Last week there was an interesting op-ed in the New York Times. It can be found here, and I’ve pasted the article below. It’s a reflection by expat author Pamela Druckerman on her experience living in France and how she has done well but also struggled to fully adapt to her adopted country and especially Paris.
She has some interesting insights and in particular outlines what she believes are the three main angles American expats in Paris usually take: “fantastists”, “denialists” and “authentic” experience searchers. (Bold face sentence below in article is my emphasis).
Personally I relate a bit more to the “authentic” searcher group.
What is your angle? Do you agree, and as an expat from a country besides the US – are there alternate approaches?
Contributing Op-Ed Writer
An American Neurotic in Paris
By PAMELA DRUCKERMAN
Published: November 27, 2013
PARIS — A few years back I took the ultimate expatriate plunge: I started doing psychotherapy in French. I figured that, as part of the deal, I’d get free one-on-one French lessons. And I hoped that if I revealed my innermost thoughts in French, I might finally feel like an ordinary Parisian — or at least like an ordinary Parisian neurotic.
I soon realized this was a doomed enterprise. Each week I’d manage to vaguely sketch out my feelings and describe the major characters in my life. But it was hard to free associate when I was worried about conjugating verbs correctly. Sometimes I’d just trail off, saying, “Never mind, everything’s fine.”
I’m aware that there are worse things to be than an American in Paris. You could be, for example, a Congolese in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But as I spend my 10th Thanksgiving here, permit me a moment of reflection. Because Thanksgiving prompts the question that expatriates everywhere face: Shouldn’t I be going home?
The Americans in Paris tend to fall into three categories. There are the fantasists — people nourished by Hemingway and Sartre, who are enthralled with the idea of living here. The moneyed version of this person lives as close as possible to the Eiffel Tower. The Bohemian version teaches English or tends bar, to finance his true vocation: being in France.
Then there are the denialists — often here for a spouse’s job — who cope with living in Paris by pretending they’re not in Paris. They tap into a parallel universe of Anglophone schools, babysitters and house painters, and get their French news from CNN.
Finally there are people like me, who study France and then describe it to the folks back home. We’re determined to have an “authentic” French experience. And yet, by mining every encounter for its anthropological significance, we keep our distance, too.
No matter how familiar Paris becomes, something always reminds me that I don’t belong. The other evening, as I chastised the lady who had cut in line at the supermarket, I realized she was grinning at me — amused by my accent. During conversations in French, I often have the sensation that someone is hitting my head. When surrounded by Parisians, I feel 40 percent fatter, and half as funny. Even my shrink eventually took pity and offered to do the sessions in English. (It turns out she’s fluent.)
The question of whether to stay is especially resonant for Americans in Paris, because many feel that they live here by accident. Not many foreigners move to Paris for their dream job. Many do it on a romantic whim. Expatriates often say that they came for six months, but ended up staying for 15 years. And no one is quite sure where the time went. It’s as if Paris is a vortex that lulls you with its hot croissants and grand boulevards. One morning, you wake up middle-aged — still speaking mediocre French.
I wasn’t sure how long I’d live here, but I did expect my stay to follow a certain expatriate narrative: You arrive; you struggle to understand the place; you finally crack the codes and are transformed; you triumphantly return home, with a halo of foreign wisdom and your stylish bilingual children in tow.
But 10 years on, I’ve gone way off that script. Those stylish children threaten to mutiny if I even mention the possibility of moving. I’ve got a French mortgage, and I’m on the French equivalent of the P.T.A. It’s like being a stranger in a very familiar land. I haven’t cracked the codes, but I no longer feel entirely out of sync: When the whole country goes into mourning after a beloved singer or actor dies, these days I actually know who the guy was.
Sometimes I yearn to be in a place where I don’t just know more or less what people are saying, but know exactly what they mean. But I’m no longer fully in sync with America either. Do people there really eat Cronuts, go on juice fasts and work at treadmill desks?
The thought of becoming an ordinary American again scares me. We expatriates don’t like to admit it, but being foreign makes us feel special. Just cooking pancakes on Sunday morning is an intercultural event. I imagine being back in the United States and falling in with a drone army of people who think and talk just like me — the same politics, the same references to summer camp and ’70s television.
