Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Advice to New Americans

One of the surprise perks of my new job is that I was given the opportunity to speak at a naturalization ceremony this past Friday. There were probably 40 people sworn in as citizens, from at least 25 different countries (some would blow your mind). You never saw a group of people so proud to be Americans. Here is the speech that I gave:

First of all, I want to say congratulations to all of you. Today is the first day of your life as citizens of the United States of America. I am humbled to speak to you today for a couple of reasons. One is my age; most of you are older and certainly wiser than I am, so I’m hesitant to stand here and give advice.

The other reason I’m humbled is that those of you who will be sworn in as citizens today have made the conscious decision to become Americans. I’m very proud to be American. However, I was born American, so I really had no say in the matter. Those women who sang here a few minutes ago used a line that I liked; they said, “America, land of my choice.” America really is the land of your choice in a very literal sense. I think one of the great tragedies of our day is that many Americans, born and raised here, have no concept of how blessed they are to be part of this country. I wonder how many of my fellow Americans who were born and raised in this country could pass the multiple-choice test that they gave to you. (Laughter). The very fact that you are here today, by your own will and choice, shows that you understand better than most what a great country this is.

In June, my wife and I visited Europe. It was my first time leaving my home country. It was a wonderful trip, and there were several events that happened while we were there that made me realize just how different America is from other countries. I only have time to discuss three of them today. The first occurrence was in Hungary. In most countries of Europe, especially at tourist sites, if you can’t speak the native language they’ll immediately speak to you in English because that is the most popular second language. In Hungary, however, people would speak to us in Hungarian, and when we didn’t understand, they would speak to us in German. One lifeguard at a pool we visited tried to speak in Hungarian, then German, and then about five other languages I didn’t recognized. He was a very multilingual lifeguard, but he didn’t speak English. Finally, I asked him “English?” He looked at me and asked, “America?” I nodded yes and he said “Maaaaamaa mia!” (Laughter). I have no idea what he meant by that exclamation, maybe he doesn’t like Americans, but when he said, “Espanol?” our problem was solved because I do speak Spanish.

The lesson I took from that experience is that an American can look like a Hungarian, a German, an Englishman, a Spaniard, a Russian, an African, an Asian, or a Latin American. Americans come from all those places. There is an American people, but there is no uniquely American race. If I were to look at each one of you individually, I would have no idea where you were from. But seeing you all here together today, I know that there is only one country that could possibly be home to every one of you.

Another experience in Germany illustrated much the same point. How many of you are soccer or “football” fans? Well, entirely by accident, we happened to visit Europe during the Euro Cup, the European Soccer Championships. It was a very big deal over there. In fact, while we were in Germany, the Germans and the Turks met in the semifinal match. It wasn’t a surprise that Germany was there, but the Turks were a big surprise. Some of you may already know this, but there are many, many Turkish immigrants in Germany. The day after Turkey won its quarterfinal game, which matched it up with Germany, we were visiting a small German village when out of nowhere there came a huge parade of hundreds of Turkish men and boys banging drums, dancing, and carrying Turkish flags. What I noticed is that you had men of every age, from small boys to very old men, walking in this parade. Many of them, based on the way they interacted, were obviously fathers, sons, grandsons, and grandparents. And the thought occurred to me that many of these men had spent the majority of their lives in Germany. Certainly many of the small boys had been born there and had never been to Turkey. Yet they still thought of themselves as Turks.

The point is that throughout the world, being part of a country means more than just living there. There must be something else that unites you.

Those Turkish immigrants had something that united them. They had the same homeland, and most of them were of the same race and religion.

If there is no singular “American” race or religion, what unites us? If I might make a brief reference to current events, think of our two major presidential candidates this year. One of them, John McCain, was not born in the United States. He was born in Panama while his father was in the Navy. The other, Barack Obama, has a father who was not even American. Yet these are the two candidates for President of the United States. Being an American is more than just where you were born, and more than just who your parents are.

I submit to you that perhaps the most important thing that unites us is this. (holding up copy of Constitution). Can anyone guess what this document is? I heard a good answer over here; it’s the Constitution of the United States. It was adopted in 1787 and amended 27 times since then. It might seem strange for me to say that we can be united by a piece of paper. But the Constitution is more than that. It prescribes our system of government, with the checks and balances necessary to ensure that no one, not the president, not Congress, not even the majority of the people, is greater than the law. It guarantees that our rights as individuals will be preserved, even if the whole world is against us. It makes us “a government of laws, and not of men.”

