Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Lay of the (Home) Land

"Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you."

Pericles (495 BC-429 BC)

Five days of constant motion and ever since we returned to the apartment last night I've been trying to organize my thoughts with an eye toward giving you my impressions, observations and conclusions.  Reading Steven Mopsick's post this morning I decided to use his thoughts as a springboard for mine.  

So, in no particular order, here are the things that a Washington newbie and American citizen fresh off the boat from abroad found interesting, encouraging and disheartening.  And, yes, it was a little bit of all those things.  I do want to say before I begin that the opinions and impressions that follow are my own and do not reflect the positions of the different diaspora organizations I work with.  On this blog, I own my own words.

1.  FATCA is not going away.  Even the people I listened to who hated it and might even have some clout if they wanted to work harder against it, are resigned to it.  It's gone too far and too much work has been done to make it happen.  Yes, there is awareness that it will be a "train wreck" and "chaotic" on July 1, 2014 but that is not going to be enough to stop it.  The most any one can hope for at this point would be a delay until the end of 2014 and the chances of that are slim.

2.  No Champions in Congress.  Today almost no one in Congress with the exception of Rand Paul will publicly go to bat for the people who are the eggs being broken in the making of the FATCA omelet.  And when I say "go to bat" I mean publicly defending the victims of FATCA or introducing laws to repeal or revise it.  Some of this reticence has to do with how the homeland public views Americans abroad - those champagne-swilling, yacht-owning residents of exotic lands- and some of it is the partisan nature of American politics which is leading to gridlock on any number of topics.  Asking these folks to vote for legislation on our behalf, be it a repeal FATCA attempt or trying to change to a residence-based tax system, is just about impossible right now.   

3.  Consequences Are Known.  What was encouraging is that almost everywhere we went people were aware of the banking discrimination and the renunciations.  The few who didn't know, we were more than happy to educate and they were horrified by the stories. I was at more than one meeting with people who had relatives living abroad and had heard from them directly about the consequences of FATCA.  Others had letters from constituents. Quite a few of them brought up the renunciations as well  and wanted more information about that.  

There was a great deal of sympathy on the part of the people we talked to in Washington.  Over and over I heard things like "disproportionate penalties", "collateral damage" and "you are being punished for the actions of a few bad actors."  But, frankly, most had no idea what could be done about it.  Repeal FATCA was clearly off the table and so they were struggling to find something that they could do.

4.  Mitigation.  As I said most were receptive to ideas that would address some of the worst consequences of FATCA.  The proposal to redefine "foreign" and exclude reporting on accounts located in the same country as those US citizens - like my bank which I pointed out was right across the street from my house and was certainly not "offshore" - was one that many thought was quite reasonable.  My understanding is that this would not require legislation and so it would be easier to do.

Another possibility comes through the IGA's  some of which have clauses that say that financial institutions are not to discriminate against US Persons.  It was pointed out that the IGAs have not yet been implemented and so one avenue Americans abroad have is to watch the host country legislative process carefully and jump in if we don't see those non-discrimination clauses included in the local laws that implement FATCA.

5.  Next Steps.  So where does that leave us?  What can we do at this point that stands a chance in hell of making a difference?

Letters:   Keep those letters to lawmakers coming.  If you have written before, write again.  They are receptive and if you don't get an answer, call them and insist on one.  It really does make a difference.

Media:  Give interviews to the media.  I was told in more than one case that after getting a letter from a constituent, the staffers went and looked for information on the Net.   The more articles (and the more recent the articles), the better.

Friends & Family in the US:  I heard more than once that the staffers and agency staff had a relative living abroad or who was thinking about moving abroad.  Ask your contacts back in the US to write or call.  I also noticed that some of the staffers we met had been Americans abroad themselves and that made them even more empathetic.

Local Parliaments:  Whether you are a legal resident or you are living in your other country of citizenship, find out where FATCA implementation is at in the legislative process.  Read the IGA, follow the implementing legislation, and keep the pressure on local lawmakers.  Look for rules that would prohibit discrimination against US Persons.  If it isn't there, insist on it.

Vote:  If you are still a US citizen one of the most powerful acts is to vote and to let your US lawmakers know that you are a voter and a constituent.  The meetings I attended where I was a constituent as well as an AARO delegate, I was listened to all the more attentively.  It does make a difference.  

Last word.  For years we have been going about our lives outside the United States with the impression that U.S. politics does not directly concern us while we are outside the homeland.  We certainly never imagined a FATCA in our future.  This is our wake up call.  American politics is a blip on our radar, but now we are certainly on theirs and not always in a good way.  We are being forced by the homeland to make decisions.  

We can choose to engage or disengage, but invisibility or simply being left alone is clearly no longer an option for any of us.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Learning to Like Washington

I think I mentioned in another post that my last visit to Washington, D.C. over 20 years ago left me with a very poor impression of the capital city.

I'm now in a position to make a more nuanced evaluation.  Here's what I like and don't like so far about the city.

I'm not fond of the gray.  All the buildings around the the Hill are certainly imposing but rather stark.   Now I'm someone who thinks that the Versailles castle is a gaudy monstrosity but the architecture around the capitol left me cold and yearning for color.

Perhaps it all looks better in the spring and summer when the trees bloom, turn green and give the eyes some relief from the monotonous gray stone.

The security is also a real pain.  Every door at every building had the same drill:  run everything through the machine, including yourself.  Fortunately there are tunnels that run under the street from one building to another so if you don't care about sunshine and fresh air, you can avoid the security hassle by staying underground the entire day.


I do like the neighborhood we are staying in:  Adams Morgan.  It's a residential area that looks to be gentrifying.  Some lovely houses and apartment buildings. Lots of color - a real relief from the Hill.  The apartment we are renting for the week is lovely with hardwood floors, a kitchen and two bedrooms.  Here are a few pictures:

Apartment/houses in Adams Morgan
Senator Patty Murray's office


This morning we had a meeting with the American Bankers Association and then we returned to the Hill for a few more meetings.  I had a chance to meet with someone in Senator Patty Murray's office (Washington State).  The senator's offices were really something - wood paneling on the walls and nice cushy chairs to sit in.

There was also a stunning sculpture by Calder in the courtyard of the Hart building.


After that meeting we had to be over at Treasury in the late afternoon so we decided to walk and finally I found something to love in Washington:  the Botanic Garden.




I could have stayed there all day but the last meeting of the day was a must (Treasury) so we left, walked past the Washington Monument and arrived at our destination with enough time to sit on a bench, rest our feet, and have something to eat and drink before entering the building.

And the day ended with a debriefing and a drink at the Old Ebbitt Grill.


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Day 3 of Overseas Americans Week

It's already Wednesday - Day 3 of Overseas American Week here in Washington, D.C. - and my feet are tired and my brain is fried.

We had a full day of back-to-back meetings yesterday and this morning was filled with one that was every bit as good as the meeting with the IRS Taxpayer Advocate Service.

But before we talk about that meeting, let me explain a bit about what exactly we are doing here in D.C.  Overseas Americans Week sounds grand but what does mean?

Meetings.  Lots and lots of meeting.  The AARO/FAWCO delegation is talking with the staffs of U.S. lawmakers, the Congressmen and women who make the laws that impact us, and with different government agencies like the IRS, the folks who implement them.

With the staff meetings we have a very brief window (about 20-30 minutes) to make our points so we have to be clear and concise.  And then it's off to the next meeting to do it again.  Believe me, after walking from floor to floor, not to mention from one building to another, my feet were about to fall off at the end of the day.  Our meetings are with the staff but a few times we've met their bosses as well.  Just before one meeting Congressman Steny Hoyer, the House Democratic Whip was walking through the office and when he saw us he stopped to talk and to shake our hands.

