two yellowWhat is the difference between an expat and an immigrant?

Time and expectations.

When I first moved to Europe, my employers told me that they would appreciate if I would stay at least two years to make it worth all the expense. I thought, “TWO YEARS? Can I do that?”

one yellow
I took these photos last November. They seemed so appropriate for this topic. Putting down roots.

I had lived for just over two years in Africa, without electricity or running water. I figured that Europe was a cakewalk by comparision. Surely I could make it two years.

I decided to cram in as much of the Continent as I could. I found an apartment that met all my criteria: Grand French doors, fireplaces, moldings, impossibly high ceilings, good location, cheap. It not only had moldings but also mold; it was a dump, really, with unreliable heat and scary wiring. I didn’t care. I worked 12 hours a day and then left every weekend. By not spending my pennies on rent, I was able to see a lot of Europe.

scattered yellowThis is where I thank the Schengen Treaty and its 26 members. There were just seven when I moved to Europe. The idea that I could run around even seven countries without border controls was amazing! If you don’t remember all this, watch the very funny “Rien à Declarer” (“Nothing to Declare”) with the utterly insane Benoît Poelvoorde (Belgian) and Dany Boon (French) about how well that went.

Feels like yesterday.


dividedI married a Belgian. Two years turned into six. But I always figured I would go back. And we did, for a year. Then we moved back to Europe, this time to France.

Thanks to Schengen, my husband has the right to live in France, the way a Californian can live in New York, almost. Because I’m married to him, I get to come, too. Our kid has dual nationality (but honestly is a citizen of the world).

What does it mean to adopt a new country? I think it means respecting the local laws, certainly, and also customs, though I don’t think one needs to jettison one’s origins. I make cupcakes and hamburgers and barbecued ribs and lots of Mexican food. I listen to NPR podcasts and read the New York Times. I speak English to my husband and kid; husband speaks to me in French; kid speaks to me in English and to papa in French, which makes for some interesting dinner conversations. (If I dare react to a comment our kid made in French, I will be told, in English, “I wasn’t talking to YOU.” Of course I am in awe and envious of this ability to snap effortlessly and mostly flawlessly from one language to another.)

cookies with warning note
How it rolls in our house.

That said, the looks I get when I speak to my kid in English in public are not the same as for mothers who speak other languages. Once in a while I get a frown, but most often, mothers I don’t even know will sidle up and ask whether I give English lessons (I don’t). Mothers speaking in Arabic get only the frowns.

Why is that? I suspect it’s an assumption of want vs. need. I am in France because I want to be, not because I have to be here. It’s a nice place, I’m a lifelong francophile, and so why not. It’s an expat mindset. This, compared with people who are in France not because they are in love with the country but because they are NOT in love with their own, for economic, political or whatever reasons.

While I pass for French until I open my mouth, others get judged from afar. I am ashamed to say, I’ve done it myself. There was one mother at after-school pickup who wore a headscarf. Being a feminist, I winced every time I saw her. On the one hand, I think we all should be able to wear whatever we want. No body-shaming. But headscarves aren’t about fashion; they are saying half the population is a threat or a nuisance that should be hidden.

from aboveHowever, some friends were interested in a house for sale which happened to be next door to the veiled woman’s house, and so I approached her to get information about it. She was lovely. Charming and smart, though she hadn’t been able to continue her studies. She worked. She basically took care of her mother, who though fairly young didn’t speak French and didn’t drive and needed her daughter to manage every aspect of her life. Her two kids were well-behaved. Her husband had a business.

I’ve been told a number of times, both in France and in Belgium, that I’m a “good” immigrant–legally documented, working, tax-paying, law-abiding. This woman and her family also were “good” immigrants in every one of those ways. Yet, she told me, I was the first person ever to speak to her in our village. I was ashamed that I had let her veil stop me from being friendly. I still see veils as means of oppression, but I make an effort to love the person–or at least smile in the case of strangers–while hating the amid yellowAt my gym class yesterday, one woman had voted for LePen in Sunday’s run-off; ironically she herself had lived all over the world, untroubled that she should maintain her French identity and customs in other countries but unhappy to be back in France and confronted with people doing the same.

The others all favored Macron, tepidly; their enthusiasm was limited to opposing Le Pen (sound familiar?). They talked about their conflicted feelings about France’s future, about absolutely wanting to preserve the social safety net while wondering whether it hadn’t gotten too generous. Where to draw the line? In a way, Sunday’s election was about 11 different choices of lines to be drawn. Though the challenges are far more complex than a simple line can resolve.

One woman, who works for a social-services agency, described a case she’s dealing with: an elderly couple who just arrived from Azerbaijan. They don’t speak a word of French and both need extensive medical care. That someone from Azerbaijan would prefer to have heart surgery in France isn’t surprising. What is shocking, however, is that they qualify as indigent and don’t have to pay a cent.

red with yellowObviously, that can’t go on. But will it swing as far as Le Pen wants? We’ll find out May 7.

Although this topic is inextricably and unavoidably part of life in France, especially right now, we will turn back toward lighter things on Friday.


