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Tuesday, December 2, 2014


A large proportion of adults will tell you that they "can't sing." Many of them believe that they are genetically incapable of singing, that no tune could ever come out of their mouths. I don't think this is true of most adults, any more than it is true of most children. The problem is not that they can't sing; they are just out of practice. People who practice something usually start out being terrible, but practice is about getting better with time.

Have you ever listened to a recording of shape note singing? I don't mean a choral arrangement from one of the folk songbooks like The Sacred Harp; I mean a raw, in-the-field recording like those made by Alan Lomax in the 1950s. It doesn't sound like typical recorded music. It's not pretty or polished; it's not something even I, a lover of shape note music, would probably sit and listen to. That's not what it is for, though. The Sacred Harp is a hymn singing tradition; the recreation of a community was to get together and sing. The shape notes were written to help people who couldn't read music learn the tune. There was (and is) no audition, to separate the "musical" members of the community from the "tone deaf." Everyone got together to worship, and the way they worshipped was to sing together. Over and over. Not for outside listeners and not even primarily for each other, but for the Lord.

Anecdotally, everyone has a story about the choir soloist or random person who sings out confidently yet isn't carrying a tune. Besides the fact that anecdotes are not data, though, I don't contend that someone who can't carry a tune should simply sing louder! Singing by oneself a capella is actually one of the more challenging things one can do; lots of people who find it hard to do that can sing better, if they find a place where they are welcome to practice doing so, and to learn to listen to other people singing with them.

In my family, we've been lucky in that we've long enjoyed sitting around and singing together, purely for the joy of doing so. Some of my relatives, to be sure, are particularly gifted singers, but as far as I can recall that is not why we sang in the first place. We sang regularly, partly because we were brought up in church where singing together was a central part of congregational participation. But above all we sang regularly.

The prevalence of recorded music everywhere, not to mention "idol" shows, has skewed contemporary perceptions of what singing should be. People don't think about the fact that a recording is almost never one live take--that even professional singers try many times to get a recording exactly right, and then it's further tinkered with in a studio. They hear singing "perfection," and imagine that's what should come out when an ordinary person sings. When it doesn't, naturally, they clam up and decide they are tone deaf or can't sing.

Even most community singing groups are self-selecting, in that people who already like to sing tend to join them, and people who've convinced themselves (or worse, been convinced by others) that they aren't musical do not. In the case of a choir with auditions, whose principal purpose is performing, it makes sense to start with a more experienced level. But as someone who grew up in a tradition where everyone sang--where the principal purpose was not to sound good for other people, but to worship God--I believe that singing, like exercise, is good for everyone.

There are hard data (not anecdotes) showing that singing has physical and psychological benefits similar to yoga, but that's not why I'm comparing it to exercise. Think about this. Many people who could greatly reduce their health risks by getting more fit are reluctant to exercise, because they don't think they look good exercising and feel self-conscious in front of more fit people. Or, they aren't gifted at sports or have been made to feel bad (sometimes unwittingly) by more athletic people in the past, so they are reluctant to try. Not for a moment am I suggesting that these people should immediately set out on a run; they might injure themselves and then be unable to exercise at all. But absolutely, I think everyone should get the benefits of whatever exercise they can do--in many cases, just going out for a walk. Does anyone seriously contend they should not, or that if they do, their fitness and coordination cannot improve with time?

Singing is like learning a language. Some people pick languages up more quickly, but almost everyone learns to speak one: by listening and being willing to make mistakes.

We need to rethink what singing is for. For some people, it is about being an entertainer, but for most of us, it's an activity to enjoy and to value--physically, mentally, socially, spiritually. Singing folk music, or Christmas carols, is different from professional performance; it is about enjoying the music and participating in it oneself. Of course, as we sing more regularly and learn to listen to others, we will more often get the right notes, in the right time. But the only way to do this is to open our mouth and let our voice out.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Coming out: The X factor

"Given that America, like most places, has viewed homosexuality as wicked since more or less the beginning of time, approval by a wide majority represents a watershed not just in contemporary politics but also in cultural history."

This Economist article is an excellent analysis of how much change has happened in the United States, specifically around same-sex marriage. What struck me most, however, was the second illustration, a very simple graph.

Two lines, in an X shape. A Gallup poll of how Americans answered “Yes” or “No” to this question: “Do you have any friends, relatives or co-workers who have told you, personally, that they are gay or lesbian?” In 1985, fewer than 25% said Yes and 75% said No. The two lines meet in the middle around 2001, the time that the first country in the world legalized same-sex marriage (the Netherlands). By 2013, their positions are reversed.

This X graph is the story of my life—my lesbian life. At the early end of this 28-year period, I was starting to come out to myself; I did not come out to another person until I was 18 and living in a free state. At the point of the X—where the Yes and No answers are about 50-50—I had left the country where I was born and raised, and emigrated to a more tolerant one. My post-American life follows the upside of the graph.

The story of gay rights in the U.S. is the story we hoped and promised ourselves it would be: that if we came out—if we made ourselves unapologetically visible to our families, straight friends and colleagues—they would “get used to it.” Remember that slogan? Early on, we would chant “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” People didn’t like that. They didn’t want it in their faces, and they especially didn’t like our owning the word queer (or dyke, or the other terms that were thrown at us as abuse and that we claimed for ourselves).

But they did get used to it. We came out to them, and it was hard, if not frightening. Not just for us. For them as well. It could be almost as big a step for a straight person to accept me coming out to her/him as it was for me. After all, the entire society, maybe even God, was on the side of rejection.

I was blessed, personally, to receive far more affirmations than rejections. Many people were not as fortunate. It was common for someone to tell me that I was the first person to ever come out to her/him. I was their point person between No and Yes. (It was also not unknown for people to come out to me, after I’d validated them first.)

We told each other, and ourselves, that coming out was important. The society hated us. At the very least, we were assumed to be straight (well, not all of us; I never tried or had any success). Make ourselves visible, we said, and it will not be so easy to ignore us, not to question the system of laws and attitudes that keep us second-class citizens. Harvey Milk had told us that in the 1970s.

We had no way, really, of knowing it would work. We just did it. Then—later, tentatively—famous people started doing it too. Which added to visibility. Until now, at least in some countries like the U.S., there is an avalanche of normal. Queer people are not so queer anymore; they are soldiers wrapped in the flag; they are getting married; they are raising kids. They are just like everyone else!

And yet—not. The larger conclusion is that there is no “normal.” Single people and childless people are as much a part of the family as husbands, wives, and parents. The pro-military and the antiwar are both part of the family (sometimes, both part of the same person). The family has to be bigger than one country, and we don’t hate our countries, even when our countries hate us.

This has not been particularly comfortable for anybody. I am still that Dyke to Watch Out For who distrusts the larger community and wants my own. I still support the right to marry (of course!) while being ambivalent about the institution of marriage itself. But even that’s changed. Because—just as the antigay forces feared—marriage has been redefined. Thanks to same-sex couples, marriage in general is even more about love between two people, and less about patriarchal ties, than it was before.

