Beki Grinter


In European Union on September 15, 2009 at 5:58 am

I should begin by saying that this is fairly political. And that’s in a way the point, it’s all about having my voice back, at least for now.

So, writing in France I should explain that this is a post that’s a reflection on citizenship and participation in democracy. And I’ve been frustrated for a long time about these issues (on a number of dimensions).

Perhaps the first thing to say since arriving in France is that in many ways I feel like I am visitor. Most especially because my French is not good enough to be anything but an etranger (foreigner) in all situations. And yet, at the same time visiting here comes with some really awesome privileges. I’m able to work here without any papers… and I’m even able to vote (in European Union elections, and local elections for things like the Mayor — which matter more here since the Mayor has some clout). Admittedly perhaps French national elections are more exciting to vote in, but you know what, I’ve lived in the United States for 19 years, and they’ve never allowed me to participate in any aspect of their democracy. So, I’ve rediscovered my voice, one I’d learnt to forget I had (more on that in a minute), and now I’m actually a bit resentful towards the United States about the situation I find myself in there, and that’s more so when I find myself somewhere so very foreign, and in which so quickly I’ve had more opportunities to participate in democracy than ever given me in a place I’ve spent the majority of my adult life.

I arrived in France departing from a situation where a number of people suggested, kindly, that I would find coming to Europe an opportunity to “get away.” And I think “getting away” is a visiting experience. But, I’m really convinced that it’s not one that I’m having. Coming here was about a “coming to” experience, not a “getting away from” experience. What I mean is that Europe is not a place I get away from, it’s actually a place where because I’m a national I have more rights, more obligations here… I guess I should have expected that. And I like it. It makes me feel like I belong, and that I do matter. It’s the type of experience I would like to have in the U.S. if that’s not clear to the reader by now (FYI: stunningly, I’ve only just become even eligible to naturalize because of the U.S.’s immigration system).

I said that I try to forget about the frustration that my continued outsider status brings me. I’ll explain. The first few years were fine, I could experience the differences and accept my “outsider” status. But about a decade in, I was starting to feel fed up with not being able to (or having any clear-to-me path to being able to, I refer the reader to the above link which I think describes the situation well, for the curious I’ve held B, F, H, and the series of visas you have to when all else expires and the greencard has not arrived, and now the greencard) be able to participate democracy. I wonder whether this is particularly amplified by living in the United States, a country that takes a very public and articulated pride in individual’s rights, in democracy. It’s all very nice, but as someone who is taxed without representation, it gets a bit irritating after about a decade. So I decided that I would trade that frustration and anger for a good job (and other things I like about the U.S. Note: I was not married at the time I decided that I had to make this decision)… but being back in Europe I have thought more about what I did trade in… entirely of my making, my choice, but here it’s more difficult to take than I’m usually willing to admit.

I’m delighted to say that at least a few French people have also given me hope that at least some people recognize that while I am English I am also an etranger there too. Most recently this happened in the local Epicerie. I had gone to break a 50 Euro note, which I decided to do with a purchase of a nice Lussac St. Emillion. When he asked me if I wanted a bag or whether I would put it in my handbag. I responded that I would be fine taking it in my bag, he responded to me in German. I closed the conversation, with the appropriate number of goodbyes in German. I liked very much that experience of being multi-lingual, if somewhat briefly.

So, I guess I’ve enjoyed being back in Europe. I’ve enjoyed the feeling of belonging to something, to something I can actually participate in, and being in a place where people read me for what I am with far greater accuracy than usual.


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