Read About An Expat’s Amazing Experience in France
In this expat interview, we have Kristin, an American expat living with her Argentinian husband and two children in Lyon, France. She works as a therapist helping expatriates and also writes about her own experiences. Her first book Trailing was published in 2012 and her second book Five Flights Up is due to be published this year.
1. Though you’ve been traveling most of your life, you’ve been settled in France for a few years now it seems, do you still have the chance or desire to travel?
I have been in France for thirteen years now – 10 in Paris and 3 in Lyon. This is after five years in East Africa as a newlywed, which followed a childhood in the Foreign Service, where my family was posted to Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, India, Indonesia, and Nigeria. I do have the desire to travel, still, but the issue gets complicated by budget and the fact that going “home” to see our families of origin (mine in the USA, my husband’s in Argentina) uses up most if not all of our free time, as well as budget, for travel.
We would love to take our kids to Southeast Asia, for example, but have difficulty reconciling the time and budget questions with our family obligations. That said, living in Europe we periodically get to take weekend flings in Italy, the UK, Spain, etc — and that never stops feeling exotic. And living in France is special, always!
2. Following on from that is there anywhere you would still like to live and explore or go back to?
I would kill to go back to India, where I lived for two years as a teenager. And I have always wanted to visit Vietnam and Cambodia.
3. You work mainly as a therapist these days, do you only do this in person, or have you also gone virtual?
That’s a good question. I get many requests to do virtual therapy, but I always say no, as it just really doesn’t appeal to me as a model. I think the “in-person” aspect of a therapeutic conversation is really important. Also, can you imagine talking about something raw, or upsetting, and then having a bad internet connection with all the stalling and cut-ups that can happen?
Finally, and maybe most importantly, endings are a natural part of life, and learning to say goodbye, or to transition to another type of relationship, is important. I think virtual therapy prevents natural endings from happening as they should.
4. How have you found the experience of writing? With your second book being published this year is this something you’d like to continue doing?
Absolutely. I have always been a writer but never knew how to “assume” that identity until Trailing was published. By that, I mean that I struggled with that question, “Can I really call myself a writer if I haven’t published anything?” The answer is absolute yes. If you spend any significant time writing, you are definitely a writer, but I had to learn to say it! That said, now that I have one book out there, and another on the way, I feel more comfortable saying, “I am a writer,” or “I am an Author,” and not immediately start feeling like an impostor.
5. What lead to your move from Paris to Lyon, was it work-related, or were you looking for somewhere a bit smaller to live?
It was my husband’s job which leads to this move; but I was very resistant to leaving my professional life in Paris, so he actually moved by himself and commuted the first 18 months of his contract in Lyon. He finally convinced me to become a “trailing spouse” again. This is actually a central thread running through my forthcoming book, Five Flights Up (due for publication Fall, 2014). The following excerpt from the book will shed further light on the question!
From Five Flights Up
How can you be sick of living in Paris?
This is my incredulous comment when Tano claims that after nine years, he’s had enough. Enough of the big city life. Enough of the cost of living. Enough of our family of four crammed into a 59 sq meter apartment.
Conveniently, he’s received a job offer almost out of the blue…an offer that would force us to change our lives by moving to Lyon, a smaller city in eastern-central France, 470 kilometers from Paris in the region called the Rhone Alpes.
“Let’s do it,” he says
But I have no desire to move. I could never, ever tire of Paris, which aside from being one of the most beautiful cities on this planet, had provided the answer to my longstanding need to create a fixed home somewhere in the world.
After the whirlwind across Africa and Asia that was my Foreign Service childhood – the fact of which I never questioned, for as kid I did not have a say in the matter – my young adult life bounced from one instability to another. My early twenties were defined by an extended adaptation crisis, attempting to reintegrate to the United States.
My late twenties and early thirties morphed into a different type of tumult altogether when I married Tano, who I had known for all of a year. This may not seem entirely impetuous until you consider the fact that we were from two different cultures, and that a primary condition of our union was that I accompany him to the field with Médècins Sans Frontières.
I had just finished writing Trailing, for God’s sake, a memoir that examined, among other things, how the early years of my marriage, tagging along on his missions with MSF, posed serious challenges to my sense of stability and identity.
I really did not want to go down that path again.
“Come on,” he says, sounding impatient. “The cost of living in Lyon is so much better than Paris. We’ll be able to live in a much bigger space. Even food and transport are cheaper.”
Food? Transport? He acts like we’re planning a vacation. This is my life we’re talking about, and it’s a life I am deeply attached to.
I was at the height of an exhilarating career as a therapist in the expatriate community. I was on contract with the American University of Paris to provide counselling services to their student body. I regularly gave talks in the international school and Embassy circuits about raising global and mobile kids, a term I had branded to describe the types of people I was seeing in my practice, mothering in my home, and had myself been all of my life.