We still have a long way to go. Not just because the woman who marries another woman in, say, Virginia on Saturday can still be fired on Monday morning for being queer. But because there is still so much inequality. In lesbian feminist terms, the patriarchy has hardly been smashed. This is still a society awash with violence and racism and ever-growing economic injustice. If anyone, after the wedding, is at a loose end about what to work on, just pick a battle.

Come out. Come out with your sexuality and your faith and your language and your rainbow hue of nationalities. Come out with all the glorious energy you can possibly muster. We need you in this fight.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Dual Iranian-U.S. citizen: trouble in Iran

Have you seen this news story?

Basically, Jason Rezaian, a dual Iranian and American citizen, has been detained for eight weeks in Iran. No charges have been announced against him, which is in keeping with the way Iran treats its citizens. And there is nothing that the United States can really do, other than ask Iran to release him.

This is just a quick reminder, since dual citizenship is so rarely in the news, of what it means and the potential bad consequences, in the case of a dual citizen of Iran and the U.S. When you are in one country of which you are a citizen, that country will treat you only as its citizen, and totally ignore the claim any other country may have on you. And there is essentially nothing your "other" country of citizenship can do to help you, if you get in trouble.

Being a citizen of Iran, this journalist is an Iranian when he is in Iran and an American when he's in America. Just as the U.S. ignores the Iranian citizenship of dual citizens when they are in the U.S., so Iran ignores the U.S. citizenship of its citizens when they are in Iran. It's safe to say the justice system there is not what we would expect in the U.S.A.

Be careful with those passports and where you travel on them.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Book review: And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic

Do you remember the 1982 Tylenol scare? I sure do. It was the talk of my school. Capsules were found to contain cyanide, and ultimately, seven people died. As Randy Shilts writes in And the Band Played On, when faced with such a threat to lives, the U.S.A. is capable of reacting swiftly and dramatically. The story was in The New York Times every day of October and twenty-three more times after that, as well as in media throughout the land. Within days, the Food and Drug Administration had cleared shelves across the country of Tylenol capsules, which have never been seen again (we got “caplets” after that). “No action was too extreme and no expense too great,” Shilts writes, “to save lives….

“By comparison, 634 Americans had been stricken with AIDS by October 5, 1982. Of these, 260 were dead. There was no rush to spend money, mobilize public health officials, or issue regulations that might save lives.”

Shilts’s thesis is ‘that AIDS did not just happen to America—it was allowed to happen.” His exhaustive research and interviews with almost a thousand people makes this hard to argue with, but this book doesn’t read like research. It is 600 turnable pages of interweaving plots, and reads like a massive whodunit. There are certainly bad guys: members of the gay community risking public health for sexual liberation, since that was the only liberation gays had; a researcher at the National Cancer Institute more concerned about recognition than about doing science the right way; a negligent industry of blood banks; a president of the United States who kept insisting that America's best days were ahead, while never even uttering the name of a disease that was killing his people. Public health workers who were too worried about making his administration look good to demand the resources they really needed. News media so biased towards heterosexual males that only the possibility of them contracting AIDS--from a prostitute--could get the disease into the headlines. Shilts excoriates them all.

But there are great characters, too. Larry Kramer, the writer and cofounder of Gay Men's Health Crisis, who never let up on New Yorkers, gay or straight, for not doing enough to stop the epidemic. Kramer is one of our prophets; in his 1985 play The Normal Heart, his alterego cries, "Why didn't you guys fight for the right to get married instead of the right to legitimize promiscuity?" Bill Kraus, the San Francisco gay liberationist, likewise saw what needed to be done and insisted on it, even while becoming sick himself. Dr. Selma Dritz at the San Francisco Department of Public Health, with her methodical records chronicling the earliest days of the epidemic. A drug technician at the Centers for Disease Control named Sandra Ford, who paid such close attention to the orders crossing her desk that she was the first person to alert the federal government to a new syndrome. Dr. Don Francis, the epidemiologist, who had fought smallpox and the Ebola virus in Africa and was damned if he was going to let up on AIDS. And—five years late, but better than never—the Surgeon General, Dr. C. Everett Koop.

Shilts’s book was published in 1987, and so many things have happened since then that it’s really remarkable how up-to-the-minute tense I was reading it. The biology of the disease is, of course, a major strand of the plot. Much of what we know today about the virus that causes AIDS is discovered in the course of this book, but some things were not known then. For example, one of the main diseases affecting people with AIDS is Pneumocystis pneumonia, caused by an organism that when Shilts was writing was thought to be “protozoa” found in rats. The species is now known to be a fungus, and distinct from Pneumocystis carinii. Shilts is writing about disease and sexual behavior, and a lot of this is not nice stuff to talk about at the dinner table—one of the reasons so little was done to help for so long. From start to finish, Shilts does a fantastic job of holding readers’ interest, making us understand the science, the politics, and the personal stories that make up an epidemic on this scale.

This was not, and is not, an uncontroversial book. Although it is only one of many subplots (and by no means the largest), Shilts’s story of Gaëtan Dugas, the Canadian flight attendant who was “Patient Zero” in early epidemiological research, was used as publicity to sell And the Band Played On. U.S. news media loved the story of the foreigner who brought AIDS to the United States—a single villain, so much easier to blame than the Reagan administration, self-aggrandizing U.S. scientists, or indeed themselves. (Shilts spends many more pages castigating the news media for their failure to investigate AIDS than he spends on Dugas).

Nowhere does Shilts claim that Gaëtan Dugas or any other individual brought the AIDS virus to North America, but the real epidemiological history—from Africa to Europe, and from Africa to North America via Haiti—was only incompletely understood in Shilts’s time. We now know that cases of HIV existed in the 1970s and even earlier—long before Dugas was sexually active. Dugas is characterized as willfully spreading the disease by continuing promiscuous sexual behavior. It is hard to forgive such acts with what we now know about the virus, but it didn’t make him unique, nor was this recklessness unknown among carriers of other venereal diseases. Ultimately, Dugas is not the villain of And the Band Plays On, if only because he, too, had an incomplete picture of what he was really carrying. He remained more or less healthy long after other men diagnosed at the same time were dying of AIDS; scientists were still squabbling about what this was and how it was transmitted. It’s clear from Shilts’s many portraits of people with AIDS that Dugas wasn’t the only one in denial about it.

One of the most heartbreaking parts of this story is how those trying to do good were frustrated at every turn. The Blood Sister Project of San Diego, for example, enlisted lesbians to donate blood, because lesbians were as low-risk as possible for disease; the blood was then used to help patients with AIDS.  The Assistant Secretary for Health, Dr. Edward Brandt, was scheduled to give the Blood Sister Project an award; he considered it “a worthy example of the kind of community program called for in President Reagan’s cry for more volunteerism.” But “pro-family” groups demanded Brandt’s firing if he even went to the event, since that would legitimize a lifestyle so repugnant that it could not even be named. The administration nixed his appearance. With the 1984 election coming up, Reagan’s people didn’t want any association with AIDS or gays--as if any number of votes from the Jerry Falwell camp could have swung the election to Mondale, who won exactly one state.

