I am an Amercican, living abroad in France.*
This would be the most obvious way to describe myself, the most easy to understand and process, the quickest and shortest way for anybody I am talking to, French or American, to access my situation at its most basic level. “I am an American, living abroad in France.” I say the first half of this all the time.
By all the time I mean several times per week, every time I meet a new person, as a response to the question that I am inevitably asked as soon as I open my mouth because my accent leaves me no way to keep any kind of low profile, because if I say anything more than a quick bon soir I am outed and the first question will take the form of “are you English?” or “where are you from?” French people, because they have a complex and effective system of politeness, particularly when it comes to breaching the gap between someone’s public life and their personal life, are always careful to ask nicely and with friendly interest and at an appropriate time, so let me be clear that French people are not the problem, if there is a problem. This is not one of those “how to survive the French” handbooks that you see everywhere for and by Americans and the British (The French explained! Thank god! At long long last! And I, silly me, thought them clueless savages, when in fact they are quaint little weirdos with adorable customs and super tasty croissants! I cannot wait to take this book home and start devising my strategies for dealing with them, clever little monkeys that they are!) Please do not shelve me with those crass, xenophobic self-“help” guides in the bookshelf of your heart, for that is not what I am. Rather, the point is that the words “I am an American”, “I am from the United States” come out of my mouth often, easily, and by habit. And yet the longer I live here, the less I feel like that’s a good, accurate description of who and what I am.
Let’s do the second part first: “living abroad in France”. Okay, yes, in the strict, technical sense I live abroad. I no longer live in my country of origin, I live somewhere else. But this way of putting it – “abroad” – implies all kinds of things that I don’t feel about my situation: temporariness, exile, farness from home, and most of all, a sort of intangible center that still lives in the US somewhere. I can make it a little better by getting rid of the word “abroad” in that sentence; “abroad” puts me in a two-column system, a binary checkbox, tax-form kind of place where either you are in the the US or you are everywhere, anywhere, somewhere else, n’importe où. And that’s fine for the US tax people, but it’s not fine for me because I am not living with all those people in China, Russia, Argentina, Afghanistan and the South Pole Research Center. I am not living in the notUS, I am not living in my nothome and I am not living “abroad”. I am living in France.
Indeed, to be absolutely clear and rid that sentence of any traces of the temporary or provisional let me amend “I am living in France” to, “I live in France”. Specifically, I live in Grenoble. Specifically, not even Grenoble; I live in a little town two layers out in the agglomeration of Grenoble, a town which is called Meylan, which is already not like the rest of Grenoble, which is already not like the rest of France, which is already not like the rest of Europe, which is already not like the rest of “abroad”. That little pinpoint on the map is my center, and America is closer to being in the second column, the everywhere else column, the JapanNorwayChileSaudiArabiaSomaliaIsraelAbroad column than it is to being in my “home” category.
Maybe I have three columns now; maybe that’s just one of the things that happens to immigrants.
But in any case, when you get out your map to measure how far away something is, note that my away is not from the US now, my away is from France. Spain is right next door, California is a world away, Canada is far. France is my home, I live here, and I am able to clearly state that with the now-amended sentence “I live in France.” And yet this is already bizarre; no one who actually lives in France and considers it his/her home is always saying the sentence, “I live in France”. Of course you do, so does everybody. Consider it this way; do you ever turn to your American neighbor in your American town or city and say, “I live in America” as a way of clarifying who you are? Does anybody living next door to your born and bred in America home turn to you from their born and bred in America home and ask you where you are from? Of course they don’t. Why would they? So, I live in France, but constantly saying so already always implies that I don’t quite live in France the way that a French person lives in France.
And also, and this is a pretty important thing to remember, I got here by choice. I choose to live here, specifically here, and I like it. The Meylan part, and even the Grenoble part, of that little outward zoom (imagine here those science museum displays of my childhood taking you up up and out from the subatomic particle to Jupiter and beyond) may change, but the France part probably won’t. I like France. I like French people. My husband, who is one of the aforementioned French people, likes these things too. We’ve talked it over and we want to stay. Somehow even my now amended description “I live in France” does not really express that sense of firm, permanent, positive choice. Even though chance played an extremely large role in determining my current situation, I did not wander here accidentally. I was not sent here by work. I am not a tourist who just somehow never bothered to leave. I am not a temporary resident waiting out my sentence here. I am not a refugee, an exile, or an outcast. I came here knowing what it was like (more or less – yes, more or less, because hedging and qualifying and except that-ing is the meaty center of trying to describe cultural difference; those how to survive the french books present you with clear and simple certainty, but that should be your first clue that they are bullshit). I came here having other options open to me. I came here intending to stay permanently. I live here. And yet I am not French.
