Monday, April 19, 2010

Seven years

The seventh anniversary is rumored to be a rough one, when a marriage hits its make-it-or-break-it year. Yet my husband and I are going on nine years this summer, and I'm happy to say, our seventh anniversary came and went with no upheaval at all, during the delicious summer of le Petit's first birthday, when our life as a family of three was finally settling into a recognizable routine. Seven years, big deal, I thought. Now another seven year anniversary is coming up for me, and it looks like it may be harder than I expected.

This summer will be my seventh living in France, and recently I've been experiencing something between a mild malaise and chronic homesickness. I can and do list the things that I appreciate about living here, starting (and gratefully) with affordable health care, generously subsidized child care, and flexible family leave, and ending more frivolously with I-won't-admit-how-many-weeks-of-vacation and real cheese. But more and more, it sounds like I'm trying too hard to convince myself. I could come up with just as tempting a list of advantages from the other side, but I don't dare.

What am I doing here, I wonder. Is it what I dreamed or even what I expected? I already knew that life in Paris isn't as glamorous as I'd initially imagined. I don't know what I'd imagined, really, seven years ago. Shopping for clothing in confidential boutiques, spending my afternoons wandering museums or strolling along the Seine, writing my memoir from some sidewalk café? Maybe not. I don't think I was ever so stupid as to think my life would completely adhere to a stereotype of Paris, however alluring. I did genuinely think, however, that workaday life would be more seen from over here. Even life as a software engineer would somehow magically become exotic.

It was no big surprise, then, that I was wrong. I figured that much out three years into the experiment, got in touch with a pleasant reality, made peace and moved on.

What I'm feeling now is different. I think what is bothering me, though I'm not sure, is that I am suddenly aware that I've gone too far down this road to turn back easily. Even though I met my husband in the US, and even though I instigated our move to France, I doubt I could convince him now to move back. I'm not sure I would want to move back myself. But I fear a door is slamming shut for good, and I honestly don't know how I feel about that.

The flip side of the sharing and growth that is part of a bi-cultural and bi-continental relationship is the loss. For years, I only saw what I've gained: a new language, a new family, a wider perspective on the world. Now I'm starting to see what I've lost: the physical presence of my own family, the familiarity of my first culture, the landscape of my childhood. No matter where we move together, either my husband or I or both of us will suffer this loss. The other loss that hides behind it is my parents': I used to shrug and laugh when asked how they must feel about my emigration half a world away. Then I became a parent myself.

Who knows where our children will find themselves when they are old enough to decide. Part of me wants le Petit to feel as American as I do, and would be thrilled if he chose to live someday in my own "back home," following the path I didn't take. Part of me wonders if I'd be ready to let him go as gracefully as my parents have let me go. I remind myself that it isn't my life he'll be living, and there won't necessarily be a choice between Seattle and Paris for him. There could very well be a point C that I haven't even imagined elsewhere on the globe.

I am aware, too, that this is a problem any number of people would give anything to have. I also know how lucky I am to have all that I need to live well either over here or over there. It's a privileged, navel-gazing, full-of-oneself expat problem. Know that I am duly ashamed.

Still, to make it over the seven-year hump I've got to do something. First, perhaps most critically, I need to make some friends. Beyond work acquaintances, I can count on only two fingers of one hand (eek!) the friends I've made since I moved here. My close relationship with my in-laws fills much of the void, but still, it isn't enough. By nature I prefer to have a few very close friends than a large network of people I can only partially relate to, but I'm afraid I've hit an unhealthy extreme. I'm not sure how to go about fixing this, alas, but the first step is admitting there's a problem, right?

[Realizing as I get ready to post this that only a real loser could be lonely and complaining about living in Paris, of all places, right?]


Sylvie said...

No, you are not a loser to complain about living in Paris. Now that I have moved back to Seattle from Paris, at least temporarily, I'm really getting tired of hearing how over-the-top envious everyone is of my time in France. If you're not on vacation, there are the same annoyances you'll have anywhere -- the toilet doesn't work, the neighbors are too loud, you're overcharged at the store -- and you have to navigate the solutions in a foreign language while trying to understand the subtleties of a foreign culture. I can't tell you what a thrill it was for me to come home to the US and be able to tell off the unreasonable government inspector in my own language!

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

That's true, the minor annoyances like broken toilets and loud neighbors are true everywhere, although many times I've deluded myself that just having a bit more space (read: a house with a garden!) would make some things easier.

I mostly am not troubled by language differences any more, and although I still get thrown off by cultural situations that aren't like back home, they aren't quite the same challenge they were at the beginning.

It's something different, I guess, maybe just knowing I'll always be a bit "foreign" here.

paola said...

