On Being a Dual-Citizen

The United States is my “birth country”, and I am an American citizen. When I married a French husband back in the early 1970s, I also became French –”automatically”, as they said back then. (You now have to wait five years and apply). Although the Frenchman and I later divorced, I still remained French.

Being what you call a dual citizen, a citizen of two countries. I vote in both the U.S. and France; and I possess two passports. I also have a French identity card, which, by the way, is all I need to travel within the European Union, as well as certain other countries, such as Switzerland, Malta, Turkey, Slovenia, Cyprus, Iceland, etc. With my French passport I can even travel, legally and on my own, to Cuba!

I also pay income taxes in both countries, although, admittedly I pay very few in the U.S. because I have no assets in the country and only do the odd consulting job there.  Being a retired, tenured educator of the French Ministry of Education,  with 35 years of service, I receive a pension from the French government and have French medical coverage for life. I do not receive any American Social Security or Medicare benefits because I have lived all my adult life in France and haven’t accumulated enough quarters.

I feel lucky that the U.S. and France have agreements that allow dual citizenship; some countries do not. I also feel lucky that when I am in the U.S. I am considered an American and when in France, I am considered French, although, admittedly, “of American origin.” This means that I can live and work in either country and come and go as I please without worrying about visas, residency cards or work papers.

Sometimes I have heard people in both countries complain about dual-citizenship. In the U.S., they ask, “How can you be a good U.S.citizen if you live abroad?” In France, where the extreme right-wing proclaims “France for the French” and denounces immigration, certain people complain about the “foreign origins” of some of its electorate.

I do not agree with these complaints. Speaking about my own situation, I believe that having dual citizenship has made me a very conscientious and thoughtful citizen, both in my birth country and in my adopted country. Living outside the U.S. has given be a broad outlook on the political situation there and an appreciation of what I would like to defend or see changed. In addition, contrary to many home-based Americans, I never abstain from voting in presidential and legislative elections! As an American citizen, I feel it is my obligation to vote; I do this by registering in my last place of residence in the U.S. (California) and sending in an absentee ballot. Wishing to be kept up-to-date on my civic rights, I joined AARO ( Association of American Residents Overseas), a Paris-based association defending U.S. citizens living abroad. I also participate in the activities of Democrats Abroad (France).

I believe that because I live permanently in France and am a citizen of this country, I also have an obligation to vote in French elections. As I feel I am doing when I vote in the U.S., I want to exercise my democratic right to share in the decisions that are made and to express my opinion about what should be defended or changed. Living in the Paris area for the past 40 years, I am usually in town when the two rounds of elections occur; when I’m not, I either vote by correspondence or have somebody vote for me by proxy. I have always been impressed at how seriously French voters take the election process. Indeed, the abstention rate is much lower than in the U.S.; and, unlike American elections, which are held on a work day, French elections take place on Sundays so that a maximum number of people can vote. French election campaigns can be as tough or as tedious as in the U.S., but I have always found there is a certain degree of solemnity about the actual voting on election day. For example, it is usually very quiet at the voting place. Going to vote is in event,  and I’ve noticed that many French people actually get all dressed up in their “Sunday best” when they go to cast their ballot!

Although I am a dual-citizen and bilingual in English and French, while they were growing up, I made a big effort to transmit my American culture and “roots” to my three sons, who were born in France but raised bilingual and bi-cultural. As soon as they were born, I registered them right away as American citizens at the U.S. Consulate in Paris and obtained U.S. passports for them. I felt then, as I still do today, that having U.S. citizenship would attach them in many ways to the heritage of their American mother. Being a teacher and later a professor, I was lucky enough to have the summers off and was able to take them on trips to the U.S. to visit family and friends. With their own U.S. passports, I reckoned that should someday they want to live, study or work in the U.S., they could enter the country without any problems. (As it turned out, my youngest son lived with me in the U.S. for several months when he was 11 and then again at age 16; and my eldest son has lived and worked there for the past five years.)

Obtaining U.S. citizenship for the next generation has not been so easy. Because my sons haven’t lived in the U.S. for a total of five years (of which two years must be after reaching age 14) they cannot automatically transmit their U.S. citizenship to their children as I could. When my first grandchild was born, my middle son really wanted dual-citizenship for his daughter, and I was determined to help him.

A fellow member of AAWE (Association of American Wives of Europeans) who happens to be an international lawyer told me about the Child Citizenship Act of 2000.  Under this act, the child of a U.S. citizen can apply for an immigrant visa to the U.S.and obtain U.S. citizenship this way. My son first had to get a French passport for his daughter (who was only a year old at the time) and then apply for the visa at the U.S. consulate in Paris. Several months later, after completing a lot of paperwork, making several trips to the Consulate and taking the baby for a Consulate-accredited medical visit, my son learned that she had been granted the visa. My son and granddaughter then traveled to the U.S., and she became a naturalized U.S. citizen upon arrival on U.S.soil. Although they have since returned to France to live, my granddaughter now has a U.S. passport; and my son intends to bring her up bicultural and bilingual, just as I did with him.

Obtaining an immigration visa for the child of my youngest son and his French partner will probably prove to be much more complicated.. The U.S. Consulate in Paris can no longer handle the initial paperwork; all applications now have to go through a Homeland Security office in Chicago. Despite the difficulties, however, my youngest son, like his older brother, intends to go through the procedure. He would really like his child and any other children to come to have U.S. citizenship in addition to their French nationality.

As you can probably tell, my sons and I truly believe that, handled right, you really CAN be a good citizen of two countries!

Published in: on July 25, 2012 at 2:18 pm  Comments (5)  
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Gertrude Stein Mania in San Francisco

Gertrude Stein has hit San Francisco like a storm, and the same mania will probably soon affect Paris, New York and Washington D.C. as well.

Why all the fuss? Well, first because of the blockbuster exhibit, “The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avant-Garde” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art which is due to close September 6 and travel to the Grand Palais in Paris (Oct 3, 2011 to Jan 16, 2012) and then the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (Feb 21–Jun 3, 2012). Reuniting the amazing collections of Gertrude,  her brothers Leo and Michael, and Michael’s wife, the exhibit displays some 200 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints and illustrated books,  including approximately 40 works by Picasso and 60 by Matisse, as well as works by Bonnard, Cézanne, Gris, Laurencin, Picabia, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Vallotton. In addition to the exhibit, the SFMOMA and, indeed, the whole Yerba Buena neighborhood have also been hosting a whole slew of film screenings, lectures, panel discussions, cultural programs and performances related to Gertrude and her entourage.