Sometimes we go to these meetings wearing two hats:  an AARO/FAWCO member and a constituent of that lawmaker.  I have already met with the staff of my representative in Seattle, Jim McDermott, and will be meeting with the staff of one of my senators later in the week.

The meetings with the agencies are longer and it's more of an exchange - there is more time to go into detail and ask each other questions.  I already talked about the meeting with TAS but this morning we met with people at the State Department responsible for overseas citizens services.  

Everywhere we go we are talking about what's happening right now to Americans abroad.  One observation I would make is that, with very few exceptions, when we talk about banking discrimination, people start nodding their heads.  Some of their information has come from media reports, but also from constituents abroad.  I found that encouraging - they are reading their mail from abroad.  So if you were wondering (as I was) if it really is worth sending them a note (and struggling with their websites), the answer is "yes" because I have seen firsthand that it does help.  A lot.  When we start talking and they can connect the issue to something that came in from a constituent(s), it make a world of difference in how they view that information.

So that's what it's all about, folks.

One last word before Ellen and I have dinner.  In one meeting I was asked point blank if I was planning to renounce.  And I was filled with so much anger.  I will do everything I can, I replied, so that day never comes.  I will send letters, I will knock on doors, I will write, I will do whatever I have to including annoying the hell out of people like you until I've exhausted all possibilities.

And then we'll see.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Overseas Americans Week Off to a Great Start

It's Overseas Americans week and the weather is cold and clear here in Washington, D.C.

The first day was a whirlwind of activity which started with an early morning kickoff in the House cafeteria and ended with a debriefing at Bullfeathers.

It was quite a day.  So many meetings, so much to say.  In some cases it was a chance to say "thank you" to those US lawmakers who are part of the Americans Abroad caucus and in others it was an opportunity to educate those who don't know a lot about us and the issues we are facing (tax issues, banking discrimination...)

But the high point of the first day was a trip over to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for a meeting with Nina Olson, the National Taxpayer Advocate, and her team.  For those of you who are not familiar with their work, have a look at their 2013 report to Congress and you'll see that our top issues make their list of the Taxpayers Advocate Service's Most Serious Problems.

Toward the end of the meeting I had the chance to fulfill my promise to all of you who asked me to convey our appreciation for her work.  Americans all over the world read your reports, I said, and it means so much to all of us to know that you are in our corner.


Frankly, meeting Nina Olson and her team was all by itself worth the trip.  Everything after this will  be the cerise sur le gâteau (the cherry on the cake).

More pictures up on the official AARO Facebook feed if you are interested. And Ellen Lebelle just posted about Day 1 on her blog Thinking Out Loud.

Tuesday's agenda is even busier than Monday's.

Wish us luck and à demain.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Third Culture Kids and Identity

A very good video So Where's Home? by Adrian Bautista.  It's about American Third Culture Kids and identity in their own words.

Third Culture Kids, a term coined by Sociologist Ruth Hill Useem, refers to anyone who spent his or her formative years in a country/culture (sometimes more than one) other than that of his parents.

It's an interesting category because these kids are not intentional migrants or expatriates. Nobody gets to choose where he or she is born and children are seldom consulted when the parents made decisions about where to live and work.

The concept of moving the family abroad is something that is likely to meet with general approval.   Broadening every one's horizons! Learning a second language like a native! Multiculturalism and global citizenship education galore!

My experience has been that it starts with more or less every one's approval but when it's years of living outside the parent's home country, a certain ambivalence sets in.

A French child, for example, who was not born in France (or who left at a young age) and has lived in Canada, the US, and Japan, but never actually in France.  What are people in the Hexagon to make of that? Legally, the child is a French citizen and has a French passport (and perhaps a few others) but France's influence on the making of that child and his identity is, well, rather limited to vacations, what the parents transmit and whether or not they send that child to a French or a local school.  Learning about Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité from parents, teachers and books while sitting smack in the middle of another world that doesn't share those values, changes them in subtle ways.

The same is true for American children.  To my knowledge my Frenchlings have never recited the American Pledge of Allegiance.  Now that I think about it, I have to wonder if they even know what that is.

And that leaves those in the home country scratching their heads trying to figure out just how much of a genuine attachment these kids have to "home".  From what I've seen, there is an attempt to push them into a box that says "French" or "American" and then close the lid and pretend that all those other formative experiences don't matter or aren't relevant in the current context.

That generates real frustration and sometimes resentment on the part of both Third Culture Kids and Adults:  Who are you to tell me that I can only be this thing and nothing else?

It's important here to make the distinction between citizenship which is controlled by the home and host countries and identity which isn't.  No government and no people on this planet can control how people feel, and efforts to make a perfect match between identity and citizenship will always fail.


  So Where's Home? A Film About Third Culture Kid Identity from Adrian Bautista on Vimeo.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

FATCA: La chasse aux coupables

“If the soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but the one who causes the darkness."

Victor Hugo
Les Misérables

There is an excellent article, How to Avoid FATCA – Tips From Senator Levin, by Virginia La Torre Jeker, an international tax lawyer in Dubai,  up on AngloInfo.

The article is an analysis of a report that was published last month by the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations called Offshore Tax Evasion: The Effort to Collect Unpaid Taxes on Billions in Hidden Offshore Accounts.

A great read and I recommend it to all of you.  Allow me to make a few additional points just to stir the grey matter a bit more:

Billions, Billions Out There!  The American government has no clue how many American citizens there actually are outside the United States, only estimates.  So how do they know how much potential tax revenue there is out there beyond the borders of the United States?   They don't. Those much cited figures of 150 - 200 billion USD in uncollected U.S. taxes were pulled out of thin air.

You heard me.  All those figures being cited in the media by various organizations and by US lawmakers are just wild ass guesses.   Professor William Byrnes took a stab at tracking down the origin of these numbers and they seem to have originated in magazine articles.  Not one can cite a reliable methodology that might make these figures credible.  In fact when the former IRS Comissioner was asked about them in 2009, he admitted:
“Not that I am aware of. I mean, estimating how much money that is overseas and not being paid to the government. As far as I am aware, there is no credible estimate because it is kind of a chicken and egg. It is over there and we have not found it, it is hard to estimate what is there. And all estimates that I have seen have not broken down criminal versus civil because, again, until we see the cases, it is hard to say.”
So FATCA is basically a fishing expedition.  They have no idea how much money is out there in uncollected U.S. taxes.

FATCA is Already a Failure?:  Reading the Senate report one is struck by their pessimism. They are saying that FATCA as it is being implemented isn't going to work: 
"FATCA will not, in fact, solve the disclosure problem. FATCA’s implementing regulations have created multiple loopholes, with no statutory basis, in the law’s disclosure requirements (page 6). 
In this Forbes article, Andrew Quinlan of the Center for Freedom and Prosperity agrees but he talks about something the report was completely silent about:  reciprocity.  

A Blame Game?:  So here we have an extraterritorial U.S. law passed in 2010 to deal with a "problem" that no one can define with any precision, and for which no actual cost-benefit analysis was ever done. 

Furthermore, even before implementation, FATCA already has had a number of serious consequences:  it's costing countries all around the world an arm and a leg; it's making it very tough for US Persons abroad to have checking, savings and retirement accounts in their host/home countries; and it's generating expectations of information exchange reciprocity that everyone admits will be a very tough sell in the United States.  

Now, four years later, the very people who passed the law are saying it's doomed and it's not their fault.  It's those darn bureaucrats who are responsible if FATCA fails to find those tax evaders because they weakened FATCA when they wrote the regulations and negotiated those foreign agreements:
"They point out that the Swiss have signed an intergovernmental agreement that requires all Swiss banks to comply with FATCA’s disclosure requirements. But FATCA’s disclosure requirements have been limited and weakened by its implementing regulations, and may allow many U.S. taxpayers to continue to conceal their accounts in Switzerland and elsewhere." (Page 172)
This looks an awful lot like what the French call  la chasse aux coupables (the hunt for the guilty). 

