Friday, November 9, 2007

Expatriate Communities

This morning, I gave a presentation on jazz in Paris to a class at the American University in Paris. I had met the instructor, an NYU graduate student, at a social event, and we have had a few conversations. I enjoyed meeting the class and talking about a familiar subject. I was also glad to visit the American University campus -- actually a collection of buildings in the neighborhood near the Eiffel Tower. These lucky students can see the Tower every time they walk to their library.

The experience made me think about the American community here in Paris and how big and interconnected it is. I studied this phenomenon when writing about jazz, but I'm only now really feeling that sense of an expatriate community on this trip. Between the other fellows at the Institute, a weekly meeting of American academics organized through the H-France email listserv, and a few other people, I know more Americans in Paris than on any other trip here. Visiting the American University, as well as at Reid Hall, reminded me that there are so many Americans here at any given time.

Being an expatriate here means living in Paris and perhaps knowing some French people (I had lunch with the one French academic I know) but also being part of a community which still remains set apart -- "foreign," for lack of a better term. People who understand each other through shared cultural values, assumptions, and references naturally seem to find each other and click, even if they might never meet or get to know each other in the US. When living in another culture, we look for the people most like us because they remind us of home.

On this trip, I've come to be even more sympathetic to anyone who leaves the country where they were born and moves to another place, especially when learning another language. It takes lots of guts, brains, and willpower to be an immigrant not only because it means learning so much that is new, but giving up so much that is a part of you.

Living in another culture sounds romantic until you do it yourself for a time. Then you begin to understand why, for instance, immigrants to the US from various places around the world live near one another, create their own stores, churches, clubs, and other institutions. Americans have done the same in Paris (and elsewhere). You could go to an American high school and an American university, attend American churches, read in the American library, and eat in American restaurants all right here in Paris. I'm not an immigrant, only a temporary expatriate. But I have a new appreciation for anyone who leaves home for another land, even if only for a short time.

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