Out of Place

It took me a few years after I discovered Edward Saïd before I read his autobiography, which might be one of my « top 100 books list ».

When I heard him for the first time, it was two to three years before his death. I had no clue who he was, but I had a glimpse of an elegant old scholar, in a TV reportage that had already started.

But his words just caught me, and I still remember one of his sentences, which was written white on black, in English and in French : « when you live a very long time abroad, you don’t have a country any more ».

That was a few months before I left France for … now twelve years. Up to that time, I had been travelling a lot, working abroad for long periods, spent two years in Belgium, nearly a year in the US and another one in the UK, but I was still officially living in France ; except for the American time, for obvious costs reasons, I was coming back « home » nearly every week end ; Paris was my town, where I lived since I was born, and I had a country.

Nevertheless, at that time, I was already « out of place ». I belonged, somehow, to several groups that did not fit well together, and my personal history and heritage was a mix of things that don’t blend easily together.

Moving abroad made some things easier. You somehow start anew, without no one making automatic connexions like ‘oh, she went to such school, she must be blabla » or « oh, she knows these people, she’s certainly so and so. »

In a way, for the first time of my life, I was out of place because I had decided so.

I was still travelling like hell for my job. I remember a month where I made something like 38.000 kilometres in a month. As I moved to Germany with my three cats, I went seldom to France on the week-end, and not so often for my job.

My country changed without me. The past ten years have seen many important changes. I left at the time euro was introduced, at the time the French voted for the first time massively for a far-right candidate. The crisis changed Paris, where it was not any more easy to live with a decent job (Paris has never been inexpensive, but I was not a golden girl, and I could not any more have the same quality of life as I had ten years ago).

At some point of time, I became a stranger. I did not know the latest news, the latest films, the small changes in daily life, and even for the important… I saw them through the prism of the internet, with a particular focus on what interested me.

My permanent travels made me also a stranger in Germany. To be honest, the fact that I arrived without speaking a word of German did not make things very easy, but if I’d stayed in my « nice » little town of NordRhein Westfalen the whole week, instead of leaving 4h30 on Mondays, and driving back home around 22 pm on Thursdays, I can imagine my integration would have been easier.

Of course, being single in a provincial city where the family with two kids was the ideal also played its part, but I had good friends. I was not part of the place, that’s all.

When I met my to-be husband, who was living in Morocco, travel get even more hectic. I stepped out of my job, and started a career as a free-lance. I was spending a month here, a month there. When in Morocco, we travelled through the country (he has a travel agency), and lived in hotels, at least till we were legally married (Muslim countries have strong legal requirements about people spending a night together).

I finally definitively moved in mid-2010. With my four cats (one more than when I moved to Germany). We started in Ouarzazate, which is a very very provincial small city in the traditional South.

If I wanted to interact with Moroccan people, it should be women. Not that men refused to speak to me, it’s just not part of the culture for a man to have a friendship with a woman.

Most of the women I knew just wished me to have twelve children to raise a « football team ». Yeah….

And most of the French people living there are … the bad sides of French people to make it short (just imagine that 80% of the French voting in Marrakesh for the presidential poll voted for the far right and racist candidate).

Also, my mind just cannot master Arabic. Too complex, it takes me a loooooooooooong time to remember anything, and I’m just able to spell.

I’m just « out of place ». I feel less and less French, I’m not – and I will never be, legally speaking – Moroccan.

Being out of place is not awful. Actually, I’m rather lucky, as it comes from decision I made, and not from having to flee my country. Even if I did not know exactly what it meant, I knew it would come.

« My place » is my home, with my husband, my cats and my PC. For more than ten years I have been in countries where I can’t share childhood memories with my neighbours, and I slowly lost contact with a lot of people who have the same childhood memories.

From time to time, I google them, I don’t get in touch, because the ten years we spent apart are too large to cross.

When Edward Saïd died, some of his books were, as usual, put in the book store windows. One day, I recognized the face that impressed me so much two years earlier. The book was – of course – in the German translation, so I carefully noted down the name, and went to Amazon.

And i just felt « at home » reading him.


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5 réponses à Out of Place

  1. Steph dit :

    As someone who has done three intercontinental moves, where each time I’ve done it « properly » to integrate, I totally get what you mean. There is this bittersweet situation where I feel extremely lucky to have such a rich experience of life, yet it seems like I am fundamentally missing out on something that everyone else around me seems to have — clear definitive roots, identity and a sure sense of where « home » is.