The report implies that elements of the final regulations and those negotiated agreements do not have the support of U.S. lawmakers.  That's a very troubling message to send to banks that desperately need those final regulations to be frozen, and to all the countries that have signed (or are about to sign) FATCA IGAs.  

It's too soon to tell if FATCA will be a catastrophic failure, a limited success, or a rousing triumph, but it's not a good sign that U.S. politicians are already looking to assign responsibility for its shortcomings.  

Success or failure, pro-FATCA or anti-FATCA, let's put the blame for the outcome of this legislation squarely where it belongs:  the U.S. lawmakers who made the darkness.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Overseas Americans Week 2014

Next weekend I'm on a flight to (of all places) Washington, D.C.  It's the city I love to hate but that's due to a very bad first impression.  I went there once back in 1992 for the COSPAR/IAC World Space Congress.  It was hot, polluted, and I had to work 14 hour days as support staff for the scientific meetings.  I missed the opening ceremonies and the cocktail at the Smithsonian.  The only fun I had was the chance to party at the Bulgarian embassy.

It was not a good experience.  Ever since I heard that I would be going I've been chanting "Beginner's Mind" over and over again.  It makes no sense to base an opinion on one brief experience over 20 years ago.

So what's going on next week?

Overseas Americans Week and I'm part of the Association of Americans Resident Overseas' delegation.  The Federation of American Women's Clubs Overseas (FAWCO) will be there as well.

OAW is a yearly event and this is the 13th year that organizations like FAWCO and AARO head for the capital city "to draw Washington’s attention to issues where current American law excludes, penalizes or denies access to overseas Americans. These issues involve Medicare, Social Security, Citizenship, Taxation and Access to US and foreign banking facilities."  This means that we will be knocking on doors and meeting lawmakers, staff at various U.S. government agencies, and other organizations.

It's going to be a very full week. I am a very junior junior delegate so my job is to observe and to listen.   I won't give away the agenda but I will be meeting with the staff of my senator, Patty Murray (Washington State).  I plan to write one or two posts for the Flophouse while I'm there but if you want to follow the action more closely we will be updating every day the AARO Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Healthcare: The U.S. versus the Rest of the World

A great video.  This is a U.S. Senate hearing about healthcare in the United States and Canada. The two senators asking questions are:  Bernie Sanders of Vermont (Independent) and Richard Burr from North Carolina (Republican).  The ladies being questioned are:  Dr. Danielle Martin of Toronto, Canada and Sally Pipes of the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, U.S.

The background to this debate is important.  The Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010 and I was amazed that it ever saw the light of day.  For years there has been sharp debate about reforming the American healthcare system.  That debate turned downright hostile and ugly right up until President Obama signed it into law.  Ever since, there have been efforts to repeal it and it didn't help matters that the rollout went very badly.  There is something in the ACA legislation for everyone to hate.  What I heard when I was in Seattle last summer is that the Left in the U.S. says it doesn't go far enough and is basically designed to make private insurance companies rich and the Right says it's just another big intrusive government program that will bankrupt the country sooner or later.

As for the American diaspora there was real concern last year that the mandate to have healthcare would apply to them which is silly because many already have access to healthcare programs or very reasonably priced healthcare in the countries they live in.  The idea of paying twice made some of us rather testy but the good news is here.   Or is it good news?  The rule is that US citizens abroad can avoid the ACA healthcare mandate provided that they stay out of the US for at least 330 day in a year.   So, if you are an American abroad, long stays in the U.S. are out. Another incentive not to come "home" for a visit?

What struck me the most about the debate was the insistence on the part of the Republican senator on the awfullness of non-U.S. healthcare.  Now I'm a pretty conservative lady but I spent over 20 years of my life under the U.S. healthcare system and then 20 or so under Japanese and French healthcare.  Hands down, the healthcare was better, more accessible and affordable outside the United States.  And it's not just my subjective experience that says so, it's any number of organizations that don't have any reason, frankly, to say good or bad things about U.S. healthcare like the World Health Organization. (For those who say that the WHO does have a reason because "everybody hates us" - Oh, get over yourselves.)

The fact (and it is one) that U.S. healthcare is not the "best in the world" does not mean that the Affordable Care Act is the only answer.  What one Seattle Democrat said to me was:  "Well, it was the best we could do."  Wow, what an endorsement.

So I'm going to reserve judgment and see what happens.  But when I see American lawmakers dissing other systems and trying to shore up an untenable position, well, I have something to say about that.  The argument should not be about who has the "best" (though as a cancer patient I'm happy to be living in what most argue is the best healthcare system in the world), it's about coming up with the best system for the United States - one that gives good care to every homeland citizen at a price that is reasonable and sustainable.  I may swing conservative in many ways but I am adamantly against any human being suffering and dying because they can't afford care.  That's just not right.



And just for fun, a Flophouse reader pointed out this study by the AARP, Association of American Retired Persons (not a radical Socialist organization as far as I know)  called 5 Myths about Canadian Healthcare.  It certainly answers one of the most common assumptions of some Americans which is Canadians are just flocking to the US to escape their dreadful system.  AARP says, no, over 99% of Canadians don't head south for healthcare....

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Sick Helping the Sick

Every Wednesday I leave the house around 11:30 and walk over to my church, St. Elisabeth de Hongrie, for the 12:05 Mass.  In my purse I have a small, round, gold box called a custode which I put on the altar with a communion host inside.  After the high point of the Mass, Father closes it up and hands it to me saying "Take this to our sick brother or sister."

The role I'm playing here is called an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion and it's part of the larger parish service to the sick and homebound.  In an ideal world it would be done by a priest or a deacon but lay members of the Church can fill in when the circumstances require it.

I was asked to do this because it wasn't so long ago that I was the one who was sick and stuck at home.  When I was going through chemo I simply didn't know that I could ask for my local parish to do this.  Yes, even us cradle Catholics are completely clueless sometimes.

My assignment is a 90+ year old Frenchwoman who is sharp as a tack but had a really bad fall a year or so ago and is now stuck at home.  In all honesty she's probably done me more good then I've done her.  The visit has a framework but it's also an exchange.  I've learned all sorts of things about Versailles and about her region, Auvergne. She has lived in Versailles most of her life but she still says that she is from Chaudes-Aigues, a small community known for its station thermale (thermal spa/hot springs) which has been around since the 14th century.

Yesterday I was complaining about my arthritis and the joint pain caused by my cancer meds.  Madame G. urged me to head south for a cure.  Book a few days down in my hometown, she said.  It's beautiful there and really will help your arthritis.

Who am I argue with experience?  I checked the Net when I got back home and the water there is supposed to be around 82 degrees Celsius (180 degrees Fahrenheit).  Sounds like heaven to me.

As I said she's lived most of her life in Versailles and she's been in the same apartment since just after World War II.  The neighborhood is, well, not a great one.  Versailles does have "cheap seats" and this particular one is called Chantiers. There is a big regional train station smack in the middle of the quartier and the surrounding area has seen better days:  lots of run-down buildings, peeling paint and crumbling stonework. Tourists are unlikely to be found here since what interests them is the castle, of course, and the neighborhoods that are directly adjacent to it.

Her apartment building, however, is just gorgeous and well-maintained.  It was probably built in the late 19th/early 20th century by, according to her, an American investor.  The apartments are very small but they have big windows that overlook a lovely courtyard.  And above the big double doors that one goes through to get the courtyard there is a stunning ceramic decoration by A. Bigot.  I think this is a work by Alexandre Bigot, a French céramiste (1862-1927).

I'll leave you to go about your day with a few photos I took of the building as I was walking out yesterday.  Have a lovely day, everyone.





