So why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving. – Terry Pratchet
We first met the Bowmans – Foster, Mobley, and their kids, Alice Mae, Sikes, Benjamin, and Arthur – on the day before Easter, just a couple months into our move to Spain. We were in the supermarket, unloading our items onto the little conveyor belt when Tom nodded his head backwards and said under his breath, “those people behind us sound American, and, I think, even southern.” And with that, my North Carolinian and off-the-charts-extrovert husband struck up a conversation. As it happened, they were in fact American, even southern. Foster was from Little Rock; Mobley, from Atlanta, but they met in college in Virginia. Small world indeed, especially in our corner of Spain, where there are still very few Americans.
For at least a year, Foster had been batting around the idea of throwing a Fourth of July party but Covid had thwarted his plans. This was the year, he decided, and set out to make it big, with local bands, a proper stage, tents, and a keg bar. And it was to last from noon to midnight. Now, July in Javea is not the time of year when a sane person would consider throwing a day-long, outdoor party at a house with no pool and little shade. Yet, that’s precisely what happened. And it turned out to be perfect; one of the most sublime parties I’ve ever experienced.
For much of the prior year, I had been back in the United States for a job, but I vowed to be at the party no matter what. As it turned out, my work had come to a logical conclusion in June. Right before I returned to Spain, I sent a WhatsApp to Mobley asking if she wanted an armload of American flag T-shirts for the party. It took her longer than usual to respond. It was almost a week before she left me a voice text gently declining my offer. “I’m just not feeling very patriotic right now” she said, almost apologetically.
Unfortunately, I understood all too well. Just a week earlier, the Uvalde, Texas elementary school shooting occurred that claimed 21 lives, 18 of them children. This had come on the heels of the massacre of ten people in a largely Black community supermarket in Buffalo. They were just two more, though by now, hardly unexpected, instances of senseless gun tragedies increasingly plaguing the United States. Throw in the January 6th hearings, the overturning of Roe v Wade, the vilification of science, and the increasingly nasty political discourse, and it wasn’t hard to sympathize with her position.
But T-shirts, calendar, and country notwithstanding, we ended up celebrating the 4th of July. There were flags and bunting and fairy lights, hours of live music, and a lot of beer and lemonade. As guest after guest rolled in, so did the food. The first to arrive was Alice Mae’s school friend, a 16-year old girl carefully navigating the walk up to the house, her face partially obscured by the armload of three large platters she carried. Her Moroccan-born mother had risen early to make dozens of empanadas and samosas. Others followed in her wake, carrying plates heaping with homemade delights: tortillas de patata, pulled pork tacos, chicken wings, barbecued ribs, quiches, cilantro hummus, meatballs, rice salad, pasta salad, potato salad, cole slaw, mac ‘n cheese, brownies, cookies, a key lime pie with a graham cracker crust, watermelon, cocas, bread, cheese, even Beanie-Weenies. It just kept coming. There was wine and cava and a wonderful small-batch cider purchased that very morning by a couple who had made the six-hour drive south due south from their home in San Sebastian.
We were Spanish, Ukrainian, American, English, Scottish, Indian, German, Australian, Moroccan, French, Dutch, Japanese, Canadian, Kenyan, Belgian, Filipino. We were artists, photographers, writers, entrepreneurs, retirees, teachers, bureaucrats, musicians, and scientists — even an honest-to-goodness astronaut. Most of the guests knew only a handful of other attendees, if that many. But it didn’t matter. We instantly bonded, speaking in a mix of languages, somehow making ourselves understood. We laughed and hugged and ate. We drank beer. And we danced, and danced, and danced. Kids climbed the large and elaborate fig trees, or watched, enrapt, as one of the guests demonstrated how to fly his drone. The teenage girls had set up a face-painting station. Lines of children patiently waited with their requests. Before long, even the adults were decorated in flags, mustaches, and flowers.
Having lived most of my life in a suburb of Washington, DC, I was accustomed to grand and elaborate Fourth of July celebrations on the National Mall. I was used to marching bands, military choirs, sparklers, Budweiser, Garrison flags, and, of course, fireworks. And yet here I was in Spain, on the 9th of July, drinking cava instead of Budweiser, and having what felt like one of the most American experiences I could recall.
Dusk crept in but no one even considered leaving. We kept on laughing and talking and dancing. When night fell, Mobley handed out out glow sticks. Kids and adults alike cracked them open, waving them above their heads as they continued dancing.
At midnight, the noise permit expired. The band played their last chord. The party was officially over.
Everyone hugged and kissed goodbye swearing it was the best party they’d been to in years. New friendships had been forged. People who had never before met made plans to reconnect. Final cigarettes were stubbed out. The last cups of beer were drained. Handbags, empty food platters, coolers, and shoes were collected. Sleepy children were hoisted in their parents’ arms. Guests waved one last goodbye as they headed to their cars, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles. The few who lived nearby strolled home languidly under the stars.