But the fact is, those drones are my people. I end up gravitating toward them in Paris, too. The biggest lesson I’ve learned in 10 years is that I’m American to the core. It’s not just my urge to eat turkey in late November. It’s my certainty that I have an authentic self, which must be expressed. It’s being so averse to idleness that I multitask even when I’m having my head shrunk. And it’s my strange confidence that, whether I stay or go, everything will be fine.
Pamela Druckerman is the author of “Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.
As you may know, I’ve lived in Angers, Lyon, Grenoble and Paris. While all of these cities have their qualities and drawbacks, Lyon particularly stands out to me as a wonderful city for work-life balance…not to mention its ideal geographic location.
Two recent polls rank Lyon highly for its business acumen and work-life balance.
An October 2013 ranking carried out by the magazine L’Expansion-L’Entreprise found Lyon as the #1 “Business Friendly” city in France outside of Paris.
This ranking is available for download here: Le palmarès des villes les plus « business friendly »
As published by the ONLYLYON organization that promotes Lyon in France and abroad, the business magazine Courrier Cadres seems to agree with me from a November 2013 poll of executives and managers in France.
The full article and study are available on the Courrier Cadres website here. There were a variety of questions asked and sub-categories that the article develops in full detail. An excerpt from the ONLYLYON article is below, and the overall ranking graphic is at the bottom.
LYON, VILLE PRÉFÉRÉE DES CADRES
24 nov. 2013 par Marine Lanceron
Le magazine Courrier Cadres s’est intéressé aux villes préférées des cadres. La rédaction a réalisé un sondage pour savoir quelles régions et communes étaient à leurs yeux les plus attractives d’un point de vue professionnel comme sur le plan de la qualité de vie.
Ce sondage nous apprend que près de 8 cadres sur 10 seraient prêts à faire des sacrifices professionnels pour vivre dans un meilleur environnement et 4 sur 10 sont prêts à partir de leur ville ou commune actuelle.
Lyon arrive en tête des villes qui réunit les critères d’opportunités professionnelles et de qualité de vie (24% des sondés), devançant ainsi Nantes (13%), Toulouse (11%), Bordeaux (10,5%) et Paris (6%). Elle semble donc être la ville la plus attractive pour changer de région.
Full disclosure: I’m an unpaid volunteer “Ambassadeur ONLYLYON” for promoting Lyon.
I wanted to let my readers know that the U.S. Embassy in France recently posted this update regarding its citizen services in its offices outside of Paris. It will affect particularly those near the cities of Rennes, Bordeaux and Toulouse. Please visit their website for more information.
Effective January 1, 2014, American Presence Posts (APPs) in Rennes, Bordeaux and Toulouse will no longer accept applications for U.S. passports and birth registrations, Social Security numbers or other federal benefits, or provide notarial services. After January 1, 2014 passport and birth registration applications and notarial services for U.S. citizens in those consular districts can be scheduled at either the U.S. Embassy in Paris or at the U.S. Consulate General in Marseille. Please contact the Federal Benefits Unit at the U.S. Embassy in Paris for information on applications for Social Security numbers and other federal benefits.
The U.S. Mission to France will schedule periodic visits by consular officers to provide routine services to American citizens in the districts of APP Rennes, Bordeaux and Toulouse. We will publicize these visits to citizens actively listed in our Smart Travelers Enrollment Program (STEP), so please ensure that you are signed up in order to receive notices about such services as well as other messages from the U.S. Government. U.S. citizens can enroll online at https://travelregistration.state.gov.
On August 29, 2013, I spoke to the Groupe Professionnel Francophone de Chicago. I talked a bit about my experience living, studying and working in France. Here is a page describing the event. Apologies in advance for the poor audio quality (taken on a phone with background music and other ambient noise).
Thanks to Gigi and David for organizing this!
I wrote this piece in French for the French in Chicago newsletter, a shorter reflection of my feelings readjusting to life in the US after 5 years in France.
The piece can be read here and below.
It is obviously limited in scope by nature since it’s a concise opinion, and I tend to lean towards the optimist side by the end of it. The truth is that although I’m doing fairly well in Chicago now, it took a while to truly readjust to a new life here. France has had and will continue to have an indelible effect on my life. For the better.
Entre deux pays : Réajustement culturel aux Etats-Unis pour un américain
July 12th, 2013
Des amis partagent des bouteilles du vin, des baguettes et des plats, pendant qu’un mec joue de la guitare à côté. L’amitié autour d’un verre avec une belle vue un soir d’été près du Pont des Arts. Les sons des quais de la Seine rajoutent à l’atmosphère déjà électrique de Paris. On peut constater une énergie similaire au long des berges et sur les péniches du Rhône à Lyon. Pour ces deux villes, leurs rivières restent des endroits au cœur de chaque ville.