Just a few blocks away from the SFMOMA, at the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum, the exhibit “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories”, also closing September 6, concentrates more on Gertrude’s life and legacy, exploring her identities as a literary pioneer, a modernist, an expatriate in Paris and the partner of Alice B. Toklas, a celebrity and a muse to artists. Jointly organized with the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, to which it will travel after San Francisco (October 14, 2011 – January 22, 2012),the exhibition features some 100 artifacts and artworks, as well as manuscripts, letters, journals and personal belongings. Also included are film footage from Gertrude’s operas and ballets and a documentary film about Alice’s and her life during wartime. Like the SFMOMA, the Contemporary Jewish Museum has also been hosting numerous discussions, events and programs, some of them related to Gertrude’s Jewish and lesbian identities and associations.

In addition to visiting both of these exhibits, I have attended several of the San Francisco events related to Gertrude Stein. One I particularly enjoyed was at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Entitled “Paris Portraits: Stories of Picasso, Matisse, Gertrude Stein, and their Circle”, it was a one-woman show with Laura Sheppard, who read from the manuscript of Harriet L. Levy, a San Francisco writer and theater critic who moved to Paris in 1907 with her friend Alice B. Toklas. The show was followed by a lively panel discussion about Gertrude’s Jewishness and her puzzling relationship with Bernard Fay, a gay, anti-Semitic, French academic with ties to the Vichy government who ensured Alice’s and Gertrude’s protection in France during World War II and who was later imprisoned for having persecuted French Freemasons.

During this discussion, much to my amaze, I learned that Gertrude translated a book of Petain’s speeches into English, wrote the Nobel Committee recommending Hitler for the Peace Prize, supported Franco, and hated FDR. And I later read that Alice B. Toklas, following Gertrude’s death, helped finance Fay escape from Fresnes prison outside Paris by selling one or more works on paper by Picasso.

Of course, I loved the art exhibits and seeing all the artifacts, but as a history buff and an author of two books dealing with World War II, Gertrude and Alice’s “murky” past during the war and their association with GI’s following the liberation of France fascinates me. Consequently, I have started doing some research on these subjects, both by searching the Internet and by buying books or taking them out of the Berkeley Public Library whenever they are available—this being rare these days, given the Gertrude Stein mania existing in the area!

I have even written a playlet, a sort of one-woman show (which I performed in my storytelling class at Stagebridge last week) based on a 1945 Life article I quoted in my book French War Brides in America when it was published in 2004.  The story features an elderly, but still feisty,  Gertrude admonishing an audience of GI’s at the American Red Cross Center in Paris in the spring of 1945—just a year before her death from cancer at the American Hospital. Watch for it soon on my website:  http://www.hilarykaiser.com

I love the fact that Gertrude shared my love of Paris and also hailed from the San Francisco Bay Area (she grew up in Oakland), where she is the topic these days of  a lot of lively conversation at dinner parties, owing to these exhibits and to  “Midnight in Paris.¨  But she is certainly a much more complex and puzzling character than the funny and lovable American expatriate that Woody Allen portrayed in his film!

Claudine LeMoal’s “Children of Breiz”

Being a dual American-French citizen, I have been sharing my time for the past two years between Paris and Berkeley, California. As a consequence of this transcontinental life, I have come into contact with both the American community in Paris and the French community in the San Francisco Bay Area.  In both places, I have met some very interesting people with whom I seem to have a lot in common. One of these is Claudine LeMoal.

Claudine between daughters

In many ways, Claudine and I are “mirror images” of each other. Born in Strasbourg in eastern France, Claudine moved permanently to the U.S. with her mother and G.I. stepfather in 1962, the same year that my parents and I left San Francisco and moved to France. Although I only stayed for three years that time round (my father’s position at the U.S. Embassy in Paris coming to an end),  I later returned on my own and eventually married a Frenchman, raised a family, studied at the Sorbonne, and taught English and American civilization for many years in the French educational system. As for Claudine, she attended the University of California at Davis, married an American, raised two daughters and taught French and Spanish in California schools.

But what we discovered that REALLY links us is a common fascination with World War II and a desire to write about it. Claudine has written “Children of Brez,  a screenplay based on true events that occurred in a village in Brittany during the German occupation, whereas I have written books about GI.’s in France and French war brides. Having this mutual interest in the war induced us to interview each other. You will find Claudine’s recent interview with me posted on my website at: http://sites.google.com/site/hilarykaiserphd/claudine-le-moal-interviews-hilary-kaiser    

As for the interview I did with Claudine, the following article is based on it.

” Children of Brez” was inspired by a story about the brothers and sisters of Claudine’s Breton father, who died when she was three. Claudine’s mother told her the story when she was a young girl, and she never forgot it. Five years ago, after studying script-writing and doing interviews and filming in France, Claudine decided to write an original screenplay.

Claudine told me her grandmother had died at a very early age, leaving behind nine children; then her grandfather died in an accident, and the children were left to fend for themselves. This was about the time the war broke out. The children, including Claudine’s father, were living in very impoverished conditions and trying to make ends meet on the farm that was left to them. Their resources were also considerably limited by the German occupation. Since it appeared that the Germans wouldn’t be leaving, as many Bretons originally thought, some of the older children decided to help out the country and joined the underground; by doing various acts, they were actually quite influential in helping the Allies move from Normandy to Brittany. To the point that local “collaborationists” exposed them, thinking they could acquire their land or whatever their motivation was. The collaborationists actually suggested to the Germans that they go to the farm at nighttime and destroy it and probably the children, too, thus wiping out any possible “terrorists”, as they were called. Fortunately, Claudine’s father and his brothers and sisters were tipped off and were able to flee into the hills before the Germans arrived. They watched the farm burn from a distance.

