Recent Posts

Monday, December 6, 2010

French Expat: Chicago, My Kind of Town


This diplomat's wife and mother of two reflects on life in the city of broad shoulders, jazz, and deep-dish pizza, and how after two years she has come to own the experience.

Which part of France did you grow up in, and did you ever dream of living in the United States? I am from Lyon, in the southeastern part of the country, between Paris and Marseilles. Lyon is known as France's gastronomic capital. When I was a child, I would have laughed if somebody had told me I'd be living in Chicago one day. I wanted to move to Paris, but the idea of living abroad never entered my mind. It was not my plan at all.

And then you married a diplomat and traveled the world? Yes, my husband is a civil servant with the French Foreign Office. We have already completed one full expatriate cycle: three years in Norway, three years in Sri Lanka, and three years back in France (the city of Nantes). Chicago marks the start of our second cycle. We've been living here since summer 2008 with our two daughters. It's our first stay in the United States.

I have a soft spot for your resume as like me, you earned a Ph.D. in politics but chose not to stay in the academy.  I will always remember June 1999. My husband was about to receive his first overseas assignment — to Norway, though we didn't know that yet. Meanwhile, I got a phone call from the director of Department of Political Science at the University of Paris expressing interest in my candidacy for an adjunct teaching post. Without thinking too much, I answered: "I'm leaving the country." At that time I was writing my Ph.D. thesis. I could have stayed on my own for another year in Paris to teach at the university and defend my dissertation, but I didn't consider it. I wasn't passionate enough about academe to make it my career.

How does Chicago compare to Oslo and Colombo? It's been easy to settle here because I already speak the language, which was not the case in the other two cities. And the American way of life has been easy to adapt to. It helps that Chicago is family friendly compared to other American cities, Los Angeles for instance.

ON THE "TO DO" LIST: Bank of America
Chicago Marathon 2011
Is your family becoming Americanized? To some extent, just as we became "tropicalized" in Sri Lanka! My girls love celebrating Halloween, which isn't at all popular in France. This year, we decorated our apartment with fake pumpkins and spiders made in China (thank you, Target) and carved our own jack-o-lanterns. Also, my husband and I have started running like a lot of Chicagoans do. We've done some races and hope to run the Chicago Marathon next year, before we leave.

Have you made any American friends? As I'm fond of saying, I got to know more people after six months living in Chicago than after three years of living in Nantes, where we repatriated after Sri Lanka. But having a wide social network doesn't mean having many good friends. My daughters attend an American school so I often meet Americans, but in most cases the friendship doesn't go any further than a nice talk on the playground. To this day, most of my friends in Chicago are other expats.

bikini top, even in France.
I imagine that some of the Americans you meet have preconceived notions of what French people are like. I have a funny story about that. The first year we were here, my younger daughter was in prekindergarten. At that time she was fond of the Disney character Ariel. She would draw Ariel at least ten times a day. One day at pick-up time, the teacher gave me one of my daughter's drawings and said: “At least, she drew her with a bra!” I answered: “Yes, it is very realistic: Ariel always wears a purple one.” The teacher: “Well, you know. Most often children draw what they see. Don’t you go to the beach all naked in France?”

Great story. Can I ask you to follow it up with a "blind men's tale" — an example of how Americans and French people can approach the same topic very differently? Coming from Lyon, I would have to say the style of eating. I still cook everyday which I think is not the case of most Americans. People here are much more convenience oriented — except on Thanksgiving, when they go all out with fancy gadgets. And, although I've picked up the American habit of having food delivered from time to time (I love it!), I always request: no plastic forks, spoons, or paper plates.

That's something I've had trouble readjusting to as well after living in England and Japan. It doesn't feel like a proper meal without real cutlery and china. It's not just that, it's also wasteful. When I first got to this country, I was really shocked by the way Americans consume paper cups and plates, plastic glasses, napkins, etc. all day long. I was doubly shocked when I realized that I would not be able to recycle my garbage in my apartment building. These days, I bring my garbage down to the laundry room for sorting into newspapers, glass, plastic bottles and so. Once a week, I drive out to a place where I can deposit these bags for recycling.

