Home Under the Rain

There are three essential reasons why I enjoy traveling:

– I like the unsettling feeling that accompanies a visit to a new place. The feeling is stronger when people speak a different language and have a very distinct lifestyle from mine.

– I wait for the moment when I realize that despite these differences ‘they’ are more similar to ‘me’ than it appears initially.

– I love how geographic and climatic elements bring back landscapes and landmarks once familiar and stir emotions.

In my early months in the States, everything was more unsettling than any of my trips to Kenya, the USSR, and every European country.

Unlike my other trips I wasn’t going back home and I was far from feeling at home.

Quickly, although the language and lifestyles were different, I reached the moment when I knew ‘they’ and ‘I’ had enough in common to make it work.

But I wasn’t home yet.

A French perfume floating in the air. A French song aired on the radio. A French landmark photographed in a magazine. A conversation in French overheard in a restaurant.

Small things triggered bouts of nostalgia and homesickness, which came and went away. I lived one foot here, one foot there.

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Light rain fell on San Francisco yesterday morning and while I walked in the city, the drizzle as fine as a mist on my hair and my face, I could have been in Paris.

Rain, more than anything, brings back lots of vivid memories of my life from before.

After years in California, like a true Californian, I’ve come to cherish and respect rain because of the long periods of drought the state endures and like everyone else I hope for rainy days.

Unlike most Californians, there is another reason: rain is part of my DNA.

I grew up in Normandy, one of the rainiest regions of France. Green should be the color of the Normandy flag.

Then I lived in Paris for ten years. The city of light is renowned for many reasons, not exactly for its sunny days.

As I drive down Bush the taller buildings silhouetted in the distance lick the fog.

The Eiffel Tower cranes its neck toward the low thick clouds.

The painted ladies of Steiner Street, so vibrant on a sunny day, are dressed in quiet elegance.

At the end of the Avenue de l’Opéra and the Parvis de Notre Dame, two gems in their jewel boxes.

People hurry along the wet sidewalks; their hooded sweatshirts tightened around their necks, mugs of coffee between their gloved hands.

Umbrellas unfold and pedestrians brace themselves against the gusty rain and wind.

The top of the Bay Bridge sinks in the sky.

The Seine and Apollinaire flow below the Pont Mirabeau.

In San Francisco and anywhere in the US where I have lived or traveled, rain, more than any other element, reminds me where I am from.

But in a gentle way, which replaces my initial displacement.

Last week I wrote that although gray is the color of Paris my heart is a rainbow when I am there, because I am at home when I walk the streets of Paris.

Unlike the French poet Apollinaire, I don’t weep for the lost of love due to the passage of time.

Because love for what was once foreign grows with time and anywhere, you see, you can be home.

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First American Dream

The first day of winter will always have a special connotation for me; it marks my arrival in the US.

On that day, right after landing in San Francisco, my husband took me on a very late tour across Palo Alto, our new address in America, to see the Christmas decorations.

He asked me if what I saw looked like what I had expected.

Since I had never set foot in California, I had no real expectations, and although I immediately fell under the charm of the deserted but brightly decorated streets I wasn’t sure how I would like the small, sleepy town in the morning.

While we drove, our eleven months old daughter fell asleep in the backseat.

Inside me her sister-to-be moved, and the thought that she would in five months open her eyes on a world I knew almost nothing about filled me with an equal mix of exhilaration and anxiety.

This baby had no idea of her new surroundings and that six thousands miles separated her parents and sister from their native land. I wondered if she would be different because of this important shift. During the much longer than expected flight – delays due to bad weather – she hadn’t moved at all. The fleeting but disturbing thought that she might be in danger because of the disruption in her mother’s life had vanished now that she rolled inside me like a small, soft wave. Yet I wondered if because she would be an American citizen, she would be a different child from the one she would have been had I stayed in Paris.

Silly thoughts. But being uprooted brings strange, crazy thoughts to the mind.

Later, my husband parked in a short driveway leading to the house where we would live. I had only seen a few pictures and although I had immediately envisioned having lunch in the lovely backyard – a real treat for a Parisian – I couldn’t imagine much more of our future life in this foreign setting.

There were shutters flanking the windows of the low bungalow, but unlike the French that open and close and serve many purposes the American shutters were strictly decorative.

To open the window I had to slide and not pull and screens forbade the complete opening so I couldn’t lean outside like I used to do in France.

The French sheets and pillowcases I had packed were too small for the queen bed, standing in a room my husband said was a master bedroom.

No metro rumbled underground and the streets were so quiet in comparison to Paris that I couldn’t fall asleep.

