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Monday, January 30, 2012

A Day in the Life of an American Emigrant

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.


Ellen Lebelle said...

Victoria, this is an excellent piece. I've been here 40 years. For a long time I felt no urge to join the associations AAWE and AARO, and when I did, I didn't participate very much. However, the desire to transmit some Americanness to my kids (AAWE) has turned into frustrations with our tax burdens (AARO) and the result is that I more involved.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Thank you very much, Ellen, for your very kind comment. I wrote it out of a sense of frustration - my life does not resemble a Peter Mayle book or an Hemingway novel :-) However I do want to say again that I have no regrets. I love this country and its people and its culture and I have come to believe that I will live here for the rest of my life.

40 years? That's wonderful. I'm assuming that you had the same reason for coming to France as I did. Are your kids in French school?

Berliniquais said...

Your post inspires me some thoughts that have nothing to do with each other.

1. I wasn't aware that there was such a significant price difference between Paris and a rather well-off suburb like Versailles... poor Parisians, really... I don't think I'll ever go back.

2. The Wall Street English ads are so funny. I never could figure out how they could so broadly advertise "97% De Réussite" and "Résultats Garantis Par Contrat" (note the annoying capitalisation which is much less common in French than in US English), but, hey, go figure.

3. My impression is that the French public in general is also quite suspicious of its nationals living abroad, the stereotype being wealthy upper class people leading the high life under warmer climes and paying less taxes somehow. I guess it has to do with history, as France never had a history of being a country of emigration (much like the US), except for the colonial times, when colonists were indeed lording it over locals... But really I could not care less about what the uninformed, Figaro-reading public (which is pretty much the same) thinks about me, really. I experienced that some people could believe such wild notions that no amount of fact could alter their misconceptions.

4. Good luck with the job search!

5. Good luck with the tax-dodging! (just kidding)

bubblebustin said...

Thank you for sharing your slice of life in Paris. I've visited there once and would return in a heartbeat. I too have made a life in another country since moving to Canada with my Canadian mother and siblings in 1968. I have no real connection with the US anymore and the knowledge that I am required to pay US taxes came as a real shock to me this year. Since then, memories of living there keep slipping into my consciousness, but they are all tainted by the persecution I am feeling and what your article is a reminder of. I see your name in various blogs and like me, you make efforts to bring our issues to light. A common suggestion made by many (especially in the US) is for us to simply give up our US citizenship. Hidden in this suggestion is an attitude that there is something unpatriotic about someone who would choose not to live in the "best country on earth". My usual response is to say "would amputating your arm be the best solution to someone wrenching it?" They often mutter about the "price of freedom", to which I say "how is double taxation freedom?" They usually stop short of saying that if I don't like it then maybe I should move back, perhaps because they know it's freedom that's really at stake here. I believe through the efforts of those like us, the IRS is beginning to recognize the blunder they've made. But we have a lot of ignorance to work through first before we can gain real traction. Keep up the good work and all the best in finding that job!

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Le Chroniqueur Berliniquais - and I'm ashamed to say here that I don't know your name so I will address you as "sir" until you are so kind as allow me name privileges :-)

I live in the cheaper seats in Versailles -close to Viroflay which is not bad rent-wise. I think the center of town near the castle is more expensive. We do have a perfectly nice apartment. The only real issue is the walk to the train stations which is a pain in winter.

Yes, I think the French are suspicious of their ex-pats. On the other hand the French are suspicious of EVERYONE so I don't really know how to measure their attitudes toward their compatriots abroad. :-)

@bubblebustin - thank you so much for *your* efforts in getting the word out. Pretty frustrating sometimes, isn't it? But perhaps if we are persistent we will get a hearing from someone somewhere who can make a difference. We have to keep trying. I love your line, "would amputating your arm be the best solution to someone wrenching it?" That is priceless and very very appropriate.


Ellen Lebelle said...