Which is how we get back to the first part of that sentence. “I am an American.” For citizenship purposes, sure, absolutely, clear. But when it comes to culture, that is a whole other matter. The longer I live here, the longer I see the US from the outside instead of the inside, the less I feel like a regular American and the more I feel like somebody who doesn’t quite get Americans. I wrote “regular American” just there because I actually don’t feel less American – my approach to things, my way of interacting with people, the perky persona I get out in certain work and social situations, the structures of language that I use, these things are deeply American and probably always will reflect the America of my experience and education in some profound, unshakeable way. In the same way that I, as an individual person, have changed immensely over the 42 years that I have existed and yet still remain somehow me, I am still and will probably always be an American.
What I do feel, though, as I make specific efforts to try and integrate myself, to make French friends, to bond with my French family, to work in a French workplace, is more and more French, and, as a consequnce, more able and even more likely to view America and Americans the way a French person would. This view is different, often uncomfortable and, of late, very sad. More and more, the longer I live here, and given the events of the specific time period over which it has been happening, I feel like I have come to see America as a big and often terrible place, and one which is in deep and terrible trouble.
To say of your home country, the place where you grew up, the place that made you, the place that you always assumed would be your home until you died, to say that this place is a terrible place is a serious and awful thing, so much so that I almost cannot believe I am typing it, and am constantly tempted to go back and erase it and write something else. And yet, this is the truth. Being an American who lives where I do when I do means, at least for me, the experience of a special kind of grief: the combination of changes there since I left with my change of perspective have led to the loss of an idea of America as my home. I no longer look at the country I grew up in and think that it is the kind of place where I would want to live.
And yet I cannot stop being an American, reading the news updates, the latest horror, the most recent tragedy/folly, (but also the positive things, and books written in English by Americans set in America, falling effortlessly into a world of fiction that is also simultaneously a real place that I know) and feeling especially involved, more than an average French person (whatever that is, I am not it), especially concerned, especially grief-stricken, especially delighted, especially at home. And I know, intellectually, that I no longer see the littlest of the good things, that I no longer experience day to day life in the US, with its small local joys and all the rich details that an individual life brings. I know that I now am beginning to experience the US the way that anyone outside does, through news reports and the consumption of its cultural products, and not as a regular American. And so I grieve a certain kind of loss without knowing if what I had before is even really gone. I feel that whatever home the US was for me no longer exists, and I do not know if this loss is the result of real changes to the country, an illusion brought on by perspective, or even the loss of an idea in my head that never really existed in the first place.
But I do know this: when people ask me if I miss the US, if I am homesick, that question is unanswerable in any way at all because as a question it doesn’t really make sense. I know that I experience a very deep and specific kind of loss, which sometimes makes me very sad indeed, but I am not homesick. Home is in France now, in any case. But for the US, the home I had there is gone, however it went, and the US that I knew is forever altered for me, replaced by something which, while familiar, I am almost tempted to describe as foreign. I think often of that phrase that people use to describe something uncomfortable but not actually foreign, “foreign to me”. As in, the idea of living in that way, doing that thing, not having this other thing is entirely foreign to me. This phrase has taken on a looming presence in my life. The ways of Americans, how they think, how they talk, how they behave are, in many ways, entirely foreign to me, and that seems as though it just should not be true, since technically, I am one of them, since I, technically, talk and think and behave like an American.
And so, here I am, an American living abroad in France, and I have learned many new things. I have learned things about the French. But I feel like I am also constantly learning things about Americans, things I didn’t know before, or didn’t see before, when I was whatever kind of American I was before I became the kind of American I am now. And I’ve also learned to write convoluted sentences like that one: because I was never a typical American, even when I lived there, whatever a typical American might even be. I was the product of a very specific America: white, middle class, formally educated, and (once I was an adult and had the choice) urban-dwelling. Politically left-leaning. Northern, it is important to specificy, over and opposed to Southern. Western, it is important to specify, over and opposed to East Coast. Except for that part that was Chicago, which is neither western nor east coast. There are lots of Americans who were nothing like me even when I was living there and France was just a foreign country where French people lived, a country I might have maybe known the president of, if you asked me on a good day and I could remember reading about it somewhere. Even then, I wasn’t like all other Americans, and they weren’t like me. I was never black, I was never poor, I was never rural, I was never filthy rich, I was never New York or Los Angeles or Texas, I was never a trixie or a frat guy or a jock or a banker or a stripper or a check out girl at the AandP. I don’t know these Americas any more than the French family next door does.