I really could not imagine giving all this up.
And so, I refuse to move…..
We argue some more. He’s ready for change. I’m not. I convince him to go without me.
And my resistance holds up for eighteen months, eighteen months in which Tano travels to Paris every Friday night, and returns to Lyon late every Sunday. Sometimes we say that the kids and I should train down to see him, but every weekend Carmen or Lorenzo has some un-missable activity – a dance recital, a birthday party – and so it’s always easier for Tano to come to us.
But in spite of this arrangement, at the nineteenth month, I find myself on the high speed train headed south to Lyon, the kids and a heap of suitcases in tow.
We were moving. Ten and a half years after landing in Paris, ten and a half years after growing roots, building home, we were leaving it all behind.
Why did I buckle? What would this mean to our family? What would this mean to our couple? And what would this mean to each one of us, in our own developmental phases with different needs, wants and worries? How would we fare? What would we learn?
That, among other things, is what this book is about.
6. You’ve written extensively about trailing spouses and the adjustments that need to be made in marriages, do you deal with mainly female trailing spouses or do you also help male trailing spouses?
Both! Although there still tends to be more women “trailing” than men.
7. Have you seen any growth in the number of male trailing spouses? I speak of personal experience having followed my wife to 7 different countries in the last 10 years.
I don’t have any statistics to quote, but the numbers tend to be the same year after year in my own practice. For every 10 women who find themselves unhappy in the “trailing” situation, there are one, maybe two, men in parallel situations. These numbers are anecdotal, however, not scientifically collected. This is just my experience as a therapist.
8. Have you noticed any other trends during your time working with expatriates?
There are two “trends” I can really say I have noticed, and with increasing frequency:
- Kids that move countries but keep life alive in another time zone. For example, a teenager from Los Angeles moves to Paris, but stays up half the night most nights to Skype and Facetime with friends back in California. I have seen more expat families in crisis in the last few years because of this type of issue, and the adaptation problems it creates.
- Parents who give their kids too much decision making power in a move. In the last few years, every year I have at least five sets of parents who will come to my office in a crisis, because they promised their children that if they (the kids) didn’t like the new country (in these cases it was Paris or Lyon) they wouldn’t have to stay. When they made these promises the parents never imagined, of course, that their kids would hold them to it and then be furious when Mom and Dad don’t just agree to pack up and leave!
Both of these examples are what I would call maladaptive ways of moving with kids.
9. Have your children been able to experience any time as expats, if so how have they taken to it?
Well, technically, they are expats here in France as both of their parents are foreign. It’s the only life they know. I’ll excerpt a few more sections from Five Flights Up in which I address this question.
From Five Flights Up
Our family is all mixed up culturally. I have just one nationality – I am from the United States – but have been an expat almost my entire life.
Tano is Argentinian, but from San Francisco, an Italian settlement in central Argentina, where in the late 1800’s an influx of blonde haired, blue eyed northern Italians – los Piamonteses – arrived to settle the land. The inhabitants of his town all have Italian names – Rivvichini, Finnochiaro, Batistini – and some of the elder generations still speak the Piemontese dialect. Hence, his dual Argentinian-Italian citizenship.
Our kids also have dual citizenship – US-Italian – but neither of them have ever lived in the United States or Italy. Carmen was born in Nairobi, and Lorenzo in Paris.
It is a strange thing, this cultural identity stuff. We are at a party chatting with the biggest gaming junkie of the building, a thirty-something man named Christophe. Carmen, nine years old at the time, tells him proudly, “Christophe, I have 31 euros! How much did you have to spend to get all your games?”
Christophe studies my daughter for a long second and then answers, with what sounds like disapproval, “We don’t talk about money. Not in France.”
“Oh, OK,” Carmen accepts, blithely skipping off back to her friends.
But my face burns. Are we that culturally out of balance?
That brief exchange speaks to that thing that seems to come and go, without warning, in our daily lives here in France, in particular for the kids who blend in neatly, the quinessential hidden immigrants, who can “pass” as local until their foreign parents give them away. I bumble along thinking we’re assimilated and then something will happen, some wrong thing said, or some thing said wrong, and suddenly we are back in a “you versus us” dialogue.
Not that this is any different from the way cultural differences play out elsewhere. Of all the countries I live in growing up, it is a given, revealed by appearance alone, that I am a foreigner with an entirely different cultural background. My sensibility about my own kid’s sense of assimilation in France has to do with my desire for them to feel that they truly belong.
Because unlike my childhood, where there is never a doubt that I will ultimately leave the countries I live in, my kids do not live with the shadow of repatriation lurking near. Ostensibly we are here to stay, and this is their “real” life.
“Mom?” Carmen asks. “How do we ever know if something good or bad about us is because of who we are and not just because of where we’re from?”
