The Man Without A Country
Breathes there the man, with soul so dead, Who never to himself hath said, This is my own, my native land!
The thought of a person who isn't proud to be from their own country is, probably for the majority of people, unsettling. Certainly here in the United States.
"Why don't you just leave?"
Looking back, it always seemed like such an easy concept. In fact, when I was growing up, it was fairly normal small-talk on the playground to ask each other, "Where are you going to go when you grow up?"
I doubt that's particularly unusual for kids with big dreams about the world around them, especially kids from any little rural community like the one I was raised in.
But most kids grow up if they're lucky, and when they do they either leave their home for brighter pastures, or they learn to accept their fate – finding joy in their surroundings and eventually settling in. Even those who do leave may not have gone very far away... to the nearest city, perhaps, or just across the state lines.
But for me, I always wanted more than that.
I wanted to disappear.
And it didn't fade with age.
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d, As home his footsteps he hath turn’d, From wandering on a foreign strand!
It could just be because I'm human, or maybe this blood runs in the family.
Growing up, my mother used to keep jars around with little desert patterns that she would store pennies in. I hardly knew how to talk yet when she first explained to me that we were saving up to move to Texas, one penny at a time.
If a crisis struck and we needed groceries, I could see the angst carved on my mother's face when she had to borrow from those jars.
Maybe it was a dream, but I swear at age 4 I can remember being buckled into an awkwardly-packed car and told we were going to Texas now. The car was turned on, we stared out at the garage door for what seemed like an hour, and finally the car was shut off.
And that was that.
Still, the so-called "Texas jars" remained in our home, whether or not in vain. By the time I was old enough to go to summer school, I was much more familiar with a map, and I remember thinking to myself that if I spoke Spanish, I could leave the country and move to Mexico without being too far away from my mother.
I wanted to see all those places that my grandfather had shown me on the globe, so why not start there?
So the first summer school course I took in elementary was Spanish.
Since then I've fallen in love with countries around the world, both past and present. My fascination has torn me from one language and culture to another too fast to learn any of them, but just long enough for my heart to memorize their texture.
But how could I know what I longed for unless I actually saw it with my own eyes?
Did I actually want to live in Mexico? By the shores of the Nile, or along the billowing skirt of Mt. Fuji? Holding hands with someone in the shade of Notre Dame? Bundled up with a steamy cup of zavarka, staring down at the streets of St. Petersburg as they're dusted white?
I was no fool. Even as a kid I was aware that nothing is as it seems.
And no matter where you end up, there are human problems waiting. No matter where you are in the world, there are still toxic work places, flat tires, bills to pay and people you never wanted to see again.
Still, I wanted to know, and it plagued me throughout my youth.
Eventually I moved to college and began to study Russian in my spare time, but no matter what class I went to, I always kept an electric converter kit in my backpack... just in case I decided to, quite literally, leave on the midnight train.
Yet I never did.
If such there breathe, go, mark him well; For him no Minstrel raptures swell; High though his titles, proud his name, Boundless his wealth as wish can claim...
When it comes to heritage, I've learned over time, there's something about the United States that is different for those living here than it is for most other countries.
It's worth noting that every branch of my little family has lived in the United States for between three and six generations – counting the generation younger than myself – and yet like many rural places, our family's home in North Dakota allowed our cultural bubble to flourish.
Although most of the language they brought with them was lost between generations, I still grew up around certain cuisine, religious quirks, facial expressions, and even some little German phrases that we say to each other if you catch us off-guard.
For that reason, in the United States, my family and many others aren't just "American"... in our case, we say we're "German," while others might say they're "Italian," "Chinese," and so on. We're still American – it's just unspoken, a universal truth. You're here, so therefore you're American.
As inaccurate as it would sound for anyone from outside of the U.S., claiming these national identities is a way for us to acknowledge that there are many different ways to be American. Well, at least it used to be, but I'll leave that alone.
Of course, to the rest of the world we're all just American, which is absolutely correct.
But when I was a child, whenever I would skin my knee or refuse to finish my food, my mother would tell me to toughen up then add lightheartedly, "You are German, ja?"