The relentlessly mounting body count, of which we are reminded again and again while AIDS is “allowed to happen” to the U.S., is not tragic--tragedy has an air of inevitability. This is angering because it was not inevitable. Shilts shows how the news media, in which he was the only American reporting on the epidemic full time, largely ignored the crisis for years, and when it did get into the act it stuck to the science angle and always insisted on some kind of hopeful ending. There was always a breakthrough just around the corner—except there wasn’t. Viruses are too hard to vaccinate against or cure (which is why we still have colds), and nobody wanted to pay for it anyway. Government was bad and the president would rather spend tax money on Central American death squads. When French scientists made a discovery, well, they were only French, so we didn’t hear about it for a year. And too many people at risk for AIDS—from gay and bisexual men to those using intravenous drugs—continued suicidal behavior long after they should have been educated out of it. (Any such statement, from Shilts or his contemporaries, was condemned as “anti-gay.”)

Of course, the U.S. was extremely anti-gay in the early 1980s, so none of those aspects of the book were news to me. What did surprise me was how long the nonprofit blood “industry” resisted any attempts to make its products safe, denying that it was possible to contract AIDS from a transfusion, or from the clotting products that patients with hemophilia relied on. I had assumed, when I lived through the period, that at the first sign of an “innocent” person getting AIDS—that is, not a homosexual or a drug user—the government and industry had leaped into action to protect people, but this was far from true. Thousands of people whose only risk factor for AIDS was a blood transfusion got sick and died needlessly. So did the female partners of drug users and their babies—ironically, more victims of homophobia, since part of the reason AIDS was not recognized in heterosexual women or babies for so long was that it was a “gay disease.” (This partly explains the bias against French scientists working on AIDS, too, since the French didn’t think of SIDA as a gay disease but as a disease that came from somewhere—a virus, West or Central Africa.)

It’s amazing how so many people resisted antibody testing, and other measures of AIDS control, for so many years. But have we really learned? Today, a terrifying proportion of U.S. parents refuse to get their kids vaccinated against basic childhood illnesses. File this under bottomless scientific illiteracy (see also climate change, evolution, and the dismantling of public education).

By the time Ronald Reagan made his first speech about AIDS, it was 1987. He still could not bring himself to say “gay” or make any acknowledgment of the burden homosexuals had borne—both of the disease and of the fight against it. But this is not a Republican versus Democrat story. In 1982, when the epidemic was still in its early stages, even the most supportive of any straight politician in the nation, San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, had vetoed a domestic partners’ ordinance. This law would have recognized the right to (among other things) visit your live-in lover in a city hospital, or take bereavement leave for his funeral. Perhaps the most damning sentence in this whole book is:
“In December 1982, at a time when gay people more than ever needed to be encouraged into relationships, they were told their partnerships were valueless by institutions that later scratched their heads and wondered why gays didn’t settle into couples when it was so clear their lives were at stake.”

The soul of a nation is laid bare by Shilts’s book, and many aspects of it are found wanting. But—at the risk of one of those hopeful endings he was so scornful of—it could have been worse. Gay Americans, already far from equal, feared that AIDS would lead to their being quarantined or even put in internment camps. There were plenty of homophobic attacks in the AIDS era, but the concentration camps never materialized. Shilts attributes this to Americans’ basic belief that it is wrong and unnatural for young people to die, so that sympathy welled up for thousands of twenty- and thirty-something men dying of a hideous disease—even though they were homosexual. Similarly, while there were stories of partners rejecting AIDS-infected men, and families throwing their “faggot” lovers out of the hospital room, in far more cases both chosen families and families of origin rallied around their sick and dying members. Many parents learned their son’s sexual orientation at the same time as his AIDS diagnosis. When faced with this deadly disease, its horrible manifestations, and the unsavory ways it was transmitted that no one wanted to talk about, by and large people chose to respond with love.

Randy Shilts would not let his doctor tell him the result of his own HIV test until the day he finished this book. He was afraid that it might bias the way he told the tale, and he was nothing if not a classic journalist—reporting the facts as he found them, no matter how unpopular. Shilts died of AIDS in 1994, just after finishing his third book, about gays and lesbians in the U.S. armed forces. Like those unacknowledged heroes, this journalist performed great service to his country.

The Highlands, Scotland, UK? September 2014

Next week, on the 18th of September, residents of Scotland aged 16 and over will vote in a referendum on Scottish independence. If they choose Yes, Scotland will become an independent nation and no longer part of the United Kingdom.

The fact that many people think that British means the same thing as English, or have never heard of the UK, might tell you why Scots feel the need to have this vote.

I’ve been to Edinburgh and Glasgow many times, but this month marks my first visit out of the cities to any other part of Scotland. And it was stunningly beautiful. No sooner had we left the Glasgow airport than we were driving by beautiful lochs, up hill and down, to Portsonachan where the water is brackish and you can't drink it unboiled. 

The hotel was a rambling old thing, with a deadpan English bartender who played Simon and Garfunkel and Frank Sinatra more or less continuously. We overlooked Loch Awe so that from our window, it seemed we were on the water--so calm and clear. The first morning the mist was lying so low that we appeared to be in a cloud. It was not a bad view, watching the mist slowly lift while we ate full Scottish breakfasts in the conservatory! 

The quirky hotel also featured tables that appeared to be held up by sculpted dogs and hippos. In the lobby, such as it is, is a whole cabinet of stuffed birds and animals--not my thing, but they've probably been there forever. The library, a gloomy room stuffed with old furniture, has shelves lined with Harvard Classics and Reader's Digest Condensed Books that have probably been there forever too. The most interesting feature, though, has got to be the bathtub. You have to fill it with what appears to be loch water; the only thing the water comes out of is a shower head, but it's very low down in the tub so you can't actually use it as a shower. All the taps, as I believe the British call them, are turned around so it's anyone's guess what is cold and hot. I was strangely comforted to find that it's still possible to have such a hotel experience, that everything hasn't been homogenized down to Eurogeneric standards. "Part Waratah Lodge [Victoria]," T. summarized, "part Fawlty Towers!"

The weather, ever uncooperative on the whole island of Britain, was beautiful, which made all the difference. This is one aspect of our trip that makes me think Scotland belongs in the Union and should not separate from the UK. Obsessing with the constantly changing weather is such a British thing; it’s not just an English or a Scottish thing. Another aspect was the proliferation of campaign signs across the Scottish landscape. For every “Yes” sign we saw, there was a sign next or near to it that said “No Thanks.”

Not “No,” but “No Thanks.” How British is that? Only a British campaign would word “No” so politely.

