When Vera and I drive down Wilhelmshöhe Allee in Kassel, on our way to the train station, for example, we pass by the apartment building where she was born. We could stand on Berlep Strasse and throw gravel up to the window of the room where she first saw the light of day. She isn't fazed by this, but it never fails to impress me. Her elementary school is just around the corner, and the Gymnasium that not only she but also her mother and her sister attended is just up the street. The hospital where I was born, Garfield Memorial in Washington., D.C., disappeared in 1960, 14 years after I was born. I would have to find six buildings in four states to revisit the schools I went to, if they still exist.
What's "home" anyway, for an Army brat? If it's where you hang your hat then it must be here, since I've been hanging it here for a long while now. I never lived anywhere else longer than five years, and I've been here more than 40. My earliest memories are of Germany, when my father was stationed here after the war. So I guess you could say I came "home" to roost. But I don't feel German. A leopard can't change its spots. I can change my passport, but I can't change my birthplace, as the customs officials remind me every time I re-enter the US.
The first time I arrived in Ft. Myers with my brand-new German passport, they kept me -- and Vera -- waiting for an hour while they checked my "record." That had never happened before. They finally found a DUI from 1976. Why hadn't they checked that out in the past 38 years that I had been traveling to the States? "We don't mess with Americans," was the response. "But it's not enough to keep you from entering," she added. Was I wrong to detect a note of disappointment in her voice? Why is "born in the USA" on a foreign passport a red flag for customs agents? They don't do background checks on other Germans, or, as the lady agent said, "mess with" Americans. So why mess with me?
Could it be that Uncle Sam is a little miffed about so many Americans throwing away that holy grail, that ticket to nirvana -- a US passport? The number of "renouncees" has skyrocketed in recent years, mainly, one must assume, because of FATCA. Not only is the US the only country in the world -- other than Eritrea -- that requires annual reporting to the IRS regardless of the source of income, but since FATCA all banks and financial institutions have to report all their business with US customers to the IRS. No wonder they are throwing out their US customers. Try opening a bank account anywhere in the world as an American, or even as a person with financial interests in the US. It will be difficult, if not impossible.
Renouncing citizenship is not easy, either, and it has become expensive. A fee of $450 was introduced in 2010, and raised in 2014 to $2350. You have to have filed faithfully to the IRS every year and prove you have been in full "compliance" for at least the past five years, regardless of whether you earned any of your income in the US. If not, or if you are worth more than $2 million, you will have to pay an "expatriation tax." If you read about the draconian penalties, including jail, that can result from "non-compliance" with any of these complicated laws, you can see why the consulates advise you that "Renunciation of U.S. citizenship is a very serious and irrevocable exercise and should therefore only be undertaken after careful consideration of the consequences. You must demonstrate you are fully aware of the consequences before you receive an appointment." When you take the "Oath of Renunciation" you have to swear that you are renouncing your United States nationality "together with all rights and privileges and all duties and allegiance and fidelity thereunto pertaining" and that you are doing so "intentionally, voluntarily," and "free of any duress or undue influence."
So if your spouse has threatened to shoot you if you don't adopt her nationality, or if your sweat-lodge brothers have elected to exclude you because you are still a foreigner, don't mention this to the consular officer when you take your oath. Don't say anything about the "duress" of having to comply with the onerous US tax laws in addition to those of the country you are living in. Just say, "I want to be an X." That's what I said on March 5, 2015.
The US consulate in Frankfurt, the largest in the world, is a fortress surrounded by high walls and barbed wire. It is intimidating. The "Lady in the Harbor" would be appalled. I had been there the year before to renew the passport I was now about to surrender, and I hoped it would be the last time. I was directed to a room on the second floor, where I found myself alone. I knocked on a door and was told to wait. I took a seat in the empty waiting room at the end of the corridor and opened the paperback I had brought with me, since anything electronic, like a cell phone or an ereader, would have been confiscated and thrown away. (They do warn you about this.) The book, as it happened, was Ferdinand von Schirach's Schuld (Guilt), a book of short stories based on his experience as a lawyer.
Guilt was indeed one of the emotions I was juggling. In a few minutes I would stand in a closet-sized cubicle facing a consular officer through a no-doubt bullet-proof glass partition, raise my right arm and swear that I no longer wanted to be an American. What red-blooded, thousandfold pledger of allegiance to "one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all" would not have qualms about reneging on this pledge? Of course I had already done so, long ago, by refusing to wear "the uniform of my country," as my Uncle Griff once said about John Wayne, but this made it official.