This story always intrigued Claudine, and five years ago she started researching it. She first thought she was going to do a documentary and went to Brittany to conduct interviews with her aunts and uncles, but they were elderly and somewhat reluctant to talk about their experiences. So it would have been difficult to create a documentary centered on their testimonies. In the meantime, she came across a document that her aunt’s husband had gotten from a friend, a local villager. It’s a first-hand account of another story that occurred about the same time. It’s about a group of young people who had gotten together on a farm to celebrate a birthday and how, again, a collaborationist, tipped off the Germans, wrongly so, saying the young people were plotting a revolutionary attack against the Germans. So the Germans proceeded to ambush them during the birthday party in retaliation. They humiliated them and, over a period of several days, brutalized them in the local villages in the area.

This account left a great impression on Claudine. She began thinking that since both stories were generated in the same local area, perhaps they could be combined as a homogenized over-story. She took several classes in screen-writing and then began writing “Children of Breiz”, which merges both stories. Breiz is the Breton word for Brittany.

Claudine said one motivation for writing the script was to draw attention to the Breton sub-culture. According to her, Brittany is very different from other regions in France. It is Celtic in origin. It’s very traditional and, given that there’s not much industry in the area, little has changed over the years. People are still ethnocentric and clannish in certain parts of Brittany.

Claudine also thinks what happened in Brittany gives a different twist to the French experience during World War II. She said the Germans were attracted to Brittany because of its coastline and proximity to Britain. And when the Germans came to Brittany, many Bretons were actually, at first, in favor of the Germans because they thought the Germans would help them separate from France! But then they realized that the Germans had come under false pretenses and that they were being occupied and abused by the Germans. She used as an example the fact that the Germans made each Breton family give up one of their sons, whom they sent to Germany to work in German arms factories. The Germans thought the Bretons would be more loyal than Jewish workers, for example, because the Germans and Bretons were, at least at first, on good terms. But then the Bretons caught on, and many young Bretons went into hiding.

Claudine admitted that she is very proud of having both Breton (by her father) and Alsatian (by her mother) ancestries. She said that for years, the French would look down upon the Bretons and not recognize the Breton culture as an important sub-culture in French society. To illustrate her point, she said that the Breton language used to be banned from schools, and such epithets as “tête de Breton, tête de cochon” (Bretons are stubborn as pigs) were prevalent. Ever since Brittany was annexed to France back in the 17th century, Bretons have had a “separatist” streak and a desire to be autonomous They have also proudly kept up many of their traditions, such as folk dances, music, and festivals. In many ways, it is the same for the Alsatians, who have their own language and customs. Claudine mentioned that in addition to affecting her Breton relatives, World War II also had an effect on her Alsatian family. Her maternal grandfather was sent to a German concentration camp, and her grandmother lived through the bombings in the countryside and providentially escaped being killed when one fell on a nearby air-raid shelter.

Claudine thinks it is a good thing that French sub-cultures like the Breton and Alsatian cultures are beginning to be recognized in France. She would like Americans to recognize them, too. She also said that the anti-French movement in the U.S. in the 1990’s was very painful to live through. At that time, many people talked about French capitulation and collaboration during World War II. “They called the French cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” she said. Luckily, the Americans and the French seem to be “friends” again, but, as Claudine mentioned, a lot of French people still haven’t come to terms with certain things that happened in France during World War II– with the collaboration, for example. “I have a hard time forgiving what happened in Bleiz,” she confessed. “It was emotionally very difficult to find out and write about it.”

Claudine hopes that her screenplay will be made into a movie, either in the U.S. or France (she’s in the process of translating it into French) or in both, and she has started seeking a producer.  Her hope is that in addition to reaching an adult audience, her film will also be seen by teenagers. “They don’t know much about this period and can learn from the past,” she said. “I’d also like to show them that young people can make a difference if they act, are pro-active, and don’t remain passive. And I think film is such a great medium for teaching teenagers. They can learn about history by watching real people in real situations. It comes alive for them.”

Nostalgia: Paris, New Haven, Millbrook

This past month has been a time of nostalgia for me.

Watching Woody Allen’s charming new film, “Midnight in Paris”, a few weeks ago while in Berkeley, I was reminded of my own reactions to Paris when I first moved there as a teenager back in 1962. Like Woody, I was imbued with the readings of Hemingway and Fitzgerald; I knew that Gertrude Stein had called them and others “a Lost Generation” and was a friend of Picasso, Braque and Matisse; and  I became enchanted with the many monuments and beauties of the city. At 15, book in hand, I did “the Memorable Feast tour” of Hemingway’s haunts on my own long before such walking tours became popular. And after reading Fitzgerald’s biography, it was easy for me to visit the Etoile and imagine inebriated Scott and Zelda riding atop taxi cabs there at night in the 20s.

In 1962, the Orsay was a train station, and French impressionist paintings were still housed in the Jeu de Paume in the Tuilleries Gardens. There were no McDonalds or Pizza Huts in France back then, so after school my fellow classmates from “ASP” (American School of Paris) and I would congregate and play baby foot in cafés on the Champs Elysées or do our homework at the American Library, then located on the famous boulevard.

Other memories of living in Paris in the early 60s fill my mind. The Algerian war was still going on, and a plastic bomb went off in our apartment building, apparently placed by someone from the OAS, an underground movement of French generals who want Algeria to remain French, because a pro-independence politician lives in our building.. At ASP, which, at the time, was located in Madame du Barry’s hunting pavilion in Louveciennes, we listened to talks by personnel from the Embassy on the reasons for France’s anti-American sentiment and were cautioned on what to do in case of emergency. In Paris in the 60s, it could take months to get a telephone line installed; the W.C. was often on the landing instead of inside apartments; and heating was poor. There were no supermarkets and little “self-service.” My mother, who didn’t speak French, once got her hands slapped by a greengrocer when she touched the tomatoes at a fruit stand to see if they were ripe!

I also remember that since France hadn’t yet pulled out of NATO, numerous U.S. army bases dotted the French countryside. Because my father worked at the U.S.Embassy, we had “PX privileges” at did our shopping at the PX in St. Cloud or went to see American movies on the Camp des Loges base in St. Germain-en-Laye.


