Wednesday, October 22, 2008

J'ai deux pays dans mon coeur

As I was combing through the toy stores at La Défense after work one evening searching in vain for the Magic Toy That Will Keep a Toddler Occupied for an Entire Plane Flight [tm]*, I happened upon a children's book with a title written for me.

"J'ai deux pays dans mon coeur."

I have two countries in my heart.

It was in fact written for young first-generation children of immigrants to France. I took it off the shelf and flipped through it briefly, wondering if it would contain anything that would describe me or le Petit.

It talked of special summer visits home to see the grandparents, of speaking different languages at home and outside, and of having two countries that feel like home. But the families were, logically enough, African, Arab, or Vietnamese, and the book also talked of discrimination and of feeling and looking different from others. Le Petit is lucky. These are not challenges he will face. I put the book back on the shelf, glad that it existed, but still looking for the book that will help me explain to le Petit what is in my heart.

As we flew back from Seattle, the distance that separates me from Back Home became more real to me than ever before. It may be that for the first time I had no choice but to stay awake for the entire flight. Le Petit slept curled up in my lap for 45 minutes while I tried to doze off myself, but the rest of the time my husband and I were busy keeping him happy, entertained and contained outside of our neighbors' personal space. I have to admit, however, that the flight itself was much better than I expected, and a non-stop Air France flight from Paris to Seattle is now for me the only way to go.

"I know that it must be hard for you, my living so far away," I confided to my dad on the way back from our trip together to Babies R Us. "Now that I'm a mom, I can begin to imagine."

He told me that as long as he knew I was happy, it was worth it. It is hard. My dad didn't have to tell me. I just had to admit it to myself.

I love my country of adoption. It has been five years now since I moved, and after the initial periods of elation, depression, comparison and integration, I've weighed where I am and I like it. There are practical reasons for this -- affordable child care, universal health coverage, flexibility for working moms -- and then there are the emotional ones, the links that I've forged with my husband's family, and the French savoir vivre I try so hard to imitate. I fell in love with a country and a culture at the same time that I fell in love with a person, and that casts a powerful spell.

But I tend to try and forget what I left behind. I pretend that I can't imagine a life in the US when the truth is that I can picture it all too clearly.

Back home in Seattle, we visited Discovery Park three times. It is one of my favorite places in the city, and typically Northwest. Nowhere in France is there anything vaguely resembling its fir-forested cliffs that descend abruptly to Puget Sound. One of my earliest memories is of playing with a kelp bulb on the beach, so it is as familiar to me a landscape as I can imagine.

The neighborhood of Magnolia that surrounds it is one of my favorite neighborhoods in Seattle, too. As we drove down quiet streets of wooden bungalow-style houses, I started to picture my parallel life, the one that by all odds I should be living. In this life I live in a brightly-colored house with a front porch and a graying cedar shake roof. Le Petit has his own giant bedroom and a playroom in the attic. We spend our weekends hiking in the Cascades or gardening, and every morning I go for a run in Discovery park and watch the fog lift over the Sound. And the other grandparents, the ones who speak English, are the ones who look after le Petit from time to time and watch him grow a little more every month.

The irony of feeling depressed about such a happy choice doesn't escape me. I am blessed to get to choose where I live, and le Petit is blessed to have grandparents who love him in France and in the US. In the end, it comes down to the stupid truth that I've gotta choose. No matter where I live now the other half of my heart will ache, and there is no way to escape it.

* I have verified that such a toy does not in fact exist, but whoever invents it will become very, very rich. In the meantime, The Fishies Musical Mobile comes close. More about that secret weapon coming soon!


Isabelle said...

I think that you can picture your life in the U.S. because you mostly see the wonderful side of it.
I used to think how life would be easier if we were living in the U.S.
And by easier of course I was thinking about the material aspect of this American life. Big and comfortable homes, big cars, big spaces, a relaxed lifestyle etc. etc.
And then I think about how "real" life would be with 2 kids: education, health care, employment, retirement issues being the main "scary" points for me! I think that life is much more rough there than in France, more violent in many ways.
The older I get (ok, I'm not an old grandma yet!), and the more I think about it, the happier I am that we finally stayed in France.

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

@Isabelle, I agree, and when I picture living in the US, I have no idea how I'd handle some of the stressful realities. The first is living again with the constant possibility of losing my job from one day to the next.

It was one thing working for a technology company on the brink of bankruptcy when I was childless. Back in 2003, just before my husband and I moved to Paris, we were both contemplating near-certain layoffs if we stayed. (In fact, my company went under three months after I left, and my husband could have perhaps kept his job... but only if he had agreed to move to Atlanta.) As it was, this nothing-to-lose situation was the impetus for leaving, so it didn't stress us unduly. Now, though, it would be completely different. You can't just up and lose your job and health insurance overnight and not be terrified if you have a child to take care of.

And that's just one concern. How would I pay for quality child care? Could I work part-time like I do here in France? How would I save enough for retirement (although that is an issue in France, too, alas)? Or my children's education?

So, yeah, I hear you.

You can have a very good quality of life in the US, but you have to ensure it yourself and have a measure of luck. Chances are that with our skills and education we'd find a way to do it, but for the vast majority of Americans these days, it seems to be a struggle.

I'm still hoping that this will change.

Mom in France said...

Just curious: when was the last time you went home? How many times have you visited in the 5 years you've lived in France?

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

We were back home last week, but before that I hadn't been home since September 2006. If it hadn't been for my pregnancy and le Petit's birth, we would've been back in 2007. I aim for and we've been averaging once a year.