And the France I live in now and learn about, the culture that I describe as “French” is the same France: it’s the middle class mainstream of France, professional people who have enough money, who went to college and maybe got a masters degree. Both by choice and by chance, here too most of my acquaintance is left-leaning, though France goes a lot further left than the US does, on average. My in-laws live either in Lyon or Dijon, with one aunt who lives in the South, near Marseilles, and we live, as I said, in Grenoble(ish). None of my experience tells me about Paris, with all that that includes; from its shiny fashionable marketing face to its poorest and most neglected suburbs, I know nothing, or not much, or only what I’ve read or seen as a tourist; basically no more than you do. None of my experience tells me about the communities in the North of France devasted by unemployment and starting to swing right, vote for the Front National, hate the immigrants. None of my experience tells me about the deep, and deeply conservative, countryside, though I have seen parts of the country and talked with some of the people who live there. I congratulate myself on integrating, alternatively pitying or condemning the anglophone women of my acquaintance who are unwilling or unable to leave their English-speaking bubble, but I’m looking at the world through a soapy sheen myself, and always have been.
For convenience, I talk about what it means to be French and what it means to be an American, and in many cases, I know more than the person I am talking to. And I will continue to do this, in my life and in whatever this – blog?, diary?, book?, memoir?, explanation?, witness statement?, defense? – is. If nothing else, it’s better than what you get in your guidebooks because, even if I cannot see past them, at least I know that my blinders exist.
It’s better, too, because whatever else may be, I love France. I love living here, and I love French people. I can promise never to offer you advice on how to “deal” with the French because I do not take as any kind of base assumption that French people are a problem to be solved. If anything, I think I am too quick to swing the other way, to assume the problem is with the American visitor, to forget the bafflement and frustration of the first period of adjustment to France, to fail to reach that place of empathy. When I arrived, America was like my little brother: I bash and tease him all the time, I’m the mean older sister, but I do not like it when anybody else does the same, and in some cases I’m ready to risk a black eye sticking up for him. The Dominique Strauss-Khan thing was like that for me. Of course now it’s been a few years, America is a lot like my drug-addicted little brother, who does a lot of bad stuff and seems like he can’t take care of himself. The Newtown shooting thing is more like this older, less presentable brother for me. I may not like it when people go on and on about how bad he is, but I cannot say that I do not see their point.
So. I am an American living abroad in France. As such, I have a unique perspective on both French and American culture. For whatever reason, I also have an abiding need to describe and justify the French to Americans, and to try and explain to you what you look like through the eyes of a French person (and quite possibly to a lot of other countries as well).
I believe that France exists for America as an example case: from model paradise to cautionary tale, this idea of France is out there in America, a backdrop against which you are to decide how and how not to live. You know these stories. France is a paradise where no one goes without food or shelter or health care, the kind of system we should sign up for tout de suite; or, France is filled with art and music and michelin star quality food, peopled by men in berets smoking cigarettes in cafes, discussing the meaning of meaning, each one traisping home at the end of the day with a baguette under his arm; or, the great secular satan socialism has eaten the freedom of all French persons, who live in a haze of drugdery to the state, wishing they could participate in the great liberty that is the US. At a minimum those telling these stories, positive and negative, do not have the complete information. At worst, it becomes necessary to remind everyone concerned that France does not exist as a mirror to reflect the US back to itself, and that reducing an entire country and culture to a way of admiring your own image is deeply offensive. Use us as a comparison if you like, but a little less ham-fisted, if you please, and know when you don’t know something, which is often.
Remember also that France looks at you, too, and does not always find you to be splendid. Let this be the first thing that I say about all Americans that I will later need to hedge and qualify and take back: they don’t have anything like an accurate picture of how they are seen by others, and when people don’t like them, they totally misunderstand why. Because I am between cultures right now, I can see both, and because I can see both I can often explain. For the record, this is my truthful account of the event called Nicole moving to France and trying to adjust. I promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. I do not promise it will be anybody else’s truth. And I do not promise that you will like it.
*This footnote is not angry. It is just a test footnote. Snarky footnotes are to come.