We were not in Scotland, however, to talk politics, but to appreciate this very different landscape. It’s remote, with single lane roads and bleak stony mountains rising up towards the sky. We saw deer, and even the threatened red squirrel. I see grey squirrels every day around London, but never the native red species.

We spent time around Loch Fyne, after which some very nice ales are named. There was also a little "drive to nowhere" when we were directed just to "drive to the end of the road," the single-lane road, which turned out to be twenty miles. Since there was still nothing at the end of it, we gave up and returned to the hotel bar. I consoled myself with a 10-year-old single malt whisky called Tobermory. I rarely drink whisky, but couldn't resist one called after what is obviously a Scottish place name, but also a very nice place at the northern end of the Bruce Trail in Ontario.

Our second day we explored Argyll and further north to Glencoe. There were Scots Gaelic place names on all the signs as well as English, but I won't attempt to spell those. The most direct way to where we were going was evidently another single lane "B" road, ten miles long, in the course of which we passed I think one other car. We stopped at a place called Catnish, wondering if we would ever find a place to get off and walk; this is unspoiled country without a footpath crossing every field! A very friendly local gave us his ordnance survey map, probably thinking how silly we were to set off without one. We thence drove on to a weir and walked a mile or so into the Caledonian Forest Reserve. There was no one else on the trail the whole time we were there.

At the Bridge of Orchy, which appears to be only a hotel along the side of the road, we stopped for a drink, which we probably didn't deserve as much as the hikers who kept crossing there. T. asked a couple "Are there any walks over there?" and they kindly pointed up the hill.

"Well, that's the West Highland Way!" they said. We had, despite our map, only stumbled across the most massive hiking trail in Scotland, which runs all the way up to Inverness.

They were clearly North American, so T. asked where they were from and when they said "Canada," she told them I was from Toronto. I did not correct this!

Gord and Marg, as I'll call them, are from Saskatchewan, over here hiking the whole trail. I imagine that they've just taken retirement, perhaps early retirement, and walking the West Highland Way is something they've always wanted to do, but never could, you know, because of limited vacation time and it being so far from Canada. So the minute their pensions kicked in they were off to Scotland, to appreciate their heritage while they're still limber enough to do the whole walk. You go, Marg and Gord. As for us, we only walked enough of the West Highland Way to say we'd done it, and to see a rainbow emerge from the mist.

Our next walk was to Glencoe village. At Glencoe we saw the site of the 1698 massacre of dozens of MacDonalds, including many women and children who died of winter exposure after their homes were burned down. The MacDonalds, murdered by guests they had taken in, were being punished for their slowness in acclaiming the new monarchs of England, William and Mary.

William and Mary’s accession to the throne has been called the Bloodless Revolution. Hate to see the bloody ones.

It is hard to describe the stark beauty of Glencoe, Glen Etive, and the scenery around there, accessed via the luxury of a two lane road. Even driving aimlessly, we were not any place in Scotland for any amount of time that was not stunning. This included the bar of the 1720 George Hotel (how royalist is that?), acclaimed as "the best bar in Scotland." Just looking at the array of whiskies made my head spin, never mind drinking one. They even used whisky in the black chanterelle and cream sauce--very nice indeed with a Scottish steak, if you eat that sort of thing.

On Sunday we made our way around Loch Awe to the other side, past St. Conan's Kirk, and to Oban on the west coast. From the harborfront there you can see (or sail) across to the Hebridean isles, Mull and Iona. The summer season was over but it was still warm enough to sit on the rocky beach and eat ice cream. There is a kind of folly or art work, McCaig Tower, that is meant to resemble the Colosseum; I trudged up there to take in the view, only to find there was a parking lot at the top and barely mobile ancient people were getting around McCaig Tower just fine!

Thanks, again, to the donated map, we found an unmarked turnoff on the road back that led us to walk to Kilchurn Castle. This castle was built between the 15th and 17th centuries, and it's just open for people to climb all over--so refreshing for a European site. From the tower, we could see back to St. Conan's Kirk, which we would have gone inside and apparently seen all kinds of historical relics, except they were actually having church (it was Sunday morning after all). The same might not have been true in Bridge of Orchy, where the little church only hosts services every other Sunday, plus the post office on Tuesdays! 

The view of Loch Awe from Kilchurn Castle was one of those rare "wow" moments where I had no room in my heart for anything but appreciating the sunshine. 

It was one of the calmest, most restorative trips I can remember. An Oban-born lady who had suggested visiting there was as delighted as she could be that we'd had a nice time. When we hung out on the patio, or whatever Scots call it, the surface of the loch varied from choppy to smooth as glass. Sometimes you couldn't even hear the water lapping. 

Our last stop was Balloch, where we cruised around the more famous Loch Lomond. I recommend haddock, if you're ever up that way. Smoked haddock and poached egg for breakfast, or haddock chowder at the Samphire seafood restaurant in Inverary--probably the best soup I ever put in my mouth. It's a small place, though, and fills up quickly. Best to reserve.

I hope the voters in Scotland decide to stay in the 307-year-old union. Not only because breakups are sad, but because I like having some connection with this gorgeous country, even though I don’t live there.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Traveling mercies

“Traveling mercies” is an expression, a wish for grace to follow you when you go off traveling somewhere. It is also the title of a book by Anne Lamott, subtitled Some Thoughts on Faith. I do not pretend to write like Anne Lamott but I have been struggling to articulate something that goes a little outside the normal fare even of The Discreet Traveler. (If you would rather skip all this, there's a colorful infographic posted below--all neat facts.)

This post has to do with how we are in the world, no matter where we travel or whom we meet. It is a vision TDT holds for how we could think, and act, as we make our journeys, not only across the globe but—perhaps—through life.

That vision requires messiness. This beautiful world we travel has horrible things in it and there are no neat answers. We need messy thinking, a messy frame of mind. Allowing for contradictions and questions we cannot answer.

I hope my readers can bear with my examples of too much neatness, some of which may sound like an indictment of particular individuals. They are not meant to be; they are meant to indict all of us, at times, as human beings.  Every one of us can, or should be able to, recognize times when we have taken the neat way, rather than the messy way.

It is neat to know that something is wrong, not because of facts or a consistent moral position, but just because it was done by Barack Obama. Or George W. Bush. Or Margaret Thatcher. It is neat to know instantly what to think about a difficult decision based solely on who made it.

It is neat to be able to judge how a nation should defend itself, without even mentioning civilians on the other side. There are, on this World Wide Web of ours, supposedly Christian comments about the Gaza situation in which it appears that Palestinian lives are utterly valueless. There are also comments about the situation with a tin ear as to anti-Semitism, as to the fear that encircles the lives of Jews in countries other than Israel. It is neat to think so completely on one side or the other of this psychological wall.

It is neat not to know, or care, anything about the historical context of a messy situation. To regard each act of gun violence in the U.S., whether it’s white kids shot in an elementary school or black kids shot by police, as its own rather commonplace event, that doesn’t stem from anything systemic.

