On Love in a Foreign Land
This essay appears in Boshemia Magazine: Origins, coming in May 2019.
I’ve lived in France for the past five and a half years, and during this time I’ve written and thought a lot about living abroad. After all, what are our narratives if not shaped by our experience? But it’s only been as of late that I’ve started to unpack what it’s like to date and love in an adopted, or second, home.
Stereotypes tell us that France is the country of romance, and Paris is the city of light and love. (A honeymoon destination! Daily proposals in front of the Eiffel Tower! Champagne and wine and lock bridges!) But for me, all of this had no role in its appeal. When I decided to move to France, I was finishing up undergrad in the States and felt a call for adventure and change. Dating was the last thing on my mind; I wanted exploration and independence. But inevitably, as a human who feels sexual and romantic attraction, this has ended up shaping parts of my experience, perhaps more than I was ready to admit.
The first couple of months that one spends in a new place can be some of the hardest. My arrival in France was exciting and fun, but I often lay in bed at night feeling unmoored and unattached. I thought that’s what I had wanted—independence, freedom—but when my closest friends and family were an ocean away and I was starting everything anew, at times I went to long lengths to find comfort, whether that be physical or emotional. (You could even say that sometimes I “settled”.) This being said, I have no regrets or resentment. Despite meeting a handful of people who weren’t right for me, I do believe each passed through my life for a reason. We mutually served some sort of purpose, whether that be for physical companionship or a deeper connection.
I’ll get straight to the fact. If you are a foreigner outside of your home country and you couple up with a local, it is by default (and no one’s fault besides the circumstances) an uneven playing field. They have their family. They have their friends who they’ve known longer than you. It’s pretty certain that their exes are in closer proximity than yours. In some ways, you might feel as if you need them more than they need you. For this reason, you might find yourself sticking things out for way, way longer than you would have had you been “home.” Reconciling with this can be uncomfortable, but it was essential for me to reclaim my independence.
During my first winter in Pau, a sleepy city near the Pyrenees in the south, I turned my attention towards the first guy who showed an interest in me. I suppose I was drawn to him because he was the opposite of everything I’d previously known; our lives literally couldn’t have been more different. He was a high school dropout. He had been on his own for a long while due to a lack of familial support. He smoked more weed than anyone I’d ever met, which is saying something because stoners were my token (tokin’? hah!) dudes back at university. He seemed to live off of the money he had from his father’s death, which explained why he always had money despite having no job … unless he sold drugs, which on further thought was probably a thing. He was a big mystery, and I didn’t ask questions. He didn’t have a cell phone. He would ring the buzzer of my apartment and drop by when he felt like it. He sometimes cooked for me or did nice things. He called me “mon amour” even though I literally didn’t know his last name. He was pretty much the definition of “unavailable.” I thought that I would see more in him with time, like an onion waiting to be peeled. I didn’t. “It’s all content,” I thought! Little did I know, “content” is not enough of a reason to stay with someone. I broke up with him after two months for reasons which should be obvious above, although there were no hard feelings (probably because there were no feelings).
I’m lucky to still be really close with my subsequent ex with whom I spent two years. We’ve been able to talk about the relationship objectively and grow from it mutually and I think—I hope!—learn a lot about ourselves. I really value his friendship. But there were several compromises and factors that kept me stuck, which added a thick layer of complication to our story.
Even before I met him, I knew I wanted to stay in France but didn’t know an easy way to do so because—surprise!—immigration is complicated. When he stayed with me for several weeks in America, it felt like a door opened. I made the choice to move in with him in Toulouse and look for a job… any job that would sponsor my visa … to give the relationship and my continuing “France dream” a go. He was trying to finish his degree and was tied to Toulouse, but I was at a point where I felt more mobile. We ordered copies of our birth certificates and researched the option of getting married. Luckily, I found a job that would sponsor my visa before we got to that point. Unluckily, it was the worst job I’ve ever had. I was meant to teach English in a preschool, but upon arrival it was clear that I was simply going to be changing diapers and putting toddlers down for naps and mopping floors. (Besides a couple of teenage babysitting stints and summers as a camp counselor, I had zero experience with young toddlers and in France you are actually supposed to have a degree for this type of work.) My boss was narcissistic, Type A, impetuous … and therefore it was no surprise when I learned that employee turnover was basically a monthly deal.
