"authenticity," expat life, and (not) going native in France - Jessica Abel
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“authenticity,” expat life, and (not) going native in France

I’m sitting in Paris, in this biodynamic and organic wine bar (Complètement BIO! Pas de sulfites!), having an extra glass of wine just because I’m in town for a meeting and I’m on my own tonight and why not. I’m reading an Aleksandar Hemon article in an old New Yorker, about how he absolutely owned Sarajevo, he felt like the geography of the place was imprinted on his soul.

And then he happens to be out of the country when the siege begins, and then he doesn’t go back for 10 years. He’s losing the geography of his youth and unwittingly overwrites it with Chicago, which happens to be the place where I imprinted….

All the places in his story are my places, and at my moment. I might have seen him walking down the street any time. We overlapped five years in Chicago, years during which he was engaging, and I was disengaging.

And I know its the three glasses of wine, and Hemon is an awesome writer, but I feel absolutely melancholy about what I’ve given up in leaving Chicago. And yet I can’t quite imagine moving back. When I visit, the geography of my youth is gone, only the street grid remains. Which is sort of what he says, too.

And just as I’m thinking, why don’t I have a home with that imprinted geography anymore why did I give that up? I look up and one of the bartenders is animatedly demonstrating how she wants to add a shelf over the back bar to the other one. In Japanese. Because they’re Japanese.

Why did this Japanese couple open a bar in paris? Don’t they miss home? Are they Parisians now? What does that mean? (Parisian? Japanese? Home?)

If you ask, I’ll tell you: you should go live abroad somewhere for a while. I tell this to all my students, and to any young narrative artist who is curious.

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I don’t mean to suggest that everyone is as nearsighted as I am, but your job when creating narrative is to develop a clear-eyed and complete view of your characters. You don’t want to bumble around like an actual person in real relationships, you want to know more than they know about who they are, so you can cause them to act in ways consistent with, possibly, nature, and, certainly, themselves. But when you’re an American narrative artist, for example, and you’re writing about American characters, they can function a bit like bas-relief sculpture to you, in that you can see their very clear outlines, but you can’t somehow see the massive granite that they’re rooted in. You can’t see all the way around them, 360 degrees. And that’s because you are yourself rooted in that same piece of granite, and it’s behind you and inside you, and you never noticed it.

When you go somewhere else, with a different culture, and ideally with a different language, and you try to live there for a while, your own edges, torn from that granite base, become (sometimes uncomfortably) evident to you. You can suddenly see your (for example) Americanness. (I say “for example” because this all applies equally to people of other cultures, going to live in other, non-native-to-them cultures.) This is incredibly valuable when making art, especially narrative art. It’s probably also very valuable when living as a human being in any context, but I’m not sure I want to claim the authority to announce that.

chicago

The thing is, when you live abroad, your perspective on home changes, and is complicated to the point that “home” starts to require scare quotes. What is home? And simultaneously, your understanding of how much you are (in my case) an American makes equally clear how very much you are not, and will never be (again, in my case) a French person. If that was your goal (it’s not mine, in this case). So staying put will mean that you’re not at home either. The myth of “going native,” might be nearly impossible to achieve, but there are many degrees of native. I have met people from other countries who have spent 20 or 30 years in France, and are neither French nor of their country of origin anymore, really. And they seem perfectly OK with that, basically. I mean, what’s the big issue?

But a part of me yens for a feeling of rootedness. I imagine that sometime I’ll find myself in the place I want to be, and I will stay there, because I will want to be there. I will visit other places, but there will be this one place that feels like home, and I’m going to want to be back there. But I’m in my mid 40s now and it hasn’t happened yet, so possibly the whole notion is just a fantasy.

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In France, we live in a well-located and inexpensive, but small and inelegant apartment. It does not compare in aesthetics or space to our nice middle-class house in Brooklyn. But I find I really don’t mind the downgrade. Probably partly because I know it’s semi-temporary. The exit date, the fact that we are going, we are really gonna go one of these days, it totally changes our way of being here. Even having extended our stay to four years, which is a long time. We’re only halfway through, and I already feel like we’ve been here a long time. We’ve done a lot, we’ve taken advantage of it. We’ve also not taken advantage of it in various distressing ways; I have goals for things to do and see that I don’t know that we’ll meet.