So life isn't "greener" in Chicago? I get demoralized whenever I see bags of garbage on the Chicago streets. Why am I bothering if no one else is?

Even though you've moved around a lot, have you always tried to have a job? I am a mother of two but I am not only that. If my brain doesn't work, I get depressed. My identity is linked very closely to my professional and intellectual activities. But when you are an accompanying spouse and move every three years, it is almost impossible to have a career. Actually, you should remove that word from your vocabulary. You have to find other ways to feel active and comfortable in your shoes.

Tell me more about the business you started up recently. I had always picked up jobs as a trailing spouse, although the work wasn't always suited to my background and skills. When we arrived in Chicago in summer 2008, I was optimistic about landing a more challenging job, but then the American economy tanked. Nine months into our stay, I had no leads, nothing, not even an interview. Almost a year had gone by, and I had only two years left. I enlisted the help of a coach. I began to change my thinking: why not develop a portable job? After a full cycle of life as a diplomat's wife, I had grown tired of having to hand in my notice and search for something else every three years. I wanted some continuity. Just over a year ago, I started my own Web site, Writer Forever, offering freelance writing and editing services. For years, writing had been my passion, and although most of my jobs had included writing, it wasn't always the kind of writing I enjoyed.

Who are your clients? Online magazines, Web sites, publishing companies, and media agencies. I specialize in producing articles in French and English on a variety of topics from a French expat point of view.

You also have a companion blog? I started up Expat Forever this past April to share my thoughts and experiences as a serial expat. People think that "seeing an elephant," to use your expression, is glamorous, but that is a myth. When I was living in Sri Lanka, for instance, I had to contend with the threat of dengue fever, water and electricity cuts, violence and civil war. Another myth people have is that they will solve their problems by going abroad, but this is a mistake. It will only make things worse. Besides writing about my own experiences, I also review books dealing with expatriation, and I just now posted my first interview with a French expat: a painter who has lived in Chicago since 2006.

The blogosphere seems to be full of Americans writing about living in Paris. I imagine they have plenty of French counterparts who are living in American cities? Mais oui. One of my favorites is New York La Dolce Vita, about a Frenchwoman's adventures in New York City.

I notice you recommend Julia Child's memoir on your blog. To be honest, I had no idea of who Julia Child was until I watched the trailer for Julie and Julia on the Internet — and then I knew I had to see the movie. I saw some of my own story in hers. She was an American woman married to a diplomat. When the couple landed in France right after WWII, she had no idea of what what she was going to do with her life. She fell in love with France and the food culture. Her passion became her business. After seeing the movie, I ran to Borders to buy her memoir, My Life in France. A few days later, I wrote an article for Femmexpat proclaiming Julia Child an icon to expat wives everywhere.

Can you channel Julia for a moment and tell us: if you had to design a meal that blends your favorite French and American foods, what items would you choose? I would start with a nice salad in the French style with a real vinaigrette. Then I'd prepare hamburgers and French fries, along with a choice of dips for the French fries — you Americans love your dips! For dessert, I'd serve homemade madeleines with strawberries. And nice wines, of course ...

No Chicago-style pizza? I've tasted it but am not a fan. It's too ... stuffed, too heavy.

LUCKY SIGHTING: Elephants at
Sri Lanka's Esala Perahera festival,
Courtesy S Baker
Finally, a couple of questions posed to all interviewees for this blog. First, have you collected any Treasured White Elephants during your stay in America? My daughters each have an American Girl doll, which I'd like to keep as a reminder of their early years in the United States and how they became a little like American girls themselves. Perhaps my grandchildren will play with one day? I haven't yet started my own collection, but I had one in Sri Lanka. Guess what it was? Elephants: small statutes, wooden children's toys (including a small representation of the Perahera, a yearly Buddhist festival consisting of dances and ornately decorated elephants), lamps with elephant bases, you name it. My younger daughter was born in Colombo, and I decorated her room using an elephant theme. To this day, the equivalent of her teddy bear is a small stuffed elephant.

