This week, I have become a British citizen. I have moved to London about 6 years ago and such a milestone made me look back and ponder.
I was born and raised in Paris.
On a jolly day of 2008 I had become an expat. The decision is in itself easy to make. I joined the one who had become my husband; I was thinking that after all, London is not too far and that being bilingual would make it easy to adjust. This daunting moment nevertheless happened, the one when you pack your bags and step into the train to leave everything you have known.
Since that very day, I have heard the term ‘expat’ thousands of times. After all, I had become part of the expat community, which in London is seriously large. And what’s not to love? With 270 nationalities in London, 300 languages spoken, the exposure to foreign cultures is amazing. But what does being an expat mean? For me, it has been an evolving status.
At first you are simply a foreigner, a mere tourist. Everything is new and you discover the place you live in eagerly. My first weeks in London I was going around town with my Lonely Planet to make sure I would know as many sites as possible, discovering the city and getting my bearings. The latter took me much longer than expected. In a place seven times the size of Paris, it took me some time to get my head around the fact that going places within Central London could take me up to an hour.
Then you become a foreigner with a mission: understanding the culture. “Where are the cafes? No…I am afraid there are none but we could meet at the pub down the street?”. And there you are, at your local pub, asking yourselves thousands of shameful questions that you keep to yourself: Are we going to stay here long? No one sits down? Should I buy a round? Are we going to ever eat? I actually asked the latter on a Friday night and was found stunned when I was told “Eating is cheating”. I got over it since!
How bewildering for a Parisian to see people on the tube letting passengers come off before going in. What an incredible moment when you realise that “With all due respect” introduces an insult? You hold on to your culture however. To this day I do not understand how France and the UK could be so close and one has great vegetables at every street corners and the other…well…does not. It took me years, literally, to find the various places from where I get my food. Picky French? Granted. Then you become a foreigner with a sense of duty: I will defend London. Going back to Paris I would get terribly furious when people would dare criticising London. What did they know about it anyway? You start comparing the two cities, their pros, their cons. You feel a bit further away from the life that once was yours and that you just could not get back to. Why? Because you have changed: you are an expat. At this stage, you might not quite realise it but London has sneakily become home. Yes, I did petition against the closure of my local and I may well trade my baguette for a Yorkshire pudding on Sundays. I truly enjoy watching horse races while drinking Pimm’s in the summer and the list could go on and on and on.
And with this major change, the concept of home itself had evolved for me. Plyne the Elder was onto something when he said that home is where the heart is. My heart is in Paris where my parents are, where my eldest friends are, where I have memories in every single neighbourhood. My heart is in London where I met my husband, where my son was born, where I have met new friends. Do I need to be physically present in these cities? No I don’t and THAT is the major change. So I will go with Robert Frost who said: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.
” Since I acquired the citizenship I can confidently call London my home. This confidence is what makes me excited to get onto my next playground as an expat: New York. I will move there his summer but until then I will take advantage of everything London still has to offer me. So stay tuned!