Had I been in the States, I would have quit this job after the first day. (Actually, I would have never applied for it to begin with.) But my visa was tied to this specific job, and thus, it felt, so was my relationship. I immediately started to resent the relationship because it felt like I was sacrificing some crucial part of my present happiness. My partner, given the circumstances, was not asked to do the same. I was making minimum wage and had to work a second job on the weekends, which meant I was too tired to go out and make friends. (Because as an adult, friends don’t just fall into your lap. There are good people everywhere, and I’ve been lucky to meet many, but it takes a certain amount of effort to find them.) Therefore, I only spent time with my partner’s friends, who were nice enough but with whom I realistically had nothing in common. I felt tied to our apartment and cohabitation because I wasn’t paying rent (it was his mother’s apartment) and as a foreigner with a temporary visa it’s pretty much next to impossible to find one’s own place. Even though we clearly weren’t ready to live together and had our own issues to sort out, I didn’t have the energy to do anything but grit my teeth and bear it. Without realizing it, I had become stuck.
To add to the complication, his family had become my “French family” with whom I spent Christmases and holidays. For a time, his mother was the closest older adult I had in my life, at least in terms of proximity. When I broke up with him, it also felt like breaking up with that important support network. I’ve had many friends express the same thing … how these families of our French lovers quickly become our guarantors for apartments, our emergency contacts, and stand-ins for what we have back home.
I’m still learning. About nine months ago, I moved to Paris, and it felt like rebirth all over again. When I met my most recent ex, I hadn’t yet met all of the great friends that I have now, and it was a joy and comfort to spend time with someone who I could feel close to in a new city. But it wasn’t long before the same questions arose. For example, I was two weeks away from having to move or else be homeless and still didn’t have a new apartment lined up. He was conveniently moving to a new place two doors down. He kindly offered to arrange for me to take over the lease on his current apartment. I was half relieved to have an option, but half petrified at the idea of a place that would remind me of him or us, a stone’s throw from his new place, if we ever stopped seeing each other. (Spoiler alert, that happened.) With him I was quick to show affection if I felt it, but also quick to distrust anything that could lead to codependency. And was it actually him I was drawn to, I asked myself, or rather the idea of him and a new beginning? It also was quite clear that he had the stability of years of the same friends and job and it made me uncomfortable that someone could, however unintentionally, make more of a difference in my life than I would in theirs. Sometimes good people walk into our lives at the wrong time, and when I met him I didn’t yet have the things I was looking for and needed outside of romance (a great group of female friends who hold me up, a place to live, the right to work …) that I have now.
There’s also the question of language. Although I now consider myself bilingual, I’m inevitably the truest version of myself in English. Sure, I can express, say, do, and create well enough in French. But my best work (writing, music …) will always be in English. My humor sometimes falls flat in French (while an exasperated “Suck a diiiiiiick” in English is not out of the norm for me, my friends here were quick to tell me that this does not work in French), yet humor is something I really value and is key to my personality. It’s also easy to cast self-doubt and wonder if any of the conflicts in my previous relationships were heightened by something said in the moment that got lost in translation. At the same time, I’ve come to embrace the ways that French allows me to cultivate another part of myself, and in ways be more vulnerable and open. Speaking in my second language removes the filter that I might have in English, in that I’m more focused on finding the right words than over-analyzing the message behind them.
I’ve decided not to put anything about being American in my online dating profiles. It’s not that I’m ashamed of this (although it’s quite hard not to be, given the political climate), but it’s simply that it doesn’t define me. I’ll go weeks forgetting that I’m American (until, of course, I turn on the news, or have to wait for six hours at the Prefecture). Many times, I’ll go on a date with someone who says “I didn’t know you weren’t French!” until my accent gives me away.
I don’t see this as lying or withholding information. They’ll find out eventually. It’s just that it can be hard to know who actually likes me for who I am, versus who’s simply attracted to the idea of adding a New Yorker to their list or having someone to help them develop their English. (Which is, by the way, my biggest pet peeve. I’m already an English teacher, and people pay me for that.) But I think we can be honest; this is somewhat inevitable. Who hasn’t had a fun romantic escapade and said, “I was hooking up with this Spanish guy…” or, “I met this Italian chick and … ?” I mean, I remember being seventeen and making out with an absolute douchebag just because he was French and looked like Robert Pattinson. (Or actually, maybe just because he looked like Robert Pattinson...). Nationalities are always easy descriptors, whether we like it or not. It’s flattering to be told that your accent is cute. It’s exciting to be told that someone knows of and adores your hometown. But we have to be careful not to unwittingly box ourselves, or others, into preconceived ideas based on our origins. I am trying to focus more intently on where I am. I’m learning to save my own effort and energy for people who like me for deeper reasons than simply where I am from.
Love in a foreign land is not impossible. Millions and millions and millions of people do it and make it work. It can be beautiful, but communication and compromise are key. For me, the biggest takeaway is: I didn’t come here for love, so if I choose to stay here, it has to be for more than love itself.