Sunday, July 5, 2009

Celebrating July 4th in the U.S. and Abroad

Celebrating July 4th is a shared tradition for all Americans, whether we were born here or arrived as fast as we could.. We may not agree on religion, politics, or social mores, but we all appreciate our Independence Day. Over this week-end in Paris, we had a parade, fireworks, municipal band concert, and lots of cook-outs at our homes. This was not that different from the first celebrations in 1777 when they spoke, prayed, reviewed the troops and set off fireworks. George Washington even doubled the rum allotment for his men. But what is it like to celebrate our nation’s birth outside Lamar County and even outside our country?

The Northeast seems to have the best celebrations and we were lucky enough one year to watch the fireworks over the capital in Washington, D. C. from a boat on the Potomac river. Volleys of fleeting colors matched the rhythm of the music from the radio. All seemed quite magical until afterwards when we entered the subway station to return to our hosts’ home in Arlington. The crowds that had been scattered on the lawns, boats, and National Mall seemed to have all entered the same station with us. Just imagine the throng leaving Noyes Stadium times 1000. After watching passengers being shoved into already full subway cars, we decided to go the other way and catch a ride on a different line.

In our national travels, we’ve discovered Oregon prohibits the sale of fireworks, leading to “slipping across the border” to the state of Washington to purchase basic roman candles and cherry bombs. Austin’s display over Town Lake is worth the trip. And if you’re really fortunate, time your airline flight for early evening on the 4th and enjoy the bursts of color below your plane.

Being out of the country for the fourth actually gives a heightened awareness of the importance of the day. It’s strange to awaken to just another normal day when all stores are open and life goes on without acknowledgment of our holiday. Nostalgia makes us travelers seek out other Americans who know the words to our patriotic songs and who are just as anxious to find a hamburger.

In the summer of 1969, my family was in Rome, Italy and were happy to discover that the American’s Women Association and the American Men’s Club of Rome sponsored a July 4th outing for any U.S. citizen in town. Of course, everyone else had heard about it. We missed the departure of the first round of buses from the Embassy and arrived late for the event. However, it was as close to home as we had experienced in six weeks of traveling. Hamburgers, hotdogs, fried chicken, potato salad, and chips were served. A watermelon eating contest entertained all until the fireworks in the evening. On the bus back to town, all sang patriotic songs with the windows open.

The country that, understandably, ignores our celebration is England. My husband and I arrived in London on July 4th in 1979 and found little evidence of any celebration or concern over the loss of its former colony. Oddly, I felt uncomfortable asking people about the holiday as if they might still resent the Declaration of Independence over 200 years ago. My husband had no such hesitation but he only got a few replies acknowledging the meaning of the day but without enthusiasm.

I actually prepared for our being in Ecuador for July 4th in 1993. One could never do this today. I bought firecrackers, sparklers and black snakes at home and packed them in our luggage! On the actual holiday, we were in Banos, a small mountain town in the Andes. As an attorney, it did occur to me that I should inquire whether it was legal to set off our stash in the local park. We knew that fireworks were a customary morning greeting for birthdays throughout South America but did that require a permit? After looking up the word for fireworks ( fuegos artificiales, if you’re interested), I asked a store keeper whether we could set off ours. He “thought” it was OK. So we gathered children around and lit the meager selection we had brought. We had no luck finding hotdogs or hamburgers but we still sang a round of Yankee Doodle in the park to the perplexed stares of the crowd..

Our Independence Day is known throughout the world even if it’s not celebrated. Local physician, Agnes Xavier, was born on July 4th in Belgaum, India. As she grew up, she was quite proud that she shared the same birthday as the United States even though she lived thousands of miles away. And today, after becoming an American citizen, she never has to work on her birthday as we all celebrate it with her. I hope everyone had a great birthday.

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