I was the sort of kid who, having dropped an American flag or even let it touch the ground, would ceremoniously kiss it. I'm not sure who told me to do this but it felt important. After all, we pledged allegiance to that flag and the republic it stands for – "one nation under God, indivisible … "
This was in Philadelphia, my hometown, and it doesn't get much more American than that. Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell: We had the revolutionary landmarks and the cobblestone streets, but it wasn't all dead history. Take nearby Valley Forge, where George Washington's men spent a miserable winter – but also where, it turned out, a teenaged boy with a newly minted driver's licence could bring a winsome girl and roll around in the spring grass.
I was an American kid, that's what I'm saying. And maybe that's why I felt oddly disoriented when, at a cheerful ceremony earlier this month – along with 94 other people from 25 countries, with a spoken oath and a hearty round of O Canada – I became a Canadian citizen.
Happy, relieved to have reached the end of the paper trail and delighted to embrace a country I'd come to love – but disoriented all the same, like waking up in a hotel room having no clue where I was.
And maybe that's at least a partial answer to the question posed a couple of months back by the Canadian immigration official who, shuffling through our files – including the documents showing that my wife and I first landed here three decades ago – looked up and smiled.
"What took you so long?" she asked.
Good question. Excellent question – one that requires scrolling back to the beginning.
There's no romantic tale here. We did not come to Canada on some political or ideological journey, like latter-day draft dodgers. I had a job offer from the national newsmagazine; my wife had inklings that a newspaper would hire her. We'd met in New York, spent a couple of years in Atlanta, but we needed a place where two journalists could be gainfully employed and Toronto proved an unexpected solution.
And life proceeded apace: a house, friends, an adopted son. I was treated for cancer – twice – and lost my job and secured a new one. Along the way I learned to spell "jewellery" and "manoeuvre," got a crash course in Canadian history and travelled from coast to coast to coast – though our most treasured retreat remains Ontario cottage country, swimming and canoeing or just reading by the stunningly clear lakes.
I've come to like hockey. I altered my allegiances in all sports, cheering for the Blue Jays over my once-beloved Phillies in the 1993 World Series, for Canadian athletes in the Olympics. I admire Canadian modesty, multiculturalism, health care, gun control – and passion, for all of the above. And as a small-l liberal (I came here that way), I took a certain satisfaction in becoming a citizen of the country one day after its prime minister had ceased to be Stephen Harper.
So why did we take the scenic route to Canadian citizenship?
Plain laziness maybe, but mostly just a lingering sense of Americanness, an enduring fondness for Philly attitude, Midwest towns, roots music, March Madness and on and on – for the land that welcomed my ancestors and saw them thrive. Identity, it seems, is a complicated business, and home isn't only where the heart is but where it's been.
Go back to politics for a minute. Bedrock attachments aside, your feelings toward a country at any given time depend partly on who's leading it. In 2004, when George W. Bush won a second term despite sending Americans off to die in Iraq saving the world from nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, I took pride in my magazine's poll showing that only 15 per cent of Canadians would have voted for him. Friends in the States inquired, half-seriously, if they could come live in our basement.
But the tide turned four years later, when the U.S. elected Barack Obama and Canadian friends offered heartfelt congratulations. Nor could anyone miss the way Canadian Conservatives, desperate to cling to power in the recent campaign, borrowed the most despicable ploy from the Republican playbook: the politics of division, wedge issues, race baiting.
I'm too old now for illusions, for kissing flags. The U.S., no matter what my junior-high textbook said, isn't always a force for freedom in the world (I'm thinking Vietnam, Chile … ) or even at home (Selma, Ferguson …). Canada isn't some social-democratic paradise (just ask its indigenous people, its early Chinese …). But over all they are enviable nations, no question and, as someone whose years have now been split almost evenly between them, I feel privileged to be a citizen of both. Life hasn't really changed and yet somehow it has, like a cohabiting couple finally tying the knot.
That's what took so long – growing thoroughly comfortable with that commitment, and with the duality. I will continue to vote every four years for president – an absentee ballot mailed to Georgia, our last official place of residence in the States – but I'm finally enfranchised in Ontario as well. I will continue to cross into the U.S. to visit family and friends, with all the perils that implies.
"Why do you live there?" one U.S. border guard asked last winter when I explained that I was an American citizen residing in Canada. He said it like an accusation. I said something about having good jobs.
"Doing what?" he persisted.
Working for newspapers.
"Well, you can come back," he declared, "because you can write the same socialistic articles here now."
I try to take it as a form of entertainment, this streak of knee-jerk disdain, whether in U.S. border guards or political candidates. I have the distance of a semi-outsider now, of a full-fledged Canadian. And I have a brother in California who recently wondered, with an e-mailed sigh, whether I could get him into Canada if Donald Trump becomes president.
Bob Levin is a news feature editor at The Globe and Mail.