39 thoughts on “An Immigrant in France

  1. Really interesting column, Catherine. I try hard to “love thy neighbor” but I am similarly torn about the veil and assimilation issues. But I can’t imagine the horror of having to flee my home country.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes. I remember watching “Hotel Rwanda” and how the family’s very normal life descended into hell and they had to flee. Who wouldn’t in such a situation (answer: the poorest).
      I do think immigrants have an obligation to learn a basic level of the local language, regardless of what they speak at home. They should pay taxes. They should obey the laws, and, when in public, the local customs (like speaking to or shaking hands with women). Those seem to be the biggest gripes about immigrants who don’t assimilate.


  2. Such complex issues re immigration and integration, and so sad to see the west moving to the far right for “solutions”. There has to be some middle ground…
    Love your integration story.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Interesting post. Several takeaways from my standpoint. Yes, assimilation is truly a big issue facing all of the developed nations. Costs to support immigrants who arrive at those shores are mounting rapidly and the need to solve the issues related to immigration is growing exponentially. “Love thy neighbor” indeed–is your neighbor also the woman who voted for Mme. Le Pen? or in this country Donald Trump? I am guessing there would be a lot of pushback on that. As I said, interesting post and thank you for tackling the topic.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Indeed, it was difficult when someone very dear to me said he supported throwing out all Muslims from the U.S. It took a while for us to speak again, and honestly we haven’t broached the topic since. I don’t understand the blanket hatred. Of course there are plenty of people who aren’t attracted to the hatred but who just want to destroy the current system and hope that whatever follows will be better. I have a lot of sympathy/empathy for them, though I don’t agree with them at all.


  4. Quite a subject to tackle! It’s so complicated and emotions run very high, both in France and here! There is no one solution, of course, but we all have to be open to people from so many different countries and cultures. And travel helps us all see that; I’ve travelled mostly to western Europe, but also to India and then to Haiti. It has certainly changed my world view and now I encourage my daughter to travel (which she does and loves!)

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thoughtful and well written as ever. For me the word expat means someone who has not put down roots, but is intending to return to their country of origin, and socialises primarily with other expats. An immigrant is someone who has made a commitment to living in their new country permanently. Many people, like me, fall into a more nuanced situation. I am a serial expat I think (having lived in the UK before France). I may eventually go back to Australia, but I may not. I might go to New Zealand instead, or stay in France. Even Belgium is on the cards. On the other hand, I am quite well integrated into my local native community, but I will never fully assimilate. At the moment I do not own property outside of France, and feel quite settled here.

    I think the distinction we should be discussing is not expat or immigrant, but integration versus assimilation. Integration allows you to have a past that is not native to the country you currently live in. Assimilation does not.

    Whether or not to wear the veil should be up to individuals. Many Muslim women come from backgrounds where it is not traditionally worn and bitterly resent their own costume traditions being taken over by incoming fanatics. Others come from a tradition where it is normal to wear it and can cite perfectly practical reasons for doing so, and enjoy being able to do so fashionably. In the first case I would support those who do not wish to wear the veil, in the second, those who do.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. This is an extremely important topic and discussion — cela va sans dire ! Your perspective is most interesting, and the contrasts you draw between yourself as a native English-speaking mother in France versus an Arabic-speakng mother are duly noted. (Having lived in France multiple times for extended periods, but when single and childless, I also noted some differences but nothing so striking. That’s also been some years.)

    I watched TV5monde throughout Sunday afternoon / evening as the premier tour was underway. Living in a Trumpian (sur)reality, I surely don’t wish to see France (and the EU) go that way.

    As one who married a European, expecting that we would live in France or Belgium, I only experienced brief moments of feeling “otherized” (in Belgium – not tall, not blonde, not flemish, not flemish-speaking, not Catholic), we wound up US-based (to my dismay, but per my husband’s wishes). This sense of never quite being at home, of being “otherized” and far worse, is something that we all ought to experience for ourselves.

    None of my experience replicates what various ethnicities go through both in Europe and the US, but I daresay it is an eye-opener.

    Thank you for opening this discussion.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. The economic pain is real. The demons are not. Most people, regardless of origin, just want to work and give their children a better life than they had. Progress. When progress stops, fingers get pointed, but too often at the most convenient/least powerful rather than at those really at fault.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Beautiful post, reminding us of not only tolerance, but acceptance as well. And that love and friendship is universal. Happy for you that you made a new acquaintance. Merci for sharing. Watching your election process from the U.S.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. France has been so on my mind. You have written a timely, sensitive response to a world-wide issue. I live in the only liberal city in Kansas in the middle of the US. As a university community we have a diverse, international population. At the ballot box, this state’s recent anti everything except what tea party evangelists think is right, has been an eye opener to say the least.

    When I was young mother and a newcomer to this town, I joined a group called “Small World”. It was a group with the goal of helping international mothers learn English, and to give all of our children a chance to get to know “others”. The most controversial thing I remember is when we held a community lunch fundraiser a few people made their Quiche with uncooked bacon! Life was much simpler, no?