BATH TIME: Pinnawala pachyderms,
courtesy Dominique Schreckling
I love the idea of elephants being your treasured white elephant. I presume you've seen some real life elephants during your travels? Not in Chicago but certainly in Sri Lanka, where we attended the Esala Perahera in Kandy, and I would sometimes see elephants in the streets of Colombo. I also visited the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage, where I was able to witness mother elephants and babies taking their baths in the river. C'était magnifique!


ML Awanohara said...

Thank you, Véronique, for such an honest account of what it has been like to adjust to life in America's heartland. I recently discovered a book about women in the California Gold Rush, called They Saw the Elephant, and in a curious way, your story reminds me a little of theirs. Obviously, times have changed and it's not the same trial to travel with a family as it used to be, but there are still challenges aplenty as you are dragged from pillar to post by your husband's job. As you indicate above, they include settling the kids, making new friends, and finding work for oneself.

I'm also thrilled that you've nominated Julia Child as a poster child, so to speak, for expat wives. I'm a huge fan of hers (though not of Julie Powell's--I agree with Julia that Julie should clean up her language). But until you mentioned it, I'd never thought of Child as a diplomat's wife. Goodness, she really turned that situation around! I mean, who remembers Paul Child today except as Julia's husband?

While on the topic of Julia Child, there's a question I'm dying to ask you: what is your recipe for real vinaigrette?!

Expat Forever said...

Thank you Mary Lea for interviewing me. It has been a pleasure to answer your questions.
About the real vinaigrette, it is very simple, you just need oil or olive oil, vinegar, pepper and salt. I am sorry I do not indicate the measurements because I do this "naturally" !! There is also the mustard sauce, very good and tasty for your green salad: you take the same ingredients and add mustard. Actually, one coffee spoon of Mustard (Maille is the best), then the salt and pepper. While turning, add the vinegar and then the oil (I use olive oil). I usually prepare a bowl of it and keep it refrigerated. You see, no need to buy it, it is so simple. Et voila !!!

Dash said...

Hello Mary Lee, thank you for your e mail, fascinating interview, it's always good to read about other peoples experiences living abroad.

ML Awanohara said...

@ Dash, French Sampler
Thanks for coming in! Your own blog, about your adventures and observations as an Englishwoman who has lived in South West France for the past seven years, is a source of constant stimulation, with all of its wonderful visuals. At your suggestion, I recently enjoyed my first viewing (on YouTube) of Three Gifts for Cinderella--clearly, I had a deprived childhood!

@ Véronique, Expat Forever
Your vinaigrette "recipe" (which, like all good cooks, you store in your head) corresponds with one I've been following for some years now. I originally discovered in James and Kay Salter's memoir, Life Is Meals: A Food Lover's Book of Days, under the 23 March entry. The Slaters write that dressing is better made than bought and that a classic vinaigrette is the "one" for nine out of ten salads. Since they offer measurements, I'll give them here:

3 TBS extra virgin olive oil
1 TBS red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
1 crushed garlic clove (optional)
Dijon mustard, the amount that can be held on half an inch at the end of a dinner knife (or more, for a sharper taste)
Place all ingredients in a small container with a tight lid and shake until well blended.
It comes as almost no surprise to learn (as I did just now from reading the blurb on Amazon) that the Slaters were good friends with Julia Child.

In any event, I'm glad to have your official seal of approval!

Ella Fantry said...

As I load up the car with reusable bags full to the brim with plastic-wrapped foods, I remember past days in Paris, when the most packaging required was a straw basket and perhaps a bit of wrapping paper. Of course, the plastic packaging has been a key part of the explosion in consumption of cheap goods transported in one stroke from factory in China to ship container to truck to big-box store aisle. That consumption has made up 70% of the US economy.

Elizabeth said...

You can also use lemon juice for something more delicate like avocados when you want to taste the contents and not la vinaigrette. My now ex-husband (French) used to say that he married me because I made a mean vinaigrette! It obviously takes more than huile et vinaigre to hold a marriage together : )

As for le recyclage, I think it all depends where you are in the U.S. Here in the Washington area, many people (especially the younger generations) are obsessed with recyling, and the county has curbside pick-up of paper, yard waste, and bottles/cans once a week. Just as hard to generalize about the U.S. as it is about the French and les plages nues!