Abraham Lincoln said that America is a nation “conceived in liberty”. What does he mean by that? It means America was born as a free country. England is a free country, as are France and Japan and many others. But these countries were not born free but rather as the private dominions of kings and emperors. Freedom in America, however, began with this nation’s founding. There literally never has been such a thing as a “United States of America” in which freedom and self-rule did not reign. Our country is effectively co-existent with this Constitution.

Now of course, as I mentioned, the Constitution is a piece of paper. A piece of paper can only bind us together if we abide by it. Let me cite an example. We’re here in a courthouse today. Most of the time, people end up in this courthouse because something has gone wrong. Often, what has happened is that two parties signed a contract and then one of them failed to honor that contract. In other words, they treated the contract as if it were merely a piece of paper; they felt no duty to abide by it.

Today, you swore an oath to defend this Constitution. If you want to live up to that oath and be true Americans, you must abide by the Constitution and defend it against those who refuse to honor it, and those enemies of America who seek to overturn it by force. I took this same oath when I began my work here with the court. There’s another very important group of people that takes such an oath; the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces.

That brings me to my third story about my trip to Europe. While we were there, we visited the Nazi work camp at Dachau, Germany, a place where hundreds of thousands of Jews, Allied prisoners and political dissidents suffered and tens of thousands died under unimaginable conditions. At the entrance to the camp, there are monuments to the American army units, the 42nd Infantry Division and the 20th Armored Division, that liberated the camp. As I stood there, I fought back tears as I thought of the American servicemen who risked their lives to bring the freedoms they enjoyed at home to strangers abroad.

Well, the members of our armed forces today are no less brave and no less honorable. They are the best of us. They risk their lives to protect us, and without them, the freedoms promised by this Constitution would be meaningless, just a worthless piece of paper. You cannot be truly American without honoring them.

Today you have been adopted into the American family. As part of that family, you receive the inheritance left to us by our Founding Fathers, and by those generations of Americans who have kept our nation free until this day. You have the duty to exercise those freedoms. So vote. Exercise your freedom of speech, your freedom of religion, and your freedom of conscience.
I would also add that if you want to be American, you should do the things that Americans do. Put the flag outside your home on patriotic holidays. When you hear the national anthem, put your hand over your heart. Go to a barbecue on the Fourth of July. Visit a monument or memorial on Memorial Day if you can. Read the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Learn about the history of your adopted country.

I doubt that I really need to tell you to do these things. Most of you have been living here for quite some time, and your love for this country can be seen in your faces. I wish that everyone I know could have watched each one of you introduce yourselves and tell us how you feel about this country. My heart leapt each time I heard one of you say “God Bless America”. You’ve showed me what a blessing it is to be American, and for that I thank you.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Alaska State Fair

So the Alaska state fair is a big deal around here. Everyone goes, as is shown by the absurd line. It's held in Palmer, which is about 45 minutes north of Anchorage.

(Editor's Note: I was trying to make the same face as Friar Tuck in that picture, so that's the explanation for my weird smile- Matthias)
Oh, my goodness. It cannot be told how divine the corn dogs at the fair were. By far, they were the best corn dogs I had ever tasted. Matthias liked them too, even though his face doesn't really show it.

Here was mine right before I took a gigantic bite.

One of the best parts of the fair was seeing the huge produce they're able to grow here because of all the sunlight hours. Check it out:

To the left of this head of lettuce, you can see a typical-sized head of lettuce.

And my personal favorite:
Never before have I seen a "giant puffball". What sort of dish does this particular piece of produce add to?
And if the food at the fair wasn't enough, we came home to have some of my birthday cake. I had to take a picture because it looked so fantastic. Some nice people from Matthias's work made it for me. I added the cream cheese icing to take it to a whole new level of deliciousness.

In conclusion, if you are ever planning on coming to Alaska to visit, coming during the summer when the state fair is going on is a great time to do it.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Europe Photo Entry #7: Prague

I don't have much to write about Prague. The pictures pretty much speak for themselves.

Me enjoying a chocolate in front of the astronomical clock in Old Town
The Jewish Cementary, in which many victims of the Holocaust are buried. Apparently its so crowded that they have laid two extra layers of dirt in which to bury the bodies, and each time they just lift the existing gravestones a few feet up.

The Charles Bridge at night. Prague was the prettiest place I have ever been at nighttime (please ignore the weird facial expression).

