Thursday, November 15, 2007

To belong

I was planning to go to bed early tonight, but I found myself glued to the television in front of Envoyé Special, a French news magazine that I turned on by chance. The topic? How one becomes a naturalized French citizen.

The reporting almost gave me goosebumps, I remembered so clearly my own experience back in 2002 when my husband and I defended my citizenship application at the French consulate in Boston. At the time, a citizenship demand for the spouse of a French citizen required only one year of marriage, plus basic proficiency in the French language. Since then, the requirement has been upped to five years of marriage, and applications are scrutinized much more closely than they were only a few years ago.

The consul was kind and the interview passed smoothly, despite my anxiety. I already knew my response to the key question of why I wanted to become French. We were making plans to move to France, a move we hoped definitive, and I couldn't see myself living long-term in a country where I couldn't participate in all aspects of public life. How would I feel if I couldn't vote? If I hadn't the same nationality as my children?

The interview was conducted in French, and although I was shy and unsure of myself, my language skills passed muster. I remember that the consul smiled at the end and said kindly, "Vous vous débrouillez bien en français, comme même," meaning that I managed well in the language. Since my husband had instructed me better in French slang than in proper French vocabulary, I didn't immediately recognize the word débrouiller. Then it clicked, and I just barely stopped myself from exclaiming, "Oh, you mean démerder!", the rather informal equivalent.

My application was accepted by the Boston consulate, and forwarded for final approval to the national processing center in Nantes. I had a long wait, but it happened easily none the less, comme une lettre à la poste.

Tonight, the reporters followed several people in very different situations as they applied for French citizenship, and none of them had as easy an experience as I. I was especially touched by the story of a woman born in Algeria who had lived in France since she was four. She'd grown up and been educated in France, spoke French perfectly, and, to me at least, was more completely French in some ways than I could ever hope to be. Her application was almost rejected, however, because her three-year-old son was born to an illegal immigrant father. When she learned that despite this she would be granted citizenship, she was in tears.

I wonder, how would I have felt if my application hadn't been accepted? France now feels more like home than Boston ever did, and I sometimes feel my country of adoption has a deeper hold on me than my country of birth. Sometimes I'm overcome by a strange sense of vertigo, when I almost forget that all my roots rightly tie me to somewhere else, very far away. This doesn't mean that I ever want to give up being an American, and I suppose I can't rule out moving back some day. I love the United States, but it just feels quite far from who I am right now.

I'm not always sure I juggle my two identities well. Now it's become all the more important, because I want le Petit to understand and love the two halves of himself, as well. When I talk to him, I speak English. I sing him This Land Is Your Land and Yankee Doodle Dandy. I tell him about the places we'll take him to visit back home when he's old enough: Yellowstone, Maine, the Pacific rain forests, New York, the Grand Canyon.

In a sense, le Petit's birth has made me feel both more French and more American. I realize that his birth here has tied me more closely to this country than any event since my marriage. My son was born in France; he may have an American passport, but it is a Paris place of birth and three very French given names that are printed over the American eagle on the first page. But born an American he is nonetheless, and that part of his identity is something that only I can give him, his motherland, his mother tongue, in the truest of senses.

Sometimes I wonder how I would feel if he grows up and moves to another very different part of the world. Might he meet a Japanese woman and move to Kyoto? Or run off to become a gaucho on the Argentinian pampas? Wouldn't that be my parents' just revenge for losing their only child to another continent?

I end up hoping simply that wherever he ends up, he has the same sense of belonging that I've found here in Paris. And, of course, that he calls his old mom to say hello every once in a while.

1 comment:

Mom in France said...

This is nice. It's step I haven't taken yet. I've only just been granted my 10-year carte de résidence. I've been thinking about it more since the birth of Boo...but just haven't been able to face what will definitely be a long process. However, I guess it's better to do it sooner rather than later!