Monday, 7 May 2007

Neither here nor there

I am a French citizen, but I didn’t vote in the presidential election today (to me it’s still today, but I expect you will read this tomorrow so to you it will be yesterday, if you know what I mean).

I’ve been here nigh on 28 years and I doubt I will ever go back to France to live (I occasionally toy with the idea of retiring in Nice, but considering how bad I am at standing in the right queue in the supermarket and picking the right euro coin to pay for purchases whenever I visit France I should probably stay in the UK) so I have no stake in what happens in the country of my birth any longer. All I have left in France are a few friends and since I didn’t know whom any of them wanted for president I couldn’t have helped them achieve their goal by adding my vote to theirs. The only reason I might have had to vote would have been to back one of the candidates’ foreign policy. He won without my support so I don’t feel as if I’ve let the side down.

Voting would have meant traipsing to South Kensington, where the Lycée Français was used as a polling station. South Kensington is where all the French expats congregate and I try to avoid going there as much as I can. The last time I was there was a couple of years ago, when I needed to renew my passport. After collecting that French document from the French Consulate I stopped at the French Institute, where I had a French herbal tea (verbena – my favourite) and a French croissant, while reading a French newspaper, surrounded by French people speaking French and smoking French cigarettes. The atmosphere was nice, but it was fake and I was glad to return to grotty Shepherds Bush and my ‘English’ life.

I wasn’t sent to London by my firm to work in their UK branch or by the French government to look good at official functions; I didn’t come here because I couldn’t cut it in France or because I got married to an Englishman or because I wanted to renovate a dilapidated barn the locals wouldn’t dream of living in. I didn’t settle here so my friends could envy me for living in London or so I could write a book after a few months in the country and pretend to know what makes the Brits tick. I don’t travel to France to have my clothes dry-cleaned there or to consult a French GP when I’m ill (I’m not kidding: I know someone who’s been here over 20 years and who still does that). I don’t pick and choose between what France and the UK have to offer (apart from perfume, maybe). In short, I am not an expat.

I was proofreading a book about living and working in France recently: the author – an American – has lived there for several years and most of what he says in the book is true (I even learned a few things), but some of it was slightly ‘off’ – things to do with what one learns as a child or from listening to the radio and watching television in a country for 20 years; things to do with not having a thorough command of the language (see previous post, although it’s about a different person). He thought he could tell other English-speaking people hankering for the French way of life how the country ‘functioned’, but he doesn't ‘get’ France in very subtle ways and probably never will. Being an expat is a state of mind and I don’t think you can shake it off.

Have you seen how many blogs written by tin-eared and ignorant expats there are out there?



  1. Interesting. No, I haven't read any blogs written by expats. You sure do NOT seem like an expat yourself. I think of you as a world citizen.

    Can France "be gotten?" Can a person "get" England? I'm truly asking. Americans are so diverse that state to state, and in some cases, city to city, we are so different, that you almost have to have lived in a place for 20 years before you can "get" it, if you ever do.

  2. I think what distinguishes a lot of expat blogs, and expats themselves, is the marvelling. Americans in Paris marvelling at the cakes, the métro, the lights at Christmas. The English in the Dordogne and Tuscany marvelling at the peace, the views. And then the complaining - the English in France
    complaining about the bureaucracy, the traffic on the Côte d'Azur, the
    strikes. It's the constant awareness of difference. Which you never lose if you are associating all the time with other people from your home country, as those types of expats do.

    I think 'getting' a place means stopping thinking about it, really. But if I had to analyse it - it would be never misreading a reaction or a facial expression or a phrase. Not expecting an actual invitation when an English person parts with 'We must have lunch some time soon.' but knowing it's still an expression of friendliness. Knowing the language well enough to know when people are patronising you, and to tell one regional accent from another, and, in England, judging a person's class and educational level accurately. Being able to choose the best savings account. Making jokes and having another native find them funny. Being outraged by the same political things as your host country.

  3. Dear J, I'm not sure I understand why you are not an expat. I'm clear about why you are not like the other people you describe, but if you are not an expat, what are you? You're not British. This post of yours has me very intrigued.

  4. You have no idea how bad some of those blogs are, TLP. I like the idea of being a 'world citizen'.

    I think Lulu answered your question as to whether France or any other country can be gotten.

    Yes, L, the marvelling, the complaining and also the being puzzled by things that the natives take for granted or intrinsically know the reason for. And, as you say, the not knowing how a country functions.

    L, the word 'expat' conjures up all those things that I do not share so I can't identify with it. There should be another word for people like me. It's true I am not British but I am not strictly French any more, that's why I borrowed Bill Bryson's title for my post. :-)


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