If you ask an American “what” they are (historically, nationally, by ancestry), they will usually say something like “part Irish, part Scotch, part English, German, Swedish…maybe a little drop of French.” They’re aware of what nationality their ancestors were, and they are equally clear about what nationality they are, despite the mixes in their ancestry. They’re American. And if they have one, they have only one passport. And as a powerful nation and a very big one, they usually only speak one language, and really don’t need more. More and more, everyone speaks English around the world, socially and in business. I have a wonderfully efficient assistant, who worked for me for several years in Paris when I came here, and she doesn’t speak a word of French. She had no problem doing everything she needed, only speaking English, even in France.
In Europe, and for Europeans, the ancestral lines are much closer, and so are the frontiers of each country. I once drove from Colorado to New York, and was stunned that mile after mile after thousands of miles, you heard the same music on the radio, it was the same country (no frontiers to cross), and everyone spoke the same language. In the same amount of time in Europe, we’d have driven through ten countries, and crossed all of Europe. We forget just how big America is (the U.S.)!!!
In Europe, when people come from ancestors of different nationalities, it is in the present, not the past. And if you have one parent of a certain nationality, you have the right to the passport of their country. (or the different passports and nationalities of both parents, in many cases).And since the countries are close, and people of different nationalities marry and have children, people in Europe play the ‘passport game’ and have many, and multi nationalities. Countries are often small in Europe and very close together. In a matter of hours, you can pass several frontiers, with a different language in each case. Last Saturday, I almost went to a wonderful and very famous antique fair in Holland (Maastricht), where they speak Dutch. It would have taken me 3 hours to drive there from Paris, and I could have gone for the day, but stayed home to work in the end. My friends in Belgium (where hey speak Flemish and French) often take the train for an hour and come to Paris for lunch. In the summer, we pass from France to Monaco to Italy. It’s all very close here. And often, instead of just knowing that your ancestors were Irish, Scotch and Swedish, in Europe, people actually hold those passports, and speak many languages because you deal with different countries every day, often in business. Although most of them speak English now.
My own background is typical of that mix. My mother was Portuguese, my father was German, both born there, and even today I have access to both those passports, although I have only American nationality. (My maternal grandfather was a diplomat, and my mother spoke five languages fluently, and my father spoke eight, including some really hard ones, like Japanese, Russian, and Greek. He had an ear for languages). My French nephews speak five. I only speak four languages now (having lost two others over the years from lack of use). You need that in Europe, or it’s useful. You just don’t need that in the States (although it has helped some people in business to learn Chinese, but it’s usually not because of their ancestry, but more because of their professional interests). With a Portuguese mother and German father, I was born in the States, but spent much of my youth in France, spoke French with my parents, grew up in Paris and New York, and only went to French schools until college, and have strong ties and history with France. The only adult family I have left is French. And I renounced French nationality at l8, for practical reasons, not sentimental ones, and I have one passport: American, but I have access to four nationalities if I want them. All of that is very common in Europe, but would be most unusual in the States. Many of my friends in Europe hold multiple passports, as do their children. It’s very common in Europe.
So with that very varied background, and an American passport (which I am very proud of), I still have much history and sentimental ties to France. It’s where I essentially grew up, the language I grew up with, the country of the schools I went to, my first marriage, my first romances, the first boy I ever kissed, all were French. Instead of Elvis, I grew up with Johnny Hallyday and Charles Aznavour, Jacques Brel and Gilbert Becaud and Sylvie Vartan. (I just bought some of their old CD’s yesterday, and talk about a walk down memory lane!!! As I sang their songs to the CD’s, I felt l5 again!!! And I still remembered all the words!!!). It’s wonderful to preserve our cultures and history, to share them with our children, along with our traditions. There is something really heartwarming about preserving our history, and acknowledging that it is part of us.
For more than half my adult life now, I have lived in the States. I went to college there. I was also married there, my children are emphatically American (and make fun of me if I pronounce anything too ‘French’). I write my books in English….but I still write poetry for private purposes in French. It’s nice to have access to both worlds. In Europe people are still a little closer to their history, and its part of every day.
And even though I live in America, and am American (and proud of it of course), when I come back to Paris, it is still home to me, I have childhood memories here, the ‘best’ toy store in Paris is still the one I went to as a little girl, the night club/disco I went to at l6 is still one of the most popular today, generations of people have gone to the same restaurants I do, and the cafe where people sang ‘dirty’ songs when I was young is still popular among students now. There is a lot of history here, and I have my own history in Paris, a house where I lived in my teens, people I went to school with. It makes me nostalgic when I come here, and it’s hard to erase those memories, and why would we want to? In fact, I have history in both places, speak both languages equally, and whatever my passport says, my heart has a deep attachment to both cultures. And why not?? It only adds more texture and depth to your life, and enriches me and my children. More and more, Americans whose families immigrated to the States generations ago, are coming back to Europe to find their roots, meet distant relatives, and visit the places their ancestors came from. For me, having grown up in Europe and European culture, it is just that much closer. Someone said to me recently that Paris still feels like home to me. Yes, it does….but so does San Francisco. But Paris will always speak to my heart, I will always remember the things I loved here and find them easily. Things don’t change much in Paris, which I love. It’s always still there when I go back, and instantly feels like home again.
I am always thrilled when I come back to Paris, there is no more beautiful sight than the Eiffel Tower lit up at night, or the Arc de Triomphe, or wandering through the beautiful gardens and parks, which for me are laced with memories of tender moments of my youth. The heart remembers what we thought we had forgotten. But it’s always there, just as it is for you, if you go back to your hometown, if you live somewhere different than where you grew up.
And I am always sad to leave Paris when I do, and a piece of my heart always stays there. It’s a hard city to leave, and an easy one to love.
In thinking about it, I was reminded of a line from the movie “Sabrina” with Audrey Hepburn, I think it was a quote from Gertrude Stein. She says that “America will always be my country, but Paris will always be my hometown.” I think that says what I feel. I will be leaving Paris tomorrow, to go back to my children in the States, and I will be happy to see them, and happy to be there…..but a part of my heart will always be here, in Paris. It’s wonderful having two cultures and two countries to love, and two great ones!!