What I've learned about America from my recent travels, wine, and the holidays

E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one. The flags of the many places we've come from -- the world's vibrant nations -- hang majestically at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

I traveled to Sweden in November, to the village of Grundsund where about seven hundred people live on the coast of the Skagerrak, the strait that connects the North Sea (and, ultimately, the Atlantic Ocean) to the the Baltic Sea. There I found cousins descended from my great-great-grandfather, Jakob, whose son Gustav (my great-grandfather) had long-ago immigrated to the United States.

On returning home, I began to think about the Swedish traditions and practices that had been passed through my family over many years, despite the ability to speak the language having passed into history several generations ago. Meghan and I served Swedish meatballs at our Christmas party. I cooked Swedish pancakes for breakfast on Christmas Day. My mother decorated her Christmas tree, as she always has, with Swedish flags. We drank Akvavit and sang Helan Går on Christmas Day, despite the fact that only a couple of us actually know the real words and what they mean (apologies to our newly-found cousins, who videoed in via Facebook Messenger to find their American relatives swinging glasses and singing mostly gibberish).

At some point in my musing about all this, I realized how odd the notion that I, an American, should think of myself as being 1/4 Swedish must be to all of those cousins we're just now getting to know. They're just as Swedish as I am American, right? This was my first big revelation: In the typical American telling of our individual stories, we tend to equate nationality with citizenship, not with ethnicity. Because most of us descend from people who came from somewhere else, and because many of our families have not -- in the grand sweep of time -- been here all that long, the distinctly American concept of ethnicity is one of a guy like me: 1/4 Swedish, 1/8 English, 1/8 Native American, and the remaining 1/2 an indeterminate blend of Irish, Welsh, German, and French. The more blended we get, the more American we become, while the ethnic heritage that comes to characterize the individual or the family is often the one that is spoken the loudest. The one whose stories get told. Whose songs get sung. Whose food gets cooked. Whose drinks get poured.

Like so many of its people, American wine comes from somewhere else, too. France's Pinot Noir grows splendidly in Oregon while Germany's Riesling has made New York a big wine producer. Vidal Blanc, a French hybrid created in the 1930s, has succeeded in Massachusetts (and elsewhere). Chambourcin is the child of unknown French and American parents. Several years ago, David Pagán Castaño, the winemaker at Virginia's Potomac Point Vineyard and Winery, created Vino Camino, a blend of Virginia's excellent Cabernet Franc (thanks again, France) and Monastrell imported from Spain. I even recently tried a lovely bottle of Tempranillo -- Spain's noble grape -- produced in Texas. And just as Americans tend to equate nationality with citizenship (what we are), rather than ethnicity (where we came from), so too do we know our wines by their grape (what they are) -- Tempranillo or Pinot Noir -- rather than the European way of naming wine by place (where they're from): Rioja or Burgundy.

You see, like our wine, the American people are imported and blended from the good stuff of other places, tempered and given unique character by our "new" surroundings, the terrain and climate of human experience. Whatever greatness you ascribe to America, the thing that "Makes America Great", doesn't happen in spite of our fractional origins... it happens because of them. America is a great country because those who came before us lived in a nation where they could pass on their traditions so that today, in 2017, I can raise a glass and sing Swedish drinking songs (however poorly) with my big Swedish-Jamaican-English-German-Mexican-Irish-Ukrainian-Portuguese-Jewish-Catholic-Protestant-and-whatever-else family.

That family stood around the table holding hands and saying a prayer at Thanksgiving, two weeks after I returned from Sweden. Said the prayer, "If there is anyone out there who wonders whether immigrants have a place in this country, send them to this house and have them sit at this table with us." Today is January 18, 2017. I know this is going to be a really difficult week for many people, but the thing that these holidays, wine, and my recent travels have taught me about America is this: We're great because of you.