Meet my Guest Blogger for November:
November 1, 2016
Finding Home: Advice to a New Expat
Every man has two countries, his own and France. (Thomas Jefferson)
America is my country and Paris is my hometown. (Gertrude Stein)
When good Americans die, they go to Paris. (Oscar Wilde)
Expat in Paris. The words conjure up an image of Ernest Hemingway sitting in a smoky café on the boulevard du Montparnasse, scribbling in a well-worn notebook while rain beats steadily upon the sidewalk. Or maybe the words bring to mind the Lost Generation — Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, John Steinbeck, Henry Miller, and all the other novelists and poets who came to Paris after the First World War to find themselves. And then there’s me.
My story is fairly typical. I grew up in the suburbs of Orange County, California, home to endless beaches, palm trees, and Disneyland. Full-time sun and eternally blue skies, frequent heat waves, vast freeways, shorts, flip-flops, and surfers in wetsuits. So you can imagine how exotic Paris seemed when I spent my junior year studying at the Université de Paris Sorbonne. Oh, the thrill! The adventure! Winter coats and gloves and wool scarves! Real French people!
The grass was definitely greener in Paris. Every day was sparkling and fresh, and I discovered something new and exciting around every corner. Lectures were held in the ancient Amphithéâtre Richelieu at the Sorbonne, and grammar classes met in classrooms with old-fashioned wooden desks with inkwells. I sat in cafés in the Latin Quarter with fellow students of different nationalities and discussed worldly matters over doll-size cups of strong, thick coffee. I visited friends in their tiny chambres de bonne — maids’ rooms — on the top floor of buildings without elevators. I went to the theater and to concerts and saw intellectual French films in art-house cinemas. It was all so different from California.
Paris was a feast of glorious sensations: the mouth-watering odor of baking croissants wafting out of a boulangerie and the salty smell of seafood laid out on ice in front of a restaurant; the taste of farm-fresh butter and apricot jam spread on half a baguette, the warmth of a warm patch of sun on a frosty day; the melodic ringing of church bells on the hour; the buzz of scooters dodging cars like matadors; and the cacophony of car horns, sounding like Gershwin. I wanted to soak it all up and bottle it, like an essence that would fade with time.
The year went by in a blur, and suddenly it was time to pack my bags and head home to California. So it was with a heavy heart that I returned to my former life. But as soon as I got back I discovered that California had not changed, but I had. I was the same person, and yet I was not. Something was wrong, something was missing. I felt out of place, and I was filled with a sense of longing. And I knew why.
Paris kept whispering my name, and every heartbeat urged me to go back. I felt I had no choice. Six months after I graduated I emptied my savings account and bought a one-way ticket to Paris. With my whole life crammed into two overstuffed suitcases, I pulled up my roots and left my family and friends for the land of over a thousand different types of cheese, where I joined the approximately 100,000 Americans who call France their home. I was going to pick up where I had left off during my year abroad. I was determined to Frenchify myself and embrace the French way of life. A new chapter — a whole new book — in my life was about to begin. I was on the road to becoming a witty and cultivated citizen of the world.
At first I was star-struck, then reality struck me like a brick on the head. Once the honeymoon was over, once the novelty and excitement of living and working in Paris had worn off, I realized that, unlike the carefree student life I had led, expat life was a challenge. It wasn’t always la vie en rose, and my rose-colored glasses slipped right off my nose.
The romanticized Paris you see in the movies or read about in books or on someone’s Facebook page, that picture-perfect city you visited during your European holiday, does not paint the whole picture. Despite what you might imagine, living in Paris is not always glamorous or fun. Unlike tourists who spend a week in Paris, or a student who stays for a semester or two, when you pack up all your worldly belongings and move to a foreign country you have to adapt to a whole new way of thinking. You are rebuilding your life from scratch, and it’s not always easy to come to terms with being a foreigner. As an expat you are expected to understand all the unspoken rules, those tricky “do’s and don’ts” of another culture. You don’t spend the afternoon people-watching and discussing existentialism in a sidewalk café, or strolling along the banks of the Seine while accordion music plays in the background. In the real world there are errands to run, and you can’t just pop into a big U.S.-style store and pick up everything on your list. There are sheets to wash and hang up to dry, toothpaste to buy, the utility company to wait for, long lines to stand in. Life goes on, just like back home, only in Paris everything is more complicated.
Life just seems harder here, and the frustrations of everyday living can be an exercise in patience. Nothing is simple or straightforward, and many things are downright mind-boggling. Everything is time-consuming, and the smallest of errands seems to take forever. So you learn to be patient, especially when it comes to the seemingly insurmountable administrative red tape you find yourself battling. Sometimes it feels like you are being asked to leap through a flaming hoop. Your wallet swells with five, six, seven oversize photo identity cards. Official papers needing your immediate attention pile up alarmingly on your desk. The woman behind the counter sends you away because you are missing a vital paper that was not on the list of documents needed. The only way to get through it, I’ve learned, is to do like the French: give a good Gallic shrug and tell yourself: c’est la vie. French people know this, hence the shrugging.