It is neat to have an opinion about immigrants that is uninformed by the experience of previous immigrants or, indeed, one’s own family. To say of terrified people in a shipping container, "Ship 'em back" or even "Seal it up and leave it!" To fear that Spanish speakers, or brown people, or mosques are coming to “swamp” your country, but exempt the people from whom you are descended. It is neat not to think about how the Native American Indians must have felt, on the receiving end of dispossession. Or the Celts.

It is neat to know, based on something in the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament or the Qur’an, exactly what political or military decisions should be made today. It is neat to so completely conflate religious heritage with secular government. It is especially neat to give such life-or-death importance to one verse—in Genesis or Leviticus or Romans—that you can overlook hundreds, or thousands, of other verses that might challenge you with a higher value.

It is messy to negotiate the contradictions of your many identities: as the citizen of a nation or nations, as a follower of one religion or no religion, as a heterosexual person or a queer person or a person who is past all those labels. It is messy to condemn violence, to abhor the consequences of certain beliefs, while still acknowledging the value that those beliefs have for others. It is messy to acknowledge where those values even overlap with your own.

It is messy to love. To love a person is messy, because there is so much about each of is that is unlovable, or unlovable from time to time. To love a country is messy for the same reason. Or to love a city, or a neighborhood. To love an institution for which one has worked. To love one’s brothers, brothers in arms, brothers in Christ. Love is messy.

Last week a friend was speaking about the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It was said by Jesus in Matthew 7:12; he probably knew the earlier version from a conversation between the rabbinic sages Hillel and Shammai. The story goes that a Gentile came to both and asked to be taught the whole Torah while standing on one leg. Shammai saw this as a provocation, and whacked him angrily with a measuring rod. But Hillel replied, “That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary — [and now] go study.”

Every sura of the Qur’an begins with words that translate in English as “In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate.” There are lots of other words that could have been about Allah, but in the Prophet Muhammad’s recitation, mercy and compassion were given top priority.

My friend reminded me that the Golden Rule is the overarching message—though as Hillel said, there is plenty else to study, and to comment on. The Golden Rule is simple to understand, hard to practice. But what a difference it would make if we all practiced it, first, and then got around to arguing about the other stuff.

The Golden Rule is a lot of hard work; it is messy, but it is still golden. And the fact that we human beings honor it mostly in the breach does not make it any less of a rule.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Infographic: Second Passport by Descent

This graphic was passed on to me--it looks cool and may provide useful information to some of you.

Please include attribution to with this graphic.

Second Passport, an infographic from

Friday, June 20, 2014

Every state line

Thank you, readers, for your comments. One of you has asked what The Discreet Traveler thinks about the irony that same-sex marriage is now recognized by the U.S. government, but not by many state governments. The bewildering array of state laws and the layers of state vs. federal government confuse even Americans. But never fear—TDT is here to be your guide.

The clue to American history is in the name of the country: The United States of America. Historically, the nation was a federation of states, former British colonies, and the individual states have been very wary of ceding their powers to the federal government. The U.S. Constitution, minimally amended since 1789, clearly lays out the powers of the states, including any government power not explicitly granted to the federal government. This is why, for example, the upper house of Congress (the Senate) has two senators from each state, no matter the relative size or population of the states.

If you’ve seen enough American movies, you’ll have seen wedding scenes where the minister, or other officiant, says, “By the power vested in me by the State of New York—” or wherever. States are responsible for most family law, including marriage licenses. And those jurisdictions’ laws vary. Nevada, for instance, famously has no residency or advance requirements for getting married in that state, hence all those movies with impulsive Las Vegas weddings.

In a sense, there is no national U.S. law recognizing marriage. The U.S. simply recognizes marriages that have been performed in various jurisdictions, whether those are states, territories, or outside the U.S.

The federal government rarely intervenes in the definition of marriage, but on certain historic occasions, it has. One was in 1967, the Supreme Court ruling Loving v. Virginia. In this case a loving couple—famously named Loving—sued Virginia for sentencing them to prison for the crime of marrying each other. Because Richard Loving was a man classified as “white” and Mildred Loving a woman classified as “colored” by the state*, Virginia said their marriage was illegal, even though they had been married in a different jurisdiction (Washington, D.C.)

The U.S. Constitution has another important principle, which is that a contract under the law of one jurisdiction is binding in all other states—a principle that Virginia was clearly violating. The case went to the judicial branch of the federal government, the Supreme Court, which ruled that “anti-miscegenation” laws such as Virginia’s were racist, and that people’s right to marry could not be infringed by the state in such a way. Those laws still on the books in other states became unenforceable, because interracial marriages were now recognized at the national level.

Loving v. Virginia is an enormously important precedent for marriage equality, and in recent years Mildred publicly pointed this out herself (Richard died in 1975). But the legislative and executive branches of the federal government overstepped their constitutional bounds in 1996. That year, Congress passed the “Defense of Marriage” Act, and President Clinton signed it into law. DOMA’s section 2 says that no state is required to recognize a same-sex marriage performed by another state. Section 3, the part that was ruled unconstitutional in 2013, said that the federal government only recognizes “marriage” as meaning between a man and a woman, and only recognizes “spouse” as meaning someone of the opposite sex.

(If you think section 2 sounds at least as unconstitutional as section 3, you have a point! States are required by the Constitution to recognize each other’s contracts, but the Supreme Court did not address this issue in the 2013 ruling. We’ll get back to this.)

In 1996 when DOMA was passed, no state allowed same-sex marriage; the law was a pre-emptive measure. But then same-sex U.S. couples began getting married in other countries, notably Canada from 2003. Historically, a couple married elsewhere in the world is considered married in the U.S. without having to get married all over again, but DOMA made same-sex couples an exception. And from 2004, individual states, beginning with Massachusetts, began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples too.

Suddenly, couples found themselves married for state purposes, but not federal. This created some absurd situations. For example, most states have state income tax, meaning Americans have to file both a federal tax return and a return for their state. The state taxes are based on the federal return, so the federal has to be filled out first. But because of DOMA, a person in a state with same-sex marriage had to fill out her federal tax return (according to which she was not married), followed by a “phantom” federal return as if she was married, in order to be able to complete her state tax return according to which she was married!

When the Supreme Court overturned section 3 of DOMA one year ago, all that changed. Now, if you’re married anywhere the federal government (including for tax purposes) agrees that you are. Essentially, the burden of deciding who is married was shifted back to the states, where it always belonged. But because the Court ruling did not overturn DOMA section 2, states can still refuse to recognize each other’s marriage contracts. There is as yet no national requirement to recognize same-sex marriages everywhere, as with Loving v. Virginia.

