Sometimes, the best part of traveling is getting to see your own country through the eyes of another people. Like that time I was standing on the back of a boat going down the Mosel River in Germany and struck up a conversation with a local man. He said, “Yes! I’ve been to your country–ORLANDO!” Or the time in Greece when I asked for lunch “to go” and Richard and I shared a good laugh over how Americans like to walk and eat, walk and eat, whereas the Greeks would never think of disrupting a leisurely meal. Or on my first trip to France, when I had been advised to claim that I was a Canadian…but when asked where I was from in Canada, I couldn’t remember what part of Canada spoke French so I hemmed and hawed then said, “Um, Edmonton?” The young Arab hotel keeper laughed at me and whispered, “You are American!”
One of my favorite memories of learning about being an American while abroad happened in Luxembourg. That country LOVES America. Why? Because WWII, that’s why. While wandering around the city, Richard laughed and pointed to the map. We were on a street called “Boulevard F-D Roosevelt.” Neat, huh? Grand Duchess Charlotte and FDR were great supporters of each other during the war, and it was American troops that liberated Luxembourg from the Nazis. Over 5000 Americans are buried in Luxembourg, under our flag.
On the ride into the city, the train stopped in Bastogne and other towns I had heard of from the black and white war movies my parents watched. Richard and I pieced together our recollection of WWII history–the Battle of the Bulge, the Ardennes Forest. All that history had happened right there. I looked out the window at the trees along the track and wondered if they were all new trees, grown back in the last 60 years.
The Museum of the City of Luxembourg tells their story of World War Two in room after room after room. The exhibit is arranged chronologically, so that you get a growing sense of what the people of Luxembourg experienced. I remember a wedding dress made from a silk parachute. A flyer that, when folded the correct way, revealed a caricature of Hitler. Handmade flags, painted in red, white and blue to welcome the American liberators.
One object in that museum taught me a priceless lesson about being an American. I wish I had taken a picture of it, but photography wasn’t allowed. And I can’t find it on the internet, at least not the exact sight I saw.
In the exhibit about liberation, one entire wall was taken up by a larger than life sized photo of an American GI lifting a little blonde girl up on his shoulder as they both beamed with joy. She waved a handmade American flag. His helmet looked like it was about to slide off his head. The emotion of the photograph brought me to tears–the victorious joy, the relief of freedom, the letting go of some fear–all of that was rolled up in this one moment captured by the camera. The photo was entitled, “An American Soldier, Luxembourg 1945.”
I felt such pride for my country, what my ancestors had done to free the people of Europe after that horrible war. But the picture also made me feel grief for what my ancestors had done to the people of America, because the American soldier in the photo was black.
That girl in the photo smiled with every ounce of her being. He was there to save her. He was An American Soldier and everything was going to be OK because of him.
That American soldier in the photo joined up and crossed the ocean and fought his way through all those towns I had heard about in all those war movies. That American soldier fought in a segregated unit, because the American military wasn’t desegregated until 1948. Actually, that’s not true. During the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes forest, troops were desegregated for the first time–out of necessity. Units were being torn up so fast that the color lines fell by the roadside and all the Americans fought together.
In Luxembourg, that man was an American Soldier and was celebrated like a conquering hero. Then he came home, to America, where he had to fight to be treated like a man.
That’s what I learned about my America in Luxembourg. A snapshot for Black History Month.