Another continent, another place and time…Two weeks ago, I went “back east” with my friend Tom to attend his 50th class reunion from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. At Yale, too, a film evoked memories, both for him and his 400 or so classmates, but also for the 350+ of us accompanying them.

“1000 Voices”, a documentary produced by Legacy Documentaries especially for the reunion, contains not only interviews with 82 alums, who were chosen to represent the 1000 members of the class, but also evocative footage and clips about the turbulent Sixties. Most of us cried watching it. The poignant stories of college camaraderie, the first-person narratives about classmates’ successes and failures, as well as the iconic images of JFK, Bobby Kennedy, MLK, Motown musicians, and Vietnam all brought back our own memories of those years.

During the weekend, we were reminded of what Yale was like in the 60s and how it has changed. An all-male university when Tom was there, Yale went “co-ed” in 1971. Today, women make up 50% of the student body, and in addition to the famous Whiffenpoofs, there is now a female singing group called the Whim ‘n Rhythms. Once practically all-white, at a time when “diversity” meant enrolling students from western or southern states, the university’s white population is  now only 45.8%,  and 10% are foreign born. There is an active LGBT community, whereas in Tom’s day at Yale, one’s sexual orientation was kept in the closet. Indeed, in a poignant scene in the film, a gay classmate tells how much pressure there was back then to be “normal.” Like most of his classmates, he went on to marry after graduation, but the consequence was that he had to go through decades of therapy trying to figure things out. It was only when he was in his mid fifties that he found the courage to divorce his wife and acknowledge his homosexuality.

Some 175 of the Class of 1961 have passed away. During a moving service one afternoon, a Jewish rabbi, a Protestant minister and a Catholic priest celebrated their memory, their widows and families, and the friendships they made while at Yale.  In break-out sessions, in private conversations, and in the photo “yearbook” given to the alums, classmates reminisced about their college days and brought each other up to date on their past and present activities. Spouses and “significant others” were also invited to share during the break-out sessions. The ambience was warm, inclusive and honest. Looking back over the years with reflexive mellowness, most of the classmates, who are now in their seventies, painted their lives and experiences in realistic terms. Illnesses, addictions, dysfunctional relationships with spouses and children, regrets, and other concerns were mentioned. But, so, too, were life’s blessings, as well as memories of professors, courses, antics, and activities while in New Haven.

Admittedly, nostalgia imbued the blue-and-white Yale reunion, just as it does “Midnight in Paris”, and, to a certain extent, both the Yale alums and Woody Allen romanticize their memories. Still, it cannot be denied that Paris of the 20s and the writers and artists of the Lost Generation had a lasting effect on Woody Allen. Similarly, it would seem that their college years at Yale greatly affected the lives of the members of the Class of 1961.

I have my own somewhat romanticized memory of Yale as well. In the mid 60s, I was invited to spend several weekends there by a classmate at Bennett College who just so happened to be the daughter of the then Yale President, Kingman Brewster. Those visits were brought back to me when we drove by the President’s House two weeks ago and then drove on to Millbrook, New York, where the buildings that used to house Bennett still stand.

I say “used to” because Bennett, a small two-year college for women founded in 1890, no longer exists. It went into bankruptcy in the 1970s and closed down completely in 1978, following attempts to survive by going four-year and amalgamating with Briarcliff College.

What a sad sight it was to see Bennett today! Whereas Yale’s Gothic-style buildings are still vibrant and alive, Halcyon Hall, Bennett’s main wooden structure, which was originally built as a 200-room luxury hotel, has been left abandoned for the past 33 years. (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZO_4OSKS2eY for a pictorial history of the place.)

Unlike the Yale alums’, my memories of Bennett are not romanticized. I was not happy there and always felt out of place, especially as most of my classmates came from prominent families and were more interested in riding horses and dating men from Ivy League colleges than studying. I’d have preferred attending a much larger, more urban, university for my first two years of college. In fact, I only went there because they awarded me a very generous creative writing scholarship and because I wanted to be on the east coast.

Still, looking back, as often happens, I realize now that spending two years of my life at Bennett wasn’t all bad. I made three or four good friends, whom I’m still in touch with today. I remember meeting Edward Albee, Robert Graves and Betty Friedan. This is because Bennett was known for the arts and attracted visiting writers, artists and performers. I also remember that my first year there the whole college went down to New York City for a week to attend plays and concerts and visit museums. While at Bennett, I also got a chance to visit some famous universities. In addition to Connie Brewster’s invitations to Yale, I was also invited several times to Radcliffe to visit a close friend; and I went on some “blind dates” at Harvard, Princeton, West Point and “U.Va”.

Paris, New Haven, Millbrook…I’m grateful for these nostalgic memories—be they romanticized or realistic–from the past.

Outreach at Stagebridge

“Da, da, la, la, la…” Interrupting her story, my classmate—I’ll call her Rachel– swirls about the room playing a Hebrew melody on a harmonica. She tells us how she used to love to listen to her beloved father, who died of cancer when she was only 14 years’ old, play this very same instrument. She and her father never spoke about the fact that he was going to die. Now a mother, Rachel shares with us that she has spoken to her 12-year-old son about her own cancer, but she wonders whether, or when, to evoke the possibility of death. Later on, she suggests discussing “difficult stories” as a topic for future classes. Following her 10 minute performance, Kirk, our deep-voiced, African-American instructor, gives his feedback and then asks for ours. As usual, he is encouraging and constructive; our classroom is a “safe space” which he has created without being overly “p.c.” We are all affected by what we have seen and heard. Rachel is a youngish, talented woman who has been an active participant in our course. We had no idea she was ill. We learn later that Kirk himself is a widower with two young children who has lost his wife to cancer.

Despite their personal problems, Rachel and Kirk, as well as most of the other members of Stagebridge, the nationally-recognized, Oakland-based, non-profit, senior performing arts group, go out into the community—into hospitals, senior centers and schools– sharing their storytelling and performing skills. In existence since 1978, Stagebridge offers older adults an opportunity to learn, take risks and give back. In addition to providing reasonably-priced classes and workshops in acting, storytelling, comedy, improvisation, musical theater, singing, voice, mime, playback theater and playwriting, Stagebridge has developed outreach programs through which members can perform publicly and teach in community, health care and corporate agencies, as well as in libraries, clubs, and museums. Through its Storybridge Schools Programs, they can go into local elementary schools to tell stories and teach underprivileged kids how to interview their grandparents. Stagebridge is also the west coast representative of “Time Slips”, a creative storytelling method Stagebridge members can use to help people with dementia. And for the last five years, Stagebridge has offered a Performing Arts Camp in the summer for adults 50+.

