Some of the articles and comments I've been reading lately about overseas Americans leave me shaking my head in disbelief. Americans in the homeland seem to think that I spend my days plotting to escape taxes as I sip my wine in a plush Parisian bistro. I thought it might be instructive to open the "volets" (shutters) and give you a glimpse of how one American emigrant in France spends her day.
The day begins between 6 and 7 in the morning. My husband kisses me as he heads out the door to work. Like many people in the Ile de France, he works in Paris and has quite the commute in the morning. He drives our nearly 20-year old car which still runs well because he very careful about maintenance. We are hoping to coax a few more years of life out of it before we have to replace it. The younger Frenchling appears at about the same time my husband leaves and we exchange a few words in English before she heads out the door to school. Her departure signals the end of the morning in English and the start of the day in French.
Like a lot of people in these times of crisis, I am unemployed, so the first order of the day (after coffee) is consulting my mail and the job boards advertising IT positions. Out of all the alerts and job boards I consult, 99% of them are in French with only a few from LinkedIn in English. This morning I set them aside in a folder to be examined more closely later because I have a job interview at 11:00 in Paris and I need to leave early enough to make the train.
I'm out the door a little after 9 AM. Today I am taking the train from Versailles-Chantiers, a station in the center of the city which is about a twenty minute walk from my house. This train station was considered quite modern in the 1930's, today one is quite conscious that it has seen better days. The nicer station in that part of town is Versailles Rive-Gauche which brings tourists to the castle from Paris. Versailles-Chantiers is less safe and is where I had my wallet pickpocketed last summer so I am extra careful to keep my belongings close to me lest I have another unfortunate incident (something I can ill afford right now).
The train itself, however, is clean and dry and warm. As always I have brought along a couple of books and I happily install myself in a good seat and read Patrick Weil's La République et sa diversité, Immigration, Intégration, Discriminations. For a round-trip ticket to Paris and back I pay 6.50 Euros (about 8 American dollars) and in about 20 minutes I am at La Defense, the commercial district on the west side of Paris. From there I ascend from the bowels of the train platform into the main station and down again into the metro, line number 1. Very quickly I arrive at in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a very posh district indeed. As I walk toward the recruitment company's offices I scan the real-estate agencies ads displayed in the windows and note a fairly modest two-bedroom apartment selling for 580,000 Euros (about 760,000 American dollars) which serves to remind me why I am not living in Paris. Even the rents are high in the city and because we are down to one income right now we would probably not qualify for something in Paris even half the size of what we have now in Versailles.
By design I am a few minutes early for my appointment. One never knows with the trains and I like to be there ahead of time which is infinitely preferable to being late (even in France). I walk into a bistro next to the office, order a coffee, drink it slowly (it's a pretty good expresso) and still have just enough time to use the bathroom and comb out my hair before I present myself at the reception. They are very pleasant - I am ushered into a conference room, served a cup of coffee and I take the opportunity to read the newspaper while I wait. It is today's edition of Le Figaro (a very respectable Right-leaning French paper). The headline is about Sarkozy's "Shock Reforms." I make my way through the paper and on page 9 in the international section (after the news from the UK, China, India, Syria, and Russia) is a lone article about the U.S. - the influence of Hispanic voters in the Florida primaries. Interesting.
My interview goes quite well but it is tiring. One and a half hours of giving my pitch and having the very nice gentleman explain the realities of the market and my place in it in a very pleasant but firm manner. One subject that comes up is my "prétentions salariales" (salary expectations). I have lowered my price substantially compared to what I could reasonably assume to make given my level of experience and he wants to know why. I have already decided to be very transparent about this and so I explain the American system of taxation on worldwide income. Given the income exclusion of 92,500 USD (about 70,000 USD) it doesn't make any sense for me to ask for a package (base salary, bonuses and profit-sharing) that exceeds that. Even if I am able to defray some of the extra income through tax credits, this will require expensive professional help and I'm not sure to come out ahead. He is floored and I'm sure he'll check the information since he could not envision a country that would encourage its expatriates to earn less while abroad. The interview ends on a good note - I enjoyed the contact and perhaps they will have something for me soon.
Back to the metro and another train and the walk back to the house to have lunch and a cup of coffee before tackling those job advertisements. I mentioned above that the departure of my daughter was the beginning of my day in French. Allow me to expand on that. From the moment she left for school and I left the house every interaction I had, every sign I read, every instruction I followed, the purchase of the coffee from the barman in the bistro, the book I chose to read, the welcome by the receptionist and the interview itself were all in French. I heard not one word of English during the entire morning and I used only one English phrase during my interview and it was "thesis advisor" because I had a blank moment where I could not for the life of me think of the French word. Oh, and there was one advertisement in the metro for an English language school called the Wall Street Institute which touted its strengths in teaching people "English" (and not "anglais").
Just as important, I think was the complete absence of any news, headlines, commentary or even conversations on street, in the metro or the train about the United States. For the purpose of writing this post I paid attention today, and all I could find was the article in Le Figaro. So, my fellow Americans, any French person reading that paper today will take away one image of the U.S. - that of Hispanic voters in Florida highly annoyed by the Republicans. This is not by design or out of disregard for Americans. It's just that people in other countries have their own concerns and don't really spend a lot of time worrying about what is going on "over there." An American emigrant who wants news from "home" has to make an effort - something that was made infinitely more difficult for me (a longtime reader of the New York Times) when their on-line edition started restricting readers to a limited number of free articles per month. I tried at first to be careful and use my views wisely but in the past few months I've given up and now I just get my news from Le Monde on-line (or sometimes Slate) which has no such restrictions.
I'm home now and after having my lunch (and my coffee) I will head upstairs and start making calls and answering ads. 99% of both will be in the "langue de Molière" and I must say that all those customized "lettres de motivation" are a perfect way to improve my written French. If the rest of the day proceeds as planned I will work until my younger Frenchling arrives home from school (about 6 PM) and at that moment the English comes to life once again in my home.
However (and this may be the most important thing I'd like you to understand) at no point in the day does anything resembling an American life appear - only a few American customs that we have decided to keep here because we like them, just like we keep some of what we gathered in Japan that pleased us. That we speak some English at home is much less important that it seems. Over the years I've become very conscious of the disconnect between language and culture. The two people I speak English with, my younger Frenchling and my husband, do not share my culture. My husband has spent nearly all his life in France and my French/American daughter has no memory of living in the U.S. I know their culture but they do not know mine. In our house when we talk about the President, it is necessary to be very precise about which one since the assumption will be that I am referring to Sarkozy.
Once upon a time all this bothered me great deal. It felt like parts of me were slipping away year after year into some strange place where I was destined to be forever isolated - an "exotic beast" who had to be interpreted daily by her own offspring. Those times have come and gone, and today I have no regrets. Though, frankly, I am not sure I'd ever have the courage to go through it again.
Back to the job search.