Am I a French woman who lives in America, or am I an American woman, as my passport insists, who happened to spend the first 20 years of her life in France? Could anyone reading this help me sort it out?
If you’ve been an expatriate for long enough, you cease to define yourself by your roots. But of course none of those around you do. No matter how American I feel, to my American friends I am first and foremost ‘Française’. I come with a full package of preconceptions, specters of baguettes, berets, whiff of camembert and doubtful personal hygiene and also– just as puzzling to me– inherent elegance, sex appeal and that dab of ‘je ne sais quoi’. My own son recently wrote an essay on our family and every third word mentioned the fact that his mother is French. But to me, things are clear. Home is where I cook burgers on the barbecue. Home is where I wear flip flops to the grocery store. Home is where Barack Obama is.
In a recent blog post I admitted that the title of my blog Hidden in France might as well be Hidden from France. (Warning: digression: my blog is not a safe place to bitch and moan about the (toxic?) nature of home as my mother might read it. Although she has sworn to never lay eyes again on that heap of garbage again. Probably a good choice: To my defense she reads my posts (or refuses to read them) through an online automatic translator and the result is quite surreal. You get the idea: home is not where maman is– No, home cannot possibly be France. All France equals in my mind, is pathos. As a matter of fact, I have not returned to Paris in the five years since my father died. That’s how detached I am, that’s how grown up.
It is pumped up with American patriotism and sentiments that I find myself bravely boarding a plane for Paris this summer. Paris as a tourist will be wonderful, relaxing and so very exotic.
But just one step on the carpet of the ‘aeroport’ and I have this strange instinct: I’m immediately able to sense things Americans are probably not supposed to sense. For example I know to carefully say ‘bonjour’ and ‘excusez-moi’ before asking for directions to the baggage claim. In the U.S. I would address people with a direct question. Not here, no no, no… And how do I know when we sit in our first café for a drink that the personality and mood of the waiter is to be studied and navigated and that I better fake humility in exchange for decent service? I also know that merci means so much more than thank you here. I’m ashamed to tell you that this American girl, within a day of landing in Paris, has reverted to full-on French. I only wear my least comfortable shoes because they are stylish. I no longer slouch. I use table manners and get all uptight about the way my kid’s elbow flares up when he cuts his meat. I detail people and know they are detailing me. I don’t set a foot inside a store without saying bonjour as I know that the store is really an extension of its owner and I would be terribly rude to come in and ignore that silent rule. This is exhausting. I’m a nervous wreck. But there is some awesome stuff too: For example: I know my foods. At ‘Monoprix’ I reach for products remembering exactly what they taste and feel like. In the bakery I know to bypass the croissants for ‘chouquettes’ and to ask for my baguette ‘pas trop cuite’. Forget well done burgers, I suddenly look at a steak tartare on restaurant menus as delicacy rather than breeding ground for e-coli. And there are little tricks about the system I simply know. I call ‘SOS Médecin’, the service that will send a doctor to my door in less time it takes to have a pizza delivered (and for roughly the same amount). I let steam out by snapping at strangers because it feels great and I know the worst they will do is snap back at me: there are no full-blown Psychos here, only low- grade ones such as myself. And I know how to communicate with strangers in that convoluted way that will ensure that the gruff post office lady will send my package after hour ‘pour moi exceptionellement’. In France I know the people. I know them intrinsically. I know how they feel and how they function. I know their logic, however absurd, as it is also mine. I know their facial expressions and hand movements because they make total sense; so much conveyed with a wink, a blink, a wave of the hand. In the United States, let’s face it, people have no idea why I wink, or blink or wave my hands about. I just look spastic to them. In France I watch the people sitting at terraces of cafés, gesticulating and disagreeing with one another with gusto, and I want to pull up a chair and join in the fun. In the United States, I will always be too opinionated and argumentative for pleasant conversation. Yes, it is clear to me now. I must belong in France, France is the only place where I can be perceived as normal.
The only problem is: French people don’t feel too normal to me anymore. Here I said it. French people feel grotesque! They are ambulatory clichés. The girl in the flowing dress on the bicycle with the baguette in a basket. The woman shopping at the market with the ‘tailleur’ and the strand of pearls. The man with moustache like this is still 1930. The waiter who woke up on the wrong side of the bed and to whom I must apologize for being there. This is all so weird. Am I really like these people? I suddenly see myself as a living-breathing caricature of Frenchness.
Days later I am back in L.A. the very city I glibly put down in so many blog posts, and I take a big breath of relief. Why do I feel so incredibly light suddenly? My eyes literally caress my small possessions, my paintings, my comfy bed, even that horrid couch that should be burned. Outside the house, I want to kiss people for the directness with which they communicate. I love the absence of mind games. I love the low level of drama, the lack of judgment, the sense that people are basically benevolent. I love the fact that waiters keep their moods to themselves. I love the smog and I love wearing flip-flops. It’s so good to be home.
And immediately, I begin missing France again.
Corine does not have a last name. Not yet. Not until she feels that her writing is fit to attach a last name to. She writes all day in the hope of her novels being published one day. In the meantime she grudgingly attends to the well being of her family and pets. You can read more on the blog Hidden in France, which is about color, Bohemia, de
sign, writing, neurosis, and of course all things French. Because she was traveling she has not read what the illustrious other bloggers have written here about Home but has already purchased the bottle of Bourgogne with which she plans to drown her insecurity after reading them.
Okay but seriously
Born and raised in Paris
Studied at the Sorbonne
Worked in advertising
Married an American and moved to California
Two boys age 10 and 17, One husband, one cat, one dog, two birds, 8 goldfish
Three novels, two screenplays, countless articles, very little money but living the dream.