The baby kept shifting inside me. Her big sister cried. I tiptoed to her bed. She slept as peacefully as her father.

Maybe, I thought, she’s dreaming.

I went back to bed and tried to stop thinking of what might happen in this new country.

I’ll cross that bridge, I thought.

And I finally fell asleep.

Dreaming of tomorrow.

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Chez Moi aux USA

Après un certain nombre d’années au même endroit, on cesse de regarder autour de soi, on oublie la nouveauté des premiers instants et la beauté qui nous entoure.

En plus si on est français être juste un peu blasé est dans notre ADN.

Pour éviter ce travers qui devient vite un défaut il y a deux solutions.

Déménager souvent.

Recevoir des visiteurs.

Rien ne vaut un bon déménagement pour retrouver le gout tellement unique de la découverte.

Mais comme on ne peut pas passer son temps à emballer et déballer des cartons, les visites de la famille et d’amis français font aussi très bien l’affaire.

Mes parents et beaux-parents étaient de fréquents invités pendant mes premières années aux US. Je leur expliquais mon Amérique, ce que j’en comprenais au fil de mes découvertes et tâtonnements. Et à travers leurs étonnements et questions je continuais mon propre voyage.

Les années ont passé et la surprise qui accompagnait mes premières explorations a diminué.

Pour ceux qui sont chez eux là où ils sont nés les liens avec leur environnement sont naturels et la relation fusionnelle.

Pour ceux qui ont laissé leur terre natale derrière et qui ont fait leur maison dans différentes régions de leur pays d’adoption la notion de chez soi devient floue et crée parfois l’illusion de ne pas avoir d’attache avec un endroit particulier.

Alors quand une amie française me rend visite en Californie et me dit que c’est vraiment très beau chez moi, je redécouvre par son intermédiaire mon étonnement initial. Je pose sur mon quotidien un regard neuf mêlé de fierté et d’affection.

Et le ciel de Californie après la pluie, les canards du lac voisin et les chevaux des ranches prennent des airs de jamais vu.

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C’est la Vie

It is a full time job to be an immigrant. Really.

The acquisition of a new language and the decoding of a new culture can be exhausting. Exciting and funny, too. But definitely challenging.

And when the immigrant has finally reached a decent level of comprehension something unexpected happens.

Keeping up with the native language.

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When I was a little girl growing up in France, there were only a few words that didn’t sound too French.

Un bifteck (a beefsteak)

Un bouledogue (a bulldog)

Un chéque (a check)

Une banque (a bank)

Fioul (fuel)

Un shampooing (a shampoo)

Back then I had no idea that the French loved to change the spelling of the words they borrowed and sometimes their meaning, too.

Un smoking (a tuxedo)

Un break (a station wagon)

Une paire de baskets (a pair of sneakers)

Un body (a baby’s onesie)

Un pressing (a dry cleaning store)

But all that was fine since I was French living in France.

Things got a little more complicated when I moved away and only returned to my native land for a few short weeks every other year.

By then the French said:

Un icetea for an iced tea. Une firme for a firm. Un dressing for a piece of furniture used to store anything, from dishes to clothes. Un forcing for being pushy.

Although a curriculum vitae, CV for short, is the exact equivalent of a “resume”, the French favor “pitch.” If la joie de vivre is a French expression and a way of life, the French now use “life” when they talk about their lives. They also say: night, fun, smile, makeup, people, mug, cupcake, lunchbox, bling-bling, private joke, to name only a few.

Of course all of these words have perfect French equivalents.

Entrepreneur is a French word, but in France an entrepreneur is a building contractor. So when the French are entrepreneurs they create start-ups. And they became big fans of the Do It Yourself.

You would think that this linguistic melting pot has transformed the French into unconditional supporters of the Americans.

Actually they still have mixed feelings about the States. Ouch.

The French are on a roll. In fact they have added so many American words to their conversation that I have a hard time to keep up. I thought that only people like my family mixed two languages. Not anymore. But unlike us who know the rules – after all we have created these strange sounding conversations – the French have not kept us posted.

Their weird conversations obey to cryptic scenarios they make up while I’m gone. So when I go back or watch a French TV show I have the uneasy feeling to be once more lost in translation.

But since I like happy endings, there is good news.

A young French woman or man won’t need to buy the New Dictionary of American Slang I used to plow my way through these big United States.

They might need the delightful Euphemania though.

Otherwise, just like me, they will have the hen bumps when they read an American menu:

Petites Short Ribs Provençale served with Sautéed Wild Mushrooms aux Herbes.

As for me, I knew since day one that being an immigrant was a full time job.

Like the Americans say, “C’est la vie.”

