For the last week or so I've been hibernating in my little house here in Porchefontaine. My last visit with my oncologist spawned a whole new series of tests. I am once again spending a great deal of time among the toubibs (slang for "doctors"). So far it has proven fruitful. There is indeed a problem, a side-effect of the medication I'm taking, which is cause for concern and will necessitate a change in the treatment. May I say how happy I am to learn that I wasn't imagining things? And thank heavens for the French medical system. It's not just efficient (at all my appointments all I've had to produce is my national healthcare card), it's also one that most of the time delivers caring care. One more appointment at the end of this week and my doctor will have all the information she needs to set us on a new course.
In spite of all this great care it's tiring to be shuttling from one appointment to another. The achiness in my hips which got much worse after the breast cancer march has now evolved into a constant dull throb that makes it a bit unpleasant to walk.
Oh, let me be honest here, it makes any movement a trial. Worse, it makes me grumpy and easily irritated. I think I am very poor company right now and I am deliberately avoiding any controversial topics that might transform me from a mild curmudgeon into a nasty, cantankerous, spiteful woman. Nothing (and I believe this with all my heart) is worth the destruction of one's serenity.
So what does one do when one is stuck on the couch drinking decaf and popping codoliprane? Well, I don't know about you but these are the times I use to read and to think. Turn off the phone, set aside the computer, pour a hot cup of something tasty, make a big fire and settle in with a few good books. And when I get up to put another log on the fire or reheat that cup, I think about what I've read and try to connect it to experience or to other ideas, arguments and assertions that have come my way. I find all this very relaxing. You've heard of Slow Food? Slow Cities? How about Slow Thinking? It's where you start with a Beginner's Mind and crack open something that has nothing whatsoever to do with anything urgent or of the moment. The only thing being exercised here is curiosity. It's not about making oneself a better person or more learned; it's simply enjoying the play of ideas on the page and in one's head.
So what am I toying with right now? Susan Ossman's Moving Matters: Paths of Serial Migration.
A lot of food for thought in this book. Ossman is talking about a particular group of "people who move around": a type of migrant who immigrates once, and not having suffered enough the first round, chooses to migrate again to a Third (or Fourth or Fifth) place. Think about that for a moment. The usual narrative is one where the migrant takes that great leap, casts him or herself on a distant shore, integrates insofar as she can in this new homeland, and then gratefully becomes a citizen of this new and wonderful place that she has learned to love as her own.
The ideal end to this story (if we were writing fairy tales) is a vision of the old immigrant surrounded by her grateful successful native-born children, bouncing her grandchildren on her knee while she tells them stories about growing up in the Old Country in her charming musical accent. (And isn't it ironic that my tales of the "old country" will be of growing up in the exotic lawless world of the Far West of the United States of America?")
Why do we love this story which is a staple of many countries of immigration? Because there is something in it for everyone. The receiving country is reassured on two levels: that it is still some sort of magnet for discontented citizens of other nations and that its culture is still powerful enough to win over the new arrival. As for the migrant it's a beacon of hope - a sign that one day there will be acceptance, prosperity, belonging, provided that one follows the script. It's a model for how we think immigration ought to work.
Ossman points out that immigration is an experience that all migrants share. We can talk about push/pull factors, highly qualified versus low qualified, developed versus developing countries but all migrants are bound by a system that works pretty much the same everywhere. There is the fact of leaving, of being allowed to leave by the home country which issues the passport necessary for travel beyond national borders. And then there is arrival and a system for processing the newcomers whether they are new spouses, college professors, or plumbers. National origin matters much less than one might think. It is, in fact, often a great and terrible surprise to a migrant from a developed country to find himself stuck in line at the prefecture, lumped in with all the other "foreigners". It is humbling (and I should know since I've been humbled in that manner twice in my life). Unless one is so rich (or so terribly important) that one can buy or demand special treatment, prepare to be leveled. The prize, of course, is the residency permit and from there the migrant can move into the new world and start making a life for him or herself.
