Very recently I have come into contact with a number of people visiting Paris. This is unusual for me because I've always lived a bit off the beaten path (Parisian suburbs and close cities like Versailles) and I've pretty much lived a French-saturated existence (French friends, family and companies) since I first arrived in 1989.
The contact seems to follow a fairly predictable script. They say why they are visiting and when they ask me what I'm doing here, I reply that, well, I've been here for nearly 20 years and....
The conversations forks at this point. Most of the time the reaction is to tell me how wonderful that is and how lucky I am because they just love Paris and France and the French. Less often (but it happens) people will tell me how France really didn't live up their expectations and how unhappy they are and how they can't wait to leave.
What is strange to me is how both these reactions provoke very ambivalent feelings in my gut. To those who tell me how lucky I am, I want to snap and snarl and say that luck has nothing to do with it. I've worked very hard to make a life here. It was not easy and some of my experiences have been downright ghastly and painful and ego-destroying. This is not Disneyland and the French are not Mickey Mouse and his pals.
I have an equally adverse reaction to the unhappy ones. I become very protective of France and I try to explain gently that it's different but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Different fields, different grasshoppers.
All my answers feel unsatisfactory to me. I just don't know how to explain how I really feel in a few short minutes which is usually all the time I have. I have a long and complex relationship with the Hexagone and its people and like all relationships it has its up and downs.
When I was living in Seattle, a friend of mine who has been married for over 30 years, told me that a long-term marriage is a wild ride: sometimes you and your spouse are the best of friends, sometimes you are the most ardent of lovers and every so often you become each others worst enemy. Over the years you cycle through through these states over and over again. The secret, she said, was learning how to ride through them. What holds you together in the end is a commitment to work through the bad times and to wait for better days.
Just as people who are in long-term relationships can be very ambivalent about how they feel about their partner, so I find myself incapable of explaining the exact nature of what holds me here in this place with these people. There is love, certainly, but there is also a great deal of anger and hurt. It should be noted that the ambivalence is not just on my side, the French being a bit unsure these days about immigrants in general. But like a long-term marriage there is an underlying commitment to work it out, to stick it out, even when it is so bad that all I want to do is run and all they seem to want is to punish you in some way for being here.
There is an excellent saying about the difference between dedication and commitment. The chicken, they say, is dedicated to your breakfast. The pig, on the other hand, is committed to it.
I am committed to this odd place, this strange tribe, and our sometimes very uneasy relationship. I threw in my lot with the French long ago by leaving everything I knew and loved - all that was familiar and safe - in order to live a life that is not better or worse than the life I could have lived at home, just different. I do not regret this even during dark times. However ambivalent I may feel some days, the commitment is a constant and the foundation of my love for this country.