Tom and I spent the night. The following morning, we got up and surveyed the damage. Mobley and a few others had done a fair amount of cleaning in the wee hours. But given the size of the crowd, it wasn’t the battle scene that we anticipated. We poked around in the kitchen and found trash bags, paper towels, and spray cleaner. A broom and dustpan were in the corner. We got to work, cleaning what we could before anyone else woke up. As we loaded bags of recycling into our car, Tom turned to me and marveled, “I can’t believe all these people were here, drinking and partying and carrying on for literally half a day, and yet at no point was there any sloppy drunkenness. There were no accidents, no fights, no tears. Not even one glass broke.”
As I nodded my agreement, it suddenly hit me just how much I needed that celebration of America.
I think people who voluntarily move to another country do so to experience a radically new life: a different culture, a different language, different customs, different food. Tom and I are no exception. You only live once, we thought. We’re adaptable. We’re social. We got this! But traveling to a place is quite different from actually living there. And even though I knew this in my head, I didn’t really know it — didn’t really understand it on a gut level — until we were actually living in Spain. And while ninety percent of the time we love navigating the new – meeting the locals, discovering interesting restaurants, learning to park halfway up on the sidewalks in the tiny pueblo streets – the other ten percent can be draining, especially in the beginning when almost every single thing feels alien, even pumping gas or shopping for groceries.
So it’s in these times, when, as an expat, you’re tired or frustrated or a little homesick, and you happen to be out and suddenly you hear someone talking who sounds like you, you can’t help yourself. Any attempts to be cool or blasé or detached – you know, those qualities you consider to be quintessentially European – go out the window. Instead you throw yourselves at them, crying out, “Are you American?” It’s any port in a storm. But with the Bowmans, it was different. We bonded not just because we’re American, but because from the get-go it felt like we had known them our whole lives. Then a couple more years went by and we have met more people from other countries and cultures. And they, too, feel like family. It’s one of the best things, to develop friendships as strong and vibrant here in Spain as we are fortunate to have back in the States.
In addition to the Spanish, there’s a big expat population in Javea. Most non-Native English speakers assume we are from the U.K., generally unable to discern the difference between the accents. But when they learn we are American, their interest peaks. They pepper us with comments about their desire to see, or their experience with New York, Los Angeles, Florida, San Francisco, Harley-Davidsons, Route 66, Graceland, the Grand Canyon.
And they also begin the verbal dance. “So, interesting times in your country, yes?” they say, politely trying to calculate our political leanings, and then breathing an audible sigh of relief as we express our dismay in the political climate, the proliferation of guns, and the erosion of rights: civil, women’s, LGBT, and environmental.
But here’s the thing: I don’t hate America. I didn’t move to Europe to escape the United States. If anything, I’ve become more proud of being American than when I lived there. I consider myself an ambassador for the country in which I was born and raised, and to which I will always have strong ties. And the irony is not lost on me that I’ve found the best of American values right here in Spain. I needed the perspective to fully appreciate what is greatest about America. And also what is most imperiled.
America’s best trait has always been the openness and generosity of its people towards each other and towards strangers. But this goodwill seems to be diminishing. There’s so much division, anger, finger-pointing, and fear. And living in Europe, it’s both fascinating and profoundly disturbing to see, from a distance and through the lens of a different culture, just how fractured America has become.
The culture wars in that consume so much energy, and create so much animosity in the States are irrelevant and, frankly silly to most humans worldwide. But for us Americans, they create an enormous distraction from the real issues, which are inherently more complicated and require time, patience, and critical thinking to fully understand, not to mention compassion and cooperation to address. Critical Race Theory, women in hijabs, or what pronoun you go by aren’t threats to democracy, they’re just scare tactics. It’s not a zero sum game, where if one side gains the other automatically loses. That’s bush-league thinking, and pandering to the lowest common denominator.
There are things I miss about America: bottomless mugs of diner coffee, SUV-sized parking spaces, businesses open seven days a week. But mostly I miss American people. Very few places on earth have that exuberant, can-do attitude and friendly openness as Americans. We are a welcoming, outgoing bunch of folks. Break down by the side of the road? A passerby will stop to see if you need a hand. In a new city and confused by the subway map? A local will notice and ask if they can help. Moved to a new place? At least one neighbor will come by with a cake. In line at the grocery store with just two items? The person in front of you with a full cart will smile and wave you ahead. Even if you look or speak or seem different from them.
So for those 12 hours, on the 9th of July, on Spanish soil, and with individuals from a multitude of cultures and countries, we re-claimed what is the best of America: diversity, open-mindedness, big-heartedness, tolerance.
That’s the America I know and love. That’s the America I carry with me wherever I go. And that’s the America I will always have faith in. Always.