For some time now I have wished for better than America. For myself, for my husband, for our daughter, and generations of our family to come. I have a bitter laundry list of complaints about my country of birth (featuring such topics as guns, women’s rights, science distrust, and Trump–really, do not get me started), but my wishes and fears seemed bogged down in the complacency that affixes most people to their home turf. That all changed radically a few years ago when I discovered an escape hatch. It’s a tiny little tear in history’s fabric that allows me and my family to make some big changes and right some historical wrongs. This is the story of how my life changed forever, and how I embraced a brand-new homeland.
Poutine Versus Trains and Cheese
First, let me tell you that I am, in my heart, an historian. So I have tried my hardest to cling to perspective whenever I get gloomy about America. But there it has been for years now: That brain tickle that keeps reminding me how different my views are from most Americans. Knowing I’m not a great match for the culture, the climate, country music, or so many other things. Too often I have felt like a stranger in a strange land.
When I daydream, sometimes I wonder if my ancestors felt the same tug to pack it all in and start fresh in a new country. Of course, many of them had it a whole lot worse than we do. Famine. Persecution. Our lives are really damn good in comparison. But what about some of the others? The ones who took the big leap, not out of desperation, but out of hope? The sacrifices and risks they took to settle in the United States must have been unimaginable. They defied tradition and familiarity, tearing at their own roots just to replant themselves in America. America.
Talk about personal historical regret.
Not America, guys. Not America. Oh, I hope they had good lives and loved their adopted star-spangled country, but a few generations later, I desperately wish they had stayed where they were. I want to travel back to 1917 and grab on to my great grandfather’s overcoat and dig my heels into the earth to stop him from crossing the border from Ontario to Michigan. Or at least tear the pen from his hands while he was filling out his “Permit to Leave Canada”. No! It may be cold and strange up there, but they have healthcare and gun laws. And a competent (and adorable) Prime Minister. I could eat poutine the rest of my life (until my arteries clogged solidly), and salute the maple leaf every Canada Day.
But my grandfather was born in America. And that puts Canadian citizenship out of my reach.
That’s okay, Canada. I appreciate that Americans are a little scary, and you don’t want a mass invasion. And no offense, but your winters are just as awful as Michigan’s, and I just can’t spend 40% of the rest of my life in cold, snowy darkness. So dark. So bleak.
My great-great grandfather was hardly concerned about the snow. Or global climate on any level. He wasn’t concerned about guns or (as far as I know) women’s rights. He wasn’t so concerned about infrastructure or commutes. He was a businessman. He repaired clocks and watches for a living, and he wanted to open his own shop in the boomtown of Detroit with bustling department stores and people movers, lots of shoppers and culture, lots of promise for a shiny, shiny future. I get it, gramps.
But times have changed. And now I want out of your questionable decision. And since your homeland doesn’t want me (I could learn to love maple candies, I swear!), I have to look somewhere else. Anywhere else.
For a long time, the real prize, the dream escape, has been somewhere in western Europe. The culture, the pace, the food, the politics, the mass transit. It all suits me so well. It’s no utopia–in fact, there are a number of problems over there, some of them worse than America. Nevertheless, it feels like home calling to me, especially while I sit on my couch staring out at the gray sky sprinkling snow on the roadways and treetops. I dream of sipping coffee or wine in cafes, walking a few blocks to get fresh baguettes and vegetables from local stands, and popping into museums on the weekend. Or I could take an easy train ride to a new country I’ve never seen before. I can ride the underground to work or a shopping destination, without fighting traffic, bumping around on massive potholes, and going to a warehouse grocery store to get vegetables that have been in transit and storage for at least several weeks. No more constantly flat tires, ludicrously high auto insurance, or black ice trails right into the steep roadside ditch. It’s all train tracks, a good book, and my glowing phone. And castles, cheese, and museums. And fresh flowers, warmth, and bicycling. It’s such a pretty picture in my head. So pretty, that early on, I became determined to make that the retirement plan. Sell off everything I own–which isn’t a fortune–and rent a flat in Paris.
But I’m still in my thirties, and that means I have a lot of slushy winters to survive before then. A lot of school shooting coverage to watch. A lot of misspelled “God Bles Trump” and “Vetrans For Trump” road signs to drive past, while I bump over potholes and squirt my windshield free of road salt spittle.
