On Becoming French

Or, How I got here

I moved to France in September 2006. Prior to that, I had a great job in a field that I loved. I was twenty-six years old, had my Bachelor’s and was living on my own. My career was practically traced out and I was (on paper) doing quite well for myself. But I chucked it all. Why?

When I was seven years old, I took a French class for the first time. Prior to that, my mother had had a Spanish tutor for me for a couple of years, but all that really stuck was how to say 1 through 10 and a couple of colors. But French fascinated me. I don’t know if it was the subject itself, or that I had a fantastic teacher. Whatever it was, I was hooked. I wanted to be French. And in spite of only being able to study the language on and off through the years, I didn’t shut up about my dream of going to France until I was twenty-one (in 2001) and had the chance to study abroad for six weeks. It was simultaneously a wonderful and terrible experience.

When you’re studying French at school, one thing they emphasize is the similarity between France and the United States. How our revolutions were philosophically connected. How human rights and democracy are features of both countries. (dissecting that would take about a hundred blog posts) How we’re essentially cousins. So, when I went for the first time, I wasn’t prepared for the culture shock. Which was immense. To make matters worse, I stuffed down my feelings of irritation and frustration about the differences, judging myself, deciding that I was being too sensitive, or my perspective and thoughts were just wrong. (again, self-criticism that could be analyzed through a series of blog posts)

Stuffing things down is not a good strategy, in any case.

At the midpoint of my trip, I had a mini-breakdown. After an evening of being harassed by a group of young men at Chatelet, having a bus fly by when we were terrified, and my best friend practically jumping in front of a taxi and flashing the driver to get him to stop to take us back to the Cité Universitaire, I found myself on the floor of a fellow student’s room, downing shots of Blue Curaçao and sobbing.

Word to the wise: straight shots of Blue Curaçao are nobody’s friend.

For the next three weeks, I could not wait to get back home. I enjoyed my French class, took advantage of the planned excursions, and had fun with my fellow students. And I loathed the French. I did not eat their cheese, drink their wine, or try to understand them at all. It was quite the 180 from the perspective I’d had after so many years of dreaming to get there.

I should note that I was studying in Paris. Parisians and the French in general frequently get conflated and that should really not be the case.

When I got back, I checked the “been to Paris” box on my bucket list, finished school and set to work in politics.

But after a few years, the itch came back. Sure, I’d been to Paris for six weeks, but I hadn’t actually lived in France. I shunted it to the side, thinking “been there, done that”. Then it would come back. A nagging little thought that popped up every now and then.
I started working for the state Legislature. A short-term contract here, another there, and finally a permanent position. But my personal life was in shambles. I was severely depressed (hello undiagnosed bipolar disorder!).

I became so miserable that I made a new bucket list. There were only three items:

1 – get a Master’s Degree

2 – live in Paris for at least one year

3 – write a book

Once I accomplished those things, I could kill myself.

Yep, that’s how bad it was. I’d reached out for mental health help multiple times, and when I did the experiences ranged from useless to awful to downright terrifying. And so much more than I could afford. Support from my family was non-existent and the few friends who knew that I struggled didn’t realize how bad things were.

I adored my work, but since I knew that I was going to kill myself eventually, I decided to get started on the new bucket list so I could just get on with dying.

I found an American Master’s Program in Paris (my French was no longer good enough to do a program in French). It would give me two years in the City of Light. Once that was done, I’d go back home, pretend everything was okay, write my book and then I could die.

What I didn’t count on was meeting someone. It seemed silly to get romantically involved if my life had an approaching expiration date, but I thought “Why not? Who doesn’t like the idea of a French romance? Maybe I can throw it in my book.” What started as casual dating got a little more serious. I discovered other parts of France. I met his family. And I discovered a health care system that was actually about care, not profits.

What a concept?!

The Frenchman and I went back to the States for a friend’s wedding. Going through a box of my stuff, I found an old journal with a post-it note inside. I’d written, “What if my husband is in France?” I did remember writing it, but it had seemed like a pipe dream, like a desperate grasp at the idea of a future for myself.

Turns out I’d been right.

And now, years later, I’m French. Dual citizenship, two passports, bilingual and in much better mental health.

I’m pretty sure seven-year-old me would be proud.