Saturday, 31 January 2009

On being an immigrant

Exactly two years ago today, we were spending our last night on English shores (in a Travelodge in Dover, for heaven's sake!). On the one hand, it seems scarcely credible to me that such a wad of time has gone by; on the other, it's actually quite hard to remember what it was like to live there not here. Tomorrow, a chicken will be roasted and a good bottle of wine opened to honour our 731st day here; today, as I collected up storm-broken branches and swept millions of oak leaves into ever-increasing piles, I reflected on the experience of being an immigrant.

Rumination number one: I am still 100% happy to be here. Indeed I can't imagine that changing, although I have to be aware that it may, at some point in an indefinable future. Our timing was perhaps not the best, given la crise and in particular the collapse of sterling, which for the moment provides much of our income. But then again, had we followed Plan B and deferred for two years, we may not have been able to come at all ... and one of the things I find most difficult - insupportable, even - is the regret that comes from not having done something. 

Rumination number two: I've come to see that in spite of all the time I may have spent in France over the last - gulp - 35 years (and it's a lot: all over the country, at all times of the year, on short and longer trips); however reasonably I may speak the language; however much I may (think I) know about the country and culture ... in spite of all of that, living here - open-endedly and with nowhere else to call home - is a whole different kettle of poisson. For some reason this has rather surprised me. I'm certainly no great Anglophile, feel no particular loyalty to the country in which I was born and grew up and haven't missed England in any way. But the fact remains that it was there that I grew up, not here. And there's the rub.

It's easy to assume that living in France is only slightly different from living in England - a bit like moving to Scotland, say - and therefore that things like disorientation and culture shock don't apply. If I had a euro for every time I've heard an English incomer describe France as being "like England 50 years ago" I'd be doing very nicely, thank you. But, you know, France is really not like England. True, the people may look a bit like us; some of the countryside here is reminiscent of an England-with-more-space. But it also has a very different culture, underpinned by a wholly different way of looking at the world and a highly precise, grammatically regulated language that both supports and is supported by it. (It's no surprise, for example, that the word 'correct' is one of the most used here, in every context from language use to price to behaviour to flavour). The rules of the game are different, from the way people interact with each other to attitudes to work and play; from the role of the family to the purpose and manner of education; from the way cultural minorities are perceived to the way politics is done, both locally and nationally. It really is as though a French person sees the world through different glasses, is moved by different bone and muscle.

And so even if I live here for another 50 years, I will always be different. An outsider, to some degree; one who hasn't absorbed from birth the value system, the educational system, the political system and the structure of society that those systems have created. Never mind the degree to which I may have engaged in French life, been accepted by French people or been assimilated into French culture and ways. I am a stranger - une étrangère. Interesting, isn't it, that that word means both foreigner and stranger?

Now maybe if I didn't speak much French, read English papers, watched English television, made friends largely with other English immigrants, didn't bother myself very much with French life and saw my time here as a kind of extended holiday (yes, it happens), I wouldn't be aware of, or touched by, any of this and France would remain, from behind my rose-tinted spectacles, the kind of mythical olden England of my fantasy. But those of us who've come to be, or at least try to be, a real live part of our adopted society are left with no option but to face the disorientation involved in being, at some level, a perpetual stranger. 

And yet for all the 'how to move to France' guides, there is little if anything spoken or written about any of this. Apparently, around a third of UK immigrants to France return to the UK after just two years; I've even seen figures as high as an 80% return rate after five years. Had I moved to India, or Thailand, or Japan, or anywhere with an outwardly different culture, I would no doubt be geared up for a fully-fledged bout of culture shock. Here, the differences are inner rather than outer. But no less real.

I'm not saying that any of this makes me less happy than I could be. I'm probably as well prepared for it as anyone: I'm an only child with no living family, have moved countless times since the age of 18, lived all over England (and, briefly, in Wales), changed lifestyle, name, work and social circles (and partners!) ... all of which makes me into a bit of a rootless soul, I guess. Since I was a young girl, I, like many people, have always had a sense of being slightly 'different' - of being not quite in tune with the culture surrounding me, of wearing different glasses, if you like. I've always rather liked that; it means not only that I'm a perpetual 'searcher' but also that I'm a sucker for new experience, both outer and inner. So two years on, I'm more than content with the way my life here is developing. Although I admit that a little less plumbing would be nice ...

4 comments:

Arleen (Hodge) Oliver, Copyright 2009 said...

oh what a wonderful journal of french life you have. i know it is my destiny to move to france and you have made it all the more appealing. lovely photos, beautiful life.

Kalba Meadows said...

Thank you for those lovely comments, Arleen. It is truly a great place to be. The very best of luck to you in making your move happen!

Mike said...

It's interesting and refreshing to read comments about la vie en France that have such clarity and candour. No whining, regret or special pleading. That sense of difference is, I guess, shared by every migrant in every country. You are blessed to be able to choose your destination and culture.

Kalba Meadows said...

Mike: you're so right about the sense of difference being shared by every migrant. I only wish I knew that from the inside before. I've spent a lot of time working with people from different cultures, and no amount of 'cross-cultural training' can help ypou understand how it really feels to be an immigrant. I'm sad (and a bit ashamed) to say that only now do I realise that I never really got it ...