But we still perch very lightly in some ways.

There are advantages to perching, like not caring that much about stuff that I might care about elsewhere in other circumstances. That in itself can be a problem, depending on your perspective. I was talking to my friend Myla, who told me that she had left Prague after living there for a year right after college because she had problems with the culture there, but felt like, as a non-Czech, she’d never have the right to complain or take action, and she couldn’t live with that. She felt the impossibility of going native-enough.

That, versus my feeling of freedom as an expat, where one thing that’s great about it is that they’re not your crazy relatives. And yes, you’ve got to find a way to engage and feel the right to take action. But some things about your adopted place will never hurt like the things of home hurt.

brooklyn

None of which means I don’t still lust for middle-class kitchens. If it sort of turns out one day ten years down the line that I never get back to that, it’s gonna be a little disappointing. But in some ways, that’s what this whole transition has been about, clearing out the hurly burly of previous existence, to see the core: what do we really want to do with our time, and how can we support that? Definitely, for sure, when you quit all the jobs on the side of making your art that used to support you but were time- and life-sucking, the financial side of things is sobering. That’s the subject of another post, though.

For now, the important thing to remember is: we are actually doing what we want to be doing for a much larger percentage of our time. And our plans from here on out have to somehow try to maintain that balance.

As I imagined Aleksandar Hemon absorbing the street grid of Chicago into his cellular structure, and then followed that thought right into a puddle of saudade for my Chicagoan self, it did occur to me that perhaps I felt that way at that time partly because I was a teenager there, a young person, and eventually as I got older, I felt less and less at home even as I knew more and more about the place. So maybe it was just fake all along. Maybe moving away made me realize how superficial it all was. Maybe now I can’t recreate that solid sense of belonging because the sense that I used to have came out of a naïve point of view.

Either I removed the possibility of that sense of uncomplicated, complete absorption by splitting my loyalties, or maybe it was that I just got some perspective, which in the end I can’t feel sorry for.

And then it occurred to me that all of this is just another way of grappling (again) with the prickly notion of “authenticity” (scare quotes intended). And what a waste of time that is.

La Perdida, my book that’s essentially a 250-page exploration of the perils of too much focus on “authenticity”, came out almost 10 years ago. You’d think I’d recognize the problem when I displayed it myself. In the end, I am authentically myself, and I’ve actually lived my life. I’m not pretending that I’m French, I actually live in France as an American. I’m not pretending I’m a Chicagoan, I really did live in Chicagoland for 28 years. And so I’m a Brooklynite, too, I guess. I’m all those things. It’s not pretentious to claim something that is actually who you are. But I grew up with a horror of “poseurs” and it’s hella hard to shake. The reward of shaking it is a slightly more quasi-Buddhist ability to live in the moment, and be who I am, rather than mooning over what I used to be or agonizing over what I wish to become.

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  • Sarah

    August 11, 2014 at 12:42 pm

    Great post. As someone who has lived abroad for almost three years (in France and now Argentina), I identify with so much of this. The feeling of unease when you want to feel “at home” in a new place but know you will never really belong, and wanting to participate without feeling like you have the “right” to complain the way a native would. Being able to get some distance and see how American I actually am has been eye opening. And although I’ve always known intellectually that immigrants (especially the poor) who actually leave for good to go to a new country have a hard road ahead of them, knowing that whatever discomfort or awkwardness I have here is just a tiny microscopic fragment of what that kind of change must be like has made it all the more clear to me that those people are amazing heroes.

    Reply
    • Jessica
      Jessica

      August 11, 2014 at 12:50 pm

      I totally agree about immigrants. Such a huge, scary thing to do. But it just strikes me, also, how completely *different* it is, too. No exit date means a totally different mind set about your new home, and I feel like it would change basically ALL of your decisions and thoughts about your life.

      Reply
  • ct

    August 11, 2014 at 4:52 pm

    regarding your expat life article, after spending a year of sojourn in london, i can identify with some of that. in fact, the dissertation i’m finishing up now is on internationalisation in education and what international students had to go through to study in a foreign country.

    have you read this:
    http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n04/james-wood/on-not-going-home

    Reply
    • Jessica
      Jessica

      August 11, 2014 at 11:05 pm

      no–hadn’t seen that. Thanks!

