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Reflecting on different expat mentalities in France

December 4th, 2013 1 comment

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.

NYT: How France is confronting change

August 27th, 2013 2 comments

The New York Times had a piece the other day talking about the French economy and political system and its confrontation with social realities. “A Proud Nation Ponders How to Halt Its Slow Decline”.

This is certainly not a new theme. Indeed, in my travels and living in France, I often heard the refrain “France changes not by evolution, but by revolution.” It echoes perhaps true today, with a political system that sees its citizens protest in the streets in an attempt to get their voices heard – it’s the French equivalent of citizen lobbying and activism that can come off as much more noticeable than activist efforts through citizen groups like NGO’s in the US.

It’s an insightful read, no matter where you stand in the political spectrum.

Here are the first few excerpts:

The New York Times
Steven Erlanger
August 24, 2013
Memo from France – A Proud Nation Ponders How to Halt Its Slow Decline

“For decades, Europeans have agonized over the power and role of Germany — the so-called German question — given its importance to European stability and prosperity.

Today, however, Europe is talking about “the French question”: can the Socialist government of President François Hollande pull France out of its slow decline and prevent it from slipping permanently into Europe’s second tier?

At stake is whether a social democratic system that for decades prided itself on being the model for providing a stable and high standard of living for its citizens can survive the combination of globalization, an aging population and the acute fiscal shocks of recent years…”

Reflecting on France’s “malaise”

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…”

Bastille Day 2012

Happy Bastille Day everyone! Joyeux 14 juillet tout le monde !

How did you celebrate today? Feel free to post in the comments section your favorite places to celebrate, no matter which country or city.

I myself am in Washington DC today and among several spots to revel in the celebration, Bistrot du Coin is a local favorite.

In the spirit of transatlantic relations, this NY Times piece is interesting.

Vive la France !

Honoring France’s historical commitment to America

Renown scholar and author David McCullough wrote a nice piece in the New York Times to celebrate Bastille Day and honor France. It addresses France’s historical contributions to America, from the Revolutionary War to other efforts that have defined the US today. It highlights our similarities and encourages recognition of France among Americans. Great article. Although as an expat I can get frustrated with some details of life here, I join McCullough in saying “Vive la France!”.

Article below. Enjoy.

OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR
Vive la Similarité
By DAVID McCULLOUGH
Published: July 13, 2011

THE recent arrest in New York of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then the head of the International Monetary Fund, has caused some people to question the American-French relationship. Though we will probably never see a Bastille Day when French flags fly along Main Street and strains of “La Marseillaise” fill the airwaves, July 14 would not go so largely unobserved here were we better served by memory. For the ties that bind America and France are more important and infinitely more interesting than most of us know.

Consider that the war that gave birth to the nation, our war for independence, would almost certainly have failed had it not been for heavy French financial backing and military support, on both land and sea. At the crucial surrender of the British at Yorktown, for example, the French army under General Rochambeau was nearly as large as our own commanded by Washington. The British commander, Cornwallis, was left with no escape and no choice but to surrender only because a French fleet sailed into the Chesapeake Bay at exactly the right moment.

The all-important treaty ending the Revolutionary War, wherein King George III recognized the United States to be “free, sovereign and independent,” was signed in Paris. The plan for our new capital city on the Potomac was designed by a French engineer, Pierre Charles L’Enfant. The first great statue of our first president was the work of a French sculptor, Jean-Antoine Houdon. The first major study of us as a people, “Democracy in America,” was written by a French historian, Alexis de Tocqueville. Published in 1835, it remains one of the wisest books ever written about us.

To be sure, our relations with France have not always been smooth. Tensions over a diplomatic snafu called the “XYZ Affair” led, in 1798, to an actual but undeclared shooting war at sea that could have flared into full-scale war had it not been for the level-headed judgment of President John Adams.

But the rewards of our ties with France have far exceeded any difficulties there have been. With the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France, the size of the country was more than doubled. The Statue of Liberty, one of our most treasured symbols, was a gift from France.