Wednesday, March 12, 2014

American Migrants in Europe

There is a book that I've been eagerly awaiting for months now:  Migrants or Expatriates? Americans in Europe by Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels.  She's a migration scholar and the director of the Master's program in international migration at the Brussels School of International Studies.  I've ordered the book and it should be here soon.  And as soon as I can inhale it, I will write up a review and post it here.

But if you are like me and incredibly curious about her research into Americans in the UK, Germany and France, there are a couple of places where you can get a peek at what she found.

She was a speaker a few weeks ago at an AARO (Association of Americans Resident Abroad) event here in Paris.  I missed it because I was in Montreal, misread my ticket and arrived home too late.  However, I did get to watch a video of the event and since I am the editor of the AARO newsletter,  I had a hand in editing an excellent article by Joe Coyle that will appear in the March edition (AARO members, it's coming soon to your mailboxes.)   A short excerpt of that article is posted on the AARO website here.

In that excerpt there is already food for thought.  Here are the top reasons from her study that   Americans in those three countries gave for  leaving the United States:

Top Reasons for Leaving the U.S.:

  • First: To be with a partner or join family members (23.4% among those moving to France, Germany and the U.K.).
  • Second: Study and research (13.3% for all, but 23.7% for those moving to the U.K.).
  • Third: offered a job (11% for all and uniform across all three destinations).
  • Fourth: Adventure/Had always wanted to travel (10.8% for all).
  • Fifth: Partner got a job (7.1% for all).
  • Sixth: Intra-company transfer (5% for all).
  • Seventh: Dissatisfied with political/cultural/social developments in the U.S. (4.5%).
  • Eighth: Drawn by the language/culture of current country (4.5% for all but triple that rate for France at 13.6%).

A couple of things I found very interesting about these numbers.

Family and Study:  Look at the first two reasons.  Family is the top reason for coming to Europe and study/research is second. That makes sense because these are two ways that American migrants (third-country nationals) can easily and legally migrate to a European member state. There are no special deals for Americans in these countries.  Though Justin Smith said in his talk at the American Library in Paris that getting his papers was facilitated because of his nationality, most of the people I talk to, and my own experience has been, that there is a process for entering third-country nationals and it's pretty much the same for everyone who comes from a non-EU country.  But all EU countries have family reunification programs and welcome international students and professors.

If you look at migration to the United States, it's not that different. In 2012 66% of those who got LPR (legal permanent resident) status had "a family relationship with a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident of the United States."

Marriage Refugees:  But here's an important difference - within the category of family reunification as a reason for Americans to leave the United States, are gay and lesbian couples.  Until very recently it was impossible for them to marry in the U.S.  Klekowski von Koppenfels makes a good argument that these people were forced migrants - they were pushed out of the U.S. because family reunification didn't apply to them in America.  So they had to seek other countries where they had a legal right to form families and could sponsor spouses for permanent resident status.  That has now changed in the U.S. but it would be interesting to know if those migrants will stay in the EU or leave for the U.S.

Now let's look at items 3, 5, and 6.  Notice that those who came because they (or their partner) got  a job (18% total)  outnumber those who were true expatriates and arrived because their company sent them to Europe (5%).

Decline of the Traditional Expat:  This is something I've suspected for a few years now - the number of American expat families seems to be declining.  At least that's what I think I'm seeing in Paris but also in one of the French multinationals I worked with that used to transfer quite a few workers abroad.  Those lovely expat packages that included a paid international school for the kids and a nice flat in Paris or Tokyo are not as common as they used to be.  Linda Jannsen agrees.  In her book, The Emotionally Resilient Expat, published in 2013, she says:
"More organizations are instituting cost-cutting measures such as reducing the number of traditional expatriate employees (i.e. those whose assignments are centrally managed from headquarters)... Other employees are being transitioned to local contract status, or replaced altogether with 'local' hires in which employees are recruited directly for jobs in global locations as needed."
So I think there is good evidence that more and more of those Americans who are coming to Europe to work are "on the economy" and have local contracts and local jobs.

So why would an American come to Europe to work without the safety net of a nice expatriate package?  Klekowski von Koppenfels suspects (and I think she's right) that economic reasons are driving more American emigration.  In her talk she quoted  a respondent who said that he/she was poor and came from a poor family and felt that she/he had to leave the U.S. to find a better life/social mobility.  

Student Loan Refugees:  Something I've been seeing the past few years are what I call the American Student Loan Refugees.  These are young Americans who have incurred an enormous amount of personal debt to fund a university lelvel education and they cannot find jobs in the United States that are commensurate with their educational level and compensate them enough to live and pay back their loans.  Europe and other places are getting them because 1.  Some fall into the category of "Skilled/Educated worker" and 2.  Some are the children of immigrants to the U.S. and can get residency status in the parents' (or even grandparents') countries fairly easily (where they aren't already dual citizens).

Every country has a different opportunity structure and the thing to remember is that skills that aren't marketable in one country may have value in another.  If nothing else an American university graduate can almost always find a job somewhere in the world teaching English as a second language (a skill that is hardly a big deal in the US or other English-speaking countries).  It's not necessarily paid all that well but it is still a "white-collar" job and beats the alternative which could be a low-level position in the U.S. service sector.

Working People with Families:  Just from this snapshot of American emigration we can see that the stereotypes of Americans abroad (or American expats or migrants) bear no relationship to reality.  Most American migrants in Europe have families and work in their host countries.  That has important implications.   The freewheeling adventuresome American going abroad for a few years for personal enlightenment and growth exists, but certainly he/she is not the majority of long-term residents in the three countries studied.   Also the vision of the rich American expat on a fancy company expatriate package or the rich, idle American sipping champagne on the beach in the south of France is a wonderful homeland fantasy, but the evidence shows that it is just a dream, a fairy tale, a stereotype.  

Perverse Policy:  This is why American emigration policy (such as it is) is so perverse.  The U.S. government is chasing after a fantasy with the idea that all Americans abroad are part and parcel of the 1% and that huge sums of money are to be gained by making these ostensibly rich individuals pay up.  

Klekowski von Koppenfels' research simply explodes that misconception.  Americans in Europe are working families, students, and retirees who go to local schools, draw local paychecks and pay local taxes, rent and utilities.  Once those things are paid for, there is very little left over to send taxes (forced remittances?) "home".

And that is why I believe that the US government is going to be terribly deceived by just how little money they will be able to squeeze out of Americans abroad.

And I personally think they are making a big mistake by trying.  This is, I wager, an effort the American homeland will eventually come to deeply regret.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Something New : What's Up with American Identity Abroad?

Something Olde,
Something New,
Something Borrowed,
Something Blue,
A Sixpence in your Shoe.


Old English rhyme

A few short years ago I could sit and chat with fellow Americans in almost any part of the world and we would all agree that "Americans never give up their citizenship."

It was a statement so obviously true, so self-evident, that it was never questioned.  Sure, there might have been one or two American citizens who did, but they were the exceptions that proved the rule.  And almost no one who actually did it ever talked about it.

Today, renunciations of American citizenship have hit the headlines all over the world.  It's a big story because it was so rare in times past. And right now what everyone wants to know is: 
"What the hell is going on here?"

A lot more than you might think.

That renunciations of U.S. citizenship are rising is a fact.  In 2013 nearly 3000 Americans abroad navigated the rather byzantine, costly and cumbersome process to cast off their formal ties to the United States of America.  

But here's what many haven't cast aside:  An American identity.  Just listen to these words from a series of articles on CNN:

"I still feel American -- it's where I grew up. If someone asks me what I am, well, hey, I'm an American! I can't say I'm a Kiwi, a New Zealander. I sound like an American, and I really am one. I just don't have the passport anymore."  Laurie Lautmann, 58 - Gisborne, New Zealand.