      Reply
    • Jessica
      Jessica

      September 20, 2014 at 9:01 am

      In case you’re following the comments on this post, ct, thank you so much for that link to the James Wood article. It was really a superb meditation on the same kinds of things I said here, but more and deeper. Which befits someone in a state of essentially permanent expat-ness. Everyone: read it! http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n04/james-wood/on-not-going-home

      Reply
  • Kim

    August 11, 2014 at 8:19 pm

    Hey Jessica,
    I just moved back to the states (Brooklyn) after 12 years in New Zealand. That’s right. 12 years. I’ve lived in a few other places before that, but being back in America is a whole other type of head trip.

    When I was in NZ I would often meet other Americans who had their exit date written down and locked in. I found that it often prevented them from really digging into where they were living and largely prevented any social ties with weight. Have you found this at all?

    Reply
    • Jessica
      Jessica

      August 11, 2014 at 11:04 pm

      I haven’t seen that too much, because most of the Americans who come through here are cartoonists, and so most of them will maintain life-long relationships with the French cartoonists (and comics institutions/publishers) here in Angouleme. So they seem quite OK with plunging into friendships. But what I do see is expats who don’t learn much French or really try much to figure out what’s unique and interesting about this region. So, people/comics: yes, the rest of French culture: well, kinda. Not universal of course, but a trend at least.

      Reply
  • Gigi

    August 12, 2014 at 4:31 am

    I live in Belgium, well now part time. All that has been written here is true. It can be amazing but if there is no exit plan you can feel trapped. I go back and forth and still feel a bit trapped. I did not choose Belgium my husbands work did and he is a native here. I can not get the language and get very frustrated. But I am trying to find a way to make this mixed cultural marriage work for us both. I am using my profession, photographer to gap the distance. I agree that many if not all should spend time abroad but visiting even long term is much different than living it.
    Great blog post

    Reply
    • Jessica
      Jessica

      August 13, 2014 at 10:13 pm

      I know–why can’t we just figure out a way to be happy with whatever our life works like, instead of imagining the path not taken? That’s the hardest part.

      Reply
  • Marie

    August 12, 2014 at 8:46 am

    A few years in Australia, months abroad working in Kuwait and Cairo, sublets in Barcelona, Uganda, Berlin, Bali, two insane romps around the world…I no longer belong to anywhere (except perhaps in a gathering of comic book people anywhere in the world). It’s a strange and rootless feeling, the result being a permanent alienation, exacerbating the preexisting work-at-home alienation. I don’t have answers. I only know that things matter less as time goes on. Which shows the alienation digs deeper. Or maybe it’s nothing. Maybe it’s just a normal part of aging.

    Reply
    • Jessica
      Jessica

      August 13, 2014 at 10:14 pm

      Marie, you are the most extreme case I know…I can’t imagine anything you experience as far as “home” could possibly be a normal (as in average) part of aging! I always envy your travels, and yet, it’s clear we all give things up as we make the choice to keep on the move.

      Reply
  • Dido

    August 13, 2014 at 2:15 am

    Great post, that was very interesting to read. While I’ve never really lived abroad for a long time, I recognize the ‘suddenly seeing your own nationality’ in your behavior.
    It sounds so a little silly but when I lived in France for those two months for the first time ever I felt ‘dutch’. I didn’t think I was all that dutch.

    Reply
    • Jessica
      Jessica

      August 13, 2014 at 10:19 pm

      I think I saw your Dutch awakening happening before my eyes. pretty cool to witness.

      Reply
  • mahendra singh

    August 13, 2014 at 8:47 pm

    Very interesting essay … congrats on successfully navigating the expat process so well (and with children!) I think that for an artist, that moment when you truly become rootless (but not unmoored), that’s when you start doing good work.

    Reply
  • Jessica
    Jessica

    August 13, 2014 at 10:21 pm

    “Rootless (but not unmoored).” That is going to be my new motto.