This leads to the absurdity of a cross-country trip where a couple is or is not married, every time they cross a different state line. To be sure, this is better than the previous situation, where a state could grant a marriage license but it didn’t have any federal “teeth.” Most notably, because immigration law is a federal matter, it makes all the difference to binational couples that the federal government now recognizes them as married. And if an American couple still lives in a state that doesn’t recognize their marriage, it is a lot more feasible for them to move to a friendlier state than it is to emigrate to another country!

It’s an absurd situation, but a familiar one from U.S. history. Black citizens used to have to worry about “Jim Crow” segregation laws when they crossed into certain states. Before that, of course, was the even more infamous era of “slave” vs. “free” states, where on one side of a state line a black person was just property, to be captured and returned to his owner or sold.

The shifting legal balance isn’t necessarily a social one. I don’t remember Canada in 2003 having a province-by-province fight, or demonstrators claiming that same-sex marriage would destroy the Canadian way of life. (In my view, it is the Canadian way of life.) But the U.S. is a very different country. At one level, it's fifty different countries.

The states, and the American people, remain far from united.

*Although Mildred Loving is often referred to as a “black woman,” she was in fact of mixed African–American and American Indian descent (Rappahannock nation). The point was that it mattered to Virginia that she wasn't white.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The customer is always wrong

Every once in a while The Discreet Traveler rants. What follows, though, is supposed to be humorous. I am sending up the country I happen to live in, but if I traveled through yours, sooner or later I would have something to say about that place too. Enjoy.

In the U.S.A., there used to be a saying that "The customer is always right." I don't know if anyone else remembers that saying now, let alone lives by it, but it's an American saying. And every once in a while, no matter how long I've lived "abroad," I find myself getting all American and writing obnoxious letters of complaint. Because if the saying was ever true in the United States, it is pretty much unknown outside.

Twenty years ago, when I lived for some months in Great Britain, I wrote a little piece called "The customer is always wrong." (It was meant as entertainment, too.) I had a whole host of little anecdotes like the one that follows, but this one happened only last month. Picture the scene: It is midday, a beautiful sunny day, about 60 degrees Fahrenheit (see, I'm getting American). A van with the words HOT DOGS printed prominently on the side is open for business. Lest there be any mistake, a sign propped outside the van--obviously put out this morning--also proclaims HOT DOGS for sale.

Nonetheless, there are no cooking smells, and I approach the van with caution. I have learned to expect to have to ask:

"Do you have hot dogs?"

Now, let's leave aside that "hot dogs" means something very different in England than it does in America. I do know this. I don't expect the same experience in a different country than I would have at "home." What I do, partly, still expect is that the merchandise for sale in a place might match what it says on the tin (as the British themselves say).

"No," the saleswoman tells me (I have to say, with a look of some incredulity). "We don't have hot food." Then, by way of explanation, "It's hot."

Now first of all, it is by no stretch of even the British imagination "hot." It is warm enough not to wear a jacket, but that is another matter. Second--did no one ever eat hot dogs in hot weather? One might rather ask, when else would one eat them?

"Well it's just that--" I gesture to the words HOT DOGS permanently imprinted on the van, but it's no use.

"You're the first person today who's asked for hot food," she adds, almost reproachfully.

Yeah, but there's still the temporary sign. You'd think at least that bit of false advertising might not have been set out for the day, or that a bit of paper might have been stuck over the words HOT DOGS--something. But no, the saleswoman would rather apologize, not just to me, but (as I hear) to each subsequent customer who also asks for the products she does not have for sale.

It happens. It happens a lot. I, culturally, would much rather cross out the sign than have to keep apologizing--or hey, sell my products! But the hot dog incident pales by comparison to what followed a few days later, and unlike this poor non-hot-dog lady, this is a named business that is trading on its brand.

So I am going to name names here: The Globe Theatre. Shakespeare's Globe. Audience full every performance, visitors from around the world. Antony and Cleopatra and, as luck would have it, the poor actor playing Antony is sick. So far, out of the theatre's control.

Now, what I would expect to happen in this instance, and what has happened numerous times at plays I've attended in my life, is some hardworking young actor (probably paid a pittance) has understudied not only Antony's but another couple of parts. He gets his big break, steps into the role of Antony, and the audience applauds. Win, win.

Not at the Globe though. No, the Globe has no understudy. No one? Not even for Antony, the lead role?

What they do instead is ask another actor, who obviously knows but has not memorized the part, to read it from a pile of paper, complete with yellow highlighting. And so we are treated to the (admittedly well-blocked) spectacle of Antony running about with these notes in his hand, which he reads from as he sword-fights, as he kisses Cleopatra...even, most memorably, as he dies. There lies Antony, shuffling up the ramp, reading his dying lines as he shoves the paperwork before him towards the stage.

You couldn't make it up, or possibly have predicted such a fiasco--I thought. I was not even wholly surprised, though disappointed, that the audience was offered nothing at all in light of this disappointing performance--no discount on tickets or even merchandise in the shop. Oh well, perhaps it was hot dogs and they didn't have any either.

But when I wrote my (very American) letter of complaint later, what did I get? The policy of the Globe is not to have understudies. Surely I (the customer) can appreciate this. The Globe is a charity.

Now, I know what this means. The definition of "charity" in Great Britain is incredibly broad; it emphatically does not mean do-gooders. You could be raking in millions of pounds in profit and still be a charity, as long as your ends are artistic or something like that. So no, I do not appreciate this. A professional theatre company without understudies? How often do they expect such substandard performances?

And did I get a £3 token or the kind of thing I might expect to get even from the tightest of British businesses? No, twenty years has rendered even those gestures too generous. I am only a customer, after all, who paid for my tickets (not cheap, by the way). I should be supporting the "charity" that is the world famous, name-brand Shakespeare's Globe.

I should be grateful this has-been hot dog stand was offering any product at all.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

My writing process

Today I'm taking a different kind of tour—the #MyWritingProcess blog tour.  I was generously tagged by Cheri Crystal, author of the forthcoming novella Across the Pond and many other entertaining, sexy stories. You can find her at Authors blog about their writing process and then tag someone else to do the same. We all answer the same four questions. Hope you enjoy.

#1 What am I working on?

I am at work on my third novel. The main character is a young woman called Spark who keeps falling for the wrong person, but that is the least of her problems. Her father, grandmother, and best friend are each struggling with a different health crisis, and the only thing that gets Spark through is music.

#2 How does my work differ from others in the same genre?

If the genre is “lesbian fiction,” my work tends to the more mainstream or general fiction end of that spectrum. There is same-sex desire in most of my fiction, but in the novels, I tend to work best with a variety of characters, including male characters. There are certainly other writers who deal with some of the same themes I do, such as family, spiritual faith, and humor! But I try to make a contribution that is a little bit unique.

#3 Why do I write what I do?

Writing is a habit and if I don’t write, I get withdrawal—it’s part of my life. But once I create characters, I care about them as if they were real people, and my aim is to get that across to my readers. When readers say they were moved by something I wrote or it made them think or made them laugh—that is the best feeling. I love that experience as a reader, and so I love to share it with others.