Becoming Indian: Memories of Graduate Student Life in the US

Several of my favorite writers are foreign-born Americans. All moved to the States at a young age. All are also coming from much more exotic places than France. Okay, I know that for many Americans the French are really exotic. But it’s only because the French people are hard to understand. Trust me: I used to be 100% French.

Back to my interest for people born elsewhere and living in the US.

When I was involved in the writing of my move from France to the US, slowly acquiring the language and culture of my new home, often through my children, I went through a mental journey, which tested my memory in ways I had not suspected. It was also almost frightening to realize how the passing of time has made countries much more similar and how cultural shock has decreased since the Internet.

Recently I read a post from a blogger who like me was born abroad – from a truly exotic place – and now lives in the States. For obvious reasons her words talk to me.

In this specific post, however, this is the power of memory and of the passing of time that I find the most interesting since I had traveled a similar route.

I asked BottledWorder if I could reblog this specific post. She said yes.

I hope you will enjoy Becoming Indian: Memories of Graduate Student Life in the US as much as I did.

Becoming Indian: Memories of Graduate Student Life in the US.

via Becoming Indian: Memories of Graduate Student Life in the US.

The Migrants’ Village

The Middle East is erupting and although everyone cheers for the people’s thirst and hunger for real democracy, the revolts shake the entire world.
Even France and Italy clash on how to handle the recent flux of young men arriving from Tunisia.
Since immigration is a hot topic across the world, I find inspiring to read a different article on the subject in the French paper Le Monde.

The small village of Riace, tucked away in Calabria, the big toe of the Italian boot, was slowly dying. The young people had left for big cities and even for countries as far as Australia and Canada. With no hope in the future, Riace was a name fading on a map.
But in 1998, a boat, loaded with 300 Kurds, reach the rugged coast of Riace. The villagers, led by their mayor Dominico Lucano, don’t hesitate and open their village to the refugees.
Since then, Riace has welcomed men, women and children from countries such as Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Libya.
Empty houses have been cleaned to host the families and the streets now resonate with children’s laughter.
In the village, the new comers are sometimes hard to spot. Many have blended effortlessly among the locals. The children speak Italian with the accent of Calabria and consider Riace their home. The elderly call them the grandchildren they don’t have.
Immigration documents are slow to obtain, so meanwhile, the immigrants learn the trades of Calabria and work in ateliers either as seamstresses, potters, carpenters or glass blowers. The goal is to keep them busy but also to welcome back the regional craft that had deserted Riace. Some immigrants have even opened their own small shop.
Grants have been filled and money is expected in Riace to help the village’s unique approach. Until then, temporary money with the faces of Ghandi, Martin Luther King or Che Guevara replacing the Euro, travels through the village. When the grant’s money arrive, the shop owners will be paid with real money.
Riace or the dying village is now called “the migrants’ village.”
A few neighboring villages have started to imitate Riace.
Of course, Riace has agreed to welcome the Tunisians.
Human beings can be so inspiring.

Reading my Words on the Radio

I just received a letter of acceptance for one of my stories. It will air on Valley Writers Read, a program from Valley Public Radio. Every year KVPR opens its doors to any writer who lives in the vast California valley, the cradle of bounty that grows between the ocean and the mountain range.
Valley Writers Read, as its name hints, allows writers to read their own work. Two years ago, I submitted a fiction piece which was accepted. I was happy as any writer appreciates the reward of an acceptance letter but I panicked when I found out that I would have to read my own words. Not that I can’t read, of course, but I kept thinking that my unmistakable French accent could get in the way of the story.
The radio host who took care of the recording was encouraging, professional and made me feel comfortable. We agreed to split the story in sections. I would be the voice for the parts of the story set in Paris and someone else would read the narrative.
I liked the idea. We added some French music and I received many positive comments from friends but also strangers I met later. Yet, a question came up more than once: “Why didn’t you read the whole story? We liked it so much more when it was you who told the story. Your accent is so unique that it brought texture to the story. Besides, because of it we had to listen carefully and we didn’t do anything else as you read.”
Interesting comment when I often wonder and worry about being a distraction!
My new story for the upcoming season isn’t fictional. It is based on a memoir I started a while ago when I was concerned that my children would never know about their heritage, would never believe I was once someone who didn’t write in English.
The recent census and the passing of the Arizona immigration law brought back memories of my first years in the US. Both events could only trigger the question: “What does it mean to be an American in 2010 and what makes us Americans?”
My accent is still, years after I arrive in the US, playing tricks on me but it is also what makes me who I am: a French native living and writing in the USA.
So perhaps, I’m thinking, this year I should read my words. They carry my immigrant experience and because of that can only be read with an immigrant accent.

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