So I crafted a new, more aggressive plan: Get a job! Of course. We can make the move right now, if only there is a wage waiting for us. And a work visa. That’s the catch, though. An employer has to want you so badly that they’ll sponsor a very expensive visa in your name. I could keep rolling the dice all day long, every day, and the right job is probably never going to pop up to pluck us all out of Michigan. My husband and I are great at our professional jobs, but so are a lot of other people. And visas are expensive.
The futility of it seemed bleak. Watching-hillbilly-asscracks-at-Wal-Mart kind of bleak.
And then, one Sunday a few years back, chance changed this stranger’s life.
A Snowy Day and a Busted Dishwasher
I was whining, as I tend to do, about how sad our predicament was, when my clever husband found a Reddit article, of all things, pointing to a little duchy of a country that accepts citizens with ancestral ties going back several generations.
Reading glasses pinched on my nose, and my mouth hanging agape, I dove into my piles of paper bundles stacked near my feet. My research. I started frantically flipping through the pages looking for one particular family tree. I knew it was my mom’s line. Something on her dad’s side. Not the McClures. Farther back. No, not the Maguras. There it was, my Kerschen family tree. And the initials “LUX” typed on the fussy little diagram I had pointing to my own little Michigan family.
I had been aimlessly building family trees and searching databases for years–ever since my disenchanted Uncle Rick dropped a few bins of his own disheveled research on my doorstep in 2007 in an act of rebellion against his family.
Actually let me tell you a secret about that: His research, which mostly consisted of Kodak promotional black binders full of AOL emails chatting about weather and recipes with a distant cousin in England (the lovely Ian Tomes), did include some real gems if you dug enough. Original family letters from the 19th century. Photos. Some really good stuff sprinkled among the garbage and pure crap. The size of it was daunting, though. So I made excuses to leave it sitting in a Rubbermaid bin and a cardboard box on the sideboard in the basement. And then the dishwasher overhead broke and flooded. All of that research…so soggy, and some of it blurred and smudged. My panicked husband was trying to restore order, but I was in a fever to lay out every last piece of paper–even the ones that had been spared from all but humid circumstances. I fucked up. I was the steward.
From that day forward I took this hereditary responsibility more seriously. I threw out the AOL emails and general research about the Civil War that (sorry, Uncle Rick) had zero to do with the family. And I preserved the letters and photos in proper archival sleeves. I labeled everything, sketched out the beginnings of the family tree and threw my credit card at the Ancestry.com people, along with the promise of a kidney, should they demand it as a trophy.
And behold, the fruits of a broken dishwasher had guided me to the moment when my husband inquired, “Don’t you have ancestors that came from Luxembourg?”. Yes. Yes, I do. My papers say so.
And still I had trouble believing it. Clearly there was some error or fine-print detail that would exclude me from be welcomed to the itty bitty duchy. Maybe I had gotten it all wrong, or–more likely–the syphilitic mustachioed geniuses working immigration desks around 1910 had gotten it wrong. Or maybe my great-great-greats were born there, but, nous sommes desoles, technically their village now resides somewhere on the outskirts of France.
But determined, and with a frost-bitten spirit, I made calls. I sent emails. I even prayed, and let me tell you–I don’t pray. My theology principles are sketchy and squiggly and sometimes double back on themselves. Rarely have I wanted something so badly, though. Not since I met my husband, and much later when I saw the blue stripe on the test strip.
My crackpot wishes and home-crafted family tree were scarcely the first steps into the complicated international legal procedure of reclaiming ancestral citizenship. So, step one: Get help. I contacted the Luxembourg American Cultural Society, a non-profit set up in Wisconsin, held out my hand and whispered, “helllllp”. Like Luxembourgish lions, they jumped at the chance to pull me into the fold and guide me down the loopy path of not only applying for citizenship, but understanding what it all means.
Once Upon a Time in Europe…
Understanding it all requires a trip in the wayback machine, to a time and place that I knew nothing about until a few years ago, but that was instrumental in my existence.
Travel with me to Luxembourg, late nineteenth century. What is now an itty bitty wealthy center of banking and finance, was back then a poor agrarian nation with too little land and too many people. It had been suffering, like much of the western world from The Long Depression, an economic meltdown that began in 1873, and lasted through the 1890s. (Can you guess which nation started the Long Depression? You get a cookie if you guessed the United States. Of course. Greatest nation, my foot.)
