To Be Absolutely Frank

Remembering the Big Day

For some September 11, 2001, was a due date. And now it has everything to do with national identity. What makes an American?

By 9.6.02

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September 11, 2001, was supposed to be our big day. I'd mentioned it in so many e-mails over the preceding summer, I later wondered whether Interpol might want a word with me.

Fortunately the doctor's estimate turned out to be wrong, and our first child was born on the last day of August. The predicted date would have made for grim announcement cards, and haunted his every birthday. Yet avoiding a terrible coincidence hardly made 9/11 irrelevant to my son's life. I began to understand this a few weeks later, when I went to the train station in the northeastern Italian city where we lived and bought a ticket to Milan.

"Going to the consulate?" asked the man behind the counter, having guessed from my accent. Though his manner was pleasant, I hesitated for a moment -- hesitated, for the first time ever, to admit that I was an American.

It was the second day of fighting in Afghanistan and I was uneasy about entering a building with the Stars and Stripes hanging out front, in the middle of a city where al Qaeda was said to have its European headquarters. Others obviously felt likewise. When I stepped into the waiting room at the consulate, which I remembered as a crowded place of slow-moving lines, I found just one other person. Thick windows, presumably bullet-proof, gave a slightly warped view of the quiet, sunny street below. I felt both at home and under siege, a taste of how it must have felt in the States.

While my paperwork was processed, the other visitor and I got to chatting. She was an American living in Milan with her Italian husband and their early-adolescent son, a student at the local American school.

I was pleased when she told me that the boy spoke both his parents' languages equally well. Bilingualism was a privilege that my wife and I wanted for our son, which was one reason we'd decided to raise him in Italy. Exposing the child to Italian would have been difficult in the U.S., whereas Europe didn't pose the equivalent problem. Through satellite TV, DVDs and the Internet, American language and culture would be fully accessible. I was sure that my son would need no inculcation -- that he'd simply absorb Americanness.

As I rode the train home, however, I started to think about what a real American education might mean. The Constitution, the Civil War, Emerson, Melville, Faulkner: their significance is global, but they're rarely more than names to even the most sophisticated Italians.

That's no indictment of Italians, of course. Most Americans don't know much about those subjects, either, never mind the Renaissance or the Risorgimento. Which only makes it clearer that I can't take for granted my side of our son's cultural heritage. His sense of being an American is something he'll inherit almost exclusively from me.

Books alone can't teach American values, which, the longer I live here, the more I miss. "Individualism" is practically a dirty word in Italian, as I suspect it is in most languages. "Competition" (outside of sports) barely ranks higher. "Equality" tends to mean a stifling egalitarianism. How, I wondered, could I give my child an American understanding of such words and concepts and yet -- and this would be the trick -- not undercut the respect for history, tradition and community that still distinguishes Old World culture?

These were new worries for me. Though I'd never felt cosmopolitan in the most glamorous sense, I'd long considered myself a citizen of the world, or at least of the West. Seeing Europe and America as different facets of the same civilization, I'd felt no need to choose between them. And I'd assumed that any child of mine would see things the same way.

It's hard to say how much my new attitude owes to becoming a father, and how much to 9/11. But is there any American at home or abroad whose sense of national identity hasn't changed since the attacks? I was surprised and touched in the days right afterwards by the many Italians who phoned to ask if those close to me were safe. Yet now and then I thought I heard a hint of: "But you had it coming." Maybe this was my imagination; I'd certainly like to think so. The point is that I felt more like a foreigner than I had in the two years since I'd moved here.

Our son will, almost surely, never face divided loyalties as a practical problem. Europe is not about to challenge the U.S., or ally itself with anyone who would. Yet I find myself wondering whether he'll feel more of one country than the other, and in that case I hope he feels his country is mine. Europeans might find this naive. National distinctions have rarely been the most important in their history, compared to ties of blood, faith or language. Much as I would like to transcend the choice myself, at the moment being an American makes it inevitable.

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About the Author

Francis X. Rocca ia an American writer in Rome, Italy.