I think you have to ask yourself how different your life would be back home. I mean your regular day to day life. Every now and then I think about how my life would be back home in Melbourne and I have come to the conclusion that I wouldn't have the same qulaity of life as I have here in Italy, even if the Quality of Life in Melbourne is much better than it is here.

Example, my MIL. We share a house with my MIL and it's usualy great. We take advantage of her a lot for free babysitting, and house sitting when we are away. I don't work much, but when I do I have someone to leave the kids with without having to wake them up at day break and drive them miles away so I can go to work for a couple of hours. She simply comes up, and takes up where I left off. There is no way we would have any of these luxuries back home seeing my parents live an hour away.

And yes Education!! In September I will have both kids (5,3) at kinder, free! ( of course we have to pay for their meals, but tuition is free). And we have excellent local Primary and Middle Schools 5 minutes walk away for when they start at big school. In Melbourne, forget kinder: just too expensive. I'd have 2 kids at home till they were 6.

Mom In France said...

I'll tell you a secret: In reading your blog (and our occassional correspondence) I always had the feeling that you were so much more "with it" than me - and that you'd been in France much longer! I still think that you are more with it, but was surprised to learn that I edge you out on our date of immigration.

Still. You have the naturalisation. And will(some day!) have your driving license. Things I can only dream of :-)

As for making friends - it's not easy as an adult. Like you, I prefer a small group fo close friends to a large network of acquaintances. But it's hard to make close friend with out shared history and time, isn't it? Although I have a nice group of mom-friends here (some colleagues, some just of the wider community) it also miss the closeness of my old friends. But I know that even if I were in Boston (or SF) I'd still be far away from many of them. So might as well stay here!

Alison said...

Hi - I've been reading your blog for a bit now. I'm a New Yorker, with two year old twin boys, married to a frenchman. We live in the 17th. I know you live just outside, but if you want to meet up for a playdate, or coffee I would love it. I know it sounds kind of stalker-like, but I could totally relate to everything you just wrote. We've only been here four years, but now my husband doesn't want to go back! (we too met in the U.S.). Anyway, feel free to drop me a line....

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

@paola - I do think our quality of life is probably higher here, mainly because child care is subsidized, school starts earlier (I hear ya -- in the US, public school starts at 5 or 6), and it is easy to work part time as a mother. Plus, let's face it, having so much vacation and all of Europe to explore is a definite advantage. My in-laws also help a LOT. My mom is still working full-time and my dad and stepmom live outside of Seattle and probably wouldn't be able to provide as much daily support.

@Mom in France - you thought *I* was more with it? That's funny, because I thought just the opposite, you seemed to have it all figured out much more than I! Ha! I think part of my problem making friends here is that I work mainly with men. I enjoy hanging out with my colleagues at lunch or chatting at the coffee machine, but, kind of naturally, I don't have as much in common with them as I do my girlfriends.

@Alison, I would love to meet another local American mom. I'll send you a mail...!

Cloud said...

I know this won't make you feel any better... but I am lonely for good friends living in my own country and in a city I've lived in for longer than I care to admit. I've come to the conclusion that having kids changes things, and makes it harder to have really good friends.

I miss my long time friends who live on the other side of the country!

And I know Hubby misses his long time friends who still live in New Zealand.

Modern life. It is just hard.

caramama said...

First, everything you said is valid! It's like being a mom. It's all wonderful and great and darned if I didn't want it so bad that we spent a lot of time, money, effort and blood (lots of bloodwork and needles). But, it's hard. And sometimes I miss the carefree-ness I and my hubby had before. AND I'm allowed to complain, as you are allowed to complain about living in Paris even though I'm crazy jealous!

Even in the same country, things can be so different. My husband grew up in the mountains of Virginia, 6 hours from where we live now. The culture is COMPLETELY different, and even the language if you consider the accents and phrases. His family lives in the country out in the boondocks, we now live in the suburbs around the capital of the country. It can be really tough for him, and I have to remember that.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings. :-)

oilandgarlic said...

I'm very late to the conversation but I enjoy reading about your Paris life, as I contemplate a move to Italy with my Italian husband. One of my worries is making friends. My Italian MIL assures me that we would easily make friends with other parents but I highly doubt that Italian moms would take the time to converse with me in my pitiful Italian and parenthood alone isn't enough of a bond!

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

@oilandgarlic - I, too, have been told that parenthood is some sort of magic key to making friends, but I think I'm just too much of an introvert. Your Italian would improve dramatically in a very short period of time, however, if you moved... it would be headache-inducing at times (I remember being exhausted at the end of most days right after I moved, just from the effort of understanding), but it is efficient.