Friday, July 16, 2010

Feelin' French for Bastille Day (+ video)

My wife and I both have a mantra that we often have to repeat not only to ourselves, but to others: "I'm not an expat, I'm an immigrant."

While technically speaking there may not be much of a difference, we often find a mentality gap between those who consider themselves "expats" and those who'll admit (so to speak) they're an "immigrant." Socially, the term "expat" often implies white collar work or wealth, that someone has moved to another country other than theirs at their own volition and stays on their leisure. "Immigrant" is often perceived to mean someone who moved out of necessity or to forge a more livable life.

Though we're most definitely white collar and came to France purely of our own volition, we definitely put ourselves in the latter category. We're actively trying to integrate into the culture while fiercely holding on to what we like about our own, as all immigrants should. We're most definitely not living some fabulous life of luxury. In fact, almost every day is a struggle.

A month doesn't go by where we don't worry about making enough money, visa statuses, sending enough money home, better mastering the language, figuring out new ways to make ends meet... Anyone back in the US who thinks immigrants come in (anywhere) to live a fat, lazy life is an asshole.

Yes, we do travel, and yes, we do some fabulous or frivolous things, and you see those things on the internet because those are the memories we're trying to forge. I don't bother photographing or writing about the weeks we have to spend stretching one sack of beans, four vegetables, and 200 grams of meat into five meals for two people. (I'm saving that for the book, which will help pay 2% of our rent next year, of course...)

All that aside, after about two and a half years here, things are gelling. We've already felt Paris has been our "home" for quite some time now, but things are really kicking in. I complain as much as any natural-born Parisian (of which there are maybe 6). I curse the government and pray for revolution as much as any 68'er. I will declare something "merde" or an "arnaque" immediately upon hearing about it. I coo at the first sight of babies or puppies.

Ok, so I was always like that.

But there are little everyday things that make us feel more in our skin now than ever before. Nary a day goes by when we don't see someone we know in the street, at a shop, getting coffee, etc. Alannah now feels more comfortable speaking French with strangers. And just the other morning at 5 a.m. I called the cops (!?) to complain about noise from a huge fight down the street, and not only did I not have to repeat or awkwardly re-explain anything in broken French, but... They actually showed up and took care of it!

Furthermore, our local know-how is getting better and better. On the eve of the FĂȘte Nationale, we turned up at the Bal des Pompiers (the fireman's ball to celebrate Bastille Day) at the Rousseau fire station in the 1st arrondissement just early enough to spend two minutes (as opposed to two hours) in line, but just late enough for it to be lively inside – where, of course we ran into some familiar faces from around town.  For the 14th of July itself, we dispensed with the picnic amongst 1,000,000 people on the Champ de Mars (mostly because it pissed early on in the day) and instead watched the fireworks from a more serene locale on the river. For probably the 90th time since the weather got nice this year, we very economically popped open a bottle of wine and watched the Seine flow underneath us...

It's a long process, but we're figuring out the system and almost fitting in. We don't shun the anglophone community entirely: You gotta stay true to your roots, you can't discriminate who your friends are, and there are some cool expats who aren't on the same immigrant wavelength that we love nonetheless. And we know we'll never really be French (maybe on paper, someday...). But as much as we miss American work ethic (no, really), California cuisine, and Mexican drunk food, we feel very lucky – and dare I say proud – to be here.

Now enjoy the fireworks.

(Sorry 'bout the video quality. It was taken with a mobile phone from a distance.)


  1. The other difference between expat and immigrant is the amount of assimilation - immigrants assimilate. Expats, less so.

    Now if only your chosen country had more generous work permit privileges......

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