    Like you, my home is my husband, my books, my cat, my studio, my kitchen, my computer and my little garden. It’s not much in terms of square meterage, and even if my cat doesn’t like it, we are more portable than the average sense of « home » :)

  2. My husband’s family comes half from Morocco. I learned that, if you’ve not mastered the « h/r » sound by age 5, it’s over. Yeah, I tried and tried and tried to pronounce some words, even my own family name, and was not able to! XD

    I’ve pretty much stopped trying. I’ll learn Japanese instead! ;p

    As a person who has lived in Italy for small times, both as a relatively newbie-speaker and as a fluent speaker, I understand how hard this can be. People in Italy also speak many dialects, and won’t make the slightest effort to speak « current Italian » for foreigners. You pretty much had to adapt or die, there! XD

    I love when an author resonates. Good for you you find yours! ^^

  3. Marie-Aude dit :

    I think the « master by the age of 5 » is true for any kind of really foreign sound, something you cannot relate « somehow » to a sound you heard in your mother tongue. Arabic is quite rich with those, the « dal » also is interesting. Luckily, Moroccan have a very improper pronunciation…
    It took me two years to be able to hear some differences. I don’t intend to be able to pronounce these letters properly, the goal would be to give a clear indication of which kind of K I’m trying to use :)

    And I’m really interested in your Japanese, I heard that what not an easy language neither !

    @Steph, I’m lucky to have cats who finally considered I’m their territory, and accepted the many moves I put them through (approx. 1 every two years).

  4. Thanks for sharing your story! I’m always curious to learn what brings people to move — probably because aside from my year in India, I have lived in the same place nearly all my life (less than 20km between where I lived when I arrived in Switzerland at the age of two, and where I live now).

    I belong in Lausanne, but at the same time my travels (and the Internet) sometimes make me feel quite out of place. I don’t watch TV anymore, I don’t really follow local news. I’m very Swiss, but at the same time very un-swiss.

    I wonder if anybody really feels at « home » anywhere?

    I remember that a few years after coming back from India, I didn’t feel at home anywhere. It took me three good years in Switzerland to readjust after India. During that time, I was told that home was where there was ground beneath my feet. It helped me a lot. I’ve accepted that I will always be multicultural, even though I have been quite stable geographically. It’s something I’ve learned to live with.

    What you say about going back to Paris and feeling more and more out of touch resonates with me. After only one year in India, I came back to Lausanne to find it changed, to find that people had carried on their lives without me, in short, that it wasn’t the Lausanne I’d left.

    I’ve seen expats time and time again go back « home » only to find that they left their home behind many years ago, and that they have no « home » to go back to, except the one they made for themselves abroad.

    Reminds me that I need to read Bill Bryson’s book about his return to the US as an American having lived in the UK for 20 years.

  5. Marie-Aude dit :

    When I moved to Germany, I noticed how much German people (with a cultural definition, not as citizens of Germany) where attached to their « Heimat », and I have the feeling Switzerland is more German than French, even in Romandie.
    For example, when I entered my second home in Germany, it was 20 minutes drive from my work, and driving in the countryside, without trafic jams or anything like that. My landlady was moving in the village where I worked, to be with her sweatheart, and that was the first time she was so far away from her family, her friends, and so on.
    Result : she was so bluesy I had to move a third time two years after.

    She was certainly feeling « at home »… but we could not really relate.

    On the other hand, I would never had had the guts to move alone so young in India, like you did. I remember, when I discovered your blog, browsing through your archives, and being fascinated by this indian experience !

    The no-home expats are quite common here, and through all Africa. The « no home » is even a hard reality, because many african countries do not grant citizenship based on how long you live somewhere, or where you are born, just of pur « blood right » basis.

    In Morocco, they offered citizenship to the Europeans who decided to stay after the independance, but that was a one shot offer, and I will never be able to become Moroccan, even if I’d married aged 20 and have had these famous 12 moroccan kids.
    In other parts of Africa, specially southern Africa, they never made the offer. In the area of Namibia, Zambia, etc… you have people who have a european citizenship, inherited from their grand-parents, but who were born in Africa, from parents born in Africa, and sometimes never went to their official country.

    I note the Bryson Book for myself also, thanks for the hint !

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