There are times when you miss the convenience of America. Everything in Paris is so much smaller — apartments, refrigerators, washing machines, soft drinks and coffee cups — and a lot more expensive. Shops close early and on Sundays, and many are shuttered up during lunch, so you have to plan ahead. There are frequent strikes — transit workers, Air France, the post office, sanitation workers, radio stations, administrations — and there are pot-banging and megaphone-blasting protest marches through the streets, turning whole neighborhoods into gridlock. Truckers and taxi drivers and farmers with livestock block the freeways. Streets are chaos; there are no stop signs, only yield signs and traffic signals at intersections. Pedestrians and drivers fight for the right-of-way, and cars, motorcycles and scooters are parked helter-skelter on the sidewalks and in crosswalks. Everyone smokes. You find yourself longing for tumble dryers, public drinking fountains, customer service, ice cubes, window screens and air conditioning. But these are little things, minor inconveniences. Annoyances. And when you think about it, do they really matter?
I don’t think they do. Paris may not be perfect, but it is a great city, perhaps the greatest city in the world. Paris is a mixture of ancient and modern, a vibrant and unique place that continually delights and surprises. Paris is the Ville Lumière, the city of enlightenment, rich in history and culture, renown for its breathtaking beauty, its statues, museums, monuments, and parks. Paris is the world capital of fashion and chic, and even French dogs have a certain je ne sais quoi when they trot down the sidewalk in their winter trench coats with their heads held high.
Paris is a morning walk through the mist in the Jardin des Tuileries, a hot chocolate with whipped cream on a cold winter’s day, a Vivaldi concert in a centuries-old church, or a moment sitting on a bench in a hidden square listening to the birds enjoying themselves. These are times when Paris really does belong to you.
There is a certain art de vivre here. Even though they can be as harried as other big-city dwellers, Parisians know how to pause and enjoy the little pleasures of life, things that really matter, like friends, family and good food. Sit-down meals are still the norm. They can last several hours, especially on Sundays, when the whole family gathers around the table. Food is savored and commented upon, wineglasses are held up to the light, and wine is sipped slowly, with pleasure. Cooking is taken seriously, and most people do their shopping daily. Neighborhood markets teem with fresh, seasonal fruit and vegetables arranged in perfect pyramids like works of art. There is fresh butter, milk, cream, and flats of brown eggs straight from the farm. At the fromagerie there are dozens of different types of artisanal cheese to choose from. Some are pungent, some are delicate, some come in individual wooden boxes, while others are cut like slices of pie from enormous wheels. Legs of ham and strings of sausages hang from beams above the charcutier’s stall. And where else in the world can you walk to the boulangerie around the corner and buy a warm, just-cooked baguette or a pain au chocolat?
Southern California weather is predictably sunny, so the changing seasons in Paris are a delight. Summer brings warm thundershowers and daylight until almost 11 p.m. The city sleeps through August, when Parisians flee to the countryside; Paris slows down and you can stroll along the sidewalks and navigate narrow store aisles without getting jostled. In autumn the days are crisp and dry leaves crunch underfoot as you cut across the park. Street-sweepers gather up fallen leaves with fluorescent-green plastic brooms, and the city smells of roasting chestnuts and sweet crêpes. But nothing compares to the joyous feeling of the first rays of the springtime sun after a long, bleak winter. Parisians sit outside on café terraces, loosen their scarves, and turn their faces up to the sun like flowers. Birds serenade the early morning light, forsythias explode into bloom, and tulips and daffodils poke their heads out of the earth. Your mood lifts instantly and you are glad to be alive and living in Paris.
For me, Paris is not just a home away from home. I have put out roots and built a life here. I have my own family here. But I often feel tugged in both directions, split in two, with one foot in France and the other in the U.S. Sometimes I wonder if I am still considered a “true” American. Actually, I’m not exactly sure what I am. I have the blue passport, I file my U.S. income tax, I vote in the U.S. elections, I celebrate Thanksgiving with turkey cutlets and gravy, and I read and write and think in English. I wouldn’t miss my American news podcasts for anything. But there are times when I feel more French than American.
I’m far from being a Parisienne, but I have picked up a few French customs over the years. I’m no longer a fashion faux pas — I can drape a silk scarf around my neck without it looking like a noose, I wear good shoes whenever I go out, and my wardrobe comprises mostly black clothing. I kiss my friends on the cheeks when I greet them, and when I’m annoyed I have been known to mutter, “Oh là là,” which the French really do say. I drink my coffee bitter and black. I have even tried (once) the breakfast ritual from the north of France, which consists of dipping bread and strong-smelling Maroilles cheese into a bowl of coffee. My English fails me sometimes; I accidentally insert French words into English sentences, or I’ll forget an English word and give a dismissive wave of the hand to fill in the blank. I have never bungee-jumped or explored the Amazon rainforest, but I’m more adventurous, in my own way. I have done a lot of exploring — and getting lost — so I know the city and the métro like the back of my hand. I prepare French dishes (with variable results), and I have eaten veal head and sea snails and frogs’ legs and various other creepy-crawlies. I can pick out the best camembert by gently palpating it, and I’m learning how to appreciate fine wine. All these things are part of me now. Although this country often leaves me scratching my head, and even though there will always be a part of me in California, I feel at home here.
