Sunday, November 12, 2006

Foie Gras and Peanut Butter Sandwiches

“America is my country, but Paris is my hometown.”
-Gertrude Stein
Trudy was so right on. She took the words right out of my mouth (and good thing, because now there is more room for croissants and cigarettes). Like Stein, I am an expat. An expatriate. According to my Latin roots (as in the italic language spoken in ancient Rome, not of the “I’m still jenny from the block” variety), that comes from “ex” (former) and “patria” (native land, stemming from pater, or father). Thus, I no longer live in my native land, and have taken up residence in a foreign country, namely France. Gaul. The Western European Republic. Home of Jacques Chirac, Gérard Depardieu, and 951 million cafés (approximately). I moved here a little over two years ago, and plan to stay until Nicolas Sarkozy sends large French soldiers with hungry watchdogs to escort me onto a plane back to New Jersey. Yes, I’m here for the long Gaul … Yet when most people (more specifically, American people) learn of my choice to reside overseas, the conversation usually goes something like this:
Ignorant American (sorry, Mom): “When are you coming home?”
Me: “I am home.”
Cue the cheesy music and close-ups of the Eiffel Tower.
Oui, it’s true, I am a cliché. I live in St-Germain-des-près. I sip coffee at Café Flore while reading Le Monde. I walk the streets with a baguette under my arm. And every time the Eiffel Tower sparkles for the first ten minutes of every hour at night, I am giddy with emotion. Paris is indeed my hometown.
Many people associate my love – yes, love – for Paris with a consequential hatred for America. That is not the case. I don’t necessarily think that France is “better” than America, I just think that the life that I lead here vs. the one I would be leading across the Atlantic, is. Many people move across the ocean to escape from something, or someone – a traumatic childhood, an unfulfilled life, a violent lover. I’m not running from anything – I’ve had a mostly happy life filled with pleasant memories, plenty of friends and family. My government did not exile me for treason. I am not fleeing the law (I did pay the one speeding ticket I was ever issued, thank you very much.) And, while I think that Jessica Simpson may have done a better job in the Oval Office than Monsieur Bush, I am not a political zealot fleeing the idiocracy of Washington. America is still my country.
I’ve developed a sort of Dr.Jeckyll, Mademoiselle Hyde complex here. I am still the American girl from NJ who misses Skippy Super-chunk peanut butter, un-dubbed episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and Desperate Housewives and reading the New York Times in print. But I am also the Parisian girl who eats Nutella, watches Le Grand Journal and Les Guignols and reads The International Herald Tribune cover-to-cover. How can I be both? How long can I lead this double life? Maintain these two personalities? Won’t one have to win in the end? If I stay here indefinitely, will I be disgusted at the thought of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Become disinterested in Meredith and Dr. McDreamy’s up and down love affair? Trust the weather report on and forego my loyalty to
Do I want to be a Parisian? Or an American in Paris?
Is it possible to have two souls : one French, the other American? It’s a battle between peanut butter and foie gras: may the best disgustingly unhealthy substance to spread on toast win.
I can’t leave. I have a life here now – friends, a job, VIP status in my local boulangerie. But the thought of never going back to America scares the merde out of me. Will my childhood friends forget about me eventually? Are email and phone conversations (and, I confess, enough to sustain lasting relationships? Will my family eventually get used to an empty seat at the Thanksgiving table? Or, worse, will they fill this seat? Turn my bedroom into an exercise facility? Adopt a small child from Cambodia and name her Rebecca?
My mind has become a croque-monsieur of languages. There’s now a thick layer of cheese (French) covering the ham (English) and though the croque needs both to be a croque, the cheese definitely overpowers the taste of the ham. (yes, I just compared my bilingual brain to a ham and cheese sandwich, I think I’ve been living here for too long.) “This is your brain.” “This is your brain on France.” I think in French. I think in English. I speak in a strange mélange of both. I dream in Franglais. To me, I’m the same person, just in different languages. I am a human DVD – press 1 for French, 2 for English. But do my French friends and my American friends see the same person when I speak?
Do my mannerisms, my personality, the inflection in my voice, change when I switch dialects?
And then there are all of the cultural differences and misunderstandings – things I missed because I grew up in the Garden State and not outside of the Tuileries Gardens, or ostensibly banal things they’ve never heard of. Cupcakes, for example. Who has never heard of a cupcake? Apparently, the majority of the French population. I actually had to google a picture of one to show a confused colleague who couldn’t understand what a “small muffin-like cake covered with frosting and little colorful candies” could possibly look like. But it’s moments like that when I realize that, although I fit in to this strange land where pregnant women smoke, men cheat on their wives and the coffee is served AFTER dessert no matter how badly you want a little caffeine with your lemon tart, we are different. A childhood without cupcakes? A tragedy. A Halloween without candy corn? Heartbreaking. Waking up to old French men yelling at each other instead of Regis and Kelly? Traumatic. And – are you sitting down? – they eat cheeseburgers with a fork and a knife. I know, my eyes are tearing too. Yet, for reasons I cannot explain, I love these strange people who think Jerry Lewis is funny and Gérard Depardieu is sexy. I love that nothing here is easy, that I have to call 467 different people who yell at me in French and charge me 34 cents per minute to listen to a voice message telling me that it will take 15 years and cost me five million dollars and my first born child to fix my television reception. I love that pretty much everything is “eemposseeebull” from making a deposit in another branch of your bank that doesn’t happen to be the exact one in which you opened your account to having your salad dressing served on the side. I love that I have to make plans ahead of time, that I don’t have 700 friends that have known me since birth deciding what our Saturday night plans are. I love that I don’t always understand why my French friends are laughing or why the metro has suddenly stopped moving; it makes life interesting. It makes me more independent. Life shouldn’t be easy. It should be challenging and tough and even sad, lonely and horrible at times. It should also be exciting and passionate and crazy and wonderful. And any expat knows that on a typical day, life can be all those things.
My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberté, égalité fraternité. I am an American. I am a Parisian. And proud to be both. Just no foie gras and peanut butter sandwiches, please, I might get sick.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If your parents don't adopt a small Cambodian child and name it Rebecca, I might.
But, unlike Madonna, I will make sure that this child does not have a single living, breathing parent who might decide to throw a tantrum when I sit her down in your former chair in front of the tukey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie.

I miss you, friend! Next time John and Lance and I frequent Paris, I hope you will accompany us on a gelato extravaganza in Montmarte.

Aur revoir,