Victoria -- Absolutely no regrets. Four kids, a totally French speaking family and they went to the local school, and they really learned English at school. They're all grown now: one is living in England, speaking French to her daughter; another daughter is living in Paris; a son in Paris expecting his first child soon; and another daughter down in the south of France. All turned out well.
Everyone else, we're east of Paris, much less expensive than west. We moved out of the city more than 30 years ago, so we could afford to live near the Bois de Vincennes, a proximity that would be impossible today.
After trying to make sure my own kids were Americans (AAWE and AARO worked hard on citizenship issues over the years),I don't want to go through the process to get citizenship for the grandchildren and that is because of the tax situation. Not that they would owe any, but the declaration headache is more than simply frustrating, in my opinion.
Le Chroniqueur Berliniquais -- that suspicion of expats is pretty universal. The US actually treats its citizens abroad as guilty parties that have to prove their innocence. And we are not represented. We vote in our State and are represented by our Representative and Senators, but we don't make up much of their constiuency. The French who live abroad have their counsellors they elect and a senator. In the next legislature, they'll have assembly representatives, so all in all, their issues get heard.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Ellen - I am 100% in agreement. It's not the taxes, it's the hassle and trying to make sense of the IRS regulations.

What is terribly said right now is that, after spending years teaching my children to value their American roots and citizenship, they are getting a *terrible* impression of what it means to be an American citizen.

Here is something I posted at Isaac Brock - a conversation I had with my younger daughter that really does say it all:

bubblebustin said...

Feel free to use my arm wrenching comment any time! The tax advocate within the IRS gave the IRS a real blast, Nina Olson is a champion of our cause. Now, we'll see if they listen to her recommendations...

Anonymous said...

Good post, just a short remark on the NY Times article limitation:

While I think it's important to support good journalism, there's an easy way around the article limit. Most browsers these days have a "privacy mode", "private browsing" or "incognito windows" (Ctrl-Shift-N if you happen to use Google Chrome as your browser, Ctrl-Shift-P if you use Firefox), in which your browsing history will stay clean and cookies are deleted when the session ends and access to your normal ones isn't possible. Those cookies are used for counting how many articles you've read, without them, it's as if it were your first visit to the site.
So, simply make it a habit to use that privacy mode for visits to the NY Times, the count will reset to zero each time you close the incognito window. Once you've found a job, you can reconsider getting that subscription for the convenience, added features and/or to support good journalism.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Thank you for the comment and the tip. I had no idea but I will give it a try. I really like the NYT magazine and was very bummed out that I couldn't read it.

Many thanks


Victoria FERAUGE said...

And, of my goodness, I checked my stats this morning and saw that this post was shared at a place called Reddit. Lively discussion over there about what I wrote. I'll have a read and then post this morning.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

OK, had a look. Wrote an update here.

Berliniquais said...

@ Victoria - Being addressed as "Sir" by a lady who raised a number of kids, some of whom being seemingly not so much younger than me, is not a "privilege" I am ready to enjoy so soon - please feel free to call me JM if you don't mind, these are my real initials :-)

@ Ellen & Victoria & all
Thanks for the enlightening remarks! Little did I know it was so hard to live as an American abroad... really.

bubblebustin said...

you're posted on AARO too. I've left a message on your Fb.

Kathleen said...


"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. … I know their culture but they do not know mine."

How true! It dawned on me many years ago that being bilingual is *not* the same thing as being bicultural when one of my daughters was about 10 years old and stated, "I'm half American and half Québécoise, but mostly Québécoise." She was absolutely correct in her assessment.

(I'm American and have been living in Québec for over 20 years.)

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hello Kathleen,

Welcome to the Flophouse and thank you so much for your comment.

Isn't is strange that we don't realize that right away? In our heads the link between language and culture seems so "obvious" to us that we don't rethink until it smacks us upside the head that is is just plain wrong sometimes. Those bi-cultural/bi-lingual kids will do that to you. :-)


Victoria FERAUGE said...

And hello again, Kathleen. I saw that you are in Quebec. The elder Frenchling is there at school. I loved your daughter's comment, "I'm half American and half Québécoise, but mostly Québécoise."

That really made me wonder how my Frenchlings identify themselves. In Quebec, for example, does my daughter identify herself as an American or as French (or both). From her notes I think she's almost always identifying herself as French. I'll have to ask her when she comes home for summer vacation.