(Editor’s note: This post on one expat’s reflections after seven years in France originally appeared on The American in Paris website. It’s reposted here with permission.)
Sometimes it’s still hard for me to believe that I have lived abroad for so long. If you’ve read any of my other posts for The American in Paris, you know that my journey to France never involved years of dreaming or yearning to live in a different country. I’m from southern Rhode Island, which is filled with small beach towns and people who rarely leave. I was content with this idea until the first time I left the United States.
I found myself in France for the first time in early 2012 when I came here for my semester abroad.
If you would have asked me in September 2011 if I thought I would ever travel internationally, never mind live abroad, I would have laughed and said, “No way.”
To put things into perspective, I had never left the country before (no, not even to go to Canada or Mexico), I didn’t have a passport, and I thought the life I was starting to build was too important to ever even consider leaving, even if for a few months.
Something was pulling me in the direction of France and I couldn’t really shake it. A study abroad advisor at my university very easily convinced me to come to Paris for six months. I loved my time abroad and when I got home I became that girl, starting all of my stories with, “This one time in Paris,” but at the same time, I didn’t believe that I would come back to live here. I thought it may be nice, but that life that I had started to build in 2011 kept sneaking back up on me: it was way too important to ever leave long term.
I found myself yet again in France in 2014 and this time it stuck. I’ve been here ever since and now have a master’s degree from a French university under my belt as well as a French husband. Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the past seven years more and more.
What I don’t miss
I don’t miss the fast-paced American life.
I don’t miss 60-hour work weeks and I definitely don’t miss the standard two weeks a year off (and being expected to be happy with/grateful for that).
I don’t miss the materialism and capitalism and consumerism and all of those other -isms that seem to be such essential parts of American life.
I don’t miss the competitiveness that spills over and swells through every facet of that life.
I don’t own a car or a home and I don’t feel judged for it.
I don’t miss being bombarded with advertisements everywhere I look.
I don’t miss hearing “Ask your doctor if this pill/cream/potion is right for you” on television.
I don’t miss worrying about what I would have to pay if I end up in the hospital, and I feel fortunate that I was able to continue my education without thinking about the price tag.
I don’t miss being chased out of restaurants the moment I put my fork down on an empty plate.
I take long lunch breaks. I walk everywhere and I enjoy a glass of wine after a day at work. I like to spend hours at a time in cafés, people-watching, reading, and chatting with other café-goers around me.
What I miss the most
I do miss my family and my friends.
I do miss being able to call my mom whenever I want without having to calculate the time difference.
I do miss going to dinner at my dad’s house on Wednesdays and eating dinner with him on his deck.
I do miss having a backyard.
I do miss the beach, the ocean, the pier, New England, and I miss having access to so much natural beauty at all times.
Sometimes I do miss driving, although I don’t miss owning a car.
I do miss the wide-open spaces that the United States is so famous for.
I do miss paying less in taxes.
I do miss good, quality coffee and inexpensive beer.
I do miss breakfast and hot sauce and good Mexican food.
I have missed seeing some of my closest friends get married, buy a house, and get pregnant. I can’t get any of those moments back.
A different kind of homesickness
These days, newly married to a French guy who my parents have only met a handful of times, I’ve been considering what it would be like to go back home for a year or two. Between my selfish decision to spend 2019 in Europe to “Not spend all of my money and time on a trip home,” and the pandemic of 2020-2021, I haven’t stepped foot on US soil since summer 2018.
Enter what I’ve been calling, a different kind of homesickness. I have – like any expat, of course – felt homesick before. It was the worst when I first arrived in France for the long haul in 2014, and I remember it getting bad again nine or so months in. That kind of homesickness was pretty standard: I missed my family and friends and I ached to be in the place where I grew up and everyone knew my name (cue the “Cheers” theme song).
The homesickness I’ve been feeling recently goes a lot deeper and is even harder to describe. On one hand, I love my life in Paris and I feel like I’ve started to hit my stride here. I’m married, have a great group of friends, and I consider myself bilingual. When I walk through my neighborhood I see people who I know and say hello to. I know how to get around the city and I rarely find myself confused or disoriented. I have mastered the métro and even know how to rent a bike using my Navigo.
No, this homesickness goes beyond all of that. I am fully integrated into French culture and yet so far from it at the same time. I get frustrated when I don’t understand certain types of slang or cultural references. Much of this comes down to the simple fact that I am American. I grew up in the United States. In the same way that most of my French friends wouldn’t understand some of the vernacular that I use with my friends back home, or won’t know the obscure reference to some YouTube video that went viral in high school, sometimes I can feel lost.
I feel misunderstood, simply because I am not French and I will never be.
It’s been hard but I’ve also started to realize, is it so bad that I will never be French? I have been striving, working, climbing, and scratching to be more French, but I can’t turn back time and change the fact that I wasn’t born here. And I’m becoming more and more okay with the fact that I am – and may always be – an American in Paris.
Molli offers private consultation services which range from help with visas, adjusting to life abroad, to Paris travel itineraries. Click here to learn more.
About the author:
Molli Sébrier has lived in Paris since 2014 when she decided to leave her American life behind and pursue her dream of becoming a writer. Since living abroad, Molli has earned her master’s degree in English Studies with a concentration in literature and is now working towards making that becoming a writer thing happen.
If you’re interested in following your own dreams of moving to France, she also offers consulting.
You can follow her journey on Instagram @mollim, and if you like to read, Molli runs a female-focused book review website called The Mistress of Books. You can also follow her website on Instagram @themistressofbooks.
See more from Dispatches’ France archive here.