Sunday, November 15, 2015

Thoughts on being home, abroad

I wasn’t seeking any special claim to sorrow, shock or other feeling over the Paris massacres simply because I live in France. It’s a self-evident truism that the closer to one’s actual or original home something happens, the more it affects one, but we aren't French, we live in possibly the least French of French regions, far from the capital, and visit there rarely, simply as tourists. I know too, that anyone anywhere with a shred of decency is sharing the outrage and expressing sympathy, that much is clear, including many in strife-torn places for whom similar events are more frequent.

ShouldFishMore, new and welcome here, wrote in a kind comment on yesterday's post, ‘... a sad day in Paris. The city will endure, as will we. It endured everything from the invasions of the Vikings in the 9th cent, to the Germans in the 20th. It will endure this, and be the City of Light we know always.’

Yes, Paris is dear to many people in this way the world over; many of us have had good times there, been enchanted by its charm and beauty and beguiled by a sense of the nobility of its past. The ‘City of Light’ epithet expresses not only the twinkle of the shop windows and the floodlit Eiffel tower, but an aura of joy and freedom and all the greatness of the Enlightenment, the shedding of the light of reason on a benighted world, it cheers and encourages us. Me too, but part of the wonder has always been the knowledge of the bitter, brutal history beneath my feet there, and amazement that the place can still make you fall for it in spite of it. Not only the invasions visited on the city from outside that ShouldFishMore cited, but all the bloodshed and betrayal and horror that Paris has inflicted on itself: from the St Bartholemew’s day massacre through to the Revolution, from all the turmoil of the violent insurrections and their even harsher suppressions of the 19th century to the treacherous deportations under the Nazi occupation, even to the officially sanctioned then denied murders of still unnumbered Algerians in 1961, the year of my birth. I mind my history, and I am not, on the whole, romantic about much. Except now and then on a beautiful evening by the Seine.

Neither does the present politicians’ rhetoric, which raises more difficult questions than it answers (see Robbie’s excellent comment on the last post here), move or persuade me. Yet I’m not going to go down the road of ‘But look at the historical analysis, if you knew as much and were as clever as I am you’d be able to prove how they’ve really brought it on themselves by their ancestral, historical and current guilt’. I don’t have the head for it, but more, I don’t have the heart. Within my reaction to the events of yesterday was a kind of perverse and carrion comfort that at least this time some elements in the non-French world wouldn’t be able to respond in the fashion that (in my perception) they did after the Charlie Hebdo massacres in January, along the lines that:‘ Yes, of course, it’s terrible, but then if they hadn’t been so provocative/blasphemous/nasty to people of faith in general and muslims in particular/racist (that one quite unfair and inaccurate, IMO)/smartarse/just generally so infuriatingly, arrogantly French, well, it probably wouldn’t have happened, would it?’

I was rather surprised at how angry and defensive I felt about this.

We came here more than eighteen years ago now, very largely just because we could. I had more French than any other second language, but we weren’t particularly  great Francophiles,and if we had a honeymoon period here it wore off fairly quickly and easily. However,  the privileges afforded to us by the EU seemed a given (maybe a mistake now), property prices were cheap, we could set up without debt, build ourselves a home almost from scratch, use a second language, experience a foreign culture without going very far, have an adventure, live well for less. We were, in fact, kind of economic migrants, seeking a better life (or at least a different one), only not poor ones, so we assumed we’d be welcome. And pretty much without exception we have been; in addition, we’ve found excellent healthcare (which no one has ever begrudged us or questioned our right to), a fairly interesting working life for me, and a few friends. We’ve had to fall back on ourselves and each other in a way we never would if we’d stayed at home.

So this now is home, though it never quite can be either, for we find ourselves in the perennial and cliché expatriates’ no-man’s land.  My French is useable but still lame, I will never be able to express myself or understand others to the depth I can in English. We get our news mostly in English, don’t really follow or understand French politics well, can only ever have the most patchy, outsiders’ knowledge of how things work. We will always be strangers. We do our share of casual France-bashing, mostly  between ourselves; fortunately, I think, many of our non-French, English-speaking friends are not British but from other parts of the world, Dutch, German, American, Canadian or other colonial, many of them having led nomadic lives, so we don’t get into the rather tedious, repetitive round of complaint and comparison that more exclusively Brit circles do. Among my French friends, I sometimes grow rather tired of the recurring jokes and assumptions about how rubbish the English are at food and other matters of taste, especially since I consider that, personally, I have a rather better knowledge of food, wine and culture in general, including French literature, art and history, than many of them do, with their andouillette and ignorance of spices and Bastille Day nonsense, and rather better taste. The old Anglo-French rancour, where difference cannot be simply appreciated as such (and exhorted to live!) but must be seen as a matter of inferiority or superiority, sometimes still gives a low rumble.

Yet, oddly I find I rather like the tension of living in no-man’s land, the slight challenge it poses to the everyday, it is conducive to a certain kind of sharpened awareness. Hopping frequently from one side of the fence to the other affords an interesting exercise sometimes, and suits a certain contrariness in my character, perhaps, and what others might experience as isolation doesn’t bother me too much. And, somewhat to my surprise, I find now that not only do I live in France, but, just a bit, France has started to live in me. While I might never feel I entirely belong here, and there will always be much here I find incomprehensible, maddening, even repellent, nevertheless a fierce feeling of belonging, of loyalty and protectiveness, kicks in at times like this. In a way I don’t think they would have been if I didn’t live here, hurts felt here are my hurts too.


Catalyst said...

Eloquently said, Miss Lucy.

We, too, were once economic expatriates, living in Mexico for nearly 5 years. I can remember once crossing the border from the U.S. back into Mexico, I felt a sense of relief once we were back south of the border. We probably wouldn't feel that way today.

Zhoen said...

Yes, you make me see this. I've only moved to a different part of my own country, same language (nearly), but that perpetual sense of being an outsider seems easier when I actually rather am one. When I lived where I was born, I just felt an oddball for no other reason than my personal eccentricity. The world should buffet us, keep us keen and alert, disallow assumptions and easy comforts.

I grew up in what was then the nation's Murder Capitol. The violence is everywhere, in every flavor - all bitter.

the polish chick said...

as an immigrant, i'm well aware of what you mean, and, like you, i enjoy the feeling of being ever so slightly an outsider. i think liminal spaces are where are most interesting thinking and seeing takes place.

Jeff said...

Of all the commentary I've seen this weekend from people who weren't directly affected by the Paris attacks, this is one of the very few where someone has said something worth saying—and said it well.

Dale said...