Celebrating the American Flag After Living Overseas

For three years, we lived on a military base where the American flag flew only one day each year. That base was in Spain, and the holiday when the American flag was permitted was the 4th of July.

Every other day, the Spanish flag flew in front of the Headquarters buildings and over each base gate. The American flag was not permitted, because it was a Spanish military base. Even in the American section of base housing, it was forbidden to display an American flag. Base rules. And if you lived off-base, it was strongly discouraged, because that could make you a target for all kinds of unwanted attention and crime. We had our flag  prominently displayed on the wall in our living room, because otherwise we would go a year without seeing the red, white, and blue.

4th of July overseas

Raising the American flag on the 4th of July

That’s why the base made a big deal about celebrating the 4th of July every year. In the morning, all the military personnel on base attended the flag raising ceremony. Families and children came too. It was such a thrill to see the stars and stripes flying over the base for once, instead of the Spanish red and yellow flag. MWR (Moral, Welfare, and Recreation) hosted a huge party on base, complete with a concert by an American band, food prepared by the military units stationed there, and lots of free activities like bounce houses, rides, and face painting for the kids. Most American families attended, and hundreds of local Spanish families came, too. They wanted to see a typical American celebration, eat a cheeseburger, or try some grilled ribs. The evening ended with fireworks (which were a big hassle to get approved by the Spanish government). It was a huge event for a small base. Things don’t get more American than the 4th of July! Celebrating our country’s birthday overseas was always exciting, but a little bittersweet, too. It was one of the few times I would rather be “home” than living in Europe.

4th of July overseas

The American flag is a symbol many take for granted

You don’t realize what the American flag means to you until you don’t get to see it in public. Seeing the Spanish flag every day usually made me happy, a reminder of where we were living, and how we needed to enjoy our temporary time in Europe. And yet…when I had a baby during our 2nd year overseas, we had to drive to Madrid to get her a passport. I will never forget the thrill of excitement when we walked down the street to the American Embassy consulate and saw 3 American flags hanging overhead! I didn’t even realize how much I had missed the American flag. Even our young children were excited to see “a real flag of America.” There is was, a symbol of freedom, strength, and…home.

Unlike Americans, most Europeans and not very attached to their flag. Europeans don’t display patriotism the same way as Americans. Most Europeans identify themselves more by their native region or soccer team than by their country. The Spanish flag flies over public buildings, of course, but not from many private homes, and certainly not on any cars. It was just as likely to see a local flag, such as the symbol of the town or the region, as it was to see the national red and yellow flag. Sure, there are Americans who are proud to be from a certain state, or wax poetic about “The South,” but the flags displayed in American yards and on their vehicles are the national flag, the proud Stars and Stripes. And Americans certainly love their flag.

After living ovrseas, I appreciate every American flag I see.

When you return Home

So imagine our culture shock when we returned to America after living overseas for 3 years. One of our first trips to visit family was to the beach. It was a beach only open to those with a fishing permit, where you drive onto the sand and set up a station to fish (and eat, and play) all day. As I looked down the beach, there was some fancy equipment set up: most people had brought tents, grills, tables, and coolers. And almost every camp was flying an American flag. I was shocked! I hadn’t seen any individuals displaying an American flag for 3 years, but here was a whole beach filled with people who had packed a flag with their fishing supplies! That was an overwhelming amount of patriotism in one place. I felt excited, and relieved to be home finally. I also felt just a tiny bit embarrassed at the amount of national pride displayed.

Living overseas taught us that America is not a perfect country. Americans have flaws, like greed and selfishness. There are other countries in the world that do things better than America does. Important things, like valuing families and children, sharing resources, caring for the poor or elderly, and providing education/jobs/insurance to citizens. Sure, America isn’t perfect. But living away from her also taught us that America is something to be proud of, something worth fighting for. That’s what the 4th of July means to me.

America isn't perfect, but it is worth fighting for. Click To Tweet

America is home. Like any family, Americans have their disagreements and quirks. But that doesn’t overrule the good qualities. How many other countries have only ever had one Constitution? One Civil War? A peaceful transition of power from one President to the next? Religious tolerance? There is a lot to value here, and a proud history of blazing trails and finding new ways to do things. Our flag represents that history. The stars and stripes stand for honor, bravery, and loss. We have been through a lot as a country: some glorious moments, and some dark times too. But according to our national anthem, through the darkest night, “the flag was still there.” The red, white and blue will continue to symbolize freedom and home, no matter who is elected next or where we go from here.

So this 4th of July, my first in America in 4 years, I am proud to be home. For the first time since my kids remember, we will have a choice of public 4th of July celebration events to attend! We will talk about history and the birth of our country, how it was a haven for those who felt oppressed. I am proud of a lot of things about our country. And I am proud of my military husband who is deployed overseas. Most of all, no matter where life takes us, I hope that the Stars and Stripes will always be flying, representing that we have something worth coming home to.

How do you celebrate the 4th of July? Have you ever spent any time out of the country? Tell me about it!


  1. Maggie

    Hi! I am a military spouse in Japan! I love your website! I hope you can take a look at mine? I have built a website called http://wwwvintagesources.com. I am working on building a business in which military spouses can find thrift shops, antique shops in each country they visit or live in. Coming from experience, it can difficult to find thrift stores, recycle shops in a different country with a language barrier, thus I hope to bridge the gap between the host nation and military spouses.


    • Lizann

      That’s very cool, thanks for visiting me! I can tell you that in Rota, Spain, there is a small Thrift Shop on base run by the Navy. But the good deals come from the local weekly flea markets called Gypsy markets. And the great antique finds are at the Sunday market in Cadiz. 🙂

  2. merrily

    Maybe you can help me with this the other possible sites I have tried do not answer my questions

    I would like to know the protocol of displaying the American Flag in Europe.

    I am on the board of an association which regularly represents the United States of America at ceremonies such as veteran’s day and for the liberation of Europe etc.

    Can you point me in the right direction to help me understand how to do this right.

    Thank you very much.


    • Lizann

      The protocol will defend on the country and specific location where you want to display the flag. You may need to make a request from local govt officials.
      Unless it is American soil, like at an Embassy, you don’t typically see American flags flown in Europe.
      As for parades and ceremonies, you may be able to get temporary permission for that event, lasting only for that day.


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