“Cleveland isn’t all smokestacks and slag heaps,” said the guidebook, in a desperate attempt to find something positive to report. This was 28 years ago, on the eve of our marriage, when a recruiting firm was trying to convince Rich to leave San Francisco for a job in Cleveland, a gritty industrial city defined by such terms as “Rust Belt” and “snowbelt.” and the unfortunate day when the city’s polluted main river caught on fire. (To make sure nobody ever forgot that incident, Randy Newman immortalized it in the song Burn On, which you may remember from the movie Major League.)
Rich loved the job, so we went to live in Cleveland at a time the city's very name was considered a punch line. And as it turned out, the guidebook was right; Cleveland wasn’t all smokestacks and slag heaps. We had a wonderful twenty years there in an old stone house surrounded by great friends and old woods, with a thriving Amish community on one side, and on the other a city offering fantastic social, cultural, and professional possibilities. I learned a lot about how easy it is to stereotype a place when you don’t really know it.
When Rich took early retirement and we began spending time in Seville, our friends knew long before we did that we’d be moving. As one put it, “Cleveland versus Seville? Was there ever any doubt?” Yes, there was doubt; it’s never easy to leave a place where you have been happy. But new adventures called us, and in 2004 we made the move to Seville.
Rich and I are now expatriates, from the Latin terms ex (out of) and patria (homeland), meaning someone who lives outside their native country. What it doesn’t mean is former patriots. (That would be expatriot, by the way.) We love our country. We spend four months a year in the US, visiting family and friends, and enjoying such luxuries as central heating, diverse ethnic foods, and speaking English. We pay our taxes without too much complaint. Sure, nobody likes writing checks to the government, but as I see it, taxes are one way that we, as citizens, collectively invest in our country’s future. And Rich and I always, always vote. Visiting Eastern bloc countries, where people were long denied that freedom (along with so many others) under totalitarian regimes, I heard a lot of stories about people fighting and dying for the right to voice their political beliefs. Makes it kind of hard to claim that mailing a ballot home from abroad is too much trouble.
And here’s good news for American expats: the federal government has just made it easier to cast your vote from abroad. The new Federal Post Card Application lets you register online and request your absentee ballot. But hurry! You’ll need to fill it out and send it back to them by January 31 in order to get your absentee ballots for the next election. Do it today!
One reason I care so much about voting is that I grew up hearing my grandmother talk about the time before “women’s suffrage” and the day in 1920 when she cast her first ballot. It’s not a very edifying story, actually. My grandparents, who rarely agreed on anything, naturally supported opposing candidates. My grandfather craftily offered a bribe – a mink coat – if my grandmother would vote his way. Ever practical, she felt mink had far more lasting value and agreed. But in the unfamiliar confines of the voting booth, she got so flustered that she marked the ballot for her candidate instead. However, she kept her head afterward and claimed she’d voted as my grandfather had asked. Delighted with his victory, he bought her a magnificent mink coat, which she wore for the next sixty years.
We all vote for different reasons, some more noble than others. Elections are just one way in which we, unlike so many people throughout history, get to exercise freedom of choice. As expats, we have opted to build new lives in new places. But just as leaving home for college didn’t mean we stopped loving our parents, living abroad doesn’t make us less loyal or patriotic. We love the places we hail from – smokestacks, slag heaps, and all.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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