Home > Everyday Life > To Be or Not to Be . . . Then Which ‘Be’?

To Be or Not to Be . . . Then Which ‘Be’?

It is amazing to me that after a year of being a foreign land that integration is still a choice.  You would think that by now it would be second nature.  Instead I find that choice of integration is always there on my breakfast table next to my yogurt when I wake up.  It is a daily choice – to integrate or not.  To my surprise it isn’t a one time event that happens on the first day nor after three months nor after a year.  Integration is no different from the daily choice each human makes to decide whether they will be happy or not for that day.

I often get asked why I came to live and work in France.  One factor I proudly retort is that I had the influence of one my older brother’s who was an expat.  I witnessed his personal journey through several foreign lands; even ones that held a higher security risk such as South Africa and Syria.  It was a risk that I admired.   I remember one night when I visited him in Johannesburg and laid on his floor watching one the most beautiful thunderstorms in my life.  Then I had an epiphany, I envisioned the map of the world in my head and realized I am now at the bottom of Africa.  It was a bit surreal.  I am ‘here‘ and not ‘there‘.  Africa at the point became more than just a bump my fingers encountered as it skimmed across a globe.

On the other hand I have always had a quiet critique of my brother.  I never felt he integrated to these various places that he called home.  He quickly gave up his Italian classes in Milan.  He specifically chose South Africa because it was English-speaking.  I don’t even think Arabic crossed his mind while in Damascus.  His life was very insular and never having to leave the expat community.  Of course most of his journey happened without the Internet; a paramount tool that helps me integrate in France.

Don’t misconstrue my thoughts.  I am not saying his journey was a failure.  It was a fruitful journey in his perception of life and the values he stands for.  I now better understand which choice he made at his breakfast table.  I still critique his choice but I now have a clearer picture on why he made his choice.

What Am I Going To Do Today?

What Am I Going To Do Today?

I also see the same choice being made by my colleagues at work.  Obviously after a year I have grown closer to some allowing for non-business conversations.  Some colleague have openly shared with me that they are not trying to integrate into French culture.  When I hop into their car to go for a lunch, French Riviera FM (the only English-speaking station in the area) is on the radio.  They share which movies they recently viewed by downloading the English or American version off the Internet.  If we make plans to go to the cinéma, the only choices are the VO’s (version originale).  They have no plans even to develop friendships with a French person.  At times it can beg the question “Well, why are you here?”  Ironically, within the same conversation they make it clear the Côte d’Azur is home for them.  They don’t see themselves anywhere else.  They recount the good feeling when they disembark from the plane at the Nice Côte d’Azur International airport.  The Brits are notorious for making their own little colonies such as the town of Antibes here in the Côte d’Azur, a little village near Dordogne in western France and even in Spain.  Other more subtle choices are made such as not switching your driver’s license.  French law gives you one year to do the exchange or take the French driver’s test.  If you are caught as a resident of France with a foreign license (European Union members are the exception), you face a large fine.  So after living here for several years, these colleagues are inadvertently putting up a barrier.  They have a fear of driving and getting caught.  Consequently they cautiously drive back and forth to work and keep any driving to a minimum.  How does one discover your new home under that condition?

Of course for those that find a native to develop an intimate relationship, this choice becomes more straight forward.  The choice continues to be on their breakfast table but the relationship will push the decision so that appears seamless.  Failure to integrate very well may mean failure to the relationship.  Then add children to the mix and integration will be essential for survival.  I had an interesting chuckle at an expat Happy Hour recently this summer.  It is a good group of professionals mostly from Europe and North America.  Of course one of the ice breaking questions is “What brought you to Nice, France?”  Most of the responses center around professional reasons and the beauty of the area.  A Finnish guy threw me a surprise to say immediately “Women“.  He found it easier to date here in France because he is considered exotic; so he left his independently willed Finnish women and took residence here.  To him I say “bonne integration“!

My aim here is not to be an integration apologist nor to be a moralist to say one decision is better than the other.  I just feel motivated to reflect on that fact it is a continuous decision.  I openly admit that I have my lazy days.  I am at that breakfast table and I choose conscientiously to not integrate.  That day I could careless what the proper conjugation of être (to be) is at the moment.  That day I want to tell a joke in English.  That day I want the news explained to me in English.  That day I want a cheeseburger, cooked well done and a big Coke and yes, watch me eat it with my bare hands!  (The French love cheeseburgers too but they refuse to pick it up.)  And just maybe, if I feel a little arrogant, I will cut my lettuce in my salad and not fold it onto my fork!  All of these rude demeanor in a place I call home, too.

I often think back at the time when I taught English as a second language to immigrants arriving in west Philadelphia.  Before I was often sympathetic to immigration issues and rolled my eyes at English Only attitudes in the fabric of American politic.  Now I am more convicted towards the cause because I really see things through their eyes.  I admire those students even more on the choices they had to make to survive.  They too had the same decision to make at their breakfast table every morning.  Daily struggles could easily make a person give up on integrating and just cling to those around them that speak, walk and pray the same way they do.

So as Hamlet enters stage left to say his signature phrase known across the anglophone world, I enter from stage right to pose the second question “but which ‘be‘ will you choose?

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Categories: Everyday Life
  1. Clara Laurent
    2 September 2011 at 11:29 pm

    Interesting post, Scott.
    I must say I understand it is really hard to learn a new language and “integrate” as you say, especially when there is this opportunity of hanging out with english-speaking buddies on the french riviera… But it still shocks me. It shocks me the same way I am shocked that, for instance, after more than 10 years spent in Morroco, my mother knows like 3 words of arab and can’t cook a “tagine”. It looks like new colonialism, and it isn’t great to me.
    Integrating doesn’t mean you have to forget your own culture, stop eating any of the food you love from your country and never speak your mother tongue. Living abroad is the opportunity to have 2 cultures! It is a fascinating human experience. So rich.
    The only good aspects of this expat isolation in the Cote d’azur, is that I have very often the opportunity to practice my english! Which I love! When I was living in PAris, all the English or Americans I met wanted to speak french all the time, they were in Paris because they were so willing to integrate… I found out that the expats in Nice and the riviera are not the same, and in a way, I like it… It seems that I don’t only live In France here, but also in this english-like french place: I live a bit abroad then, and don’t need to take a plane.

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