#4 How does my writing process work?

I write best in a kind of half-conscious flow, before I can start self-editing and blocking myself from just getting it all out on paper. And paper it is—I write with a pencil, ideally before I’ve turned on a computer at all, as early in the day as possible. I do sketch out plot ideas and have some idea where the story is going, but that’s only a guide. I listen to music the whole time. Only at the rewriting stage do I start putting a version of those paper drafts into typed form, so I can share them with my writing group and get their help.

The “Reading” page at has published stories that you can read for free. There are also links to my books, and a contact page, because I always love to hear what others are reading. Thanks!

J. E. Knowles is the author of The Trees in the Field and Arusha, a 2010 Lambda Literary Award finalist, and editor of Faith in Writing. She also blogs at The Discreet Traveler:

Next up, we’re keeping it in Canada! Here are a couple of terrific writers you should read:

Liz Bugg (lizbugg.comis a Toronto-based writer best known for her Calli Barnow mystery series. Her first novel, Red Rover, won a Goldie Award for Debut Author from the Golden Crown Literary Society, and Yellow Vengeance is short-listed for this year's Goldies in the Mystery/Thriller category. Liz also writes short stories, and is presently working on a novel based on the life of her grandmother.

Nadine LaPierre ( is a playwright, novelist, and composer. Her novel The Slayer, is the first in a mystery-thriller series set in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and featuring Constable Danielle Renaud, an officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Her follow-up, Verity, is coming soon.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Dual nationality: Frequently asked questions

The most helpful and comprehensive information I’ve ever found about dual citizenship is at

Rich Wales goes into more detail and with legal references. Although his site has not been updated since 2011, the fundamental information remains useful and clearly presented. One caveat is that it is U.S.-specific—it is very informative for Americans, less so if you’re not interested in U.S. citizenship.

Here are TDT’s answers to questions that seem to come up often about dual citizenship.

What is dual citizenship?
Dual citizenship means holding the citizenship of two countries at the same time. I use “dual citizenship” to mean multiple citizenship—these answers are the same even if a person holds three or more citizenships at the same time.
Dual citizenship is not a special status in itself. A citizen of country A is just like any other citizen of A, and if she is also a citizen of B, then country B will treat her just like any other citizen. There is no world authority that administers dual citizenship, and no form to fill out for it.

How does this happen?
Every country has its own rules defining who is and is not its citizen. Those rules are made independently by each country, regardless of other countries’ rules. When, for any number of reasons, the rules of country A define you as its citizen and the rules of country B also define you as its citizen, citizenships overlap, and you have both.

Surely “where are you from?” isn’t a difficult question—a person can only be born in one place.
True, but it’s not only birth that leads to citizenship, and it’s not only where you are born that can count:
1. A person can gain citizenship by birth in several ways. Some (not most) countries define you as a citizen if you were born there (U.S.A.). Some define you as a citizen if you were born there, but with caveats (your parents have to be settled there and not just visiting, for example) (Britain). And some say that you are born with their citizenship because your parents or even grandparents were citizens, even though you were born somewhere else. In this last example, you could be born a dual citizen—if you have an American mother who’s settled in Britain, married to your British father, you have both citizenships from birth.
2. A person can also gain citizenship later in life, by naturalizing. If you immigrate to a new country and settle there, eventually you may be eligible to apply for citizenship. Unless your country of citizenship by birth has a law taking citizenship away if you become the citizen of another country (a few countries do have this rule), you are now a citizen of both. Even if your new country (the U.S. for example) requires an oath saying that you are no longer a citizen of any other countries, in practice, your old country may not recognize this oath as having any value (why would it care about U.S. citizenship laws?) In this case, you are still a citizen of both countries.

But that’s wrong, isn’t it? I mean how can you be loyal to two different countries? What if they went to war with one another?
Whether it’s wrong or not is a personal decision and depends what loyalty means to you. It also depends on how likely the two countries are to go to war with each other, and what the practical effect would be. For some people, dual citizenship might be an advantage, for others a disadvantage. In today’s world, many people retain strong attachments to one country—family, grew up there, etc.—but actually live in another country because of their work or because their spouse is from there. They want to be full participants in the society where they actually live, without giving up their roots in a different society.
In terms of personal identity, what nationality means to you and how you identify will depend on a lot of things, not just citizenship. An Italian–American may qualify for Italian citizenship and be proud of her Italian heritage, while still being American! This is an easier concept for immigrant-based cultures, like Canada and the U.S., than it is in Old World cultures.

Still, you’re really only one or the other, right?
Legally, each country of your citizenship will treat you only as its citizen. So if you’re both an American and a British citizen, America will regard you as American alone (like any other American citizen), and Britain will regard you as British alone. You can’t go to the British embassy in America and claim help if you violate American laws, for example. As a general rule, if you are in a country you’re a citizen of, that country’s laws take priority—it has a stronger claim on you. If you’re in a third country, again as a general rule, you identify yourself by the passport you use to enter that country.

So it turns out I’m eligible for another citizenship. What should I do?
Find out whether holding the other citizenship (B) will cause conflicts with the country you’re a citizen of now (A). Is A one of those countries that takes away your citizenship if you acquire another? Will B require you to do something onerous, like military service in the old country? If there are no such pitfalls, decide whether the advantages of dual citizenship (see below) outweigh the possible disadvantages. Once you decide what’s right for your case, there is usually an application process before you actually acquire the other citizenship—either by naturalizing or by proving you’re entitled to it by birth.

Right, so I’m a dual citizen now. Do I need to get a passport from my new country, and travel with it?
Not necessarily. A passport is just a travel document, not citizenship. People with no plans to travel outside the country they live in often don’t have a passport at all. On the other hand, if you have ties to another country where you might have to travel at short notice—relatives there, for instance—it’s wise to keep an up-to-date passport at all times.

So which passport should I use?
This depends on your travel requirements. U.S. law, for example, requires anyone who is a U.S. citizen to travel to and from the U.S. with a U.S. passport (regardless of any other citizenships that person may have). So an American who lives or travels abroad really needs an American passport. If your country has a similar requirement and you plan to travel there, then get a passport from that country. Usually, a passport is also the best way to establish that you’re entitled to live and work in that country and stay indefinitely, without any visa restrictions. But not always. British citizens, for example, are not required to travel on British passports, and can get a certificate in another passport showing that they have the “right of abode” in Britain. While this certificate is more expensive than a passport, and doesn’t confer the advantages of having a European Union passport in the rest of the EU, it is much quicker and less complicated to apply for than a first-time British passport.

