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Drifting Between Nations

I was born on vacation. My parents – Armenians from Iran – didn’t want their first-born child to be saddled with their politically unfortunate nationality from the get-go, so they chose the most innocuous of jus soli granting states and planned my birth accordingly. By this logic, I’m Canadian.

When I was just a few weeks old, I boarded my first international flight and some ten hours later, landed in Geneva. My childhood was nominally Swiss, but looked – and sounded – more like a Benetton ad. I had a Russian babysitter, a French gymnastics class, an Afghan horse-riding instructor and a Greek best friend. When I turned ten, I became a national of the Helvetic Confederation. You’d know it right away, really. I’m punctual; I like chocolate; I speak great Swiss.

The winter of my sophomore year of college, I put a black scarf over my head and had my picture taken. When the Brooklyn photographer asked me if I wanna take that off because it ain’t snowing inside, I explained that it was for an Iranian passport, and could he please let me know if my hair was showing? I used the passport only once – to go to Iran in 2006 – but I get frisked at airports a lot, which I suppose says it all.

I moved to New York for college. I disliked the America of fast-food and car-culture and Fox News and dorms, but loved the city more than any place I’d been before. I’m told that this – alongside my affinity for Alexis de Tocqueville, “foreign” (domestic?) films and black coffee – is typically European. After college, I moved to Paris, where I routinely ordered un café double allongé during my three-hour-long lunch-breaks. “You mean un Américain?” the waiter would sneer.

When I left New York for France, the reason was ultimately political. This sounds dramatic – you’d think the Department of Homeland Security had found out about my most recently acquired passport, my radical European tastes or even my Communist grandparents. But I am an Armenian-Swiss-Canadian-Iranian unmarried white female Columbia University Philosophy B.A; I am not the holder of a Green Card. I had no choice but to leave.

So I went to St. Petersburg. It wasn’t Siberia, but it felt like it. I chatted with Georgian pickle-vendors and Ukrainian bakers, and even befriended an Armenian family who instantly claimed me as one of their own. I took a course to improve my Russian – my first language, albeit one I could barely read – but nobody knew what to do with a fluent illiterate. In my conversation class, we discussed the differences between Russia and our native countries. I wasn’t an ex-pat like the determined Korean students or the stern Germans eating business-lunches on Nevsky Prospect. I could not defend the Swiss way of greeting, the Canadian ways of eating, the way Iranian women dressed or anything about Armenia at all. Besides, I’d grown up eating pierogi and watching Soviet cartoons.

I talked about New York.

Two weeks into my stay, I was offered the job I had always wanted, in the place I loved the most, but couldn’t take it because I was born a few miles too far north. Over the phone, my boyfriend consoled me, but there was an elephant in the Atlantic. Was I coming back to the U.S.? Would I stay in Russia? Where the hell was I going?

That day, I skipped class to walk along the canals and read Gogol. I tried, and failed, to stomach food, and resorted to Russian Standard instead. I looked at paintings – Picassos, Kandinskys, The Rape of Europa – and bawled my eyes out on the steps of the Hermitage until a fat Kazakh museum employee named Volya asked me what was wrong. Was someone mean to me? Was I having problems at home?

“What’s home?” I sobbed in broken Russian into his handkerchief. “I don’t know where to go anymore.”

“Hey,” he said. “You have an accent. Where are you from?”

I didn’t know how to answer Volya. To this day, I still can’t. What I do know is that no combination of nationalities could have told the full story.

Illustration for Denizen by Lindsey Ruane.

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