I would smile and agree.
Despite those titles, power, and pelf, The wretch, concentred all in self...
In first grade I was told that my last name was from Luxembourg. (Lies is pronounced "Lease," by the way. Do not fight me on this, as many people have done. I have met dozens of people with the last name Lies, and all of them agree with me.)
All I really knew about Luxembourg was that it's found inbetween France and Germany. At the time our family felt that most of our heritage from that side of the family had faded into memory.
As such, I continued to share with others that I'm German, but there was one important exception to that in my mind.
I received my Luxembourgish last name from my grandfather, the man who I looked up to first and foremost during my entire youth. He was the one who taught me all those little things... how to ride a bike, drive a truck, cook, and use power tools. Perhaps most importantly, he taught me to cherish information. Before I had Google, I had my grandfather.
He was also a proud Democrat and a Purple Heart recipient who served as an Electrician's Mate First Class in the Navy.
In my mind, he was the ideal American.
Eight years after his death, I wanted to get a tattoo in his memory, and it probably would have been most appropriate to go with a Navy insignia (as my mother would later do).
Yet at the time, that didn't feel right.
In honor of my grandfather and the rest of the Lies family, I decided to get the heraldic Lion of Luxembourg tattoed on my arm instead.
And, doubly dying, shall go down To the vile dust, from whence he sprung, Unwept, unhonour’d, and unsung.
November of 2016.
For most of my life, I doubted it whenever people told me that America is (or ever was) the greatest country. The numbers just didn't add up, but even more than that... wouldn't anyone say that about the place they love?
Still, I was no less shocked than the rest of the nation by the turn of political tides.
By this time I was living in Florida, a place that I have both adored and shunned. I've missed the snow every minute of my time here, although I've matured enough to see why some might find Florida to be a pleasant state – as long as you have the financial privilege to brace yourself against rampant gentrification or malicious business practices, of course.
I did end up here for a reason, though. When the chance to move had come, I was grateful for any opportunity to take one step closer to the rest of the world... even if it was a place that had close to nothing that interested me in the long term.
Moving here was a crucial first step in showing myself that it was possible.
Still, it wasn't the end of the line, and I had sat for too long tolerating Florida despite secretly dreaming for more. Sadly it took until this moment to reawaken the fire still burning in my chest.
I wanted out.
I hate to admit I'm one of those people who obsesses, who can't stop until I have what I want. And yet I've remained here in Florida for almost seven years, my belongings awkwardly packed, the car running, sitting in complete silence...
But would I really shut the engine off and call it quits?
Would I just sit there, wasting gas, counting the minutes?
I've refused to buy nice furniture, assuming deep down that I would need to throw it anyway "when the time comes." I turn down collectibles unless they're small and somewhat sturdy, and I've shuddered at the thought of investing in a new car.
Of all times, it was time to act.
I found myself digging frantically through a forum one afternoon when I stumbled across instructions on something that made my heart stop.
It was a list of steps to reclaim citizenship of Luxembourg.
A strange blur of events occured that resulted in a four-way phone call with myself, my mother, my aunt, and a young woman at the Luxembourg American Cultural Society. The woman on the phone pronounced our last name correctly on the first try, which beaconed an uncanny chuckle from my mother.
We were informed that we qualified.
Hushed is the harp—the Minstrel gone. And did he wander forth alone? Alone, in indigence and age, To linger out his pilgrimage?
By the time my mother and I were about to land in Luxembourg, it felt as though life was no longer a series of possible events, but instead a fiction that had been feverishly scrawled by my own inner desires.
To see the rolling countryside of the Grand Duchy below for the first time was overpowering in ways that I lack the words to describe.
Here by my mother's side and with a return ticket in my pocket, I had never been so close and yet so far away from escaping, whatever that meant anymore.
For all my dazed glory, though, I was determined to remain grounded and remember everything that happened during those twelve days. Although we had the important mission of claiming our passports and I.D. cards, our voyage was, for the most part, intended to be a chance to see Luxembourg with our own eyes.
I had prepared myself in every possible way.
Luxembourg was no longer a strange void in my mind. Instead I envisioned a snug but rustic nest of tight buildings, bustling with firm individuals who largely spoke French (a language that, fortunately, I had been studying since well before I had even gotten my tattoo). I had apps and lists on my phones detailing busses, taxis, maps, and trains. I watched videos of people from Luxembourg interacting, memorized their posture, and sought out a restaurant within walking distance of our hotel that served proper Wirschtercher or Bouneschlupp.
If I have any regrets in our preparation, it was my failure to follow up with my search for a restaurant that served Gromperekichelcher, a Luxembourgish potato pancake that my mother found during her research that proved to be one and the same that my grandfather had often made for her during her youth.
It was a small yet humbling discovery.
Of course there were other things I knew I had failed to plan for, but as our adventure began, so too did a week and a half of "not enough time in the world" with just a sprinkle of "fuck it."
Among other things, I knew it would be my task to step in during any dire moments of French translation – a task I was absolutely terrified of.
No—close beneath proud Newark's tower, Arose the Minstrel's lowly bower; A simple hut; but there was seen The little garden hedged with green, The cheerful hearth, and lattice clean.
Yet beyond that, I had prepared myself in another way.
I was absolutely certain that, as an American, I would inevitably stand out.
Certainly no amount of preparation would make me one of them, and no amount of tattoos or cute little French beginner phrases would change that.
For the first time, I would be confronted with the reality that I would always just be an American, no matter where I go or how far away I were to run.
And for some reason, I expected everyone in Luxembourg to hate me for it.
Yet once we landed, there were no crowds oggling or pointing at us. There was no man in the crowd stopping and frisking people in search of anyone with a U.S. driver's license, nor did anyone throw their shoes at us when we quietly chatted in English.
I suppose by allowing myself to wallow in dread of not fitting in, I was ensuring that there was no possible way my expectations would fail to be exceeded.
But deep down, I was terrified that I would receive some kind of sign that told me I would never truly be welcome – in other words, a sign that would prove to me that I would never make it outside of the United States, and therefore I should just stay home.
That sign never came.
As for my French, I was finally forced to speak it when a young man began to follow us while asking for spare change. I had no choice but to interject in order to prevent him from being beaten by my mother's purse.
There sheltered wanderers, by the blaze, Oft heard the tale of other days; For much he loved to ope his door, And give the aid he begged before.
The photo taken in Luxembourg-Ville at the beginning of this post stands as proof that I not only survived, but I managed to walk away with, in fact, over 3000 photos taken throughout our 12-day trip.
Our journey even brought us briefly into France, where I achieved one of my most difficult bucket-list items – standing with my mother on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées during la fête nationale. Every year since before I could remember, she would turn on the TV and watch the jets fly over with the French colors... this time, we watched from below.
By some kind of unfathomable miracle, we also happened to be in Versailles the next day when France won the World Cup, and there truly would have been nothing in the world that could have prepared me for the resulting chaos in the streets.
I was in love.
I wanted to document every moment, every kilometre from Luxembourg to France, to be able to keep it in my heart and even reference it later if I ever wanted to paint or draw the beautiful sights that surrounded us.
At some point I even tried to speak French with a hôtelier and earned myself his reply, "I hope my English isn't as bad as your French" – a taunt so utterly majestic and snappy that I now consider that memory to be one of my favorite souvenirs.
Yet beyond the magic of making it to each one of our hotels without a tour guide, beyond the wonders of walking over setts that were centuries old (and even beyond my ability to buy sparkling water at nearly every single establishment, a dream come true as someone who lives off of sparkling water), there was an even greater magic found only in the Grand Duchy that my mother and I kept whispering to each other.
Luxembourg felt familiar.
The ornate decor on the ceilings curled in nostalgic ways. Concrete flourishes on the window ledges reminded us of patterns we had seen inside a church back home. Even the way the wood creaked filled me with a sense of awe and respect towards the age of the old buildings in downtown Fargo, which groaned with a similar tune.
Here I was, finally in another country, and all I could pay attention to was how much this place reminded me of home.
At times, the familiarity would strike in a way that seemed almost supernatural. I recall my mother growing white before whispering to me that a woman we had walked past was so strikingly similar to the memory of her own aunt that she felt to have seen a ghost.
So passed the winter's day—but still, When summer smiled on sweet Bowhill, And July's eve, with balmy breath, Waved the blue-bells on Newark heath...
As for me, it took until we reached Echternach before I experienced a similar moment.
We had come to Echternach because it was listed as our ancestors' town of origin, and it seemed only appropriate to visit this little place for ourselves. Unfortunately we hadn't planned to stay more than one night there, mistakenly noting its small size on a map as a place that must not have a great deal of interesting activities.
For as much as I had loved Luxembourg-Ville and even Paris, Echternach had a sweet charm to it that crushed me. The feeling of wonder and even nostalgia was much greater than it had been in the city, and I could see on my mother’s face that she likely felt the same way.
At one point I noticed her solemnly pause to stare at an engraved detail nestled among the stone setts before us, and I heard her ask, “Do you think great grandpa was ever on this street?”
The mix of wonder and melancholy in her voice left me speechless.
My moment came when we entered the Basilica of Saint Willibrord, an abbey from the 7th century that had been reconstructed in 1868. It was partially destroyed by a shell in 1944, and underwent another reconstruction in order to be repaired.
Maybe it was just the simple dark wooden interior dazzled by the accent of the stained glass windows, or maybe it was just the familiar incense that called me back to many hours spent inside a Catholic church just miles from our family's farm, but I leaned over to my mother and ever-so-quietly whispered, "I swear, I swear... I feel like I've been here before."
Looking back at photos, I'm not sure what struck me as so intimately familiar. The style is so much more simple than anything I've ever imagined for the inside a church, especially one so astoundingly aged.
If I had to chalk it up to anything, it would be that I was so depressingly eager to feel as though I belonged there, I had somehow managed to delude myself into believing at that moment that I had never lived anywhere else.
Still, whether I like it or not, I'll never be able to shake the memory of feeling as though I was walking through interiors that had once sheltered me in a past life.
To be fair, if I had truly been there before, I doubt I would have felt so stunned to follow my mother downstairs through an ivory tunnel only to see the tomb of Saint Willibrord. His tomb – not at all like one would expect – was easily the most elegant sight within the basilica, carefully latticed with its own elegant roof and arches.
I would soon learn that the good Saint Willibrord himself had come from Ireland as a Catholic missionary, and while I feel I have fair reason to lack admiration toward the concept of missionaries, I felt an immediate sense of admiration towards him for another reason.
There in Echternach, enshrined beneath the church of my own ancestors, was a man of two countries.
Before we left the basilica, I lit a small candle on one of the shrines for my grandfather as a thank you.
This waking dream – not our trip, but our citizenship – felt like one last gift from him, and if there was any way of him knowing that we were grateful, I hoped this might be it.
When throstles sung in Harehead-shaw, And grain waved green on Carterhaugh, And flourished, broad, Blackandro's oak, The aged Harper's soul awoke!
Because my mother had wanted to cut her trip short to spend a few days in Florida (hoping to ease off the flight sickness on her long trip back to North Dakota), we had decided ahead of time to compromse by splitting up.
She left for Florida on a 48-hour solo vacation, and I remained in Luxembourg-Ville to soak in anything I might have missed, such as the tour of the Grand Ducal Palace.
By this point in the trip, I was comfortable enough with my French to be a regular customer of a vape shop that, to this day, I have no idea whether or not their staff even had the ability to speak English.
For the first time in my life, I felt as though I had found a place I would be happy to remain in until the end of my days.
Eventually my time to leave Luxembourg had come. I said goodbye to what was left of my fresh bottle of room-temperature milk, the vending machine with 34 proof alcohol, the front desk woman who had returned only five of the ten euros that my mother had forgotten on the counter, and I lifted my bags into the taxi.
My driver was probably about my age and very friendly. He spoke no English, so we struggled through light conversation on the drive to the airport.
He asked what state I'm flying home to (a question I struggled with until he provided examples), so I replied Floride. When I couldn't force myself to match his enthusiasm, I caught a glimmer of sadness on his face.
At the airport, I tipped what must have been at least € 15, at which point he was quick to get out and help me with my suitcases. He paused, I think noticing the tears in my eyes even before I had, and inbetween our awkward merci, bon voyage monsieur, merci beaucoup, he put a hand on my shoulder.
Unsure how to reply, I hugged him.
I doubt this poor young taxi driver was used to dealing with the strange woes of American tourists, but he hugged me back regardless, and it felt sincere. The kind taxi driver wished me bon voyage and said merci, monsieur one last time before I finally turned towards the airport gates.
For as unnerving as that interraction is to think about, I'm still grateful to this stranger.
In that moment, it felt as though I had said goodbye to all of Luxembourg.
Then would he sing achievements high And circumstance of Chivalry, Till the rapt traveller would stay, Forgetful of the closing day...
It's been a little over a year, and as expected, I see my place in the world somewhat differently.
Of course, my view of myself within the United States has shifted. I used to always view my status as an American as more of a legal obligation, but now I've found much greater ease at accepting – and letting go of – whoever the U.S. may have forever shaped me into as a person.
Maybe someday I will finally move, and everyone will just see me as the American.
But you know, like Willibrord the patron saint of Luxembourg and so many others, it's alright to be from many places.
In fact, if I truly learned anything, it's that humans are not so different no matter where they are in the world. So what is there to be ashamed of?
All that's left for me to confront is the flame within me that begs for the next adventure, in search of a place that I will always feel I belong to.
Now that I've seen such a place with my own eyes, I know it's possible.
When I look back at my time in the Grand Duchy, I feel as though it must have been a vivid dream – a deep, powerful hallucination that drew itself from the depths of my subconscious, turning all of my past experiences, deep desires and secret passions into living architecture and forgotten alleyways.
Yet there are so many more places in the world that I have yet to see.
Somehow I feel like if I were able to reach in my pocket at the store and pull forth coins with another language on them, then I would always have a reminder that I had done something with my life.
Yes, I am happy to now call myself a Luxembourgish American in every sense.
Maybe I will end up in Luxembourg, or perhaps by a turn of fate I'll decide to remain in the United States.
But with an entire world waiting, and a newfound sense of confidence that I might actually be able to survive in a place unlike the one I was born into, I wonder if there will someday be another country that steals my heart away.
It almost doesn't matter where at this point. What's more important, I feel now, is that I end up there the right way by searching for opportunities that fit the person I've become.
I won't be running away on the midnight train.
And noble youths, the strain to hear, Forsook the hunting of the deer; And Yarrow, as he rolled along, Bore burden to the Minstrel's song.
After so many years of wanting to leave, and especially after feeling the same in Florida as I did in North Dakota, it had begun to dawn on me that no matter where I go, I may never truly feel like I’m home.
But after this voyage, I’ve now seen that there may still be hope.
Wherever this place may be, I hope to live long enough to not only end up there, but to make it my own. I would master the language, join the city council and become much adored throughout the neighborhood for how nicely I’ve decorated my tiny yard (or balcony, or even just my window box).
The country that I'll build the rest of my future in is still a mystery, and as I plan my next step, it's one that I've decided to embrace with open arms. When I close my eyes and imagine what kind of flag would fly above my future home, I can only imagine a sparkling pure white banner – not of surrender but of hope, like silky paper waiting to be colored upon only when the time is right.
When I find that place, though, will it all make sense?
Right now, that white flag symbolizes adventure, a bright future... but will I instead feel pride towards that flag once it's colored in?
To admire a place is one thing, but to feel pride towards a thing only suggests that it's better than something else... a feeling that I doubt I could ever cultivate in a world with so much hidden beauty.
I only hope that the place I end up is one that brings me the same hope and relief that I felt when gazing up at the Gëlle Fra the day I received my passport, finally feeling as though there might be a place for me in the world after all.
Until then, and perhaps for the rest of my life, I'll remain a man with two countries, perhaps many more... and yet a man with no country at all. 🐾
All text excerpts extracted from the first and last stanzas of "The Lay of the Last Minstrel: Canto VI," By Walter Scott, Esq. To read the full canto, click HERE.