    All the best to you and yours.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. This has been on my mind for a while. To be honest, when the first immigration crisis swept Europe, I feared for the loss of each country’s identity and their culture. But now I am afraid Le Pen’s policy might be too restrictive so that the country will go backwards, isolating itself. My best friend voted for her, she travels the world and does not think twice helping the poor in South Africa. As for myself, when I studied in Finland decades ago, I was working two jobs to support myself, while seeing the refugee/immigrants living in bigger houses and doing nothing all day long, all paid for by the government. So where to draw the line? And more importantly, how to stop someone from abusing the system? Hopefully the new administration can figure this out. That said, I hope Macron will win the election.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I also have seen the change since my first trip to France in 1985. But France doesn’t feel any less French to me. That said, the whole benefit system could use an overhaul. Before gym class, I mentioned a couple I know (French) who do a “cure” every year, three weeks at a spa, paid by the government. They are in perfect health, but they get their doctor to sign a form saying they need it. It’s their right, they say. Every person who arrived at class heard a snippet of the conversation then added their own example of people they know who go for dubious “cures.” Sure, it must be great to come out of three weeks at a spa. But I’d rather know that cancer care and maternity care are fully paid for, whether I need it myself or not. It isn’t possible to do everything for everybody.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. I really enjoyed this. Taking things separately … your own experience both as a younger woman and now make interesting reading. Of course, being a natural Pinocchio (I excuse it by saying my writing is journalistic and observational 😉) this is unsurprising … I love to understand the back–stories of others. The present day conundrum facing France is replicated in my country of birth (UK) and the USA (my husband is a naturalised American) and it will be very interesting to see which way the cupcake divides here. I can only hope it doesn’t swing to the far right but last year gave me two shocks and it certainly isn’t all over til the fat lady sings on May 7th. What I hope emerges from the mess is a facing of the reality. We have created a tiny planet and migrancy and immigration are bound into all our cultures. However there do need to be sensible boundaries and I believe if you want to live in a country it is important to give back socially and economically otherwise whoever you are you stand accused of being a parasite and it is that issue that is causing this ghastly echoes of the 1930s swing.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Osyth has just said a lot of what I was thinking. I do not understand the mindset of the LePen-Trump nativists (as they are now called by editorial writers who don’t want to use older, more charged words), but to me it seems to come from a mindset of fear. Fear that *they* won’t have enough, although many already have too much; fear of not being able to control their world(s); fear of the different, the unusual, the other, anything outside the immediate comfort zone that raises questions on comfortably held assumptions.
    We’re all in this together, there is no Planet B. But how you get through the walls of fear to the humans behind them, I don’t know.
    The first time I had a substantive conversation with a woman wearing the kind of veil you mention, she was a reporter for a major U.S. paper, just back from a stint in the Iraq-Afghanistan area. Because of the veil, she said, she could get information that others couldn’t. A viewpoint I hadn’t considered.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting! I am trying to challenge my assumptions. I am not for abusing the system, no matter who does it (native or not). But the current problems are not the fault of immigrants; they come from higher up on the food chain.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Very nice piece! Good pictures, both of camera and of word.
        Another thought on the question, raised above, of people who say to kick all the Muslims out of the country (usually meaning the U.S.): A good many of the people so vilified are native-born, a point that escapes many.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Such a thoughtful post. In a country that was originally completely made up of immigrants {well, unless one is of American Indian ascent} this is a subject close to my heart.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Interesting topic. I refer to myself as an expat because I’ve never heard our employees who transferred referred to as anything else; of course, the difference is that I have a permanent contract and can stay indefinitely as long as I remain employed (or convert to a Permanent Resident after a few years). Perhaps I am more accurately an immigrant?

    I can understand why some countries in the EU are upset though. I’ve met lovely British expats (their term) who moved to France for retirement and love receiving the better French medical care, but without having paid French taxes. Not being French, this still rubs me the wrong way a little because I understand that nothing comes for free – if too many people move here who didn’t pay into the system, the system breaks. Period. I have no dependents and pay a ridiculous amount in taxes, but it’s about equal to what I saved for medical care anyway (in case of a “max out-of-pocket scenario”) plus deductibles, co-pays and my share of the premiums.

    In regards to integration vs. assimilation, I think there can be too much pressure here for people to do the latter. Even with being American, I’ve had French people comment that I need to “become more French” eventually. Clearly, I’m still too American because, while I think integration is important, I do believe that challenging how I see the world by listening to new perspectives has helped me become a better person, think of novel solutions to issues, etc. I think France can remain “French” while still incorporating ideas that have worked in other countries to resolve some of the problems faced today . . . but what do I know, I’m not French 😉

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I know what you mean. I had some British acquaintances who lived here full-time, but who didn’t pay taxes (they proudly admitted to it), and it really irked me.
      Something has to change, but it seems like respecting rules and cracking down on abuses (both the tax avoidance kind and the “spa cure” kind) is enough–there isn’t a need to slam the doors shut.

      Liked by 1 person

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