A Bitter-sweet Exile

A friend recently posted an article on Facebook about former Manhattanites living in my former hometown of Washington, D.C. Manhattanites exiled to Washington search for fellow sufferers is a humorous piece in the Washington Post‘s lifestyle section reporting on the “stranger in a strange land” lamentations of the members of a group called the Fellowship of Unassimilated Manhattan Exiles. It’s pretty funny because these folks are self-styled “exiles,” as if they had been banished from Manhattan to the hinterlands. And it’s even more entertaining because the article is rife with the stereotypical over-inflated New York ego:

FUME plays into every inferiority complex the city of Washington has ever had. FUME examines D.C.’s short buildings and finds them lacking; it examines D.C.’s long acronyms and goes “pfft.” Those things you fear New Yorkers are saying about you? They are saying them about you!

“Pfft” is right; I don’t know anyone outside of New York who even THINKS about what New Yorkers say about them, let alone FEAR it. But I digress. The article got me thinking about expatriate life: why we exile ourselves from our homes and how we deal with the conflicting sentiments of having done so.

I came to Paris for a one simple reason: I’m married to a Frenchman, and it’s much easier at the moment for me to come in his direction than for him to go in mine. Without him in the picture, would I stay here? Almost certainly, no. I miss America. I miss always hearing English (or sometimes Spanish) when I walk down the street (as opposed to French or—in my neighborhood—Arabic, Urdu and Czech). I miss really cheap American prices! I don’t think I’ll ever get over the sticker shock Paris presents, even before you do the painful euro to dollar conversion. I guess I should be thankful I’m not in London, paying for things in British pounds. And then there are all those little “joys” specific to living in Paris:

French bureaucracy really is all it’s cracked up to be. I could (and probably will in a later post) recount my travails with l’administration française, be it when opening my first French bank account, renewing my residency permit, or registering with the French health insurance system. I’ve wanted to—in rapid succession and in this order—scream, beat my head against the wall, and quit this country, all while decrying the Gallic capacity to just not care. (I mean, there is a reason we simply adopted the words blasé, nonchalant, and insouciant directly into the English language.)

Paris is congested and noisy. A ride on the Métro at rush hour is—as I’ve posted more than once as my Facebook status—enough to make one hate the rest of humanity. And it’s hot and smelly. I pine for the clean, air-conditioned Metro of Washington, D.C., even if it is a tenth the size of the Parisian one. And being above ground is often no better. Crowded, narrow sidewalks, bottleneck traffic jams, and those infernal scooters teeming everywhere like droning swarms of exceptionally loud bees.

And what they say about the … how can I put this diplomatically? … “courtesy” of Parisians, is pretty much true. But this is just a cultural difference. I’m from the southern U.S., where even service staff you’ve never met will call you “honey” and strike up a conversation as if you’re just hanging out with them for the afternoon. It’s different here. It’s not warm and cuddly. Smiles and expressions of thanks for patronizing businesses aren’t the norm.

So what does Paris offer that brings us here and makes us stay (besides French spouses)? Well, no one makes cheese, wine, or bread (and that includes the most amazing pastries you can imagine) like the French do. I mean, once you have a warm tradition right out of the baker’s oven, you’ll never see American bread in the same light. And that great inefficiency I just railed against is the product of a lifestyle that puts a premium on your time, your friends and family, your happiness. Personal time gets a lot of respect here. And have you ever walked along the banks of the Seine at night, watching the lights dance around you, listening to music and chatter from little groups of drinking, smoking, happy students? The charm of this place is all of that … a melange of flavors, with just enough bitter to make the sweet that much sweeter.

© 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

Do I complain about how rude people can be in the Métro and that there’s no air-conditioning and that it’s completely filthy? Do I complain about the epic scale of French bureaucratic inefficiency in everything from immigration services to healthcare? Do I complain that I can’t get a good donut in this city? Well, of course I do. But I’m not going to found a Fellowship of Unassimilated American Exiles in Paris, however tongue-in-cheek that might be. I’d much rather celebrate the charming things this place offers me that I can’t have back home—and grin (or as we do in Paris, faire la tête) and bear the rest (with an occasional grumble or two).

Language note: Faire la tête literally means “do the head,” and is the annoyed to slightly angry expression Parisians sport in the Métro. It is most easily approximated by non-natives by staring straight ahead and imagining that you’ve just eaten a lemon.

© 2011 Samuel Michael Bell, all rights reserved

5 thoughts on “A Bitter-sweet Exile

  1. I desperately want to read about your dealings with the French government. I’ve had just enough dealings with them from abroad to be incredibly sympathetic.

    1. I assure you that there are many anecdotes to share, and you’ll probably see one pop up before next week. The next entry will probably be a travel post, though. I’m going to try to do a weekly or bi-weekly post highlighting a destination in France that I’ve visited and for which I can share some useful insights. Subscribe and stay tuned!

  2. well, darn…i’ll have to be second.

    i appreciate that you recognize some of the great things and the not-so-great are closely tied in as different side of the same values coin

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