Your comments on friendship chez les Américains are very true. We are as quick to welcome new people as the French are hesitant, and as quick to then leave them aside as the French are to establish life-long friendships. But some of us are more of the French school: the author of this blog and I have been friends for more decades than we would like to admit : )

ML Awanohara said...

@ Ella & Elizabeth
I'm glad you both zeroed in on Véronique's point about recycling. To be honest, I think this is one of the most confusing things--in a practical sense--about world travel, and (in my case) the repatriation process. Each country--and from what Elizabeth has said, each state--has its own rules. And since no one ever explains the precise rationale behind the campaign, which itself is subject to whims (all of sudden, it's a crime in NYC to request a carrier bag), I have trouble keeping it all straight.

I guess, though, there's a basic division between big countries and small? The former can dump rubbish in landfills and oceans so are more lax about recycling; the latter are more restricted in what they can do with rubbish and hence have stricter rules.

Because of the shortage of suitable disposal sites, Japan, where I lived for many years, burns as much rubbish as possible. Because it's toxic to burn plastics, there are two broad categories: burnable trash and everything else. "Everything else" is subdivided into non-burnables, large items, and recyclables.

It's a bit daunting at first, but basically you have to get used to putting everything in five different bins (collections for which are on different days of the week):
1. plastic bottle and cans
2. glass
3. burnable
4. unburnable
5. paper

Hmmm... There's a lot to be said for Ella's point about using a straw basket and a bit of wrapping paper. Simplify, simplify! It may also account for why I've gravitated toward shopping at the NYC Greenmarkets, which results in mostly burnable (though occasionally paper, glass and plastic) rubbish. It's somewhat simpler...

ML Awanohara said...

p.s. I should mention that Elizabeth ("Beth") Lang has also been featured on this blog: Babar to Burkina: All for the Love of La Langue Française. A life-long Francophile and now a French citizen, she reveres the French language but is more ambivalent about France itself--and on the whole, prefers French-speaking Africa!

Miss Footloose said...

I loved reading this interview. As a serial expat having lived in numerous foreign countries I recognize your stories and have a collection of my own. The expat life certainly is not as exotic as people think! Which is not to say it cannot be fascinating at times.

I have made writing my portable career and it is a great way to record the expat experiences for me.

My very first expat experience was to the US (I am Dutch) and I remember someone asking me if it was true that a little boy saved Holland by sticking his finger in a leaking dike. Obviously the person had never seen a dike ;) The story was actually fabricated by an American writer, and I'd never even heard of it. Now there is a statue of the little boy in Holland for the American tourists who kept/keep asking about him.

Expat Forever said...

WOW !!! Lots of things to answer. I am happy !
@ Elizabeth and ML: I completely agree with both of you. It is very different from a country to another and in the US from a state to another, and in Chicago, from a neighborhood from another !!! What a program ! Some friend of me just living two streets away are able to recycle but not us. So I have decided to do another way : I buy bottle of milk in glass that I can return, I do orange juice myself (and I drink less of it), things like that ... I bring my own bags when I go shopping or food shopping. In France, now you have to pay for it !!! So I try to keep this habbit. It is an endless topic !

@ Miss Footloose : thank you for this story ! Yes, living the expat life is full of experiences, good ones and bad ones. This is a very interesting way of life but as every way of life, it is not perfect. The thing is most of the time people idealize it a lot. At least, this is what I think.

ML Awanohara said...

@ Miss Footloose, aka Karen van der Zee

I am thrilled to get your comment on the interview and, as Véronique says, the "Little Dutch boy" anecdote. Come to think of it, I loved reading Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates as a kid. Until this moment, I had assumed that the writer, Mary Mapes Dodge, was reporting on Dutch folklore, not making it up as she went along.

And you are being too modest! You've had a brilliant portable writing career--an inspiration to us all! (Véronique, you should nominate Karen as another icon.)

As you explain in in your blog, Life in the Expat Lane, you've dreamed up 35 romance novels published by Harlequin Books (view titles here). You've also written many humor-travel stories. And I see you now have an e-book, You're Moving Where?!--the title says it all about how you approach the expat life, with no small amount of humor.