No less conspicuous are the number of French names all across the map of America — cities and states, rivers and lakes: Baton Rouge, Des Moines, New Orleans, St. Louis, Terre Haute, Louisiana, Vermont, the Au Sable River, Lake Champlain. And then there are colleges and universities like Lafayette, Duquesne, Marquette, Notre Dame.

More than nine million of us are of French descent. Over a million American students are taking French, making it, after Spanish, the most commonly studied foreign language in our schools.

Times continue to change, yet we remain conspicuously fond of all manner of things French. We deck ourselves out in French fashions, French lace, French cuffs, spend small fortunes on French perfume and French luggage. We love French doors, French cheeses. We’ve made French fries a national staple, and in time-honored tradition raise glasses of French Champagne at important celebrations.

For well over 200 years, our most gifted American writers, artists, architects, composers, musicians and dancers have flocked to Paris to study and work, nearly always to their benefit and ours. John Singleton Copley, James McNeill Whistler, Mary Cassatt, Edward Hopper, James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Richard Wright, Louis Gottschalk and Louis Armstrong, Cole Porter, Isadora Duncan and Josephine Baker, and, of course, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The list goes on and on.

Especially for American women and for African-Americans, Paris provided an atmosphere of freedom and of acceptance such as they had never experienced.

Less well known but of great importance were the hundreds of young Americans who went to study medicine in France in the 19th century, when Paris was the medical capital of the world and who brought home ideas and skills that would transform American medicine and medical education.

And there is a further reason France should hold a prominent place in our memories and in our hearts. More American history has unfolded in France and more Americans are buried there than in any other country but our own.

During World War I more than two million American soldiers served “Over There.” In World War II another generation of American soldiers numbering more than 800,000 served in France. In all, more than 60,000 Americans are buried in French soil, at Meuse-Argonne, Normandy and nine other cemeteries. At the Meuse-Argonne, the largest, lie fully 14,246 American dead. The grave markers are a sight never to be forgotten.

Though I love France and greatly value the friends I have made there, I am not an overboard Francophile. But as an American I think it is well past time to get back to respect and affection between our countries, on all fronts and with all possible good will.

For my part this Bastille Day, I intend to raise a glass or two of Veuve Clicquot in a heartfelt toast: “Vive la France!”

David McCullough, a winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, is the author, most recently, of “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: July 18, 2011
An Op-Ed article on Thursday, about America’s ties with France, incorrectly described the size of General Rochambeau’s forces during the siege of Yorktown in 1781. While the combined forces of the French outnumbered those of Washington, Rochambeau himself commanded fewer soldiers than Washington, not more.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on July 14, 2011, on page A27 of the New York edition with the headline: Vive la Similarité.

Libya and the return of French diplomatic leadership

March 22nd, 2011 1 comment

With the ongoing NATO intervention in Libya, both the New York Times and The Economist profile France as a leader on the international diplomatic stage. Excerpts are below. Now there is debate about who is leading the effort in Libya, but there is no doubt France is playing one of the leading roles.

What do you think of the Libyan intervention?

NYT excerpts:

Sarkozy Puts France at Vanguard of West’s War Effort
By STEVEN ERLANGER
Published: March 20, 2011

President Nicolas Sarkozy may be down in the opinion polls, but he has put France boldly in the forefront of an allied effort to prevent the decimation of the opposition to Libya’s leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi…

…Mr. Sarkozy, motivated by French failures to respond quickly to the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and pressed by a new foreign minister and vocal public figures like the writer Bernard-Henri Lévy, came together with Britain to drag Europe and the United States toward a military engagement in the Arab world that key allies like Washington and Berlin never wanted…

…France had “decided to assume its role, its role before history” in stopping Colonel Qaddafi’s “murderous madness,” Mr. Sarkozy said solemnly on Saturday, standing alone before the television cameras and pleasing those here who still have a strong sense of French exceptionalism and moral leadership…

