Friday, October 5, 2018

A life uncommon: part V

I followed my bliss all the way to Paris on September 7, 2001, arriving with an overstuffed suitcase and a heart full of hopes, dreams, unavowed fears, and the inexplicable assurance that I was where I was meant to be. In honor of the 17th anniversary of that leap of faith, I have decided to write a short series of posts recounting the little-known tale of my love affair with France. 

Read part I here, part II here, part III here, and part IV here.


When I think back on those first few years in Paris, I remember feeling as though I were walking on air, buoyed by the delight of seeing my dreams materialize ... but I also remember the deep and incessant anxiety that those dreams would be torn away from me. I used to fear that I was nothing more than a stowaway aboard a luxury liner, a kid who’d managed to sneak inside Disneyland after hours, a lottery winner with an erroneous ticket—it was all too good to be true; someone was bound to find out sooner or later and that would be the end. Every immigration-related trip to the Préfecture de Police, appropriately situated within the complex of the Palais de Justice-Conciergerie—where thousands of prisoners under the Reign of Terror, including Marie Antoinette herself, spent their last moments before meeting their fate at the foot of the guillotine—left me quaking in my faux leather boots. Each visa renewal, each request for a status change, each interaction with an immigration officer engendered an icy knot of dread in my chest that seemed to be the price to pay for waking up in paradise.

As the years passed, I learned to combat that truly existential fear—the fear of losing the existence I so cherished—by carefully stringing together little pieces of legitimacy like so many precious pearls: a job, a renewed visa, a successful status change, a Masters degree, a husband, a baby, a business, another baby ... until at long last, nearly 20 years after the soft autumn breeze of Paris first caressed my face, carrying the whispered promise of a life uncommon, I no longer question my right to live it; I no longer question my right to live here. 

As for feeling accepted—my other bugaboo—I ultimately gave up trying to perfectly emulate the French, figuring that any sense of being an outsider was mostly in my head, and deciding not to care about the part that wasn’t. And yet, when it came to seeking French citizenship, I long remained surprisingly ambivalent. After all, was I French? Would I ever be? And then the tragedy of November 13, 2015 happened, and with it came the realization that living among the French was no longer a question of “them” and of “me,” for the unmistakable feeling that flooded my heart that day was one of unity, of family, of … fraternité. These were my people. Period. It was a wake-up call if ever there was one: stop agonizing over where you belong. I began filling out my request for citizenship three days later.

When it came, the news that my request had been accepted struck me not as it would have in previous years—as a blessed relief—but rather as a formality whose smoothness and rapidity left the distinct impression that France had been expecting me to ask all along, and had been wondering what on earth I was waiting for. Citizenship was the last pearl on my strand of legitimacy and, as such, it prompted me to wonder whether I had reached the end of the road. Was that really it? Was I at last bona fide? The citizenship ceremony came and went, and as irony would have it, my only memento is an out-of-focus photo of myself flanked by two blurry officials, snapped in haste by a fellow new citizen. Something about it felt strangely anticlimactic, as though I’d just crossed the finish line of a marathononly to turn around and realize that I was alone. The world went on as before; I remained for the most part unchanged. Perhaps the full significance of the moment was too much to wrap my mind around. But I suspect the truth to be somewhat more poetic: despite my latent sentiment of eternal otherness, France had wholly accepted me long before that ceremony. For all intents and purposes, I had been French for years.

I used to wander through my neighborhood Monoprix, just for the pleasure of looking at the things on the shelves. Everyday things. Shampoo bottles (their shapes and colors are so much prettier than American ones!), hair clips (look at the beadwork!), scarves (such elegance!), the produce aisle (is this a grocery store or is it Babette’s Feast come to life?). Even in its humblest incarnation, the French aesthetic contains something of the sublime, something of the fundamentally beautiful. Beauty. Beauty is perhaps what resonated the most with me upon my arrival here. Beauty was everywhere, woven throughout everything. It shone forth from the mundane as well as the marvelous, allowing me to see the world in a new light. Joy found me in France. Love found me. Grace found me. And yes, while it may sound hackneyed, I found myself. I didnt come here expecting a revelation, but a revelation is what I received. France introduced me to a sensory universe I had never imagined; France filled me to the brim with history, art, and art history; France spoke to me in the language of the soul. The awe, the pure wonder of those first few years was so overwhelming, so intoxicating, that it formed the bedrock of my determination to make this country my permanent home. I have tried not to lose touch with that sense of wonder—which is never far off if I’m only willing to pay attention. 

France and I have not always been on the same wavelength, and I do recall threatening on a few occasions to “LEAVE and be done with it!” But, as in any marriage of love, we have worked through our difficulties and our differences, and matured hand-in-hand along the way. Today, I am a proud French citizen, wife to a Frenchman, and mother to two beautiful little Franco-Americans who skip from English to French and back again with delight. I will always be an American, and will probably be handed the English menu by well-meaning French waiters for the rest of my life, but in the end, my goal in moving to France was never to cease being myself—it was to be my best self.


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