    Reply
  • Kimberly Baker

    August 14, 2014 at 9:20 am

    Your piece resonated quite deeply with me, in fact I was inspired to write the following post on my blog about the experience of living abroad after reading it: https://www.tumblr.com/blog/moveablefeatssdlife

    We’ve lived in Spain for three years and recently moved to France, and we also have two children so it’s been quite the journey for us as well. I also like the “rootless (but not unmoored)” comment here and I’ve never really felt that “unbearable lightness of being” Kundera talks about. Most likely because my situation is ultimately a matter of choice, unlike exile, I do still feel moored by an invisible string to that privilege of an American passport. This is perhaps the thing that makes the expat experience what it is, freedom and choice. Aleksander Hemon’s pain and nostalgia is amplified by his exile. This isn’t to say that the expat lifestyle is a dream, but it is what we’ve chosen for ourselves and many days I have doubts about that choice. But I think it will make my children more flexible in their world views and hopefully these choices will be the “right” ones for our family.

    Reply
    • Jessica
      Jessica

      September 20, 2014 at 9:08 am

      Kimberly–

      Thanks for your thoughts on this and the long response on your Tumblr. I wish I could comment on Tumblr! You should read this article, recommended by another commenter: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n04/james-wood/on-not-going-home

      I would love to talk to you sometime about what it was like to live in Spain, and the differences between that and France!

      Reply
  • Cliodhna

    August 14, 2014 at 4:25 pm

    It’s an interesting topic and nice to read not only your perspective of it but several from the comments. As someone whose lived all over for many years I wonder if the difference in my experience is down to me personally or a difference in being Irish compared to American. I have to admit to never having a feeling of being rootless anywhere I lived because in my head I know I’m going to end up back in Ireland at the end of it all no matter what even if that’s not till 70+ or dead in a box. Maybe because my dad’s work for the UN took him all over the world sometimes for up to 18 months at a time and I’ve friends who’ve been scattered all around the place it’s just something I grew up with or maybe it’s an Irish mentality as we treat emigrating all over the world as a national past time.

    The countries I found the most difficult to adjust to were the ones I think most people would assume to be the easier ones – the USA and the UK. New York for the first 6 months I found difficult because there are actually issues with language between english speaking countries and I got very little support from the Foreign Students Office as I think in their minds I wasn’t a priority compared to students from Asia or South America students. Then it swung extremely the other way when I moved back to Ireland were, thanks to picking up an awful twang, I was constantly being mistaken for an American. That was probably as close as I’ve felt to being rootless and I was in my own country! Living in London for the past few years has been interesting as it’s almost the same as Ireland but not and I’m very often lumped in as ‘British’ by many people here, mainly other immigrants who don’t see the difference as they didn’t grow up with the history that Ireland and the UK have so while I don’t feel rootless I find I can feel defence living here if that makes any sense.

    The countries I’ve enjoyed living in the most are the ones that I stuck out massively as ‘foreign’. Traveling through Asia last year it was so freeing to just stick out straight away as not from round here and I found it a little hard to adjust when I got back to Europe and people didn’t immediately click I wasn’t a local. Traveling through Europe is interesting as I do feel European and being very pro-EU I feel like I belong just as much in other EU countries as I do my own. Many years ago I drove with my dad from Kosovo where he was working back to Ireland and at that stage Austria was the fist EU country we made it to and there was this weird sense we both felt of being home even though we didn’t speak the language and were still many miles from Ireland but that’s how we felt. I felt that same emotions last year when I bused it from Russia to Estonia, I’d been traveling for over 7 months at that stage and wouldn’t be back in Ireland for another 6 weeks but I had this weird feeling of finishing my journey and being home once I made it back to the EU.

    Maybe it just shows an awful privilege state I inhabit that I don’t feel any dislocation in my opted for transference from Ireland. There are many people living in my area of North London who had no choice but to move and there is little chance of them ever going back to their homes yet I can go back to Ireland in less then an hour and I don’t even need my passport to do it. Traveling last year I meet artists in so many different countries who couldn’t do the journey I was doing because of their nationality. I went to nearly 30 countries and only needed three visas and even those were both easy to get and cheaper for Irish passport holders.