When working on this blog, I often have in mind the image of the poor farmer who was determined not to miss the circus in a nearby town as he was full of curiosity about the elephant--only to collide with it on his way there (his horse was killed, his wagon was damaged, and he was knocked unconscious). It takes a dry sense of humor indeed to stand up after that and say: "Well, hang it all, I've seen an elephant!"

I note that on your book site you say you are a "cheap date." I suspect that the same would be true of many of us female rex-pats aka trailing spouses. Though we all have our moments when we'd like nothing better than to retreat to the foreigners' compound and sip G&Ts by the pool, we are more likely to concoct something (food, an adventure) to keep ourselves going.

p.s. A New York Times article reported this week that "lusty tales" are having "hot sales," particularly in the e-book category (because more discreet). Note to rex-pat ladies: next time you get out your pens, think "heaving bosoms"!

thediplomaticwife said...

Hi Mary Lee, thanks for you email and I enjoyed reading your interview with Véronique! It is especially meaningful to me, because my best friend is also currently adjusting to her new life in Colombo as an expat's wife ( I am definitely forwarding this link to her and I am also going to check out Véronique's blog!

Can't wait for your post on Jakarta expats! Bring it on!

diplowife said...

Hi Mary Lee, thanks for your comment on my blog. It's always nice to read about other trailing spouses, sometimes our life is really living behind the shadows of our husbands. Although there are a lot of perks (definitely the opportunity to travel is the best for me), it can often be sad to think that like what Veronique said, having our own career is quite impossible.
Anyway, when I started this blog it was only so I can have some venue to practice my writing and have a personal therapy technique; but through it I was able to discover an entire community of diplowives like me. And I have to say, although our experiences and backgrounds differ in many ways, we each find a connection in the life we chose when we married our diplomats.
I would love to be featured one day, although I must say that I haven't seen the elephant yet, since this is our first assignment, and a lot of my life right now is mostly adjustments and first-times, so nothing much to share, compared to the others.
For now, you found a follower in me.

ML Awanohara said...

@thediplomaticwife & diplowife

Welcome aboard the elephant! The more I read about the lives of you diplomatic wives, the more I can see why you need each other. It's an extremely special bond you all share, even tighter than the one among us rex-pats (repeat expatriates).

On the one hand, as you say, it's a life of tremendous privilege. On the other hand, it requires cyclical upheaval--not what most of us envision when we opt for marriage and (in some cases) a family, let alone a brilliant career.

In any event, Seen the Elephant is a home, I hope, for the philosophical musings many rex-pats (and repats, like myself) are prone to. And thanks to Véronique, we now have a much greater appreciation for the mindset of the embassy crowd, which I hope both of you will help us to explore further at some point...

Expat Forever said...

Hello to all of you,
@ ML : you are right Karen is going to be my new icon. I discovered her blog and website thanks to her comment to my interview here. So thank you again ML. What she is doing is awesome, an example for all the expat writers or those who would like to be expat writer (like me).
@the diplomaticwife and diplowife : Welcome onboard, girls !! I have checked your blog and this is great to write openly about such a topic. Keep going !!!
@ diplowife : about our "careers", I think it is possible to find solutions. I advise you to check Jo Parfitt website for instance and read her book "A career in Your Suitcase".
I also advise you both to read Robin Pascoe's books. They are full of good advice and hilarious.
Take care, Veronique

Amber said...

Thank you for sharing your story! I'm an American currently living in Paris and much of what you describe I can completely relate to on the reverse. Most of my friends in Paris are also fellow expats due to the difficulty of establishing deeper relationships with Parisians - it just seems to be the nature of things.

However, as you suggested, this can be the case just moving from one region to another within your own country. My sister recently moved to Boston, from our home state of California, and has been extremely frustrated by what she perceives as the social frostiness of the East Coast. No matter where you hail from, the simple reality of being a "foreigner" in a new city/state/country has its unavoidable discomforts but I guess it's all a part of the adventure.

Personally, I have never felt as awkward and uncomfortable as I have living in Paris but, at the same time, I feel it's the best decision I have ever made. As a matter of fact, I also read the Julia Child's memoir recently and loved it! Although I have not yet gained the affection for France that she possessed, I'm getting there.

Post a Comment