This is not the only shared experience. Ossman says (and it's true): "The immigrant is perpetually caught between two places; he is defined by a life in between." There will always be a sending country and a receiving country, a home culture and a second culture, the original nation-state citizenship and a second citizenship to add to or to replace the first one. No immigrant can erase where he came from. It's there when he opens his mouth and speaks with an accent. It's there when she orders a birth certificate and place of birth is not here. It's there when something tips off a native that the person before him isn't one and he asks, "So, where are you from?" A life in the new country is always built on the foundations of the old one.
Out of that shared experience come choices that the migrant must make. She has no control over where she is from, the color of her original passport or the process of leaving and arrival. What happens next, however, is..
Some migrants choose to live as perpetual foreigners in the new country and may even even revel in being the exotic beast. Others choose a path that leads to integration and even assimilation - they may give up a great deal in this quest but they also gain much. The ability to successfully navigate a second culture is, like a second language, something that is a passport to a whole new world that one can explore for a lifetime. Some do this and become the old immigrant in the immigrant fairy tale which basically says that "migration is supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime ordeal, a rite of passage that enables the migrant to occupy a new status as an immigrant." And then, of course, a citizen and lifelong resident.
What Ossman is arguing in her book is that there is yet another option that deserves our attention- one that some migrants find liberating. Forget the host/home country dichotomy, these migrant immigrate (like all other migrants) and then they do something that shatters the standard immigrant tale - they move on.
Ah, you might say, we know these people - the global jet-setters with homes in multiple countries or the executive nomad on a great expatriate package who goes where his company sends him. Ossman says that she's not talking about those folks. Instead the people she talked to seemed to be very much centered in the lower to middle-classes with different levels of education and work experience. But the biggest difference is that these are people who move to to other countries and settle. They just don't settle there forever.
None of this is necessarily by design or part of some grand life strategy. So what happened to make them leave?
Having had a first migration experience, they lost their fear of the process. They know they can pack up, leave everything, start over, and it will be fine. They already know how to learn another culture and language and so it isn't so scary to confront another one. They know what it's like to be a foreigner and they have learned that there are some real advantages to that. But most importantly they have learned that the world offers many alternatives - not just the culture of origin or the culture of arrival in the first country of migration, but a veritable feast of places and people to discover.
Is this simply a rich man's game? From Ossman's experience and my own, the answer is a definite "no". Wealth facilitates this movement but is not essential to it. I suspect that the most important facilitator of serial migration is one's profession. Is there something the migrant is qualified for and can do just about anywhere? Some examples are: IT workers, writers, journalists, carpenters, teachers, musicians. Interestingly enough, some of the most highly paid professions are not necessarily the best ones to have in this context. Doctors and lawyers, for example, since re-certification is often required in order to be able to practice in the new country. Or politicians and lobbyists whose knowledge and status are not transferable to a completely different political landscape.
If as Ossman says, "the ideal immigrant is one who disappears by being integrated into the social fabric over time," then serial migrants are a problem. They disappear alright but in a way that leaves the natives wondering what the hell happened. I sense a lot of resentment around this that I believe comes from a shattering of expectations about what immigrants are supposed to do: be grateful for the welcome, integrate, become productive members of society, and, above all, stay. When I hear a certain moral outrage over those who come and then leave I have to concede, that from a certain perspective, they have a point. Is a country, a culture, and a people simply an interval, a pleasant interlude, in someone's life experience? Fodder for conversations in yet another place that one begins by saying, "When I was living in Berlin..." There is even money to be made chronicling one's time among the natives learning their quaint and exotic customs.
Sounds terrible, doesn't it? And one can see where the sentiment that natives have of being used comes from. But what I have gleaned so far from Ossman's book and the various portraits she paints of different serial migrants, is that discontent or unhappiness with the host country is not the main motivation for moving on. More than anything it's about curiosity, a desire to explore what yet another place has to offer, and not a statement that a particular place is lacking in some way.
Frankly, those who would be hurt the most by the actions of the serial migrants are those who want to believe that their world, out of all the worlds on this planet, is the very best one - the most free or the one with the best social safety net or the most democratic political system or has the most equal treatment of men and women. If that is what the people in a particular country really believe (or want to believe) then, yes, anyone who leaves (native or migrant) has committed a nefarious act and torn a small but noticeable hole in the national myth.
But it's just not true, mes amis. There is no best place. Just different places with different charms and challenges.