An American in Paris

I moved to France to be with my boyfriend, but how do I exist in a place where I'll never fully assimilate?

By Cary Tennis

Published September 12, 2003 7:21PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

A couple of years ago, as I was getting out of one relationship, I entered into another one with a great guy. He has all the characteristics I was looking for (or found missing in my previous relationship): a sense of humor on a par with mine, a silly goofiness not unlike my own, a similar family background (parents still married, nonreligious), sensitive (but not in a metrosexually overt way), and trustworthy (something you don't realize is a value you are looking for until you experience a lack of it). We are compatible, have fun together, and little by little have started to plan for the future.

In the midst of our dating, we decided to move to France -- he is French and missed his family and friends after being in the States for a few years. I had been laid off and looked at it as a great opportunity to live abroad and continue our relationship. Despite my mother's protests (she wanted me to be closer), we made the move and are now happily ensconced in a cute Parisian apartment around the corner from the canal where Amélie Poulain skipped stones.

Now here's my need for advice: As someone who cannot work (legitimately) yet in this country, I am having a hard time assimilating, improving my language skills, meeting friends (yes, I know this could take years). The idea of a Life here, a long-term commitment not only to my amour but also to his country, is what scares me. How can I live, exist, nurture myself in a place I will never fully be a part of? How do we work out a plan that takes into account my need to return to my homeland at some point? Or how do we compromise by creating a pond-jumping existence to appease my concerns?

Pond Jumper

Dear Pond Jumper,

Isn't it strange how you can fly somewhere and suddenly that's where you live? We just end up places. It's the modern condition. I don't think we've adjusted yet, as a species -- the way we're wired, that is. Yes, there are bureaus and agencies to administer the shifting accounts of nationality and wealth, of telephone number and e-mail address; yes, the you@your.e-mail.abode is a borderless fiction of zero gravity that moves with you nearly at the speed of light. But what we used to call a person -- not so much the body itself, which can move in and out of its cultural crosshairs, but the location of the being defined by intersecting lines of family, history, soil, trade, the sets, unions and subsets of attributes and proclivities, the smells you smelled as a child and the smells your grandfather smelled as a child, all that: It was thus for so long a given that maybe we didn't even think to place a high enough price on the geographic and temporal circumstances that define who we are, and then our easy, automatic sense of rootedness, of connection, of belonging, slipped away so quietly and so fast we couldn't quite remember what it was supposed to feel like. And now we move to Paris and what we say about the view is, it's the view that you saw in that movie.

I'm always getting the question wrong. I wish that were part of my charm. Maybe if I were French, it might be part of my charm. But I'm American and I'm afraid my obliqueness comes across like a failure of manhood, something maybe they have a pill for in the drugstore. Besides, you're not looking for some faux-Gallic take on things, are you? You're looking for good-old fashioned American advice.

Well, OK. How do you organize your identity now that you're in exile? The best way, it seems to me, is by defining a purpose and a duration for the accomplishment of that purpose. Why are you in Paris? What do you mean to accomplish there? Is it only to have lived there? Is it only to smell the bread every day, to eat the food, hear the music of the language, feel the exquisite lightness of an ancient civilization and emulate it, absorb it, take it in like a culture vitamin? So how long, would you say, would that take? A year? Two years? Five? Put a time on it and then say, "This is what I am doing in Paris."

You need to construct a narrative. You need to be able to say something like, "I am living in Paris with my boyfriend but I only plan to stay here three years, and I will visit my family every year for two weeks." Or you could say, "I am living in Paris because I prefer the pain of France to the pain of America, especially the delicate little pastries."

There are various reasons to be someplace. They don't all have to be well-thought-out. You could say, "I like the air in Paris and for that reason I intend to remain, at least until the air in America improves." Or you could say, "I am only here for an adventure; my home is in America, where my family and friends are, and where I grew up, and I intend to return there before the decade is out."

Do you see what I mean? You need a mission statement, as it were, so you can explain yourself to yourself and to others. Here are some other possibilities: "I am enjoying Paris, but since I cannot work here, I do not plan to stay indefinitely." Or, "I am going to return to America for an education in international relations, after which I hope to return to Paris as a special attaché to the diplomatic corps." Or, "I plan to stay here and study, raise a family, marry my boyfriend, and become a French citizen."

I came to San Francisco on a whim and stayed for the air and the beer.

Perhaps Paris is for you like one of those things one must do before dying. If so, when you have done it, you will have to figure out what to do next. That can be a tough one if doing the next thing involves leaving the boyfriend. But that's the way life goes. (That sounds at least a little French, doesn't it?)

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Cary Tennis

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