Living in a foreign country raises all kinds of questions, both practical and emotional: how do you define yourself and how are you characterised by your adopted homeland? This series relates the experiences of a French woman in the UK and, in previous parts, a British woman in Hong Kong.
At my parents’ house in northern France once, I found an antique map of the British Isles hanging above my bed. It was my 27th birthday and the framed map was a present from my father. Designed in France around 1850, it was undeniably beautiful; it also looked incongruous in my childhood bedroom. When asked where it came from, my father simply said: “Well, if you don’t like it, you can always take it down.”
This was one of many small remarks which, over the years, have made me realise my decision to settle in a foreign country — the UK — is so radically odd to my French parents that it requires a family narrative. This goes along the lines of: “Our daughter is hopelessly and quite inexplicably in love with the UK — and about this we do not speak.”
I have given up trying to argue this point with my parents, no matter how little it reflects the reality. Besides, the “I love the UK” part was corrected for me by the British soon after I arrived to study in 2007. Friends to whom I voiced any excited expression of appreciation for the UK immediately replied: “You do not love the UK, you love London.” This became my new stance, with “I feel at home in London” or simply “I live in London” becoming interchangeable variations.
Such exchanges brought to mind a controversial statement attributed to then French interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy in 2005, in response to rioting in France’s suburbs, or banlieues, “La France, tu l’aimes ou tu la quittes”, meaning “France — love it or leave”. (Sarkozy, who became president, later denied using the phrase, though there is a video recording of him saying something very similar.)
The phrase, however, stigmatised banlieue residents, suggesting the children of immigrants who lived there, though they had been born and raised in France, did not identify fully with the values of the republic.
Friends and acquaintances took to parodying the phrase. For example, if you spilled something at a house party, they would point to the door and say: “Mon salon, tu l’aimes ou tu le quittes!” (“My living room — love it or leave”). Professors at the Sorbonne in Paris would admonish those caught chatting during lectures with, “Mon cours, tu l’aimes ou tu le quittes!” (“My course, love it...”).
As for me, I left France, but it is not as though I did not love it. It just happens that my experiences living in a different country have felt richer and more formative than those I went through as a young adult in my native land. I did not know this before I left, but moving country has made my social connections less predictable and less about which class one belongs to.
What does it mean anyway to love a country? Most of my friends who have moved away from London but still come back to visit express a fondness for it that is far greater than any attachment they have to the UK as a whole.
This is especially true now that the Brexit debacle has uncovered deeper layers of unappealing British nationalism that foreigners might not have seen previously. Understandably, no incomer would want to associate with that side of national identity.
Maybe the belief that moving abroad means turning your back on your homeland belongs to an older, less mobile generation. In contrast to my parents’ generation, I feel mine has been marked by the availability of overseas study programmes, which, though far from available to all, have become more common in the past 20 years.
Perhaps the most used term people use to describe such programmes is “eye-opening”. It is a cliché for a reason, yet preserving that option for British students does not seem to be a priority for the UK government.
It remains unclear how European student exchange programmes such as Erasmus will treat the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit. While many UK students may be unable to afford EU universities without such programmes, British prime minister Theresa May has suggested they could enjoy a superior university education at home.
With such uncertainty hanging over the future of the UK’s relations with Europe, I feel sorry for a generation of young British citizens encouraged to think there is little of value to be learnt by living and studying abroad.
Living in the UK has shown me that I can thrive in a culture other than my own — which is no small thing. More than this, it has taught me that cultures are complex, fluid systems that do not define individuals. I hold this knowledge close to me, regardless of the picture hanging above my bed.
You can read more articles from our Expat identities series here
Photographs: Charlie Bibby; AFP