People often ask me, “Don’t you ever get homesick?” and I tell them I do. Of course I do. Like most expats, I miss my family and my friends back in California. I miss out on all the milestones and the celebrations. I miss Thanksgiving and Halloween and the Fourth of July. When a loved one is ill or going through a hard time, I am filled with sense of guilt and selfishness for not being there. Sometimes I would like to reach out and give a hug, but I can’t. When people ask, “Would you ever move back home permanently?” I tell them the truth, that I don’t know. I really don’t.
Anyway, where is home for me? Many expats ponder this question. What exactly defines “home”? When I say “home,” do I mean California, where I grew up? Or is it France, where I have spent so many years? Is home the address on your passport? Is it where you were born? Is it where you keep your toothbrush and hang your hat? Is it the place where you sigh and put your feet up? Is it, like Robert Frost said, “the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in”? What if your heart is torn between two places? Does one’s heart have room for more than one home? Must I choose one place over the other?
These are difficult questions and I don’t think there is a simple answer. The way I see it, home is not just a house, a physical place with four walls and a roof on top. Home is not a geographical location, an address on a mailbox, or a thumbtack stuck in a map on a wall. Home is a feeling. It is where you want to be when you are not there. It is the place you can count on, the place where you are happy, the refuge where you feel safe, whether it’s California, Paris, or Timbuktu. Home is where you are surrounded by loved ones who understand you, and where you have built lasting memories. Maybe the answer is that home is within you, wherever you happen to be.
When I visit my family in the States, California is a mixture of foreign and familiar. I’m disoriented and a more than a little overwhelmed. I feel like a tourist from the planet Mars, an outsider who doesn’t know a thing other than the language. Being able to wear a silk scarf, or eat chicken wings with a knife and fork, is no help. I’m completely out of the loop — I don’t know the latest local news, the slang, or the celebrities. New stores have popped up, old favorites have closed. Hearing English all around me makes me feel like I’m hallucinating. I don’t know how to do the simplest tasks, like swipe my Visa card, bank at an ATM, or how to tip in a restaurant. Everything is enormous. Supermarkets are chock-full of items you need and don’t need, and the shelves are well stocked, the wide aisles free of boxes of merchandise being unloaded. It feels wrong to eat barbecued ribs with my fingers, but I can eat my fries with ketchup instead of mayonnaise without being teased. I hand over euro coins instead of nickels and dimes. I’m amazed you can buy medicine or Band-Aids after 8 p.m., or pick up a forgotten item at the grocery store on a Sunday afternoon. The whole world seems upside-down, and by the time I have started to turn myself right-side up, it’s time to go back to Paris.
Being an expat is not always easy, but I would never trade it for another way of life. Yes, it was tough in the beginning, and still is sometimes, but following my passion and living abroad is has been an enriching and rewarding experience. It has shaped me and changed me into what I hope is a better person. I don’t look at things in the same way I would if I had stayed in California. I have expanded my horizons and developed a broader view of the world. Being an expat allows you to see America in a different light, and you understand and appreciate it even more. I have discovered a lot about myself as well. I am more accepting and respectful of other cultures. I have grown stronger, more self-confident, and independent. I have learned to be humble and how to open my heart. And I have changed my priorities. I know how to slow down, let go of things, and make do with less. I have learned to focus on the positive and embrace new experiences. I feel blessed to have met incredible people, and I am thankful to have two places to call home.
If you are an expat struggling with culture shock or feelings of loneliness, whatever you do, don’t be too hard on yourself. If you are homesick, know that it’s perfectly normal. Homesickness is something almost every expat experiences; it’s part and parcel of living in a foreign country. Remember, it takes time to adapt to another way of life and bloom where you are planted. It helps to be curious, flexible, and open-minded. Don’t compare countries. Laugh whenever you can. Be brave, challenge yourself and climb out of that box in your comfort zone, but don’t be afraid to seek help if you need it. Try to speak French whenever you can. Make small talk, even if you mangle your words and your accent is cringeworthy. Eat everything on your plate and always carry an umbrella. Banish all negativity, find joy in everyday things and be delighted by what you find. Even though not everything makes sense in the beginning, when you are feeling lost, as though you are standing on the other side of the Great Wall of China, know that some days are tougher than others. Nothing in life is ever a smooth ride, no matter where you are. There are ups and downs and not everything goes according to plan. But if you are patient and willing to learn from your experiences, good or bad, I believe the journey is worth it. If you take it one day at a time, eventually things will start to fall into place, and one morning you just might wake up and realize that Paris, too, is home.
My guest Blogger for November is Carrie Delecourt , a writer who lives in Paris.
This guest blog is provided by courtesy of Lynda McKinney Lambert. All rights to this essay belong to Carrie Delecourt, Paris, France.
I present this piece with gratitude to Carrie for her generosity in sharing her thoughts with SCANdalous-Recollections Blog. Thank you, Carrie!
Contact Lynda Lambert: firstname.lastname@example.org