…As for France, with at least 40 aircraft and numerous ships committed, including its nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, the battle in Libya is one of the largest French military operations in years, even though it does not involve any troops, as in Afghanistan…

Economist excerpts:

France’s role in Libya
The welcome return of French diplomacy
Mar 20th 2011, 21:23 by S.P. | PARIS

THE success of yesterday’s Paris summit in securing international backing for the military strikes on Libya marks quite a comeback for French diplomacy. Just two months ago, France was offering another Arab autocrat, in Tunisia, help controlling rebellion. Last week’s farcical miscommunication over France’s recognition of the Libyan rebels pointed to ongoing confusion about who was really running its foreign policy. But President Nicolas Sarkozy’s “summit in support of the Libyan people”, which united European, American and some Arab leaders, was hard to fault. Less than two hours later, French fighter planes were in the sky heading for Libyan airspace, followed by the British and Americans. From left to right, the French political class has applauded…

…As always with diplomacy, and never more so than when it comes to the mercurial Mr Sarkozy, there was also an element of opportunism. The French president is deeply unpopular in the polls, and faces a presidential election next year. He had long been hoping to use foreign affairs to boost his standing, as he did when France held the rotating presidency of the European Union in the second half of 2008.

This time, he used his opportunities wisely. He sensed American hesitation about leading another operation in the Arab world, and turned this to his advantage by putting France in the driving seat alongside the British. Germany’s abstention over the Security Council resolution at first irritated the French, but also handed them an opportunity to take the lead. The strange role of Bernard-Henri Lévy, a left-wing philosopher and media celebrity, who telephoned Mr Sarkozy from Benghazi to urge him to back the rebels, seems to have played a part too. For once, Mr Sarkozy’s personal political interests coincided with national and international ones…

…The atmospherics in Paris have changed almost overnight. Politicians of all stripes, including on the left, have praised France’s action. Even Mr de Villepin, a rival to Mr Sarkozy on the Gaullist right, said that “France has lived up to its ideals.” The French are feeling good about themselves as a country that has done the right thing diplomatically for arguably the first time since ex-President Jacques Chirac and Mr de Villepin declared that they would veto a UN Security Council resolution authorising intervention in Iraq. Whether this lasts is another matter. Although Mr Juppé made it clear that this is not a ground operation, nobody knows how long or how tough it will turn out to be. French public opinion is enjoying a renewed sense of national respect, but has not—yet—been prepared for a long and messy war…

New book from former French resistance fighter all the rage

The New York Times has an article about former French resistance fighter Stéphane Hessel’s new pamphlet book called “Indignez-vous!” (“Time for Outrage!”). It is quite the popular phenomenon and an excerpt of the article is below, as well as a link to The Nation‘s publication of it.

A Resistance Hero Fires Up the French
By ELAINE SCIOLINO
Published: March 9, 2011

PARIS — As a hero of the French Resistance, Stéphane Hessel was in exile with Charles de Gaulle in London, imprisoned in concentration camps, waterboarded in Nazi torture sessions and saved from hanging by swapping identities with an inmate who had died of typhus.

Now, at 93, he is the author of a best seller that has become a publishing phenomenon in France. It is not the story of his life (he wrote his autobiography years ago), but a thin, impressionistic pamphlet called “Indignez-Vous!,” held together by two staples and released by a two-person publishing house run out of the attic of their home. It urges young people to revive the ideal of resistance to the Nazis by peacefully resisting the “international dictatorship of the financial markets” and defending the “values of modern democracy.”

In particular Mr. Hessel protests France’s treatment of illegal immigrants, the influence on the media by the rich, cuts to the social welfare system, French educational reforms and, most strongly, Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

“When something outrages you, as Nazism did me, that is when you become a militant, strong and engaged,” he writes. “You join the movement of history, and the great current of history continues to flow only thanks to each and every one of us.”

