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 (6)  

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  Comments (1)  
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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)  

From One Campanile to Another

A few days ago, I was walking through the Berkeley campus at noon on a sunny November day. Towering above me was the recently-renovated centerpiece of the UC campus, Sather Tower, the Italian Renaissance-style campanile designed by John Galen Howard that was completed in 1914.

As I walked, bells began chiming from up above in the campanile. Just as Proust’s eating a Madeleine brought back past memories, so did the chime of those bells. Their music evoked a moment five or six years ago when my American friend Susie and I were walking through the main square of Ghent, Belgium.

It was a rainy Sunday morning about noon, and the bells of Ghent’s landmark belfry, the Belfort, were ringing above. Susie turned to me and said: “Look. The door to the tower is open. Come on! Let’s go up.” I followed Susie inside. Up, up, up we climbed the narrow winding staircase. The higher we got, the louder were the bells—54, according to the guidebook–of the belfry, which was built in the 14th century as a fortified guard tower. From the small, stone window-slits, we could see the medieval square below, with its grey cobblestone streets, gabled houses and slate roofs.

Upon arriving at the top, we saw, behind the glass of a box-like room, two carillon players, a man and a woman, playing a duet on an organ-like instrument. “My God,” gasped Susie. It’s Geert and Lizbeth!” The bells were so loud that I could barely hear what Susie was saying, but the expression on her face and the gestures she made indicated to me that she recognized the two musicians. And they, in turn, nodded their heads to Susie in recognition as they played.

That day, we were the only spectators up in the tower. Holding our hands over our ears, we listened –for about 20 minutes –to the bell concert, all the while watching the fist and feet movements of the two musicians. Once the concert was over, the man and woman opened the glass door and came out to greet us.

“Geert. Lizbeth!”
“What a surprise to see you! What are you doing here?”
“I’m really surprised to see you, too, said Susie. “I didn’t realize you both were back in Belgium. I’ve been here for six months doing research at the university. This is my friend Hilary.”

After we shook hands, Susie said, “This is really amazing. I met Geert and Lizbeth in Berkeley a couple of years ago when Geert was the head carilloneur of Sather Tower. We used to be in a Dutch-speaking conversation group off campus. Jeez, what a coincidence!”

And what a coincidence it is, too, that although Susie lives most of the year in Belgium, the place I’m renting in Berkeley on Arch Street is just a block away from where she still owns a home!

Such coincidences prove to me yet again how small the world is becoming, how people work and spend their time on different continents, and how interconnected we all are. They also underscore the power of memory and the Proustian experience—of how hearing chiming bells and seeing a campanile in one place can bring back the memory of music of another bell tower thousands of miles away.

Published in: on November 26, 2009 at 12:24 pm  Comments (1)  

Some thoughts on expatriation and “roots”

Being a long-time resident of France, I’ve tended to forget what it’s like to be an expatriate in a foreign country. I’ve felt at home in my adopted country and different from those who are only in France for a limited time. I haven’t shared expats’ initial concerns about language, housing, shopping, and culture shock. I speak French, have a French ex-husband, French sons and French friends, live on the French economy, and think in euros, meters and centigrade.

Now, however, after spending six months living and teaching in China, I can certainly relate to many of the concerns expatriates have when they move abroad. When I arrived in Shanghai, I didn’t speak Mandarin; had to use sign language when I shopped; was shocked (at least at first) by all the spitting; and suffered from the pollution, the lack of green surroundings and the crowds.


And yet, I thoroughly enjoyed my expatriate experience. It opened up a whole new world to me. I was no longer comparing French and American cultures but discovering a new, very rich and complex, one. Nor was I continually comparing “the French” and “the Americans”. Now it was trying to understand “the Chinese”, a people that is much more diverse, individualistic, helpful, welcoming, and fun-loving than we in the West are often led to believe. Of course, speaking the language and staying on longer would have allowed me to delve further into the culture and to interact more with the local population; I only perceived the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. But my perception of China and the Chinese has certainly changed.

And while I was in Shanghai I had one of most rewarding experiences of my life, that of volunteering in a Chinese orphanage.

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I think what also helped me enjoy my stay in Shanghai were the expatriate associations, both American and French, I joined while I was there. Through them, I made new friends, went on walking tours and visits of the city and its surroundings, took a few Chinese cooking courses, discovered local restaurants and jazz clubs, even journeyed to Tibet! I also helped re-launch an international social group in Shanghai, attended the Shanghai Literary Festival, and participated in a local Anglophone writers’ group. All this, in addition to teaching fifteen hours a week at the French lycée, kept me very busy; and I rarely had time to feel “alone in a foreign country.”

I left Shanghai in July. Having enough miles by then for an award ticket on Air France, I embarked on a trip through six western states of the U.S. visiting family and friends. The landscapes I saw in the west, as well as hearing and speaking my native language again everywhere I went, soothed my soul—so much so that rather than return to France at the beginning of September, I decided, serendipitously, to lay down my bags until Christmas and give living in California another try. I’ve done this three other times since my divorce ten years ago, but circumstances always brought me back to France, where I’ve lived for nearly 40 years. Now, however, I’m retired, my children are grown, and I haven’t yet been blessed with grandchildren. Of course, I miss my sons, my friends, and my apartment (which I’ve been lucky enough to rent out), but, otherwise, nothing in Paris now really obliges me to live there anymore.

So far, I love being back in the Bay Area and the life style here. I’m reconnecting with childhood friends and making new ones, taking some classes, joining local groups, and doing research for a new book at the UC Berkeley library. Despite how much I appreciate living abroad, I’m now discovering how good it feels sometimes to return to your roots.HK,Berkeley

(an adapted version of this post recently appeared in the Nov./Dec. 2009 edition of AAWE News Paris)

Published in: on November 3, 2009 at 11:53 am  Comments (1)  
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