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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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.”

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 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)