Since its publication in October “Indignez-Vous!” has sold almost 1.5 million copies in France and has been translated into Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Greek. Editions are planned in Slovenian, Korean, Japanese, Swedish and other languages. In the United States, The Nation magazine published the entire English text last month…

Bonjour Paris: Sarkozy’s new cabinet

November 20th, 2010 No comments

In this week’s Bonjour Paris, a great resource, I write a piece analyzing French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s new cabinet after the reshuffling. It talks about changes, Prime Minister François Fillon, the French economy, Bettencourt scandal, Sarkozy’s 10 big challenges for the remainder of his administration and 2011 Senate elections and 2012 presidential election. Excerpts below.

Just an FYI: there are strikes planned for Nov. 23 against the now lost-cause of retirement reform, but they are not expected to cause much disruption. Nonetheless I will update my blog Nov. 22 with any relevant information.

As promised, President Nicolas Sarkozy finally carried out the long-awaited reshuffling of his cabinet. This is a traditional move by French presidents during their administrations, regarded as an effort to regain popularity and credibility after facing approval-rating problems. Mr. Sarkozy has certainly had those.

The Economist cites a poll by Ifop that puts Sarkozy’s approval rating at 36% and that of Prime Minister François Fillon at 55%. This is one principal reason Fillon was kept in office – defying the modern trend of presidents changing prime ministers once or twice per administration. In fact, as the same article notes: “If he keeps his job until 2012, M. Fillon will become the first prime minister in modern times to have survived a president’s entire term.” This is due in part because “his calm, reassuring style makes him the antidote to the hyperkinetic president.”

So the fact that Fillon stayed on makes this both an uneventful reshuffling and an exceptional one. You can see a group photograph and learn the names of all cabinet members on the Elysée website here. You can also read coverage of it in the New York Times. Some of the most notable changes come at Defense Minister (old: Hervé Morin; new: Alain Juppé) and Foreign Minister (old: Bernard Kouchner; new: Michèle Alliot-Marie). Overall, it is a government that is more right of center, and one of the most unsurprising changes was at Budget Minister, where François Baroin replaced Eric Woerth. Woerth had been entangled in the Bettencourt scandal. But Nicolas Sarkozy supported him fully in a speech to France about his reshuffling.

Sarkozy will face 10 big challenges during the second half of his term, according to weekly Le Point: strengthening his UMP party unity for 2012; regaining approval ratings; keeping the French Senate to the right (Senatorial elections are in September 2011 and could swing left); reforming fiscal policy; financing aid for the elderly; supporting employment; improving France’s image abroad; getting support from students and the youth with convincing plans; and mastering the internet.

For more information, The Economist has quality coverage of this event. France 24 also covers it.

The challenge now is implementing further reforms – on the heels of the unpopular retirement pension reform now law – to improve the French economy while remaining popular enough to have a chance at reelection in 2012. But there are already many candidates from several parties waiting in the wings, most notably IMF head and Socialist Dominique Strauss-Kahn and former Prime Minister conservative Dominique de Villepin.

France in November guide

November 9th, 2010 1 comment

Besides Thanksgiving, there are many helpful tips on this page by About.com such as travel and weather advice, what to pack and major events. In order to be concise, I only put the first sentence below, so check out the actualy site for all the information…safe travels!

France Travel in November
Autumn Leaves, Christmas Markets and Low Prices Selling Points for Visiting
From Kelby Carr, former About.com Guide

“November is an amazing and enchanting time to visit France. There are countless festivals and events to herald the arrival of the Beaujolais Nouveau wine…”

US midterm election coverage from France

November 2nd, 2010 No comments

As US midterm elections take place today, there are several helpful sites with lots of information and insightful commentary, such as CNN, BBC, New York Times and The Economist.

But there is a fair share of sites in France, too. Le Figaro interviews Americans in Paris debating politics, talks about Obama campaigning for candidates, profiles young voters in the US who are disillusioned with politics, and features a midterm election special here.

Le Point talks about “the moment of truth for Obama” and you can also find information at Nouvel Obs, 20 minutes and a fantastic guide from France24. The US Embassy Paris also gives a guide.

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