    Reply
    • Jessica
      Jessica

      September 20, 2014 at 9:12 am

      Wow, that’s an extensive portfolio of expat experiences. I think it makes sense to me that you felt more at home when you were more “foreign”, since in those cases you really do get a pass on understanding and engaging fully in the local culture. Americans would just expect you to like, BE American all of a sudden. After all, sometimes seems like half of American white people think they’re Irish after all.

      But in seriousness, I do think you probably got your sense of identity (mobile but Irish) from your upbringing–I wonder what all this will do to my kids, for good or ill. They still think they’re New Yorkers…

      Reply
  • Laura

    September 7, 2014 at 12:40 pm

    Jessica, I love reading your musings on expat life and your skepticism of authenticity. I constantly think of moving somewhere else, but haven’t been able to do it yet. I have two kids, and we’ve lived in Peru for 8 months, where we have family. But my daughter really wants to live in Paris or Rome. I want to hear about your kids: do they feel French? Is their imprint, their granite slab, now French? As to the call to downsize in order to pursue your art, to relinquish anxiety about the future and the past, I salute you! Just look at Vivian Maier’s work to see how singleminded pursuit of your art can lead to amazing things. I love La Perdida and I am awaiting the sequel to it. I read you as a crucial part of Latina/o literary history.

    Reply
    • Jessica
      Jessica

      September 20, 2014 at 9:14 am

      My kids are still super-American, weirdly. They fit right in when we visit. But they also fit right in here. Maybe because they’re still so young? There just doesn’t seem to be a conflict there yet, fortunately.

      Paris and Rome would be fab, of course, but the €€€! oh lord. We could never afford it. Keep the nut small!

      Reply
  • Glynnis

    September 7, 2014 at 2:32 pm

    Living in Cyprus, Greece, and Lebanon, I knew I would not fit in in the long term–My American sense of independence would get in the way of long lunches, wanting to walk everywhere myself, and the proprietary ideas of potential boyfriends. Though I do wish I could live abroad again–now that I have a family (& not so many boyfriend contestants!)–there is so much fascinating in every day life in another country. Although our semester-stay in Israel was rough on the kids two years ago, there was so much to draw about. See you in Angouleme next summer–Inshallah!

    Reply
  • Jessica
    Jessica

    September 20, 2014 at 9:15 am

    Can’t wait for you to get here!

    Reply
  • Kirsten Midura

    May 15, 2015 at 9:22 am

    I just moved to Nicaragua, and a woman recently made a comment to me that first-year expats are in it for their own experience, and it’s not until later that they begin to treat their new country like a home. I think that a lot of people move overseas for many reasons, and their level of development is a unique experience, as well. But I agree that we’re all still trying to find somewhere that we fit in. We’re all trying to be authentic, whatever that may mean for us. I’m writing a blog post about how we need to develop both a sense of space and place before we can feel at home. This article brought up a lot of great points that I’m sure will be on my mind for days. Thank you for posting!

    Reply
    • Jessica
      Jessica

      May 18, 2015 at 10:46 am

      Kristen,

      Thanks for commenting. I think that’s right–it takes between 6 months and a year, even up to 2, before you can really start to pick up on the subtleties of a new place/new culture. Nicaragua! Interesting. I’ve never been and it sounds fascinating. Love to see your post when you finish it.

      Reply
  • Aine

    February 6, 2017 at 10:24 pm

    As if every artist could possibly afford to live abroad. This is not an opportunity everyone has at all, and yet you claim that it’s essential experience for your work to be any good? What blind, privileged nonsense

    Reply
    • Jessica Abel
      Jessica Abel

      February 7, 2017 at 6:48 pm

      Why would you say that? Living abroad, both times I did it, was a lot more affordable than living in the USA. It is a financial strain being here, more than there. People may not be able to go abroad for other good reasons (maybe they are primary caregiver to an elderly parent), but money is not likely the main factor. If you can hold your household together in the USA (That’s a big IF I suppose, but if you can’t, you’re unlikely to be focused on self-actualization as an artist in any case, having much more pressing concerns), but if you can keep yourself afloat in the USA you can find (much) cheaper places to live abroad, and have the same kind of experience I had.

      Reply

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