Personal Voices: An American in Paris
"I'm so disappointed," a French friend of mine sighed over coffee in Paris, referring to George Bush's re-election. "I'm really quite upset," she continued, launching into a summary of the damage the American president would do in the next four years.
At this point my mind began to wander. It wasn't out of boredom or indifference. It wasn't because after more than two years living in Paris, I'm tired of talking about politics or French-American relations. It certainly wasn't because I disagreed with her. So why was it that since the news of Bush's victory had reached Europe, I found myself so aggravated by France's outrage at the results of our elections?
The most obvious answer was that my own grief was too deep. The week of Bush's re-election was one of the darkest periods in the roller-coaster ride of euphoric ups and gloomy downs that has been my life abroad over the last few years. Bush's win struck me low, stirring up feelings of hopelessness and resentment I didn't expect could be provoked by a presidential election.
After spending the summer back in the States, I had returned to France filled with pride and optimism. I showed off my photos of anti-Bush rallies, and babbled about the determination of the American left. I hung up a Kerry-Edwards sign in my apartment, and bragged about the success of "Fahrenheit 9-11" to friends who had insisted that the film would never be released in the States. I talked about how Americans were in full political awakening, how it was beautiful to behold. And I reassured people that Bush wouldn't win again, that we were wise to him, and that Americans – for all their political naïveté – did not tolerate being lied to by their president.
In the days following the election results, as the French media droned on about the devastating implications of Bush's second term for the rest of the world, I was struck by what seemed to me a selfish reaction to a situation I considered American, despite its international repercussions. I was angry that the French were not recognizing the symbolic defeat that Bush's victory represented for much of America, focusing on Iraq, Israel, and of course France, while failing to mention health care, Christian fundamentalism, or the violent ideological chasm between American urban and rural regions. I was infuriated by references to America choosing Bush that did not acknowledge the 48 percent of the country that chose Kerry. But most of all, I was haunted by the notion that I had deluded myself, that I had had too much faith in the intelligence of Americans. I was ashamed that the picture of America – diverse, open, forward-thinking – that I had painted for my French friends had been erased by an America whose power I had underestimated, an America which confirmed all the degrading stereotypes I had struggled against over the last few years. I wanted desperately to be home, surrounded by people who shared my sense of loss, rather than Europeans who considered "America's choice" a personal affront. Living abroad had made me understand the extent of American cultural domination and the often brutal impact of its foreign policy, but in this case my sadness was for America. I had no emotion left in me to grieve for the rest of the world.
Shortly after the election, a friend left me a message saying "Don't worry ... after all you live in France." Why did this rather logical attempt at consolation leave me cold? The answer should be familiar to anyone who has spent a sustained period of time outside America. Living abroad changes your perspective of home, bringing into startling focus both what you cherish and despise most about your country. In France, I have grown more critical of what I perceive as America's failures, but also prouder of positive attributes that I now consider uniquely American. This evolution in my conception of America is not without its contradictions. In the States, I think longingly of lazy afternoons at French cafés, where people take a break from the grind to appreciate life; in France I've come to admire American efficiency and work ethic. I'm constantly impressed by the elegance and sophistication of many Parisians, but I often miss American warmth and spontaneity. I envy the French political consciousness, how informed they tend to be about world matters. At the same time, I've realized that France could learn from America's willingness to criticize itself. Living in France has intensified my emotional attachment to America. Of course this election was important to me.
My life abroad has also given me a new perspective on French attitudes towards America, which are just as contradictory as my own. Being an American ex-pat in Paris is facing a world of paradoxes: it's seeing anti-American graffiti in the metro and then passing hordes of people waiting to get into a club's weekly "American Night"; it's discussing the dangers of American-led globalization over big Macs at one of the many jam-packed McDonald's in Paris; it's overhearing someone in a restaurant complain about the tactless American tourists three tables away and then excitedly talk about her fabulous vacation in the Grand Canyon; it's reading film reviews by critics who make constant references to the lack of American culture but faithfully hail each new Woody Allen film as a masterpiece.
Indeed, France's feelings for us are held in a taut balance between adoration and disdain; their conception of us can be understood by imagining a tug-of-war battle with George Bush, evangelical leaders, cowboys, boycotters of French wine and giant corporations on one side, and Spike Lee, William Faulkner, cosmopolitan cities, magnificent landscapes, and the ladies of "Sex and the City" on the other. Living here has made me root more than ever for the America that I love to triumph in the eyes of France and the rest of the world. Sitting there at that café with my friend, I was bitter that Bush's re-election was a justifiably colossal strike against us. I was scared that this would be the deciding factor in the tug-of-war battle that had reached its climax.
So I told my friend that I myself was so disgusted with America that I didn't need the French exacerbating things, since after all it wasn't their country. I told her that it would be nice if France was more sympathetic towards the Americans who lost this election, instead of regarding Bush's success as proof of our stupidity. I told her that I felt utterly alienated from my own country and from France. When we were leaving the café, my friend told me that I should try to understand the situation from the perspective of France and much of the rest of the world. She told me that they no longer recognized the America they thought they had known. She said that people felt like the America they once loved, the America they had grown up dreaming about – even if they never admitted to it – no longer existed.
Walking home by myself, I understood that my annoyance at the French reaction was a projection of my own disappointment in America and in seeing my fears of French-American estrangement realized. I concluded that experiencing this kind of defeat from abroad bears an unpleasant dimension, as you are faced not only with your own disillusionment and much of your country's, but also with that of the watching world. And I saw beyond my own despair, forgiving the French their disproportionate response. For if what my friend had said was true, if much of the world wasn't merely griping but rather feeling a genuine sense of loss as great as my own, then this was perhaps the saddest thing of all.