"Ultimately, I don't know what I'm going to do as time goes on, but I do know that I will always feel and be American, regardless of my passport."  Ezra Goldman, 28 - Dongguan, China.

"I've been in Switzerland since 1990, and became a citizen in 2005, because I wanted the right to vote where I was living. The Swiss can tell I have an American accent, and I'm often explaining that I grew up in the U.S. and have a daughter who still lives in the Boston area."  Donna-Lane Nelson, 71 - Geneva, Switzerland.

And here is what I wrote back in 2013  On Being an American:

"I had an epiphany the other day. I may have spent most of my adult life outside the U.S. but I was born and raised in Seattle. No one can take away the first 20 years or so of my life. I am an American and will always be one even if I decide to forgo the pretty blue passport." Victoria Ferauge, 48 - Versailles, France.

In the past, U.S. citizenship (and the accoutrements that go along with it, like the flag the passport and other visible symbols) were practically synonymous with an American identity.  To be an American meant being a citizen. End of story.

What we are seeing right now (and it is becoming more and more prevalent) is a decoupling of American identity and citizenship.  

 Americans abroad are literally redefining what it means to be an American in a global world.  They are making a distinction between ties to the country, the nation, the people, and a relationship to the U.S. government and political community.   Being an American abroad today is no longer completely contigent on having a formal tie to the U.S.  Those renunciants may have lost the blue but many are maintaining important ties to the nation and continuing to think of themselves as Americans.  

At this point I can almost hear the roars of outrage from the American homeland:  "They can't do that!  They aren't Americans any more!  They renounced and good riddance!"

Well, guess what?  It's not up to them.  The homeland government and people only control American citizenship.  

American identity is personal.  If someone still feels American, self-identifies as American, is treated by the people in the host country as an American, and is accepted as an American in the American communities on and off-line all over the world, then, frankly, that person is an American.   
And let's face it, homelanders, if you come across a fellow American in your travels abroad, how exactly are you going to tell if that person is a U.S. citizen or not?   Citizenship is invisible and no child is born with a tattoo on his forehead that says, "Made in the USA."  No, you are going to identify that person as a compatriot based on shared language, customs, inclinations, and experiences.  "Where are you from?"  "Chicago."  Now, are you really going to ask the person to prove that he still has a connection to the US?    As in, "Show me your papers, please!" 

Nonsense.

These American renunciants are changing the way people view American citizenship outside the United States, and it is inevitable that those changes will have repercussions for Americans living in the U.S. as well.  

For that reason, Americans in the homeland must start talking to their diaspora.  

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Trials of Learning and Maintaining a Second Language

"You've been here 20 years?  Wow, must be nice to be fluent."

A question and a statement.  The first is easy to answer because it's an objective fact.  The second is not so simple because "fluent" is almost entirely subjective.

The Holy Grail of language learners everywhere.  That magical moment when the ears hear, the brain engages with no effort, and perfect sentences spill forth from one's mouth.

This weekend I went to a church dinner and from the moment I stepped into the church for Mass and the late hour I left the presbytère, it was French and nothing but French.  If I hadn't been a francophone then I would have missed 99% of the fun.

But you know what?  At the end of the evening I was tired and with fatigue my language skills degraded.  My accent became more pronounced and to my horror I had to correct myself more than once.  I know enough to catch most of my own errors but I still make them when I start writing checks my body can't cash.

So does that mean I'm not fluent?  Not according to my dinner companions.  After making one really flagrant mistake, I apologized and the woman next to me said, "Don't worry about it, Victoria.  If I could speak English as well as you speak French..."  That was nice to hear and made me feel much better.

But I still thought about it as I walked home.  With nearly 20 years in this country, why can't I speak as well as a native speaker?  It occurred to me as I walked up the avenue de Paris that I needed to apply the serenity prayer to language learning.

The Things We Cannot Change

The Funny Accent:  I started learning French at the same time I was learning Latin - mid adolescence (early 1980's).  Latin was required at the Catholic school I attended in Olympia, Washington but we were allowed to choose another language in our second year.  I chose French over Spanish which turned out to be a serendipitous decision.  My French teacher was a native speaker - a war bride who came to the US not long after World War II.  Her English was correct but heavily accented and it wasn't easy to understand her.  She must have arrived in the U.S. when she was in her early 20's.  About the age, I note, that I came to France as a young bride.

There is evidence that there is a critical period for acquiring a native accent but it varies according to the source.  Some say it's in childhood and others say the cutoff is roughly mid-adolescence. But most linguists agree that there is one for accent (but not necessarily for other language skills).  Karen Lund has this nice but pessimistic article Age and Accent. 

No one should ever beat himself up because he or she has an accent in the second (or third or fourth) language.  And it should be noted that native speakers often find it very pleasant to hear their native tongue pronounced with a interesting accent.  I cannot count the number of times my French spouse has been told, "Don't lose that French accent!"

The Odd Syntax:  This is the way words are put together to make meaningful sentences.  It's not the same as grammar; it's entirely possible to put together a sentence in the second language that is grammatically correct but rings false in the ears of a native speaker.  The evidence for a critical period here is less conclusive but a lot of second-language learners struggle with this one because it's a bit more complicated then just learning the "rules".

Is this a big deal?  Not necessarily.  Sometimes it's like accent in that a sentence may sound a bit odd but native speakers find that kind of interesting or amusing.  As long as the listener can easily grasp the meaning the speaker is trying to convey, then no harm, no foul. Still, those of us who started learning a second language late will more than likely struggle with this all our lives.  Syntax can be improved, however, by talking with native speakers (throw out the grammar and focus on how things are really said in the real world) and by reading novels or articles that use everyday speech.

Opportunities Lost:  And that advice would be much easier if English speakers didn't have the blessing (or curse) of speaking what is for the moment an international language that other people want to learn.  Access to a native anglophone  in restaurants, shops, on the street, at work and even at home is seen as a wonderful opportunity.

However, for the novice French (or German or Chinese) speaker, being asked constantly to speak one's mother tongue can be very frustrating. A language student who proudly puts together a sentence in French (or any other language) is very disappointed when the effort is wasted because the co-worker or waiter or cashier replies in English.

The two parties in these conversation at odds with each other because fundamentally they have opposing interests.  Both are second-language learners but the non-native speaker wants to use the native language while the native speaker wants to use his second language.

The thing to remember at these times is that you (and I) cannot control what people do.  We can ask nicely and we can negotiate, but in the end they are in total control of what comes out of their mouths. And to get mad or frustrated about it is futile.  Better to be gracious and serenely accept the situation.

The Things We Can Change

Other Opportunities:  The antidote to those missed opportunities is to seek out people and places where using the second language is not optional, it's a necessity.  In my case it was working for a very strict French-only company where I had no choice but to use French if I wanted to keep my job.  Looking around me today, I see many other possibilities:  clubs, churches, volunteer work.  This actually serves two purposes:  language acquisition and integration.  Become a part of the community you live in. Getting out of your usual haunts not only enriches your vocabulary and speaking/understanding skills, but by living a variety of contexts, you learn more and more about your adopted country and just how diverse it really is.  The young IT people I used to work with in Paris and the people I know today at my church are all French, but they are very different people who use very different lexicons.

Make a Virtue out of a Weakness:  Let's say you are just starting to learn a language or you're like me and second language skills tend to degrade under stress or fatigue and you feel like you've been gagged because you can't keep up with the conversation.  Here's an idea:  Instead of fuming and beating yourself up, think of it as being liberated to concentrate on understanding the other person and not missing a single word, idea, expression, or emotion.  One of the best gifts you can give anyone anywhere is your full attention.