My children’s questions about identity so often emerge in ways I am not expecting, and almost always, without fail, force me to consider this very question.
Banging noisily on her father’s guitar at age 8, I finally shout, “Knock it off, Carmen! You’re driving me crazy!”
She answers, “But Mom, I only feel Argentinian when I play the guitar.”
Without the tinny, raucous strumming to rattle my nerves, I might never have known that feeling Argentinian – identifying with her father, and his faraway family – is, at some deeper level, of concern to her.
I change my tune. “Keep playing, darling. You’re getting there.”
A year or so later she emerges from her dance class, one hot spring afternoon, with an expression of preoccupied gloom. “Look at my face, Mom,” she whispers, tears spilling over. “The other girls say that it gets all red because I’m American.”
I assure her that citizenship has nothing to do with whose face gets red, and remind her of all the red faced people we know who are as French as they come. But something is brewing inside her – I just sense it – and it comes out a few nights later when she breaks down crying and says, “No one understands me. I can’t manage to do things exactly the way a true French person does.”
Yet she is saying this to her American mom, who marvels at her beautiful little French accent, the way she holds her fork, the curlicues of her so very French handwriting, the way she has taken to wearing little scarves tied just so around her neck….By then she has been immersed in French culture for seven years. She has done all of her schooling in Paris. Sometimes I wonder how I ended up with a french child.
I bumble through some commentary that is meant to be reassuring: Surely the other kids understand her. She isn’t that different.
But she only cries harder. “You don’t understand me either, Mom. I’m not French the way they are, and I’m not American the way you are. I just don’t belong anywhere.”
Tonight, in Lyon, I still don’t have a definitive answer to that question, and so I say what I have always said: It’s case by case. Some things are by nature, some things are by culture, and usually, the two things end up influencing each other anyway.
Over dessert, Lorenzo says, “Why can’t we go back to Paris, Mom?” His voice sounds so wholly forlorn he might well have been a refugee asking why the rebels burned down his village.
“We can’t go back to Paris, my love,” I say, “Because in life we sometimes have to make changes. This is one of those times.” My answer is undoubtedly not satisfying, but he already knows the other spiel: Pop’s new job, sticking together as a family, blah blah blah.
“Well, I hate Lyon,” he says, “and I hate you for making us come here.”
I am tempted to say, “You think this was my idea?” but then he says, “I wish I didn’t exist.”
Rationally, I know that what sounds like a statement of profound existential crisis is probably just raw homesickness presented in the peculiar mixed vocabulary of a bilingual six year old. But it sounds alarmingly bleak and for a split second his grief transports me back in time to all the unresolved loss of my own childhood.
And then it occurs to me that my children’s childhoods, which thus far have played out quite differently to mine in terms of geographic stability, have just been transformed into something that resembles my own. This is the first time that their lives have taken the twist that defined my formative years – being new – and as suddenly as I realize this, I tap into an unexplored connection with my own mother.
Years ago, it had been a revelation to follow Tano off on his career – oh so this is what it was like for Mom as Dad’s wife – but until this very moment, I hadn’t really thought about what it must have been like for her to deal with her own adjustment problems while having to help us kids with ours.
10. Would you do it all again? Is there anything with hindsight you would have done differently?
I would absolutely do it all again, because I don’t have any major regrets in my life. I consider myself very privileged to have been able to live in so many different parts of the world. With hindsight there is one major thing I would have done differently — and I am being completely serious here — I would have worn sunscreen! I grew up in the tropics before anyone talked about skin cancer (or wrinkles, for that matter).
My Mother has had melanoma, and so have I, and although we both had our brushes with skin cancer caught early, the shadow of recurrence kind of hangs there. I am obsessed with protecting my kid’s skin, and try to speak out about the hazards of too much sun exposure whenever I can!
Kristin Louise Duncombe is the author of Trailing: A Memoir, which was selected as one of the Best Indie Reads of 2013. In it she chronicles her experiences as the “trailing spouse” who followed her Médecins Sans Frontières physician to the frontlines of disaster and disease in East Africa. Her forthcoming title, Five Flights Up, is a narrative memoir about raising her bi-cultural family in France and how the family dealt with (unexpected) transition to Lyon after having laid down “permanent” roots in Paris.
Kristin Louise Duncombe is also a psychotherapist who works with individuals, couples, and families, and has chosen to specialize in issues affecting expats and immigrants, based on her own experience growing up around the world as the daughter of a US Foreign Service Officer, and having lived as an expat most of her adult life as well. She is based in Lyon, France where she lives with her Argentinian husband and two bi-cultural kids!
For the next 3 days she’s giving away 3 copies of her first book Trailing, to find out more visit the following link: https://www.facebook.com/TrailingAMemoir/app_228910107186452