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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.

New poll finds the French “world champs” of pessimism

January 19th, 2011 3 comments

I enjoy living in France, but it is true that even the French make fun of their complaining as the national pastime. This article comes from Expatica (Anne – Laure Mondesert / AFP / Expatica) and speaks in depth about the poll. Excerpts below. I do have friends who are optimistic, driven and talented, but in my experience here, there is definitely a collective malaise. Cheer up, you have it very good compared to many others!

French are world champs in pessimism
A poll completed early this month shows the French even more pessimistic than violent-ridden countries around the globe, but what’s their reasoning?

Paris –The French live in one of the richest and safest countries in the world, yet they are global champions of pessimism, fearful of the future and longing for the past, according to a survey published early January.

“The French are afraid. They feel the present is less good than the past and that the future will be worse than the present, and that their children’s lives will be harder than their own,” said commentator Dominique Moisi.

“There is a morosity, a real phenomenon of clinical depression,” said Moisi, the author of the 2009 book “Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope are Reshaping the World.” Moisi was sceptical about the BVA-Gallup poll published that suggested that the French were more pessimistic than people in Afghanistan or Iraqi who daily face high levels of violence.

But he conceded that it had some substance. He and other commentators said several factors were to blame. France’s comparatively generous welfare state is no longer perceived as sufficiently protective in the face of the ongoing economic crisis here, they said.

“The French behave towards the state like teenagers with their parents. On the one hand they rebel, but on the other they want ever more protection,” said Moisi. French pessimism is nothing new. The French are Europe’s biggest consumer of anti-depressants. But their gloomy tendencies have been made worse by rising unemployment and a tense social context that in recent months has seen millions take to the streets to protest raising the retirement age from 60 to 62…

He said that it was above all the middle classes who were being affected by pessimism. They see their jobs as becoming less and less secure and fear their quality of life will be reduced. “The French are sensualists, epicureans… and we are seeing a discrepancy between the little individual joys and the collective malaise,” said Delevoye….

…The BVA-Gallup poll described the French as the “world champions of pessimism.” It found that 61 percent of French thought that 2011 would bring economic difficulties, compared to an average of 28 percent in the 53 countries surveyed. Sixty-seven percent believed unemployment would rise again this year, a more pessimistic view than than in every country except Britian — 74 percent — and Pakistan — 72 per cent. Thirty-seven percent of French people polled said this year would be worse than 2010, making them considerably less optimistic than Afghans — 14 percent or Iraqis — 12 percent. Anne – Laure Mondesert / AFP / Expatica

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