People were jobless, poor, and, in some cases, hungry. So there was a mass exodus as families looked for work in any distant land where it was said jobs were plentiful. Mostly that meant a lot of steamer ships headed to the United States and Argentina were packed with Luxembourgers. By 1891, the Duchy’s population had dwindled to just under 213,000 inhabitants, after losing about 72,000 of its residents in only 50 years.
My Kerschen ancestors were among the farming families that fled. Their families had been in Luxembourg for as far back as recorded history goes, but they said “nuts” to it all, packed their bags and trunks, and headed for the docks.
And this is where a record-keeping hiccup changed my modern life. Apparently local pencil pushers in Luxembourg would occasionally circulate through the nearby towns and note which families were still in residence, and which ones had moved away. “Oh, the Kerschens down the road? Yeah, they packed up three months ago and left.” So the pencil pusher took his pencil and drew a line was drawn through the family’s roster slot. Or something to that effect, anyway. The poor pavement-pounding civil servants were just trying to help allocate local resources, but they were unconsciously doing something far more grievous.
While so many families were steaming across the Atlantic toward new farmland, the pencil pusher’s slash through their names effectively stripped them of their citizenship. Oops. Back in 1890, this didn’t seem like a big deal, especially because few if any of the native Luxembourgers realized what they had officially, technically given up. And what impact did it really have in their lives?
None, practically speaking. But many of the American immigrants never became naturalized as American citizens. Especially the women. Why should they? They couldn’t vote, they often didn’t hold property. And, (take it from me), citizenship applications are costly, tedious legal processes.
So the result was thousands of Luxembourgers living overseas who were citizens of no nation. They were, on paper, without country.
My Luxembourgish Great x3 Granmother, Catherine Kerschen
A Legislative Apology
Now you can step out of the wayback machine, because no one with a megaphone noticed or made a fuss about this technicality for many decades. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that it was brought to light. So the story goes, a somewhat more senior woman attempted to reclaim her grandmother’s citizenship in the homeland (per typical European protocols), only to be told that her granny was no longer a citizen of Luxembourg, having been wiped from the books. This granddaughter did not take the news well and exposed the embarrassing story to the international world.
Luxembourg gave a nervous chuckle at the other European nations, wiped its sweaty brow, and proclaimed “Okay, we’re going to fix this! We’ll fix it.”
And thus a new law was enacted. The nation opened a window of seven years, during which anyone directly descended from a Luxembourg-born person who was alive anywhere on the earth in 1900 was eligible to apply for citizenship.
This is where I come in. Me and my new friends at LACS.
That Isn’t Bologna in My Briefcase
Step one of reclaiming Luxembourg citizenship is to prove that you have a legitimate ancestral connection. This is where I chewed my short fingernails down to the nubbin wondering if my notes and charts were correct. Affirmation would have to wait, though. My first job was to collect birth, death, and marriage certificates for every single person going back to my Luxembourgish ancestor. Evvvvvvvery single person. Ewww-boy. Myself? My husband and daughter? Check.
I assumed, my parents? Check. Except that the always-competent State of Michigan could find no record of there marriage, immediately. Of course. Never expect anything of the State of Michigan, and you’ll never be disappointed.
Then another challenge pops up: Why can I not find any record of my great-grandparents’ marriage in Michigan? It took a lot of sifting and digging to deduce that (uh-oh), great-granny had gotten herself knocked up out of wedlock. So she and her beau ran off to Illinois to elope. And THAT is where I found their marriage certificate.
This roller coaster of family trivia was a little entertaining, but I had to stay focused since this document mining was done under strict limits: All documents must be official certified copies dated less than 3 months prior to your application date. So during this process of familial discovery I felt like Bob Barker was standing over me with a stopwatch, with the mountain climbing yodeling guy singing and headed for the cliff.
Phew, I am happy to report that I gathered all of my puzzle pieces with time to spare, though. I made some copies, got a few things notarized, and then ran to the nearest UPS store wishing I had one of those briefcases with the handcuffs attached. Actually, I’ve always wanted one of those. You see someone walking with one of those strapped to their wrist, and you know they are someone very interesting. How cool would that be, even if it was only carrying my bologna sandwich? But in this case, it was months of tedium and overpriced fees that led to this one packet, upon which all my dreams rested. And they were in a very plain yellow grade school folder, and handed over to someone behind the UPS counter who I will just assume was named Skippy.
