On the expatriate’s experience and her existential dilemma
In the summer of 1951 an expatriate from New Jersey opened Le Mistral in Paris, a bookstore he named after his first French girlfriend. From the very first night 38-year-old George Whitman allowed writers, poets, artists, and bohemian travellers to sleep in his shop on a series of mattresses and towels that he’d arranged on the top floor. Slices of moonlight appeared on the ramshackle floors and the Notre Dame cast a sparkle onto the Seine just outside.
Perhaps now the most famous literary destination in France, Shakespeare & Co. – a name given to Whitman by Sylvia Beach – embodies the expatriate experience, not just as a literary pilgrimage but as a place for Anglophones to meet with one another in a city where they are accustomed to being met as foreigners. For the expatriate, life can get quite lonely. The expatriate desires camaraderie, time with people who are like her, but at the same time this is exactly what she’s running away from.
It’s a particularly odd situation because the expatriate wants both loneliness and friendship, and it’s nearly impossible to separate the feeling of isolation from the feeling of total freedom, of having escaped a set of circumstances that you were born into, and, without meditated action, would never have left.
It was Adam Gopnik in his “Paris Journal” who wrote, “The special virtue of freedom is not that it makes you richer and more powerful but that it gives you more time to understand what it means to be alive.” And yet perhaps the only way to achieve this freedom, and therefore this ability to understand what it means to be alive, is to go somewhere entirely new and foreign, a place where even the most basic actions – a trip to the grocery store or the pharmacy, ordering at a restaurant, or even negotiating the language – become deeply fascinating, trying, difficult.
This freedom and dynamism of life is one of the principle reasons that people from Gertrude Stein to Elizabeth Taylor have taken up residence in new countries. Expatriates crave a new life, one that they can orchestrate with greater precision. You become total master of yourself when no one knows you – you have no background or reputation and the identity you’ve created for yourself back home whether intentionally or unintentionally is entirely null, your life a notebook that’s had all its pages torn out.
Shakespeare & Co. has always been somewhere that expatriates in France can come to try to reconcile these issues. It is a place tailor-made for foreigners and outsiders, a sort of embassy, accessible to all. And while it proves a strong antidote to expatriate loneliness, one must ask, at what price?
Along with trips to English-language bookstores and cocooning oneself in a community of fellow countrymen, some expatriates take heavily to social media or to constantly making calls back home through a multitude of modern technologies, be it Facetime, Skype or Viber. Sure, these are ways to stave off loneliness, but I’m not so sure they’re the best ways. Too often, when you call your old friends or go to English-language bars and bookstores or you purchase peanut butter off of Amazon.com late at night because Nutella just doesn’t quite taste enough like home you sell yourself short. While you might reduce your loneliness, you also, as if on a sliding scale, harm your freedom, a freedom which is so gingerly predicated on newness, on this life being different than the last.
This is what frustrates people so much when they see McDonalds popping up next to the Moulin Rouge or a Starbucks next to the Louvre. It’s not so much the degradation of French gastronomy or coffee culture that tightens britches, but it’s the fact that it’s the erasing of escape routes, the destruction of places that were once exotic and different from where we came.
Often, it can feel as though we’ve no longer control of our own fate, and although we can now cross the Atlantic in six hours instead of six weeks, we pine for someplace different, for someplace that we can dream of and endeavour to escape to that’s inherently unique. In short, we dream of freedom from our reputations, our identities, and the circumstances we were born into.
There’s a picture taken in 1954 in front of the Café Tournon in the sixth arrondissement. George Plimpton, the editor and co-founder of the then-recently-created The Paris Review, wears a wry smile and holds a cigarette and a glass of wine. It was around the same time that James Baldwin was staying in the shabby Hotel Verneuil and Allen Ginsberg was spending time in Paris finishing up Howl. It was a time that globalisation had not yet struck Paris with the force it has now – a time when the cheeseburger wasn’t the hippest thing on a brasserie menu and American-style education hadn’t begun to permeate the rigorous class-separating prépas system through more inclusive institutions like Sciences Po.