Inside Prague Castle, which is really more like a fortress complex that includes the cathedral

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Europe Entry #6: Vienna

We didn't spend long in Vienna, just a night, so we only have a little video and no photos. The most memorable thing that happened was our mad, belated dash to catch our train to Prague the next day. We underestimeted the distance between the subway station and the station for the long-distance trains. We literally sprinted with our luggage for about a half a mile (should be an olympic event: the 800 Meter Laundry Lug), got on the train just as the doors closed, and the train started moving about three seconds after we climbed in.

Me: "Hey, now that we made it, it was kind of fun in retrospect."
Michelle: (Gasps for air)
Me: "Actually, not that fun."
Michelle: (Still gasping)
Me: "Yeah, I probably shouldn't have said that it was fun."
Michelle: (Shakes head, continues gasping).

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Europe Photo Entry #5: Budapest

We loved Italy, had the time of our lives in fact, but there are some things you should know about it: It is hot during the summer, it isn't terribly clean, it's crowded (during tourist season at least, and yes, I realize that we are part of the problem), expensive, and the customer service leaves something to be desired. For food-lovers like Michelle and me, it was particularly annoying that you could spend $25 per person on dinner and not even approach satisfaction; that's part of the reason we ate so much gelato. After 10 or 11 days there (I can't quite remember just how long), we were ready to move on. Move on we did; to Hungary, in a train compartment improbably known as a "sleeper car". ("Improbably" because it's hard to actually sleep when it's about 55 degrees Fahrenheit in the car, the beds are just long enough for a Chinese ballerina, and they wake you up literally five times to look at your passport at each border crossing. Those Slovenians are quite officious).

Ah, Budapest. I loved it. Maybe my opinion is skewed by what a relief it was to get out of the heat and crowds, but I really just can't think of anything about Budapest that I didn't like. It's beautiful, clean, cheap (you could buy about as much food as in the U.S. for the same amount of money), there's lots to do, and, since I didn't know that much about Hungary to begin with, pretty exotic. The people there have embraced all that is best about capitalism. The food was, and I do not exaggerate, the best we had in Europe. That may reflect our American preference for solid, hearty meals, but it's also because the restaurants all offered a mixture of German, Italian and Slavic stuff. We were well treated most of the time, which is surprising when you consider that most people thought we were German, and, you know...

To top it all off, the patron saint of Hungary, their founding father, was a 15th-century king by the name of:

That's right, King Matthias, the greatest Hungarian monarch in history. Here is "Matthias Church", which overlooks the city from the "Buda" side of the river:And here is a lovely lady in front of a breathtaking view which overlooks the "Pest" side of the river (behind her is the famous Chain Bridge):Buda at dusk, not far from where I first tasted that elusive "white whale" of delicious pastries: Hungarian Funnel Cake. If you want to know more, contact me. I won't write about it here because I could write at novel length about its other-worldly, devastating tastiness. Suffice it to say, it is nothing like any funnel cake you've had in your life:If you ever visit Budapest, you really should visit the "Statue Park" outside the city. After the fall of Communism, the new democratic government had to decide what to do with all the old Marxist-Stalinist statues around Hungary. They didn't want to keep them up, but it felt wrong to just destroy them. They eventually decided that the biggest insult to Communism would be to sell the statues to a private party who would then use them to make money by charging admission. Unfortunately, you'll have to wait until we put up video to see the ginormous "Boots of Stalin" which were left behind when the Hungarians pulled down Old Joe's statue during the short-lived 1956 revolution. Here is a freedom-loving Worker, carrying the banner for international Communist unity (which in Hungary usually manifested itself in the form of Russian tanks):

P.S. It started snowing here on Sunday. That's October 5, for those of you scoring at home. This must somehow be related to that "Global Warming" I keep hearing about. To quote Homer Simpson: "Can't Al Gore do anything right?"

P.P.S. This is a little dated, but if you enjoyed my "transcript" of Obama's speech:(http://matthiasandmichellecicotte.blogspot.com/2008/08/baracks-real-convention-speech.html), you should read this eerily similar blog entry by Matt Steener, my friend Robyn's husband: http://thesteeners.blogspot.com/2008/08/obamas-stirring-speech.html

The fact that we had the same idea, and made a lot of the same jokes, should tell you something about the speech itself. I particularly liked this line: "And, if necessary, I am even willing to send mean text messages and block them from my contacts list on MSN Messenger. [Deafening applause] ."