What are the advantages of dual citizenship?
Dual citizenship means you have the right to live, work, and stay indefinitely in more than one country, as well as to travel freely there. Unlike a foreign visitor, a citizen has the right to enter a country, and cannot be turned away at the border. For more on traveling with two passports, see "The A to B of traveling with two passports," below.
Quite apart from travel, citizenship also entitles you to participate fully in the life of a country, and if you have ties with more than one country, dual citizenship identifies you with both. For instance, it may give you the right to vote in the country where you live, as well as in elections “back home.” Citizenship means that you belong in a country. Unlike permanent residence or other visa status, it cannot usually be taken away, even if you live outside the country for years. (There can be exceptions, if you obtained the citizenship through fraud or committed a crime in the process, for example.)

What are the possible disadvantages?
Some countries’ rules do cause conflicts, as already mentioned. Some countries restrict security clearances in the case of people with other citizenships; dual citizenship would therefore be a disadvantage if you wanted to apply for certain jobs. And, if you try for high office, you could have a political problem if your opponents tried to characterize you as disloyal (politicians not being constrained by the facts). Michaëlle Jean, the former Governor General of Canada, was criticized for being a dual citizen of Canada and France; her political opponents portrayed her French citizenship unfavorably, and eventually, she renounced it. (Most countries have a formal procedure for renouncing citizenship, rather than your automatically losing it. This is true for the U.S.—it is actually quite difficult for someone born with American citizenship to lose it, even if he wanted to.)
Also, be aware that obligations of one citizenship don’t go away just because you acquire another. The U.S. infamously requires its citizens to file tax forms every year, no matter what other citizenships they have or how long they’ve lived outside the U.S.

I still don't get it. I get that some people may identify with two nationalities, but is there any justification for claiming a second citizenship, just because you are entitled to it?
This comes up in the media, often in regard to athletes who compete for a country other than the one they were born in. Sometimes this is politically dubious. Americans, for example, are happy to welcome athletes who defected from former communist bloc nations, but less happy to see athletes from the U.S. now competing for Russia.
However, there are circumstances where a second nationality, even if you wouldn’t otherwise claim it, can be of immense practical help. Suppose you lived in South Africa under apartheid, and because of ancestry, you were entitled to claim Irish citizenship. You might take the chance to start a new life in Ireland, rather than live under a system you found intolerable—even though you were still a proud South African. Or, although you are a proud Canadian, you have a British spouse, and are living together in Britain. In order to come and go without being subject to British immigration controls, you might choose to claim citizenship once entitled to it, without ever identifying as British.

These decisions don’t always make sense to others or to the wider public, but for personal reasons, they do. Wanting to live under a different type of government, or being married to a citizen, are convincing reasons to desire nationality. Those who disagree have perhaps always taken their own system for granted, or never fallen in love with a foreigner.

Enjoy your citizenship(s), whatever it or they may be. Enjoy your travels.

The A to B of traveling with two passports

My 10-step guide to traveling with two passports shows a very simple pattern, actually. It looks like a pattern of poetic meter:


Even simpler—when you look at it it just alternates:


It’s simple enough in my first example, where you’re traveling from the country of one of your citizenships to the other. You use passport A to enter and exit country A, and passport B to enter and exit country B.

In a moment, I’ll give an example of how this same pattern works in any combination of countries, even when your passports aren’t from either. But first, what are the advantages of traveling with two passports? Even if you’re entitled to more than one, what’s the advantage of paying to keep both up to date?

Some practical advantages are:

·       Your passport entitles you to live and work in a country and to stay as long as you want. Obviously, this is true of the country the passport is from—if you’re an Irish citizen, you can live and work in Ireland, and don’t need a visa or any plans to depart. But an Irish passport also entitles you to live and work in the United Kingdom, without any restrictions—exactly as if you were a British citizen. Furthermore, Ireland is part of the European Union, so any EU country will let you live there as well.

·       Even if you don’t want to stay in a country indefinitely, it’s usually a lot simpler just to enter if you have a passport from that country (or, in this example, an EU passport). You can breeze through the “fast lane,” answer minimal questions (or none at all), and get no stamp restricting your stay. If your plans change and you wish to stay longer, so what? You haven’t promised anyone at the border to leave by a certain date—you don’t have to.

·       In any “third” country, you can pick whichever passport gives you the least hassle. Maybe that country requires visas from American citizens, but not for EU citizens (Brazil is an example of this). Or maybe there are fees to pay on arrival, but they’re less for Europeans than for Americans. Show that Irish passport and you can save money and time.

·       Speaking of visas, in many countries and situations, they’re a pain to get. You have to mail your passport off to some embassy, and as well as pay a fee, wait while they process your visa. If you have another passport you’re free to travel in the meanwhile, rather than be held hostage by some third country’s embassy.

I used “hostage” and “embassy” there together as a deliberate exaggeration; I’m obviously not talking about a situation such as the U.S. embassy workers in Iran were in in 1979. If you saw the movie Argo, you know that the movies portray dual passport usage in a very different way. Forged passports (or in this case, genuine Canadian passports that were deliberately issued to false identities for the Americans) are used in daredevil operations, either to get away with a crime, or to get away from bad guys like the Iranian hostage takers.

But this is not the movies, and your passport is a travel document, nothing more. It is not your identity; you are still one person, with a name and a date of birth, no matter how many passports you legitimately hold. You can’t use a second passport to be a different person. Some people think they can visit a country on passport A, stay the maximum length of time, then revisit on passport B as if they were someone else. Don’t try this.

American you and Irish you are still the same person. Besides, once you’re in a country as an American, you need to stick with that until you’re out of that country (always enter and exit on the same passport, remember?) Don’t leave the airport and start showing your other passport as identification. Especially, you don’t want to do this in a country of which you’re actually a citizen; never identify yourself as Irish to American officials, or as American to Irish officials.*

But—let’s say you’re a U.S. citizen with permanent residence in Canada, and you want to visit Brazil. This is where your two passports will really come in handy even though you aren’t a citizen of either Canada or Brazil. In this example, the first passport you’ll use will be your Irish (A), because that’s what you’ll use to get into Brazil visa-free. Your U.S. passport (B) is what you use in Canada, because that’s what your Canadian resident visa is in.

A         Book your flight and check in at the airport with your Irish passport.

B         Canada doesn’t have exit immigration controls, but if it did, you would always show your U.S. passport. You’re in Canada as a U.S. citizen with permanent residence, so don’t confuse anyone by showing your other passport—it’s irrelevant in Canada.

A         Board your plane and arrive at Brazilian immigration with your Irish passport. You don’t have to get a visa (or pay a fee). Enjoy your visit to Brazil!

B         When you check in for your flight home to Canada, use your U.S. passport. That’s what the Canadians expect to see, and since you don’t have an onward flight out of Canada, the airline needs to know you’ll be let into Canada indefinitely. So they want the passport associated with your Canadian residence visa.

A         At Brazilian exit immigration, show your Irish passport again. That’s what you entered Brazil on.

B         Arrive back in Canada and show Canadian immigration authorities your U.S. passport and its associated Canadian visa. Welcome home.

Traveling with two passports is simple, but dual nationality can also make life more complicated. It’s not for getting away with anything (except in the movies). *But, that’s a subject for another day.