Let Go of Pride and Perfectionism:  Learning anything usually starts with swallowing your pride and taking on a "Beginner's Mind".  It's a real blow to the ego when you can't do something as simple as ask for bread in a bakery in a foreign land.  Hell, a five year old native speaker could do better than you (and me back in 1989).  Today my Frenchlings speak much better French than I ever will and that's just the way it is.  Comparisons are deadly and all too often unfair. Give it up (I'm trying).  This is not a race and nobody gets to be perfect - not even native speakers.   Personally, I think Vince Lombardi was full of it and the constant striving for perfection does not make for excellence, it makes for neurotic, fearful, unhappy human beings.

Rightsizing.  The average human being is pretty egocentric.  We bring that self-centeredness to language learning.  It's all about me - two sides of the same coin where we think we are the center of the universe.  It's my ability to speak well (pride) and my errors (shame).  And as you saw from my description of the church dinner, I managed to feel both in the space of a few short minutes.

I forgot that the purpose of language is to communicate with other people - it's not a showcase for innate (we think) intelligence or a whip with which we can flagellate ourselves .  To the extent that communication and connection are indeed happening and that we all understand each other, then there really is no problem at all, is there?

That's the first piece of wisdom I have to offer but there is yet another I found that did even more to put things in perspective.

There are over 300 million native speakers of English and about the same number of francophones in the world right now according to the estimates I found.

English or French, first or second language, not one person on this planet speaks those languages in exactly the same way as any other person. I don't use French the way my Italian neighbor does and my friends in Tokyo don't speak English the way my friends in Paris do.  Even native speakers vary as anyone who went from Quebec to France and back again knows.  Different accents, levels, experiences and contexts.  Close enough so we can understand each other but with plenty of room for improvisation, personality, and "errors" that may one day become standard usage.   And that, my friends, makes each speaker of any language wonderfully, deliciously unique.

So let's turn my earlier question on its head.

Instead of:  "Why can't we speak the local language just like the natives?"

How about:  "Why in heaven's name would we want to?"

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Le Carême

Last Wednesday I arrived my church St. Elisabeth de Hongrie for the noon Mass and the pews were packed.

It was the Mercredi des cendres (Ash Wednesday) - the day that marks the beginning of Le Carême (Lent), the 40 days of preparation for Easter.  On that day we are marked with ashes on our foreheads and then we go about the rest of our day wiping them off our glasses.

(Question for the supporters of the Quebec Charte de la laïcité:  If I'm a functionnaire and I do this clear and very visible sign of faith, am I still allowed to come back to work, or do I have to go home after Mass?)

For those of you for whom Ash Wednesday is an odd foreign custom, here are a couple of videos to help you out:



Ash Wednesday and Lent in 2 Minutes (English):



Les Cendres, un nouveau départ (French)

Thursday felt like a continuation of Wednesday.  I went into town and strolled through the Notre Dame Cathedral.

And there was community there, too, but a different one.  With me was someone I had previously only met via email and through his blog Multicultural Meanderings.  Thank you, Andrew, for the walk, the coffee, the pain au chocolat and, above all, for the chance to talk.  

Agnus Dei, qui tolis peccata mundi,
dona nobis pacem.


Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Consequences of FATCA Finally Reach National Parliaments

Looking at the FATCA landscape it's hard not to conclude that we are seeing a "democracy deficit" in action.

For the most part lawmakers in democratic nation-states appear to be completely out of touch with their constituents who are impacted by this nasty bit of extra-territorial U.S. legislation.  There are citizens who are screaming for relief but, for the most part, their pleas are falling on deaf ears.

But very recently a few brave souls listened and then brought up the consequences of the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) in their national parliaments.

Is it too little, too late?  Let's face it, these questions are being asked after the fact - after the law was originally passed in the U.S. in 2010, and after agreements (IGAs) were signed in these countries.  Still, it's something worth watching.  Let's have a look at where these questions were asked, who asked them, and what was the government response:

The United States:

At the recent IRS Oversight Hearing,  Congresswoman Jamie Herrea Beutler brought up a communication from one of her constituents abroad.  His banks accounts have been closed, she reported, and she wanted to know what was going on.  We don't want him or others to have to "disavow" U.S. citizenship, she said.

Americans abroad, do me a favor.  Before you watch the video, take a deep breath because the answer from the new IRS Commissioner is almost guaranteed to infuriate you.  Now either he is seriously misinformed (Mr. Commissioner, I don't see Canadians outside Canada or Brazilians outside Brazil cited by local banks as being persona non grata - only "US Persons", and, gee, aren't we the lucky ones?) or he is misleading Congresswoman Beutler.

Some readers are reporting problems with the video so here is the direct link to it on Youtube:

IRS Oversight Hearing - Beutler/IRS Commissioner Exchange

The exchange occurs at the 1h14min mark.



Canada:

Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party in Canada, raised questions about FATCA in the Canadian parliament.  Listen to Finance Minister Flaherty's response.  He does not answer the question about Charter violations but he does say that the CRA (Canadian Revenue Authority) will NOT collect taxes on behalf of the American IRS:



France:

And here is Frédéric Lefebvre, a representative of the French abroad (North America) asking  in the Assemblee Nationale about the closing of their bank accounts in France because of their connection to the U.S.:

Frédéric LEFEBVRE







After watching this broadcast one of Mr. Lefebvre's constituents in the U.S. wrote to thank him and copied me on the correspondence.  Here are some excerpts from what this Frenchman abroad wrote to his representative (and may I say how much I wish that I, an American abroad, had that kind of representation in my national parliament):
"Monsieur le Ministre

Je suis un citoyen Français marié à une américaine, et travaillant aux Etats-Unis.

