I Embedded in Paris in Search of the American Dream
By Norma Jaeger Hopcraft
I saw a question online: “What are the top 10 places to travel to in 2019 to expand your world view?”
I’ve traveled quite a bit—more than I dreamt possible—but wasn’t changed discernibly by two weeks in Italy or 10 days sailing in the British Virgin Islands.
But when I bought a one-way ticket to Paris, when I went there to live for a year, when I lived chez famille with a French woman and her two nieces, when I embedded in the language and the culture and knew that I couldn’t go home for at least one year—that changed me.
The vast distance from home—3,000 miles of ocean, and I couldn’t afford to jump on a plane to traverse it—made me homesick after the first month more deeply than I’d ever experienced. I could not return to the familiar faces and things of the States. I found it a bit distressing that everything was different in France, even the plastic wrap. It was tinted green and thinner than the stuff I was accustomed to. Fixtures in the bathroom, tiles, fabrics, the foods offered on the shelves, were all different.
Below: pictures from my life in Paris and more on embedding.
Driveways in the Paris suburbs are different than in the U.S. Ancient stone walls, for one.
Martine's niece Daphne, who taught me French and became a lifelong friend. She's visiting me in Brooklyn in May!
Statue of Charles DeGaulle outside the Metro.
I didn’t expect that. I had thought before I left, “France is a Western country, steeped in the Judeo-Christian mindset. I won’t be that much different from here.”
Wrong. And the distance from home, the inability to fly back for a quick fix, being embedded in a culture I found profoundly different, made big changes in me.
I was forced to redefine "home," and I could only find it within myself. And since I believe in a Higher Power, whom I choose to call Emmanuel, I had company in my home within myself.
I did not have to be defined by labels imposed by myself or others, like “American writer” or “mature woman” or “expat”—though I rather adored that expat label and did everything I could to remain an expat in Europe. See my blog post about how I ended up living in Barcelona
I felt free, with Emmanuel, to cultivate a childlike wonder about Paris, and all things French, and for how Emmanuel had orchestrated my life that I would end up here. Read how here.
The immersion in a culture vastly different from the U.S. made me see that we aren’t the center of the world. Other countries have much higher priorities than news from the U.S. Though we feature in their news much more than they do in ours.
My appreciation for the French deepened too. My landlady Martine and her two twenty-something nieces opened their hearts to me. It was unlike any experience I’ve had from American friends.
I learned, because I had the time to learn and to experience, which I wouldn’t have had if I had rushed around Paris for a brief vacation, that they have a different attitude toward life, work, family, friends, money. Most French, I think it’s safe to say, work in order to live, not live to work. They keenly value friends and family and aren’t willing to give up time with them for the sake of the Almighty Euro. I learned so much. Including that this orientation is changing, sadly, under the influence of the United States.
My worldview expanded when I lived in Paris because I realized that Putin’s tanks in the Crimea and Ukraine could conceivably roll all the way to me. News stories of suicide bombs in Israel and Palestine were scarier because those places were much, much closer. India was closer too. Many French go there for vacations, and it’s a much shorter flight than from New York. It’s doable.
The last worldview change that I experienced from living in Paris and Barcelona is that I’ve never felt at home in my own culture in the U.S. since. Martine had warned me that going back to my own culture would be the hardest part of having lived abroad.
Martine grew up in the Saumur region tending the vines and trodding the white grapes the region is famous for. She had dreamed of living and working abroad—and she made the dream come true. She lived in Kuwait, Malaysia, Burkino Fasa, and India. So, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and South Asia.
While I was embedded in her Paris home, Martine and her nieces taught me French expressions and cooking. We threw parties together. I cut beautiful loaves of crusty pain into baskets for guests to smear one of France’s 350 types of cheese upon.
I had all kinds of memorable experiences. Martine was an actress, and belted out Les Marseillais on Bastille Day, with a nice touch of irony, while the President of France marched with a brass band down Les Champs Elysees on her TV. I could hear her from out in her jardin. I would not have gotten that unforgettable experience if I’d floated into Paris for a look-see and floated out again.
She sold the beautiful house she had in Paris, the one I lived in for a year, and moved back to the Saumur region recently. In both homes, I hear her say she doesn’t feel at home.
I still recommend not just vacationing around a place but embedding there long-term. My answer to the title question is: anywhere that you embed is the best place for a permanent change of worldview!
Two friends from my Paris Writers Circle
Everything was different in France. Coming from New York City, I marveled at how there were no right angle corners in Paris.
The flowers left in dismay after the Charlie Hebdo shooting. It was a taste from home--the U.S.--mass shootings and terrorism.
Some of the art left at the site.
Momentoes left in grief and shock.
How about you? Where would you like to embed yourself and learn about the culture, language, and landscape? Comment below!