I’ve often walked past the Café Tournon where tourists sit out on the terrasse flipping through guidebooks and plotting out their next museum visit on large, unwieldy maps. Tucked between them though there is, almost invariably, a foreigner who has chosen to call Paris home. She often looks lonely. Her eyes dart slowly back and forth, picking out interesting people walking past before she bows her head back into her journal or book.
Loneliness is an especially strong emotion because it is an almost biological push telling you to reestablish social bonds. According to a 2010 study called, “Loneliness Matters: A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms,” loneliness predicts increased morbidity and mortality. That’s to say, loneliness can kill you. But the expatriate doesn’t always want to create these social bonds. Sometimes the only way to find freedom is through a sort of self-inflicted loneliness, by sitting in a café doing almost nothing at all.
At one time, merely living in a different city was freedom enough for the expatriate. There were small enclaves of Americans, but, on the whole, countries like France or Italy or Spain or England or any of the other popular expatriate destinations were unique in and of themselves. Now, the expatriate must actively distance herself from the things she’s accustomed to – English, McDonalds, her fellow countrymen. It can be a terribly lonely task. Perhaps Plimpton was beaming in the picture because he had escaped with so little effort.
But even if the expatriate cannot control globalisation or waves of migration, she can still control how she interacts with the city. Through literature, journalling, exploring, learning the language, and befriending those who have always called the city home, the expatriate can facilitate the sort of reflection that she desired in the first place.
It can be lonely, but one must ask oneself, what is lonelier: is it merely being alone in a new country or is it also staying put in a place you know you don’t belong – a place where you could end up wasting away the most poignant years of your life?
So too, what is the greater horror: The fear of getting lost in some faraway city where you don’t speak the language and you know you don’t quite belong or the process of becoming domestic, of moving to that house with the perfect lawn and the cable TV and the faux-friendly neighbors, where the slow poison of regret and boredom works its way through your veins until you’ve lost even the resolve to try to escape, to live your life as you’d once so feverishly envisioned?
Indeed, we mustn’t forget that while Odysseus spent his whole life trying to get home, all of his fun was had while he was away.
The question of whether loneliness and freedom necessarily come intertwined is a difficult one, and it is one which the expatriate seems to constantly struggle with. But solitude is not loneliness.The silence in our lives – the silence of not having to impress anyone or live up to the identity we’ve crafted for ourselves either intentionally or unintentionally – is perhaps the most beautiful sound in the world.
Author Sam de Brito rather humorously asks, “As a society, do we have unreasonable expectations about loneliness? Are we now at the point where we’re so hyper-stimulated, that anything short of round-the-clock euphoria is deemed ‘something missing’; that to be happy and content, we need to be erect and gleeful, like some excited puppy peeing on the lounge room carpet?”
The expatriate is constantly grappling with these sorts of questions, questioning her very existence, her role in the new city, and often questioning her decision to move in the first place. Expedia.com seems to always be in the expatriate’s browser bookmarks, not because she is necessarily an avid traveler but because she often desires to go home – or at the very least, to know that it’s a possibility.
But if life back “home” isn’t the life you want to live, then there is no reason to stay put. The expatriate experience, although rife with existential crises and constant second-guessing, is often the only way that certain people can find true happiness. Not everyone was born in the place they want to forever live and some were not even born in the same country.To know yourself, to know that deep down you must make the move is a serious but terrifically mature decision.
Life is by no means always smooth for the expatriate. Day-to-day existence can feel a bit like a dream, a touch of fog surrounding your senses at all times, which is at once a pleasant but also deeply confusing. Everything you do seems a bit fake, your participation in your new “home” provisional, and your very life bracketed by quotation marks.
But when the expatriate is struggling, asking herself if she really made the right decision, there are certain instances where she becomes entirely assured, where the whole operation is shown to be worthwhile.
A few months ago, I sat alone on the quays of the Seine with a book, a baguette tradition, and a few tiny wheels of cheese. Shakespeare and Co. was just across the water and the lights from the Eiffel Tower reflected on the river as the din of the cars breezing past sounded like whispering leaves. It is here, where loneliness gives way to freedom, where your imagination of the life you always desired coincides with reality, that the expatriate finds that while loneliness is ever present, while freedom is ghost-like, and while it may be impossible to run away from yourself, your worries, and your insecurities, you can, in fact, run away.