Living abroad as an expatriate is an intricate experiment in possibility. Just how much does place and context shape one’s options, choices, and trajectory?
Every September 28th, I lovingly celebrate what I call my ‘Franniversaire’, a quirky mot valise I have invented to signify the date on which I set foot on French soil for the first time, and the rising stack of years of my life abroad. The peculiarity of my circumstances is such that I have never been a tourist in this country; I came and never left. In that way, my relationship to France is a bit like a shotgun wedding that–against all odds–endures.
Choosing a life abroad is not for the faint of heart. Like all worthwhile relationships, it involves work and a strong emotional investment. Committing to a place is similar to committing to a person; you exclude all other options, for the duration of the relationship. Your love story may last two weeks, two years, or even two decades. It may never come to an end. The truth is that places, like people, have the ability to shape who you are and who you will become. How? And more importantly, why? Place is a force that exerts itself on your experiences. Place has the power, for better or for worse, to impart new opportunities and perspectives in the same way that people do.
My next Franniversaire will be my 7th. I will be 29, and will have spent nearly all of my twenties in Paris. Not bad, I think. But I also think to the future, and I think to the past.
In a marriage, it’s said that the seven-year mark is when the itch kicks in. And believe me, the itch is kicking in. I have recently reached a point of restlessness with Paris; I know this city, its moods, and its hidden corners intimately, which is both comforting and frightening. Is this all there is? Paris begins to feel static, like a living museum that frantically preserves the remnant layers of all that has existed before. Is this how Paris will always be?
And then, there’s the mysterious Mr. Right I haven’t met yet. Is he here, in this beautiful city? I would love for him to be French, but I would love him even if he weren’t. If I had stayed in California, would I have met Mr. Right by now? Like so many of my friends, would I be engaged?
When I arrived, Paris was a pit stop on the road to a career as a professor of French. Research was my passion. The notion of consecrating one’s entire existence to intense study of the French language was so exquisite it drove me to tears. Ultimately, I sacrificed that dream in order to stay in France and I tell myself I have no regrets. And yet… If I had stayed in America, would I have stayed true to that version of myself? Would I have become a professor?
This is where the complex equation of place and personal possibility meet. As I look forward down the open road, the choice of whether or not to stay in France shapes the woman I will become personally and professionally in my 30s and beyond.
On one hand, the decision to stay in France will almost certainly limit my professional career. There are far more diverse opportunities for advancement in the United States; to stay in this country I love could mean never living up to my goals. In California, I could start a business; but Paris is not a place that will permit me that. Then there are my aging parents to consider, and the importance of having family close when starting one for yourself.
But also, I don’t want to leave! The awesome and terrible symmetry of it all means I can’t win either way; on that first September 27th, as the plane took off from the bay, I sobbed to be leaving home for what I thought at the time would be nine months…Leaving France would feel a thousand times more final, with all that hard-won progress–and the possibilities I’ve earned–up in smoke.
It all comes down to identity. The ultimate question is; who do I want to be and who do I want to become? And entertaining these questions is a privilege beyond measure, of which I am well aware.
Fear has a function, which is to protect us from things that may hurt and harm us. I also believe that fear is very, very boring. If we let it, fear keeps us from living fully. Perhaps, in that regard, I will always be a California girl.
For now, I’m doing due diligence on a difficult decision. That involves the head, the heart, and some less reputable instincts: I’ve recently had a French voyante weigh in. I won’t share what she said…we could both, of course, be very wrong. Only time will tell.
No matter what, it’s going to be one very incredible experiment.