I can fast forward now and tell you that Skippy executed his job faithfully, and I was able rest on my rumpus waiting for the day when a call would come in from the LACS that they had gotten my “Certificate of Approval to Apply” in the mail. That day happened while I was sitting in a Mexican restaurant sipping margaritas and chowing down on salsa and chips. Maybe not so much sipping margaritas as guzzling. That’s not the point, though. The point is that the waiting period to hear back from them was supposed to be a full 10 to 12 months, which initially meant I drew a giant circle around April of the following year, just like they do in animated movies. But with this unexpected early reply in late November, I had a big trip to plan out of the blue, as soon as I finished my chips and salsa.
Somewhere Across the Ocean
You don’t know where Luxembourg is exactly, do you? It’s the tiny little country that’s wedged between Germany and France, just south of Belgium. It has a population of about 583,000 people, making it just slightly more populous than America’s least populated state, Wyoming. Barely. It covers just under 999 square miles. That’s a good deal smaller than Rhode Island. (Although in fairness, it used to be a bit larger before the World Wars.)
Its tininess only adds to the remarkability that, of all the soil in the world, of all the populations, I have documented genealogy pointing to that particular gin joint.
So there I was, in 2017, walking down streets and touching hills and streams that no member of my family had touched since about 1903, at the latest. My DNA was home again.
And the chief reason for it was the nagging little requirement that if you want to become a citizen of the gorgeous little duchy, you have to actually appear in person at government offices and apply. Hey, any excuse to taste wine from the grape stems along the Moselle River!
Which, by the way, if you are ever lucky enough to have the opportunity, try a glass of anything from Luxembourg’s Domaines Vinsmoselle. You will thank me. Trust me, I spent an entire evening in their tasting cellar surrounded by giant casks and requesting refills. Sure, I may have done the “Time Warp” on the bus ride back to the hotel, but I couldn’t stop smiling about the deep flavors, gorgeous scenery, and the two cases I had ordered for delivery to my home in Michigan.
Don’t worry, folks, Lily had a lovely full-nosed glass of grape juice.
(The rest of the glasses were for me!)
For us, of course, the trip wasn’t about completing a chore, or even just sightseeing. We wanted to engage the culture as fully as we could, appreciate the history, and contemplate a big move someday. I greeted the place not just as a new friend, but as a new home, a home that had been waiting for me for over one hundred years. It may be corny as hell, and maybe you don’t understand it unless you’ve ever chased your family’s path across the physical world. All I know is that I fell in love–with the scenery, the culture, the pace, and the utter friendliness. Home.
Five months after our trip, I got my final letter. THE letter. It states in beautiful and confusing French prose that I am officially a citizen of Luxembourg, and I am eligible to secure a passport and live and work freely among the European Union nations.
At first I put off the chore of getting that second passport, especially since it would mean traveling all the way to the consulate in Washington DC, and no viable job offer had come along (yet). But as months and a very busy life swirled by, I would sit down at the end of each night and turn on the news again. And there it was over and over like a really scary play. Our leadership is instigating nuclear war, our Congress is rolling back environmental protections and closing national parks. And more shootings. Always more shootings.
Then, out in the “real world”, pick ups with monster-truck tires were cutting me off on the road, and my Twitter feed was full of March Madness (which I give less than two figs about–not even a single fig). They were all irritating reminders not to just sit on my hands and let the world keep swirling. It was time to finally apply for the final step. Let’s make this official and be ready for anything. Any excitement, and disaster, any dream.
Listen, I was born and raised 100% American, but there comes a point when it doesn’t feel like home anymore. I’m over you, America. It’s been swell for a few generations, but you didn’t live up to any of your promises–not in the long-run. So to you, dear sometimes-country, I say au revoir. Try not to start any wars while I’m gone. You’ll be hearing from me on election day.
UPDATE: Thanks to my Luxembourg citizenship, my husband has secured a job transfer to Ireland! We are in the process of prepping for the move, and I am attempting to chronicle the whole mess here.