Je tiens à vous remercier pour votre intervention en séance sur la fermeture de comptes bancaires détenus par des Français établis aux USA. Les Français vivant aux Etats-Unis, ainsi que ceux résidents en France, mais d'origine Américaine ont besoin de votre soutien et de votre aide.
Je tiens à préciser, comme vous l'avez mentionné lors de votre intervention que les fermetures sont dues principalement à la loi FATCA et non au fait que les comptes ne soient pas actifs. Comme vous le savez, cette loi demande à tous les établissements financiers étrangers de fournir au FISC Américain les noms des ressortissants Américains, et Français possesseurs d'une carte verte, montant des comptes et liste des transactions sous peine d'un prélèvement de 30% de tous les flux financiers en provenance des US. En fait, le but principal de l'accord signé en Novembre est d'éviter ces sanctions.
La fermeture des comptes n'est qu'une partie des problèmes liés à cet accord. Depuis plusieurs années, les Etats-Unis traitent très sévèrement les personnes qui ont des liens financiers avec d'autres pays. Ces personnes ne sont pas seulement les riches Américains qui cachent leur fortune dans des comptes à l'étranger. Sont inclus aussi les immigrants aux Etats-Unis ainsi que les américains résidant à l'étranger. La punition pour ne pas avoir déclaré ces comptes est extrêmement sévère. Ces gens, qu'ils soient coupables d'évasion fiscale, ou simplement d'ignorance dans le cas des immigrants et expatriés, doivent payer comptables et avocats pour corriger 8 ans de déclarations d'impôts, payer tous impôts dus, intérêts et pénalités de 20%, ainsi qu'une amende confiscatoire de 27.5% de la valeur combinée maximale de leurs comptes sur les 8 dernières années. Cette dernière pénalité peut atteindre des sommes extravagantes pour l'immigrant ou l'expatrié de classe moyenne qui n'était pas au courant qu'il devait déclarer au FISC américain les maigres intérêts d'un compte non fermé avant son immigration...
Comme vous l'avez justement mentionné lors de votre intervention, à cause de cette loi, certaines institutions financières, plutôt que de mettre à jour leurs systèmes informatiques et contacter tous leurs clients pour savoir s'ils ont soit une carte verte, soit la nationalité américaine, préfèrent tout simplement fermer leur compte ou refuser d'ouvrir des comptes à ces nouveaux clients, ou limiter leurs investissements...
Renoncer à la nationalité américaine est bien sur une possibilité dans certains cas, mais qui n'est pas sans frais non plus. Je vous encourage à lire ce document, expliquant les implications financières associées au renoncement de la nationalité américaine.
http://citizenshipsolutions.ca/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/NewZealandandtheExitTax.pdf
Je suis très déçu que la France ait signé cet accord, sans négocier des conditions de régularisation raisonnables pour les personnes impactées, dont la plupart ne sont pas des fraudeurs fiscaux et dont les données vont être transmises... FATCA n'est d'ailleurs pas un accord bilatéral. C'est une barrière commerciale qui est imposée unilatéralement par une des parties(les Etats-Unis) envers l'autre : la France. Le choix était pour la France est de se voir imposer le coût de mise en conformité ou de perdre l'accès au marché américain à cause des sanctions de 30% menacées par les US. Le coût de conformité sera initialement pris en charge par les institutions financières, mais sera inévitablement répercuté sur les clients. Tous les Français seront pénalisés par les coûts que les banques devront mettre en ouvre pour trouver leurs clients américains, sous forme de frais, ou de retours en investissements moindres...
Accepter FATCA, c'est accepter le système américain d'imposition basé sur la nationalité, et non la résidence, comme c'est le cas dans le reste du monde. La convention internationale et celle de la France, est d'imposer les individus en fonction de leur lieu de résidence. Cette nouvelle loi américaine, va à l'encontre du droit souverain du gouvernement Français qui est d'imposer les gens sur leur juridiction territoriale et aussi va à l'encontre de la politique du gouvernement Français qui est de protéger les français de certaines pratiques de gouvernements étrangers - dans ce cas, des amendes excessives imposées par le gouvernement américain en cas de non-conformité... Les promesses du gouvernement américain sur la réciprocité sont vagues et manquent de crédibilité.
Maintenant qu'un accord intergouvernemental a été signé avec les Etats-Unis, quel sont les recours pour les personnes impactées ? Que pouvez-vous faire pour les aider ? Une assurance que le gouvernement regarde de plus près certains cas de fermeture de comptes par certaines banques n'est pas suffisant! Il nous faut une assurance qu'il n'y ait pas de discrimination. Pourquoi ne pas voter une loi qui interdise la discrimination basée sur la nationalité ? ...Comment assurer que les nouveaux immigrants aux Etats-Unis soient prévenus de leurs responsabilités fiscales en regard du FBAR et de l'importance de divulguer leurs comptes sur leur declaration d'impot?
Serais-je et mes enfants traités comme citoyens de seconde classe à notre retour en France, simplement parce que j'ai travaillé au Etats-Unis et qu'ils sont nés là-bas ?"

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Flophouse American Diaspora Reading List

“Sometimes we feel we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools.”

Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991

Time for an update of the Flophouse American Diaspora Reading List - the best books and articles I've read recently about American people and communities abroad.  New books are in green.  As always, please feel free to add to the list or recommend a title.  

The first part of the list has general books/articles - the larger view.  Some talk about specific issues, like citizenship, others are studies, portraits or serious research about Americans abroad.  

The second part of the list has books I've read that are the accounts of Americans in different countries.  These are not books that tell a potential American migrant how to live in Mexico, for example.   These are personal accounts that talk about what happens to American identity when it gets transplanted somewhere else for a year or two or for a lifetime.  

Expatriation, Expatriates, and Expats: The American Transformation of a Concept by Nancy L. Green.  This article (available on-line) was published in 2009 in the The American Historical Review. Great essay about American expatriation in the legal and cultural senses.  How did the right to expatriate (the right to leave) go from a mechanism for "nation-building" to one of excluding Americans from the nation?

Americans Abroad: A Comparative Study of Emigrants from the United States by A. Dashefsky et al.
Published in 1992 this is a study of Americans migrants in Australia and Israel (Canada is briefly mentioned as well).  It asks provocative questions about motives for leaving, adaptation in these countries, and why the migrants stayed, returned to the US, or decided to move on to a third country.  In the final chapter are some interesting conclusions and proposals for policies around this emigration one of which is: "Deter efforts to force migrants to change citizenship or otherwise make a permanent, formal commitment to one society or another."

Published in 2007, a very interesting book that re-examines the "American Dream" in the light of American emigration.  Talks about Americans in Canada, Israel, Australia and New Zealand.  It's one of the few I've found that includes African-American emigration and women migrants.  Some good statistics (or at least estimates) at the end of the book.

The Unknown Ambassadors: A Saga of Citizenship by Phyllis Michaux.
Published in 1996, this is the story of how Americans abroad organized around issues of particular importance to Americans living outside the US:  citizenship for the children of Americans who were born abroad, voting rights, and many other issues like Medicare from the 1970's to the 1990's.  This is the diaspora going to the homeland government for recognition as a distinct group with particular interests.  It's a battle that is still ongoing but this book is important because it's the only one I know of that gives the the history and the context behind today's efforts.

"Gilded Prostitution": Status, Money, And Transatlantic Marriages, 1870-1914 by Maureen E. Montgomery.   The title is a bit off-putting but if you are an American woman married to a foreign national this is a good one.  The marriages examined here are between elites (U.S. and U.K.) over a century ago and yet some of the negative (and positive) attitudes about women who marry foreigners and leave America are all too familiar.  Under it all, of course, were questions of citizenship (should women lose their citizenship because they marry "out") and taxation where money followed these women abroad.

Americans Abroad, How Can We Count Them? This book which came out in 2010  is the transcript of a hearing held in 2001 by the U.S. Congress House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform, Sub-committee on the Census,  on the feasibility of including Americans civilians abroad in the census.  This is the diaspora meeting the homeland government directly and the interplay between homeland interests and the interests of Americans abroad is fascinating.  In particular the testimony of the representative from the U.S. State Department shines a light on the relationship between the US Embassies/Consulates and the American communities in the host countries.  

Diaspora Politics: At Home Abroad by Gabriel Sheffer
This is a general book about diaspora politics but I include it here for two reasons: 1.  It will put the efforts for recognition in the three previous books on this list in a much larger context.  There are patterns, general strategies that all diasporas use or try to use as they attempt to manage the relationship with the homeland over different issues and 2.  He examines the question of whether or not the American communities abroad (some of which have a history that goes back to the American Revolution in the 18th century) constitute a true diaspora. 

"The inclusion of those overseas Americans in this category raises some interesting theoretical questions:  Can the Americans, who themselves are of diverse ethnic origins and are citizens of a civic state rather than an ethnic state, be regarded as belonging in the category of ethno-national diasporas, or do they constitute yet another borderline case?"

A Gathering of Fugitives:  American Political Expatriates in Mexico 1948-1965 (2002) by Diana Anhalt. a fascinating portrait of American political expatriates, a "small group of controversial Americans who found refuge in Mexico during the late 40's and throughout the '50's..." Flophouse review here.

This book focuses on one of the largest and most visible group of Americans who live and work abroad: teachers. Zimmerman talks about the distinct differences between those who went abroad in the first half of the 20th century and those who left in the latter half. Though the social, historical and political frameworks changed over time, he notes that there has always been a diversity of opinion and a debate about just what these Americans were doing (or supposed to be doing) abroad. There are things in here that will make Americans wince - not just how some Americans viewed the countries where they worked (especially those that were a part of the American empire like Puerto Rico or the Philippines) in the first part of the 20th century, but also how this continued with a different twist in the second half of the century.

