I’ve been fortunate enough to travel abroad several times in my life. But I’ve never been abroad during a national holiday. I’ve never missed a Presidents Day, Christmas, Labor Day, or anything of the kind. Yesterday was my first holiday abroad as I celebrated the 4th of July in Edinburgh. This was my first 4th of July without my family, without fireworks, without any of the accoutrements that usually define the American 4th of July experience. Yet I’ve never felt more connected to the whole message behind the 4th of July as I have here in Edinburgh.
The 4th of July is a celebration of American independence, it is one of the last non-religious holidays that attracts a significant level of community participation, it America’s most iconic holiday. July 4th is the day we are supposed to remember and honor our roots and the roots of this country. But, for most people I know, myself included, July 4th has been reduced to the day we get to see fireworks. I can’t remember the last July 4th that moved me or touched me or made proud to be an American. That’s not to say I wasn’t proud, it’s more that July 4th, a holiday dedicated to the founding of America, never really made me think about America any more than any other day. This July 4th, however, was different.
This past afternoon, after class got out, I stopped by the National Library of Scotland. I spent some time wandering through their exhibits (they had a really great display about the history of Scotland in the cinema) and looking at the parts of the library that weren’t off limits to visitors. As my friend and I were taking some parting photographs on the stairs a man came up to us and started telling us a story about how the Dali Llama had been photographed on those very same stairs two weeks before. This man, George, got the girl behind the reception desk to show us the pictures which, I must admit, were quite adorable. Apparently, the Dali Llama came to library about 2 weeks ago to take a look at some very old manuscripts relating to the Burmese Civil War. We then proceeded to spend the next hour plus talking with George who, as it turns out, has been working at the library since 1982. To quote him “He walked in in 1982 looking for a job for six months and never left.” We talked about America, CSI, things to do in Edinburgh, the real cafe where JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter (The Elephant House cafe gets all the credit but, according to George, she started writing in a different cafe down the block and only wrote the later ones in the Elephant House), and the history of the library. During our conversation I mentioned that we couldn’t get upstairs to see the reading room because we didn’t have a pass. George then proceeded to run upstairs and ask special permission for us to go into the reading room. He then gave us a quick tour of the area, telling us all about the library and the 15 floors of archives they possess. As we walked up the high street on our way out, George talked to us a bit about his travels and then he wished us a wonderful stay in Edinburgh and thanked us for listening to him.
When we ran into George he was on his way home from a full day of work. But instead of going home, he missed his train and gave two tourists a tour the likes of which no guidebook can find. On top of all that, at the end of our talk he was grateful to us for having listened to him when he was the one who gave us this incredibly special experience. I was and am astounded by the sheer kindness of this man. But the crazy thing is that Edinburgh is composed of people just like George. There seems to be a generosity that is just inherent to this place.
My time today with George made me think about America in two ways. First off, it made me think about how America could and ought to be better. When did we stop being kind to each other? I understand that we’re a nation built on the back of the individual but I don’t believe you can be a fully developed or evolved person if you haven’t learned something so simple as basic human kindness. The divisions between Americans seem to grow larger by the day. Whether it’s along party lines, economic class, or religious (or lack there of) beliefs, we are growing into a disparate nation where every one has fallen out of touch with everyone else. What’s the good of our lofty ideas of politics and principles, the very ideas that birthed this nation, if we can’t master simple acts of kindness and compassion. We are a nation of individuals and I love that I have grown up in a place that has so encouraged the exploration of my personal identity. But people don’t like us and, quite frankly, I’m not sure how often we like ourselves. The USA and Scotland are very different and to each their own but, perhaps, it would do us all some good to learn a little something from George about what it means to be a person, not just an American.
On the other hand, my conversation with George also made me realize how grateful I am to be an American. George had traveled to a few places within Europe but he’d never really left Scotland, he never felt any great desire to do so and he certainly never felt any particular desire to visit America. I don’t think I could be the person I am today if I wasn’t born an American. I think an innate part of my American heritage is a drive to want go out and explore as much of the world as I can. And America has provided me with opportunities to do so time and time again. Without America’s emphasis on the rights, powers, and importance of the individual, I don’t think I would have the sense of self or the where with all to be in Edinburgh. Because America is so protective of the development of the individual, I have never been discouraged from pursing an opportunity to grow and develop. Now there are a number of factors that have played into that but I think it because I grew up as an American that I believe that if I want something in the world that I have the ability and the drive to work for and, eventually, achieve it.
Our forefathers were imperfect men but they had some truly beautiful ideas about the way a nation ought to function. American is an imperfect country but it provides for a level of accessibility to the rest of the world that is practically unrivaled, as well as serving as haven for the individual. I haven’t thought this much about America on July 4th in a long time. Spending this holiday in Edinburgh has made me appreciate how much America has yet to develop but it also reminded me of why she is such a great nation. So this July 4th I celebrate being an American but, even more than that, I celebrate my membership to the global community and I am grateful for the America upbringing that helped me to get there.
Happy Independence Day everyone!!!
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