I think I learned to be French abroad.
Until I started traveling, my nationality didn’t mean much to me. I was particularly proud of being French (I didn’t do anything for it, after all, I acquired the citizenship by birth) and nationalism is often frown upon, anyway. I was French like I have brown hair and black eyes—this is what I had drawn at that great big universe lottery. I was aware that it was probably better to be French than, let’s say, Somalian or Romanian, not because French are superior but because I was enjoying a first-world lifestyle. But even the concept of “First World” and “Third World” were abstract ideas grounded in political buzzwords. You don’t know what true poverty is until you see it with your own eyes.
Traveling within the European Union as a French is like visiting relatives. We argue, plot, make up and develop strategic alliances against a drunk uncle or a delusional cousin, but we share a long history and common roots. Sure, French blame the British for the Mad Cow disease outbreak, and the Germans for the wars, and the Italians for Mussolini, and the Spanish for Franco, and the Belgians for their candour, and the Netherlands for their drugs and the… yes, we blame everyone, but then they blame us too so we are even. We still visit for holidays and peacefully invade our respectve beaches, monuments and capital cities.
In 1999, I flew to China with my French passport and trust me, I clung to it. The US had just bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade—an “ooops, shit” incident during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia—and being American in China that summer wasn’t easy. So I embraced being French. Yes, I was from the country of Victor Hugo, yes, I had croissants for breakfast, yes, we were allied… were we? Sure, Chirac loved everyone.
In 2003, being French in Australia and New Zealand was a bit more challenging. The South Pacific still remembered that French secret service agents planted two bombs and sank the Rainbow Warrior. The Iraq War was imminent and France was against a military intervention. I marched in Sydney during the global anti-war protests of February 2003 because the three words “Operation Enduring Freedom” sounded like complete bullshit to me. Yet, I found it confusing to be on Chirac’s side because as much as I agreed with his anti-war stance, I had not voted for him and I distrusted him.
I traveled to close to thirty countries as a French national and while I have never sewn a French flag on my backpack, I was generally welcome. Unlike British, Japanese or Americans, French don’t have a “gap year” or backpacking tradition so I was almost as rare as a Chinese backpacker. On the other hand, France is a pretty famous on the international scene and most foreigners have something to say about the country. Maybe they visited Paris once and met a bitchy waiter. Maybe France was once the colonial power. Maybe we fought, maybe we were allies, maybe the smell of blue cheese made them sick and maybe the train never showed up because the employees were on strike.
I’m not responsible for whatever happened, whenever it did. But I’m French, so they tell me. I’m sure Americans have to deal with stereotypes abroad—the ignorant imperialist American or the land of milk and honey. Meanwhile, meeting people from all around the world, I was also challenging my own stereotypes. No all women from Middle East are oppressed and helpless, not all Latinos are dying to become illegal immigrants in the US (many would rather improve their situation at home at a local level), not all Arabs are Muslims and not all Japanese are working for Toyota.
Oh, the things you learn when you travel the world.
“You’re French? What the hell are you doing here, then?”
This is how an Australian backpacker reacted upon meeting in a dorm in Toronto, in 2002. “What are you doing there?” I replied. “It’s summer in Australia, and you come all the way to Canada to freeze your ass off?”
This was only the beginning. Lost in a crowd of mostly skilled workers and economic migrants, many Canadians have asked me why I left France. Because I was young, some assumed I had run away from my family. “No!” I’d say vehemently. “We are actually very close.” A the same time, I had to admit I didn’t have a Pd.D. and I wasn’t sure I had much to offer to Canada in terms of skills.
These days, if I don’t feel like chatting, I usually say I married a Canadian. Another line I’m using is “France is a lovely place to visit, but living there is a bit more challenging these days. Canada offered more opportunities.”
It’s true… and neutral.
See, I don’t feel like bitching about France. And really, I have no reason to—after all, I spent 18 years of my life over there and disowning France would be abandoning a part of my identity. Traveling also taught me to appreciate what France offers. For instance, while the education system has many flaws, at least French graduate are not drowning in student loan debt. Universal healthcare is, in my opinion, the best system. French culture is interesting and provides an interesting perspective on the world, even though French are obsessed with the past.
Whether I want it or not, I’m French, so may as well make the most of it. I have this amazing perk: I can focus on the positive aspects of the culture and leave the rest—the staggering unemployment rate, a high cost of living, Sarkozy, the Kafkaesque administrative system—behind.
No matter how long you’ve been in Canada for, people will ask about your background. It’s just normal curiosity, it doesn’t make you less Canadian. This is where you will have the opportunity to debunk stereotypes (doing your fellow citizens a favour) and use diplomacy.
Make the most of it. The world is a small place, after all.