A fellow performer recently wrote: “I found something at Stagebridge that not only fills my heart and soul but also challenges me.” Like her, my own experience at Stagebridge this past year has not only been rewarding and positive but also challenging. Being a right-side of the brain type of person, the classes I have taken and the performances that ensued have pushed me well beyond my “comfort zone.” I have worked as an oral historian and collected other people’s stories on tape, but I have never had to actually TELL stories myself before and in public, no less. Nor have I ever been uninhibited enough to do mime or to act on stage before. (I recently participated in a Stagebridge “showcase” performance where there were some 90+ people in the audience.). And even though I have written two non-fiction books, I’d never written a short play before.

These new experiences have been not only demanding on a personal level but also fun, and the camaraderie and constructive feedback exceptional. What particularly warmed my heart and soul, however, were the two opportunities I was given to give back to local communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. In November, my beginning acting class performed a series of radio plays at the San Francisco Lighthouse Center for the BlindThen a week ago, two classmates from my Stagebridge storytelling class and I performed for a group of disabled people at the Oakland Rehabilitation Center. (My story was based on a biography I’d read about millionaire Alma Spreckels, the founder of the California Legion of Honor.) In both instances, our performances were greatly appreciated by our audiences, and we have been invited back.

I’m leaving the Bay Area for a couple of months, but I hope that when I return here in the spring, in addition to taking other classes and workshops, I’ll have more opportunities to participate in Stagebridge’s outreach programs. Despite my stage fright, I have come to realize that I really quite enjoy performing, especially when I can bring a little bit of entertainment and lightness to people whose lives are a lot less fortunate than mine.

Published in: on December 21, 2010 at 7:18 am  Comments (4)  
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A Memorable Theater Experience in Berkeley

I am a theater buff and was delighted to be able to attend shows in London and New York this summer. The San Francisco Bay Area also has a lot to offer in the way of theater, and in order to go often and inexpensively while I’m here, I have taken advantage of “rush tickets” and “pay as much as you want” evenings at certain theaters.

When I go to a play, I appreciate a good story, good acting, and good “tempo.” There were a few plays I haven’t appreciated while here, but on the whole I’ve come away satisfied. Some of the plays I’ve particularly enjoyed this fall are Bill Irwin’s original adaptation of Molière’s comedy “Les Fourberies de Scapin” at San Francisco’s ACT, Word-for-Word’s rendering of stories from “Olive Kitteridge” ( the best-selling book by Elizabeth Strout), African-American Alice Childress’ “Trouble in Mind” at the Aurora, and Ann Randolph’s one-woman show at The Marsh in Berkeley. All of these plays had their own value, but I think the show that really had an impact on me and rises above the others was “The Great Game: Afghanistan”, which I saw two weeks ago at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

Produced by London’s Tricycle Theatre and supported by the British Council, “The Great Game” was only in Berkeley for two weeks, en route to Minneapolis, New York and Washington, D.C.  A collection of short scripts by 12 playwrights that are divided into three parts, it is a seven and a half hour trilogy telling the story of western intervention in Afghanistan over the past 150 years. Audiences had the option of seeing all three plays in a day-long marathon or on different days or just seeing one or two of the plays individually.   I opted to see each of the three plays in chronological order over a Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  I don’t regret my choice, although friends who chose the marathon said it meant for a truly worthwhile experience because they became fully absorbed in the story and characters.

Commenting on the play, artistic director Nicolas Kent said: “We very much hope that this trilogy and the theatre can play its part in continuing to stimulate the public’s discussion and debate on what is currently the most important focus of UK and American foreign policy.” In a way, “The Game” resembles a mini history course on how competing countries try to control Afghanistan and the latter’s fierce resistance to foreign domination. Part One is entitled “Invasions and Independence” and covers the period 1842-1929; Part Two, “Communism, the Mujahideen and the Taliban” (1980-1996); and Part Three, “Enduring Freedom” (1996-2009).

But in addition to being very informative, the plays are also very entertaining. Kudos to the 14 British actors who took on so many different roles and performed so well!  And what a treat iwas to hear real British accents here in Berkeley!

As is often the case in Bay Area theaters, Berkeley Rep provided theater-goers with the opportunity to hear a post-performance talk by someone associated with the play. In this case, director Indhu Rubasingham engaged in conversation with Dr. Mohammad Qayoumi, the first Afghan-American to become president of a U.S. university. I wasn’t able to attend their talk, but I had the good fortune of standing next  to Ms Rubasingham during the intermission on the first day’s performance and being able to ask her a few questions about the production. She told me how the plays were commissioned and put together; she also described how after spending the whole day together watching the trilogy, audiences in London would begin discussing and sharing their views during intermissions and before and after the show.

I feel lucky about whom I sat with during two of the three performances. On the first day, which was for the press, I was the guest of my friend Diane Le Bow, a photo journalist who has visited Afghanistan several times and has written about her experiences there. She even helped organize and participated in a conference held in Tajikistan in 2000 during which Afghan women debated what statements they wanted written into the new Afghan Constitution.  After seeing the show together, we had a very interesting conversation, and I learned a lot from her. I went on my own the second day, but at curtain’s close, feeling the emotion of the moment, the two people stting next to me and I began talking.

The woman to my left told us her brother is a judge advocate in the elite U.S. Army Rangers and has been in Afghanistan for the past year, following deployments to Iraq and Bosnia. His wife, who is also a lawyer and who joined the army in order to pay for college, has now been sent to Afghanistan as well. They have a ten-month-old baby they’ve had to leave behind with grandparents. She said her brother had really changed over the past few years and was suffering from PTSD.  She’d come to see the play to learn more about the country and the situation there.

The young man on my right said after two tours in Afghanistan, his cousin also suffered from PTSD: he had returned “racist” and “crazy”. This made the young man wonder whether his decision to soon join the army in order to get med school paid for was a good idea. He said he wanted to specialize in “field medicine” and that UC Davis had a good program in this that the army would pay for. He also said his dream was to join MSF (Medecins sans Frontieres) following graduation. The woman, who told us she was of Hungarian descent, advised him NOT to join the army; she saw what had happened to her brother.  She spoke to the young man about Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, saying that he should apply to him for a scholarship to attend medical school.  As for me, I told the young man I was pretty sure he could be a doctor for MSF even without majoring in field medicine, so he wouldn’t necessarily have to go to Davis and join the army. When we parted in front of the theater, the young man thanked the woman and me profusely for listening and giving him some suggestions.

I realized the three of us had each come to see the play for different reasons.  Indhu Rubasingham was right: As in London, “The Great Game” had incited us to discuss and share. In addition to the provocative subject matter and the quality of the acting, the play had elicited our, as well as others’, reactions and comments about many different subjects related to Afghanistan and western intervention there.

Although I am a theater buff and go often to the theater, not all the plays I’ve seen have provided such a memorable experience as “The Great Game: Afghanistan”.

Published in: on November 17, 2010 at 10:29 pm  Comments (1)  

A Cross-Cultural Dilemma

Last week I attended a French ladies’ luncheon at a lovely home in the Oakland hills. The occasion was the annual meeting of the San Francisco Bay Area branch of an international French reading group called “La Bibliotheque Orange.” It also happened to be the birthday of one of their members, Isabelle, who had brought a delicious French apple tart to celebrate.

Instead of a Frenchified version of “Happy Birthday to You”, Isabelle requested that we sing a more traditional birthday song entitled “Bon Anniversaire” by Jacques Larue.  Her eyes filling with tears, she said this was the song her mother used to sing to her when she was a little girl living in the south of France. Coached by the oldest member of the group, Isabelle and several of the other women sang the two stanzas of the song, beginning and ending with the refrain:

Bon anniversaire
Nos voeux les plus sincères
Que ces quelques fleurs
Vous apportent le bonheur
Que l’année entière
Vous soit douce et légère
Et que l’an fini
Nous soyons tous réunis
Pour chanter en choeur
Bon anniversaire !

(rough translation : Happy Birthday/With our most sincere wishes/Let these few flowers/bring you happiness/Let this whole year /Be sweet and light for you/And when the year is over/Let us all reunite/To sing in chorus/Happy Birthday.)

Once Isabelle had blown out the three candles on the tart—representing, I was told, the past, present and future of her life– a lively discussion ensued. Some of the women, who had only vague recollections of the song, requested information about Larue, the songwriter, and the most famous interpreter of it, Andre Claveau. They also wondered how they could get the words to the song. (Their request was granted the next day, when one industrious lady sent them out to everyone by email.)  All the women present agreed how much more this old French tune meant to them than the French version of the American song they usually were required to sing at gatherings in the U.S.

Most of these French women are married to Americans or have lived for many years in America with their French husbands. Many have acquired American citizenship and raised American or dual-national children. These women often get together here in local groups like “La Bibliotheque Orange” or “Les Amis de la Culture Française” to be able to speak their own language, to reminisce about France, and to keep up the old traditions like the song and the three-candled cake.

This luncheon got me thinking. Even though these women return to France for holidays, I wonder how they would feel if they were to return to France to live. Many of them have told me they like living in the U.S. and feel comfortable here. They’re not so sure they could readapt to living in their own country again permanently.

Reflecting on this, I realize that in many ways, my own situation is the mirror image of theirs. Marriage and emigration took me to France, where I have lived for 40 years, working and raising a family. When  I’m at my home in Paris, and even though I speak fluent French and have dual citizenship,  like the French women here,  I, too, enjoy getting together from time-to-time with my native compatriots and keeping up the old traditions.

Now that I’m retired and on my own, I’ve been spending more time out of France over the past three years—either traveling throughout the world or in California, where I grew up as a child. Being back in the Bay Area for the last ten months, I admit it feels good to “melt in,” to be able to speak a language without any trace of a “foreign” accent, to reconnect with the American way of life, to enjoy the wide variety of activities and events offered here, and to see old friends and make new ones, including a new beau.

Nevertheless, I must also admit that is has taken me awhile to acclimate myself to being “American” again. After living in France longer than I have lived in my native country, I realize that I am also, in many ways, very French. Having not had contact with French people over the last months, I found myself enjoying speaking French again and sharing news about events and family back in France. And even though I wasn’t familiar with the French birthday song, I, too, appreciated how much more charming it is than the simplistic American “Happy Birthday to You” ditty. It was also fun to hear the ladies discuss food and to sample the crème fraîche one woman had learned to make from scratch from American milk. And how much more delectable their luncheon was than the usual fare offered at American pot-lucks!

Hence, my dilemma: Where is home? I ask myself.   I wonder how many other retired, middle-aged dual-nationals, or long-term expatriates or refugees share this quandary.  Is home our native land, or is it the country where we have spent the greatest part of our lives?  Undoubtedly, for many of us the answer to this question is “both places.” And if our economic or political situation permits it, many of us might like to spend half of the year in each place. But is it realistic long-term traveling back and forth? And how do you reconcile the need to be close to your immediate family, your old friends, and your home in one place, with your yearning to go back to your roots and to enjoy the life you have recreated in your homeland?

Published in: on November 1, 2010 at 7:56 pm  Comments (5)  

Smiling in Berkeley, Paris and Shanghai

Phyllis Diller once said, « A smile is a curve that sets everything straight. » I think one of the reasons I feel so comfortable here in Berkeley is because people, particularly in my neighborhood, smile in the street. Whether they’re jogging, walking their dog on a leash or their baby in a stroller, or just going from one place to another, they invariably make eye contact with me, grin and say hello. And I do the same. What a difference a smile makes! There’s a human connection.  It’s good for my moral. It brightens my day.

Unfortunately, it isn’t the same when I walk down a street in my neighborhood in Paris. In France, smiling at strangers in the streets isn’t usually done, so most Parisians go around town with a neutral expression on their faces. They avoid your gaze and continue down the street without acknowledging you. Over the years, I, too, have acquired that neutral expression, that mask of non-recognition of the other when I’m living there. And it’s hard for me because I’m basically a friendly person with a broad, toothy smile that rarely leaves my face, even when I’m crying inside. But, as I tell American expatriates with whom I do cross-cultural training, you have to be careful in Paris. Parisians don’t smile at you because you’re a foreigner; they don’t smile at strangers; they don’t smile at each other.

It’s not only because Paris is a big metropolis and therefore, like New York or London, not so “friendly” as smaller places.  It’s also because not smiling is, in my opinion, part of French culture.  For many Americans, smiling is a polite gesture. Not so for the French. For many French people, smiling at a stranger in the street is a type of “come on” with sexual innuendos. Or it’s an invasion of privacy, since if you’re smiled at, you have to respond. Or it’s ‘hypocritical’: Why wear a smile when you don’t want to? they ask.

Of course, not all French people are non-smilers; some do smile, although usually not in the street. There are also regional differences. In the south of France, for example, people tend to be more “Mediterranean”, more outgoing and friendly, and they smile more. I’ve also noticed that French people who’ve traveled abroad often come back impressed by the smiling friendliness of other cultures; they may then attempt to smile more or at least to be less cynical about those who smile or about the meaning of a smile.

Personally speaking, I have often found that, in addition to establishing human contact, smiling is also a very efficient means of communication.  When you don’t speak the language, for example, as I didn’t in Shanghai when I was living and working there last year, smiling replaced words.  Chinese shopkeepers, cashiers, concierges, and I often smiled at each other, used gestures, and made ourselves understood. And I think the fact that we could share smiles helped me make ready friends with the little girls in the Chinese orphanage where I volunteered. Even with non-smiling Parisians, smiling to French policemen and bureaucrats has helped me obtain directions, information and help.

Smiling can assure,  inspire, embrace, open doors, resolve, and spread. Smiling is infectious.

Published in: on March 26, 2010 at 4:14 pm  Comments (2)  
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Cities on Water

At fifteen, I moved away from San Francisco to Paris, a very beautiful, but land-locked city. For years, while living in the French capital, I carried in my mind’s eye images from my childhood: the blue water of San Francisco Bay, the cat’s paws of fog rolling through the Golden Gate, and the rock-island of Alcatraz. I could not forget the breath-taking view from the windows of my school library on the hills of Pacific Heights and the sound of distant fog horns when I walked home in the afternoon. To my mind, the Seine could never make up for what Paris lacks, a large expanse of water.
Now I’m back in California, living in a place where I have another panoramic view, but this time from Berkeley, on the other side of the Bay. From my window, I can see the skyline of San Francisco, the Golden Gate, Angel Island, and Mount Tamalpais. Sometimes I go down to the Berkeley Marina, sniff the sea air from the dock, watch the sail boats and admire the antics of wet-suited windsurfers. I’ve also been to Ocean Beach and Baker Beach in San Francisco and to nearby spots like Muir Beach and Stinson Beach, where nobody swims—the water being much too cold – but where the breakers and the tides remind you that San Francisco is a city not only on a bay but also on the ocean.
The more I travel, the more I appreciate cities on water. I must qualify this a bit. Some cities I’ve visited, Shanghai and Tokyo, for example, are vibrant and exciting places, but their ports are out-of-the-way and industrial. I like cities giving onto water that are proud and boastful of their harbors. Indeed, every time I discover a new one, I feel a flutter in my heart and imagine myself settling down to live.
In addition to my native San Francisco, I’ve fallen in love with other cities on water throughout the world. All of these cities hold a special place in my heart and in my mind’s eye. In addition to their natural beauty, they evoke memories of experiences, adventures and people, all of them related to their location on water, and I cherish them for this.
When I discovered Sydney, “the Harbor City”, I was reminded of San Francisco. My first day there, I took a ferry ride across the bay, passing under Harbour Bridge and wondering–just as I used to do as a child when under the Golden Gate– how many people had jumped to their deaths from its height. Admiring the Opera House, I couldn’t help thinking how much it resembled a winged bird skimming over the water’s surface. And before I left Sydney, I took a bus out to Bondi Beach and watched the surfers, little knowing then that five years later my own son Marc would be there among them.

While in Hong Kong, I didn’t stay in the city proper, on Hong Kong Island or on the Kowloon Peninsula. Rather, I stayed on the southern tip of Lantau Island and traveled to the city by ferry across the water into Victoria Harbour. What a different view I had of the city’s skyscrapers and harbor when approaching them from the water than the one I later had from the top of Victoria Peak! And I’m sure one reason I have very fond memories of HK is because I was able to get away from the hustle and bustle of the big city and return to my haven on Lantau, where I could swim, sun-bathe and go biking.

Picture post cards and photos don’t do Rio de Janeiro justice. It is much more beautiful than what a camera can capture. Even from the top of Rocinha, the poorest favela in South America, which I visited, local residents have a view of the blue Atlantic on the horizon. From atop the Sugar Loaf, I saw Guanabara Bay and the city below, but I must admit that when our cable car reached the peak of the Corcovado, another of Rio’s famous landmarks, I couldn’t see anything because, as often happens, the statue of Christ the Redeemer, as well as the city beneath us, were covered in a thick carpet of fog! I was luckier the next day when taking a round-trip ferry ride to Niteroi: from the water, the views of the skyline of Rio were almost as impressive as from on high. Other water memories of Rio include my swimming alone at Cocacabana and Ipanema and leaving nothing but a towel and a pair of dime-store flip-flops on the beach in case of robbery.

The first time I went to Lisbon I was with my ex-husband when we were still in love. It reminded me very much of San Francisco, with its hills and little cable cars, and its suspension bridge across the bay. I read recently that the bridge, the 25 de Abril, was actually built by the same company that constructed the Golden Gate! I remember discovering fado with my husband at one of the city’s famous taverns and visiting the Belem Tower and the tile museum while he –poor man—spent the day in Portuguese automobile factories. The second time I went to Lisbon, I was on my own attending an American Studies conference at the university, whose windows provided lovely views of the Tagus River estuary. By this time, a second bridge, the Vasco da Gama, had been built, and we conference attendees were treated to a lovely cruise during which our boat actually passed under it.

