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?

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

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  1. I just consider myself to be a hybrid and dont really think it is a dilemma. I think that everyone that has made the choice to leave their countries for non economique or non political reasons is doing it for a reason – for each one to discover what that reason is.

    However the French birthday song that you wrote about is new to me. I thought the whole birthday song concept in France was an American import (just translated into French)!!

  2. Synchronicity! I was at a small gathering of ex-pats in Hanoi rencently when the topic of “where is home?” came up — two people were being transferred by their companies/organizations and one had just “lost” friends who’d been “transferred back” and one was thinking about retirement. I think your definition changes as you get older — or at least mine does. Home used to be where I was raising my kids, but they are adults now. Most of us dream of what you say about travelling back and forth between where we live and where we are originally from, but long-term that gets to be not only expensive but more difficult physically. Eventually, the question is: where do you want to be when you can no longer travel? Where are the people who will care for you if you are terminally ill? Sorry to put a pall on the conversation…. As for me, I’m still not ready to plan realistically!

    • Synchronicity – what a great word which I too have been thinking about lately. Your comment is wise and resonates with me as well. I am a second generation expat in that my French mother raised me in the USA and now I am raising my children in France. I agree that the definition of “Home” changes depending on our age because both are defining factors in our identity. My French mother is thinking of coming back (home)to France (after 50 years of living in the USA) but she is not ready to let go of her NY self, teacher of French at the United Nations and writer of French text books and so begins this tension phase that many of us move in and out of throughout our lives, where we reexamine our belonging to the countries that feed our selves. In between countries + in between phases of our lives stirs up our in between identities.

  3. I enjoyed reading this Hilary. It seems very “in” these days to be able to travel back and forth from one country to another; to visit friends and family across the world. People often seem envious, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more envious of the people who have always called one place home. They’ve had friends for their entire lives and really know what it’s like to call a place home. Not that one is better than the other. I too wonder how realistic it is to travel back & forth over the long-term, especially with children. It sure must take its toll.

  4. I experience this, and I only live in Mexico 6 months a year. When I am here in Berkeley, I start to miss there, and vice versa. I feel most people I connect to here are missing a piece–an important piece–of my identity. Less so there, since there are many are ex-pats. However, those ex-pats are more conventional and generally more conservative. Coming from Berkeley as thrice married with several previous careers and countries, I don’t quite gel with the Rotarian marrieds or even the progressive marrieds, though have casual friends.

    Mine is so much more abbreviated. I can’t imagine the complexity of 40 years somewhere else and reaching this age. Something about this age connects me more to my earlier life than the years inbetween, no matter where I am.

    Very well said. Quite a dilemma. Good dilemma, but poignant. Leaves one suspended at times.


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