I paid the fee and left the consulate, sans passport and effectively stateless. Technically I was still a US citizen until the State Department approved my "application" and sent me back my voided passport and "Certificate of Loss of U.S. Nationality of the United States," which turned out to be a little over a month later, on May 12. From then until June 8, when I was handed my Einburgerungsurkunde), I was in fact stateless. Staatenlos. A man without a country. I would have had a lot of trouble renting a car or doing anything requiring identification, not to mention traveling outside of Germany. A nowhere man.
After leaving the consulate, I took the streetcar back to the train station. I was beginning to feel something different from guilt. What was it? Sorrow? Had I given up my soul? My identity? Was this the end of me as I had known me? No, it was relief! Seeing that I had a good hour before the next train back to Kassel, I crossed the street to O'Reilly's bar and ordered a pint of Guinness. I took it to a table by the window where I could spend my first hour as a -- well, as what, exactly? Three young women, Irish according to their accents, were sitting nearby. I wondered how a conversation with them might go. Where are you from? Here. German? No. American? Not really. Canadian, then? No. (Though I came close to it, back in Vietnam days, when I would have absconded to Canada if I had not lucked out on the lottery -- the same one Bill Clinton lucked out on.) Stateless? A refugee? Not really. Come to think of it, the girls might have had some problems answering these questions themselves if they were from the north of Ireland, depending on their point of view.
In the middle of this reverie I noticed that my briefcase was missing. Panic struck. Where the f*ck was it? My entire paper self, or what was left of it, was in there. My birth certificate, my copy of the Oath of Renunciation, the receipt for the $2,350, the Einburgerungszusicherung confirming that I had qualified for German citizenship, my Aufenthaltserlaubnis (residence permit).
Then I remembered that I had gone to the toilet in the train station before coming to the bar. Maybe I had left it there. I leapt up and ran out of the bar, crossed the street back to the station and went downstairs to the men's room. I explained breathlessly to the attendant, a black man and likely a real refugee, that I might have left my briefcase in one of the stalls. "There," I say, pointing to the middle stall. He listened patiently and dutifully took command of the situation, announcing to the row of closed and occupied cubicles in confident if not perfect German: "Excuse please. A gentleman here has lost briefcase. A black briefcase with a strap. Please look and see."
There was a moment of silence. Then a hesitant voice from the middle stall. "A wallet?"
"No," I said, "not a wallet." My wallet was still in the front pocket of my jeans.
"I have a wallet," the voice came back.
"Not a wallet," I repeate. "I'm only looking for a black briefcase, with a shoulder strap."
The door of the middle stall opened and a young man emerged with a black bag over his shoulder, but it wasn't mine. He proffered a wallet. "I just found this."
Not very likely, I thought. But it wasn't mine.
"Is this your wallet?" the attendant asked me.
"No," I said.
"Are you sure?"
"I'm sure. It's definitely not my wallet."
The young man walked away, and the attendant kept the wallet.
"Look," I said to the attendant, "can you please keep an eye on these other stalls, and when they come out, ask them if they saw a black briefcase hanging on the door with a shoulder strap? My papers are inside, with my name all over them. I'll be back in about 10 minutes." I wrote my name down on a piece of paper and left it with him.
I took off running again back to O'Reilly's, because I had had another flash. I had sat briefly at the bar, waiting for my drink, before I took it to the table. Maybe it was still there.
The Irish girls were working an ATM machine outside the pub. I rushed past them into the bar. Next to the stool I had sat on, in plain sight, was my briefcase, right where I had left it. My unfinished pint was also still on the table. I gushed huge sighs of relief, and checked to see if all my papers were still there. They were. I gulped the rest of my Guinness and offered five euros to the bartender, a young Australian, as a reward, even though he hadn't done anything, which he nobly refused. So I went back to the men's room in the station and gave the five euros to the attendant. I had to reward somebody!
On the train back to Kassel, I again tried to take stock of my new situation. The incident with the briefcase seemed to have brought me back down to earth. I had done it. It was over. I had my briefcase back, and I was rid of Uncle Sam, or would be soon.
I thanked my lucky stars.