Beyond Borders: Portraits Of American Women From Around The World by My-Linh Kunst
A beautiful book about American women abroad - the photography is stunning.  These are ordinary women who have done (and are still doing) extraordinary things outside the US: Jean Darling (Ireland), Yuzana Khin (Thailand), Gillian McGuire (Italy), Kim Powell, (France), Lucy Laederich (France), Marcia Brittain (Uruguay), and Jane Cabanyes (Spain) to name just a few. The book came out of a FAWCO (Federation of American Women's Clubs Overseas) project and is the work of two members: My-Linh Kunst (photography) and Charlotte Fox Zabusky.  A longer Flophouse review of the book can be found here.

The Transplanted Woman by Gabrielle Varro
I read this one many years ago and will read it again and do a longer review. Gabrielle Varro is a CNRS researcher in anthropology and sociology who has studied bi-lingualism, immigration and the sociology of mixed-marriages. This book came out of a study that she conducted with AAWE of French-American marriages and families over generations.  Some of it is about the dynamics of cross-cultural marriages but it also looks at American identity as it is transmitted through the American wives of French men.  A Flophouse discussion of Varro's work can be found here.

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The American (2007) by Franz-Olivier Giesbert.  A rather dark book but with a unique perspective.  The author is an Accidental American in France who wrote about his relationship with his American father.  Flophouse review here.

Second Skin (2012) by Diana Anhalt.  Some stunning poetry from the author of A Gathering of Fugitives. She writes about her host country (Mexico), languages (English/Spanish) and much more.  One of my favorite lines from her work:

"Today I speak Spanish to survive,
but I write in English for its punch,
for the way it slices through excess, draws blood,
attracts sharks. (They know this voice and come to me.)"
All about the trauma of losing identity and forming a new one in a new language and country.  Very honest account of how she felt during the process.  A longer Flophouse review of the book is here.

The musings of a "redneck socialist" which are mostly about homeland politics but there are some excellent essays in this book about his time in Belize. His political views are pretty clear:  "Capitalism is dead," he said, "but we still dance with the corpse." Really engaging writer and his expat perspective is one you don't come across everyday.  Just have a look at his bio.  

Tales of Mogadiscio by Iris Kapil
This is a series of essays written by an American woman in a cross-cultural marriage (her husband is Indian and they got married in the 1950's).  She was a serial expat but this book is about the two years the family spent "on the economy" in the capital city of Somalia in the 1960's.  Very nicely written and beautiful descriptions of what that city was like before the country descended into chaos and became the epitome of a "failed state."  Kapil has a fine blog called Iris sans frontières.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Old Houses are Still the Best Houses

"A building properly conceived is several layers of longevity of built components."

Francis Cuthbert "Frank" Duffy, architect


If you are about my age and had hippy, soixante-huitard parents, you may remember The Whole Earth Catalog published by Stewart Brand between 1968 and 1972.  I believe that a dusty copy is still to be found in my parent's library in Seattle along with Lorenzo Milam's Sex and Broadcasting.

It was completely by chance that I stumbled on a book Brand wrote back in the 1990's called How Buildings Learn:  What Happens After They're Built.

A delightful book.  In it he turns the whole business of architecture on its head.  Instead of thinking of building projects as an attempt to capture the perfect house, office space or monument, he looks at these projects as just the beginning of the building's life and he asks how they be constructed to last and to evolve over time.  A dynamic, as opposed to a static, process.  New eras, new owners, new uses.

Brand has a rather jaundiced view of architects and he quotes Marvin Minsky who said, "The problem with architects is that they think they're artists, and they're not very competent."  I'm not qualified to agree or disagree with that comment but Brand's examples of bad buildings (or ones that in retrospect haven't aged well)  are well chosen.  The Centre national d’art et de culture Georges-Pompidou (The Pompidou Center), for example, is one that when it opened in 1977 was a very impressive, exciting, modern structure.  Looking at it now in 2013, it  appears rather shabby and a bit dated.

Moving from monumental architecture to something a bit closer to everyday life (from art to craft, one might say) the best houses, he says, are old (or new) ones that start simple and are robust and built to last. He favors the "house as box" - a design that has been around forever and is still, in his view, a good one, "because it is profoundly adaptive."   Like the Saltbox which was a very simple U.S. style built between the 17th and 19th century. Or these two examples from my archives: an early 20th century stone house in Brittany, France and a small dwelling in our old neighborhood, Shirokanedai, in Tokyo, Japan:

Brittany, France

Tokyo, Japan

These are houses, "vernacular buildings", that can grow depending on the owner's wishes and needs.  They can be bumped out or up.   The "skin" can be changed and porches, verandas and extra rooms added.

It's not just the outside that can be changed but the inside, too.  The interior is very simple in these houses and is usually constructed with a corridor (or staircase) in the center with rooms on either side. "Let there be," says Brand, "a central passageway and stair hall, say, with roughly identical pairs of rooms on each side upstairs and down."

In the Brittany house, that is exactly what one finds:  a hallway with a very steep staircase and rooms (and stone fireplaces) on either side going up 2 floors.   The owners (my in-laws) didn't have to spend much to recuperate the attic space and turned it into bedrooms with windows and a small bathroom, thus making a four-bedroom vacation home out of a very basic two-bedroom fisherman's house. (House still doesn't have heat, though.)

Another good example is the house I live in now - a 1929 brick house that was previously owned by a laborer (a tiler by trade) and his wife.   We think there were remodels in the 1950's and in the 1970's. They clearly went down and dug out the basement to create a laundry room and bedrooms for their two sons.   Since water and sewer didn't start being installed on our street until 1929, we strongly suspect that what is the bathroom (salle de bains) today was something else when the house was first built.  Perhaps a second small bedroom for children or maybe the kitchen was bigger.


What we can see from the plan (and the size of the lot) there are an almost infinite number of changes inside and out that would be relatively inexpensive to make.  Not a lot of work frankly to make the kitchen larger, to grab the space that is today the front porch to make the living room bigger, or to tack a veranda onto what is called the salon in the plan. (Provided, of course that the architecte de la ville agrees.)

We are thinking about the last but we're taking our time.  The house was well-maintained for many years but the tiler's widow had to let some things slide and it seems prudent to tackle things like the leaking gutters, the rotten railings, and the peeling paint first.  Anything more complicated than that will have to wait because, to be honest, we have more will right now than wallet.

And that, according to Stewart Brand, is a Good Thing.  Why?

For one, Brand agrees with David Owen (The Walls Around Us) that all houses suffer a nervous breakdown when new owners move in.
"A few days after the deal is closed, water begins to drip from the chandelier in the living room, a heating pipe bursts, and the oven stops working.  The house is accustomed to being handled in certain ways.  Then, suddenly, strangers barge in.  They take longer showers, flush the toilets more forcefully, turn on the trash compactor with the right hand instead of the left, and open windows at night.  Familiar domestic rhythms are destroyed.  While the house struggles to adjust, many expensive items...unexpectedly self-destruct.  Then, gradually, new rhythms are established, the house resigns itself to the change of ownership, and a normal pace of deterioration is restored."
For another, Brand argues that the enemy of good preservation and prudent remodeling is money.

"Form follows funding."

Too much money and the owners do tout et n'importe quoi.  They indulge their fantasies and the results are often quite ugly, impractical, inflexible, and go out of style in just a few short years. These then become the nightmares of future owners who say to themselves, "What were they thinking?"  Too little money means that basic maintenance isn't done and the house suffers serious structural damage that new owners must try desperately to fix.

Music to my ears since that describes us perfectly (at least until the Frenchlings finish university). And here I was feeling guilty because there is so much to do and there just isn't any way we can do it all right now.

I'll buy Brand's argument that makes a virtue out of a necessity.  Fantasies cost nothing and,  “if dreams were thunder and lightning was desire, this old house would have burned down a long time ago.” (John Prine).

And if you're interested Steward Brand did a How Buildings Learn series for the BBC in 1997 which is up on Youtube.  Very well done and you can learn more about what he really thinks of the Pompidou Center: