Last night at dinner at my friend Philippe’s, I noticed the spectacular cloud formations over Sacré Cœur, visible from his living room, and thought of how lucky I was to be present for such a play of light and shadow. Being there felt like home, even though the home wasn’t mine. It was as if I belonged, even though I’m always a relative stranger in town. Wherever I am, I’m just a little outside of things.
In the same way I’m under no illusion that in living in Paris I can somehow be French, even after learning to speak the language and becoming familiar with some of the cultural touchstones that have enabled me to feel more at ease among my French friends.
Not could I be French if I at some point decide to become an expat rather than a person who divides his time between Paris and New York: My cultural memories are too strong as an American to be other than how I was raised. I have a double nationality, too, but despite my Irish citizenship and Irish passport, I would never claim to be truly Irish, even though certain Irish cultural touchstones were part of my childhood. I didn’t grow up in Ireland. I was raised in New York City. Ireland filtered through an American lens. And America filtered through New York.
“It is obvious to everyone that cultures are different from one another. What most people don’t realize, however, is that these differences actually lead to our processing the same information in different ways,” writes Clotaire Rapaille in his book, “The Culture Code.” Rapaille is a French-born American marketing consultant, and in his career he has studied the differences in cultures and their cultural imprints on us.
I’d already had a sense of what Rapaille meant before reading his book, even after a few weeks of my living in France. I had to learn the different rhythms of a French work week. I noticed details of how dinners unfolded. I became acquainted with the courtesies of French speech that hold off personal intimacy. I began to see how the new language I was learning expressed emotions differently than my mother tongue.
For example, the verb “to miss” takes a direct object in English, as in “I miss you.” In French, this sense of the word “manquer” is indirect: “Tu me manques,” which is like saying “you to me miss.” The emotion is the same, but it reflects a particular outlook, perhaps more of that slight distancing I had inferred elsewhere. It took me a while to become used to that form of expression (my French tutor Bernard still finds the English way of expressing this feeling incomprehensible). It took me a while, too, to realize that French doesn’t have a word for “like,” to differentiate it from “love,” except in adding a “bien” after “aimer.” So that while “Je t’aime” means I love you, “je t’aime bien” doesn’t mean “I love you well,” but “I like you.” The emotions are the same, but how you express them, well, it depends on where you were raised.
You’re never truly a part of a culture unless you grow up in it, even as you begin to comprehend aspects of the foreign culture in which you live. You yourself can change, certainly, but your upbringing is too strong to change something essential about you. And others see that. Or at least the French do.
My friend Michele, whose mother was French and father American, grew up in New York but she and her mother, who worked for the French embassy, only spoke French together. Michele attended the Lycée Français in New York, and has American and French citizenship. When she moved to Paris to be near her recently retired mother, her coworkers scoffed at her for claiming to be French, despite her French fluency and passport.
“I wasn’t born in France,” Michele told me at the time, “so they didn’t consider me French. They accepted me better when I referred to myself as a French-speaking New Yorker.”
This kind of thing matters a great deal in France, where questions of citizenship and what it means to be French are part of the current national discourse, affecting everything from dealing with citizens of the former colonial empire to immigration to children born abroad to surrogate mothers.
In the United States, a recent immigrant can claim to be an American after only a few weeks of living there, and no one will doubt him. Indeed, people will congratulate him on his decision. But America was founded on ideas and individual choices, where France was built on other notions of statehood and citizenship.
In France, citizenship is less a choice than a birthright, and you learn to become French not only by being born to French parents, but in attending French schools – in France – and acquiring all the little and necessary references regarding its patrimony, history, food, holidays and comportment (not to mention its songs, stars and political scandals).
But something about France speaks to me, and I feel at home here, even as I know that I won’t ever be anything but a foreigner, albeit one with a European passport and a knowledge of the lingua franca, and even as I might honestly call myself a Parisian when I’m in town while realizing that I’m at the same time only a Parisian by choice.
In “The Culture Code,” Clotilde Rapaille noted that his worldview, which was more expansive or outward-looking than what he considered to be typically French, was something that drew him to America. My American outlook is considered a plus here in France, though I’m not sure which of my own character traits have made France attractive to me.
Perhaps it’s something about remaining nimble. I can’t take things for granted here when I’m never entirely sure how to interpret the culture codes around me, even as more of them begin to make some sense. I’m always learning, but often stumbling, and this unbalance somehow suits me. It prevents a certain complacency creeping in.
At the same time, I have the feeling that my continuing yearning to connect with others whose motivations I’ll never quite comprehend might actually be the real reason that I’m here: To try to grasp but never to hold onto, to try to be known but to remain misunderstood.