Much further north, beautiful Stockholm is made up of 14 islands and is situated at a point where Lake Malaren meets the Baltic Sea. I’ve also been there twice—once alone and once with my ex-husband. When I went there alone, I was only 19 and visiting a Swedish exchange student from my college in New York. Ulla was beautiful and sophisticated. Her father was a doctor, and I remember she put on white gloves to take me to visit a Claes Oldenburg exhibit at the Moderna Museet on the island of Skeppsholmen on the bay of central Stockholm. About 20 years later, my husband and I stayed with Swedish friends on another island, Lindigo, and took a day excursion out to the archipelago, where many of the 24,000 islands and islets only have a few, small, colorfully-painted wooden houses on them.

Helsinki and St. Petersburg are two other northern European cities on the Baltic Sea I have visited. Because of their climate, I wouldn’t want to live in either one, but I was struck by the constant activity of their harbors. Like Stockholm, Helsinki is spread out over different islands and bays, and its port is one of the largest in Scandinavia. I actually went down to the docks to find out about taking a ferry to Tallin, Estonia, but because of the choppy November waters  decided to take a train to St. Petersburg instead. Of course, what I remember most about this beautiful Russian city is the Hermitage Museum. However, in my mind’s eye, I also recall visiting an island on the Neva River and young Russian newlyweds having their pictures taken at a point where it juts out into the Bay of Finland.
Because of its position on the Bosphorus and its deep natural harbor, the Golden Horn, Istanbul struck me as a very proud, very commercial city on water—a city striding two continents with a definite mixture of east and west. During both of my stays there, I went down to the city’s busy docks, where I heard deck-hands shouting to each other in Turkish and observed the coming and going of ferries, boats and ships on the Bosphorus. Taking a two-hour cruise, I was able to admire, from the water, the turrets and colors of the Topkapi Palace, the Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque. The stunning views of these monuments, set against the blue of the sea, still remain in my memory many years later.
Returning to the North American continent, in addition to San Francisco, four other cities have impressed me because of their location on water. New York is one of them. No matter how many times I have done it, and even if the Twin Towers are now gone, I still get a thrill whenever I take the Staten Island ferry and observe the skyline of Lower Manhattan. And when I see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, I can’t help buy think of all the immigrants who arrived there by ship. On the opposite coast, San Diego, Seattle and Vancouver are all “water cities” where I could imagine living.
The fact that all these cities have left such an impression on me makes me wonder: What is it about cities on water? Why are they so attractive to people like me? Is it the natural beauty of their harbors and setting? The vistas they provide? The activity of the boats, ferries and ships gliding across their waters? The people and memories they provoke? Is it their appeal to our senses, what we see, hear, smell, feel? Or is it something more primal and universal, related to the womb-like relationship we have with the sea? Do cities on water, like water itself, bring us inner peace– a feeling of continuity in space and time? Or do they impress because of their power, of their opening out and going forth in the world?
Probably a combination of all of these, I imagine.

Published in: on February 18, 2010 at 1:16 am  Leave a Comment  
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Health Care à la française

Having been away from France for about a year, first in China and then in California, I’m taking advantage of my month-long stay in Paris over the Christmas holidays to see doctors, my dentist and physical therapist; have tests and X-rays done; glasses and orthopedic soles made; as well as stocking up on medicine, contact lenses, and so forth.
This is because in Berkeley, where I’ve been living for the past five months and where I’m returning for an indefinite period, I haven’t got medical coverage. Of course, while in the U.S., I can get treated, but I must pay “out of pocket” and it is very expensive for people like me. I learned this recently upon consulting a doctor at the health center of U.C. Berkeley, where I am attached as a “visiting scholar.” Having come down with a parasite in my digestive tract following my six months in China, I was so uncomfortable I decided I had to consult an American doctor. My visit to a primary care doctor, two lab tests and six pills came to $450!
Luckily, French national health will reimburse me for some of my expenses, but at French rates, which are a lot less than in America. And if anything serious were ever to happen to me while in the United States or traveling elsewhere, the insurance I have with my American Express “gold card” and through my French car and house insurance will “repatriate” me back to France, as they did for my son Sebastien when he had a serious biking accident in Bolivia this summer.
But I still do worry when I’m in the U.S., and I certainly commiserate with all the people there who don’t have medical coverage. I also don’t understand why many Americans are against “a public option” on Obama’s new health care plan and want to continue being obliged to get care through private health insurance companies.
In France, we have “national health” with “a public option”, but we all pay into it—both employers and employees. Some people in the U.S. might call this “socialistic”. I call it “civic” and “wise”. If you have universal health coverage, society at large benefits. You have a healthy population, and that’s important.
I worked for 35 years in France and paid into the system for all that time. As a certified teacher and thus a French civil servant, I also subscribed to a complementary teacher’s insurance, the MGEN. The latter works very closely with French “securite sociale”, the national health care plan, and reimburses at lower rates than certain corporate or private insurance plans. (In France, you pay and then get reimbursed by the “securite sociale”; further reimbursement can then be made by your complementary insurance plan.) The MGEN doesn’t reimburse completely for such things as glasses, expensive dental care, osteopathy, private rooms in public hospitals or clinics, and so forth. And seeing a specialist is only partly reimbursed. However, when coupled with the “securite sociale”, it usually completely covers visits to family doctors, prescription medicine, physical therapy, operations and shared hospital rooms.
All this to explain why I’ve been so busy these past two weeks in France taking care of my health! In addition to the fact that I am reimbursed for most of my expenses, I also have a wonderful relationship with my doctors and health care workers here. They are all very competent, but you can also really talk to them. My family doctor gave me a big hug to wish me a Happy New Year and a great sojourn in California; the orthopedic surgeon who operated on my left foot two years ago said all was now fine, and then we proceeded to talk about Eisenhower and World War II; my physical therapist described his recent trip to Vietnam; my female gynecologist wanted to hear all about my stay in Berkeley; and my eye doctor told me how she was afraid the French medical system would become more and more privatised and then not work as well.

Published in: on January 10, 2010 at 9:56 am  Comments (2)