Chicago est une ville magnifique, diverse et offre des activités culturelles enrichissantes. Et pourtant, cet air magique manque à Chicago pour moi. Il n’est pas facile de trouver une explication pour ce sentiment. Peut-être parce que j’ai toujours un peu d’amertume ayant dû quitter la France après un problème de carte de séjour. Peut-être parce que j’ai beaucoup d’amis qui restent en France, et j’ai laissé un réseau construit pendant les années les plus formatrices de ma vie.
Je suis arrivé à Chicago en septembre 2012 après avoir passé les cinq années précédentes en France entre Lyon, Grenoble et Paris. Une partie essentielle de mon expérience était une relation sérieuse avec une Française qui était ma meilleure amie pendant près de 5 ans. Alors le choque de quitter une existence en France était rude. Mais je suis plus enrichi personnellement et professionnellement grâce à mes expériences en France.
Après quelques mois de transition à Chicago, je commence à me sentir bien dans mon travail et ma vie quotidienne. J’ai des racines familiales ici (en plus de Washington D.C.), et mon université (Notre Dame) est dotée d’un grand réseau de diplômés dans la ville.
J’ai aussi contacté plusieurs groupes francophones de Chicago dès mon arrivée, pour reconstruire un réseau et trouver des personnes qui comprendraient ma situation plus que l’américain moyen du Midwest. Ma participation avec des structures telles que French in Chicago, le Consulat de France, UbiFrance, GPF, FACC, UFEC, Campus France et l’Alliance Française m’aide à garder mon lien culturel et linguistique avec la France.
Je joue également dans un groupe de jazz parisien (le groupe KEOPS) et nous jouerons pour la Fête du 14 juillet à Chicago.
Même si la France et mes amis me manquent, c’est aussi un plaisir de redécouvrir mon pays natal avec une perspective plus internationale. Je suis content de faire partie de French in Chicago !
I hope you all had a very good Bastille Day!
As for me, I’m in a Parisian jazz outfit here in Chicago called Keops. We played the Bastille Day celebration at the Daley Plaza. It was a lot of fun.
As France celebrated its Bastille Day, it’s perhaps an opportune time to reflect on what the modern French Republic means, and the attitudes of its citizens.
Roger Cohen of the New York Times penned a poignant, if somewhat controversial, column the other day in reflection about France’s national attitudes. Excerpts below, but it’s worth the full read as these quotes could be taken out of context.
While I witnessed this feeling of “malaise” that seemed to permeate the national consciousness, I also had friends there who were positive people and looked for the bright side of the problem. There are problem solvers in the country, like any country. And the French also have a well-known “joie de vivre”. So I’m afraid Cohen’s column paints a picture that may be too dark. Nonetheless, when comparing France to the US, there is more optimism in general in the US. But in Cohen’s view, a French person would just paint this as blind ignorance.
Do you agree with his analysis?
“…Tell a Frenchman what a glorious day it is and he will respond that it won’t last. Tell him how good the heat feels and he will say it portends a storm. I recently asked in a French hotel how long it would take for a coffee to reach my room. The brusque retort: “The time it takes to make it.”
This surliness is more a fierce form of realism than a sign of malaise. It is a bitter wisdom. It is a nod to Hobbes’s view that the life of man is, on the whole, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Nothing surprises, nothing shocks (especially in the realm of marriage and sex), and nothing, really, disappoints. Far from morose, the French attitude has a bracing frankness. No nation has a more emphatic shrug. No nation is the object of so much romanticism yet so unromantic itself. No nation internalizes as completely the notion that in the end we are all dead.
Now, it is true that France lives with high unemployment in a depressed euro zone; that it is more vassal than partner to Germany these days; that it is chronically divided between a world-class private sector and a vast state sector of grumpy functionaries; that its universalist illusions have faded as its power diminishes; and that its welfare state is unaffordable.
Still, moroseness is a foible in a country with superb medicine, good education, immense beauty, the only wine worth drinking, an army that does the business in Mali, strong families and the earthy wisdom of “la France profonde.”
Malaise and ennui are to France what can-do is to America: A badge of honor…”