Mussolini’s Italy, who had joined the American Air Force during World War II and who had even fought against Italy, the land of his birth.On September 11 2001, I was walking down rue St-Antoine in Paris when my mobile rang. It was another reporter. “This is not George Orwell,” she said sombrely, “but two planes just crashed into the World Trade Center.”

I went into autopilot. I went to the nearest bar and tried to call my friends and family over and over. I could not get through. I ordered two large whiskies and drank them standing up like John Wayne. Then I took a taxi to the American embassy. I wanted to be with my people. Those crass, belligerent and uncouth Americans. They were now my people because some lunatics had just crashed planes into the World Trade Center.People were gathered outside the embassy. Some had candles and most were crying. Someone, French, had scrawled a sign. I started to cry too, although I could not really explain where the tears came from. The sign read: 6 JUIN 1944. MERCI.

A few days later, I left for Afghanistan and I did not come back for months and months. Then, a little while later, I spent time in parts of Africa where al-Qaeda might be; then Iraq. I hated George Bush, of course, and I was violently opposed to the invasion – but I was no longer ashamed to admit I was American.

“What is it?” he said. “I just realised for the first time in my life that I’m American,” I sobbed”

Shortly before I left to join the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan – before I had to ride a wild horse across a rushing stream to get to a front line; before I was cowering in a cave in Tora Bora; before I found cases of American missiles with GOAT FUCK scrawled on them; before I saw children whose villages were accidentally hit and who were brutally burned by those missiles – I went to mass in my boyfriend’s village in southeastern France. My boyfriend’s village is in the mountains and had been a stronghold for Resistance fighters in WWII. In the garden of the family house are headstones of two of his relatives, shot by the Nazis in August 1944.I sat in the darkness of the church and prayed for the families of the 9/11 victims. During the sign of peace, an old man turned to grab my hand. “You don’t look familiar,” he said in French. “Are you from the village?” I took his hand but did not know what to say. After all, the French are famous American haters. I decided to go for it.“No, I’m American,” I replied.

The old man’s eyes filled with tears and he gripped my hand harder. “Oh,” he said with real pain, “I watched it on television. Those terrible fires in the towers in New York. We will never forget what you did for us during the war. Nous sommes avec vous!”I had to leave the church I was crying so hard. My boyfriend followed me and gave me a hug. “What is it?” he said. “I just realised for the first time in my life that I’m American,” I sobbed.

After the fall of Baghdad, I married this French boyfriend (I met him in Sarajevo during the siege) and I gave birth to a little boy a year after the invasion of Iraq. From my hospital bed, I watched the anniversary of the start of the war and saw my old hotel in Baghdad where I had left suitcases of my clothes.

“My fear is [my son] will grow up to wear skinny jeans, smoke Gitanes, sport a four-day stubble and a snotty girlfriend called Delphine”

The baby was adorable. “He’s French,” my French husband said, crowing like a rooster, and registered him with the Paris authorities. But when we left the hospital I defiantly took the baby in his sling to the American embassy and, with my hand raised in oath, I got him his American passport.

“You are American,” I told him firmly. “Don’t forget it.” My son is now three. He is bilingual, although he speaks English with a French accent. My fear is he will grow up to wear skinny jeans, smoke Gitanes, sport a four-day stubble and a snotty girlfriend called Delphine. So I try to instill the great things I learned from America, things like Dr Seuss and SpongeBob and Thanksgiving and cranberry jelly and that you can do anything you put your mind to. Europeans don’t think like this. They believe you are doomed from birth and they look at life through a jaded haze.I used to be like that. But now the American in me that I was so ashamed of for years has resurfaced. Over and over, I read my son The Little Engine That Could. I think I can, I think I can, I think I can! I showed the book to a famous French psychiatrist who laughed and said, “In France, that book would be called The Little Engine That Was Not Able To.” I buy jars of imported peanut butter and maple syrup at huge expense. I make pancakes, not crêpes. To the delight of my European friends, I serve meatloaf at dinner parties.

This summer, we flew kites on the Normandy beach where the D-day invasion started. I sat on the sand and imagined, knowing full well how fucking scary it is to get shot at, what it must have felt like to be 22 years old, with a heavy pack on your back, crawling over a flat beach while dug-in German machine-guns mowed down your friends.We went to the cemetery where kids from Missouri and New York and California were buried, so far from home, and my son wandered around and hugged the headstone of an unknown soldier which read COMRADE KNOWN ONLY TO GOD. I got emotional again and told my husband under no circumstances to bury me in France. “I want to go home,” I said.

“Yeah, yeah,” he said, and began to hum the Star-Spangled Banner, which he does to annoy me when he says my patriotic mood strikes. But as I get older, it gets more solid. Each summer, we go to the small New Jersey beach town where I grew up and ride the waves. The Atlantic tastes different to the Mediterranean. We speak English loudly. We eat ice cream.

“The Atlantic tastes different to the Mediterranean. We speak English loudly. We eat ice cream”

When we return to Paris, we walk most days in the Luxembourg Gardens. Once when we passed the replica Statue of Liberty there, my son held up his arm, imitating it. “Mom, why?” he asked in his baby voice. “Why the lady holds the light?” I had to think carefully about that one. There were so many answers I could have given, all of them corny. The Italian grandfather my son is named after, for instance, passed by the original Statue of Liberty. I could have told him about liberty, or democracy, or even refer back to The Little Engine That Could.
Instead, I just told him she’s holding the light so she can see the way back home, back to America.

Janine di Giovanni is an award-winning author, journalist and documentary-maker who has reported on global conflict since the 1980s