22 September 2012

Three years ago today...

Three years ago today, I stepped onto a plane with two suitcases and a stomach full of butterflies. I landed on a new continent, without even an apartment arranged, without a single friend, and somehow managed to carve out an existence working in a career that had nothing to do with my diploma. It was terrifying, lonely, often painful... and utterly marvelous. What was supposed to last only nine months ended up becoming permanent. I look at the past three years, the amazing places I've seen, the precious friendships I've made, the love I've lost, the love I've found, the lessons learned... the evolution of my character. Here's to my beautiful, complicated, adopted country. Je t'aime, la France.

09 August 2012

What the French think of Americans

Like many expats abroad, I'm no stranger unprovoked verbal assaults on my nationality.  As much as I love my life in France and French people in general, there are the inevitable few that excel at verbal lashings of expats, and specifically of Americans. I manage to remain optimistic and positive most of the time, but I'd be lying if I said they didn't get to me sometimes.

Let's face it, as much as the French diffuse our music, TV series and films, being an American expat in France is not always à la mode. At dinner parties, I am often cornered and expected to answer the most unbearable questions.  No matter how hard I study up to give the most politically factual or diplomatic responses, I know there is nothing I can do to convince them, because they have no interest in -gasp- broadening their minds!

"Oh you're American? You're certainly lucky to be here in France. Coming from Detroit and after eating McDonalds your entire life, it's a wonder you're not gunshot-riddled and overweight!  You know, 99% of you are morbidly obese, right? How many guns does your family have? Is it true you can't locate Iraq on a map? If your schools spent less time praying and teaching you to love America and more time teaching geography, you probably never would have elected George W. Bush... Twice. Speaking of which, you know 9/11 was an inside job, right? I mean, you wouldn't really have me believe that a plane hit the Pentagon? Watch the YouTube videos!  I have a friend who went to Las Vegas once, and he told me you are all extremely prudish and patriotic... oh, and you put ketchup on everything! I must say I have no interest in visiting the States... And besides, Americans don't travel at all. I read somewhere that most of you don't even have passports. Oh, excuse me, I forgot to offer you something to drink. Coca-Cola, I presume?"

These attacks very in length and intensity, but are always accompanied by a sweet (if not a bit smug) smile. If I'm lucky, I'm serenaded with their impression of American English, which usually sounds like "blahh blaahh blaahh waawaa" and resembles to what I imagine the Neanderthals might have sounded like. Now, to be fair, I have met a lot of French who love the American accent, but they are not always there to defend me.

Now, most social gatherings out with friends in France are wonderful... but every so often I am forced to spend an evening in fruitless discussion, and sleepless nights imagining how to come out on top of these debates. I now have accepted that I never will, and it is best to either diffuse the situation with humor or just indulge in wine and hope it will end quickly.

 This morning, I was still left with the foul aftertaste of some recent nasty experiences when a most unexpected encounter really put things in perspective.

Monsieur Xavier is the darling octogenarian who inhabits the tiny ground floor apartment in my building. A grandfatherly soul, he often invites me for lunch, calls me ma chérie and is always asking for news when I come and go. Today he inquired about my recent trip to Normandy. I told him it was fantastic and so rich in history.

His eyes suddenly filled with tears, and he told me he had lived in Normandy as a child, and that on D-Day (The Normandy beach landing operations of allied forces on June 6th, 1944) he and his parents sought refuge in a trench as the sounds of battle surrounded them. The terror had been unimaginable.

"It's the Americans I love the most in this world, because they saved us. I remember walking the beaches after the invasion. I saw with my own eyes Americans lying dead on the ground, no more than 20 years old. They came and fought and died.  For us.  I cannot tolerate those who speak badly of Americans, because their memory is so short. I will not allow it!"

He walked toward me, overwhelmed by emotion and choking back sobs. I blinked back tears of my own as he took me into his arms and hugged me tightly. "Oh chérie, je t'aime, je t'aime, je t'aime!"

68 years after the fact, you'd think it was only yesterday. I didn't know how to comfort this man, who had seen more horror than I could ever dream of. Somewhere, he was still a 12 year old boy who needed protection. All I could do was hold him in my arms and search for something to say.

"Thank you," I finally manged to speak. "You have no idea how much it means to hear that. I love you too."

I then retreated to my apartment, where I spent some time drying my eyes and reflecting. I was greatly impacted by this brief but charged exchange.

I marveled at the power of words. How easy it is sometimes to be cut down by backhanded compliments and downright intolerance... how snide remarks have a way of lingering with us years after they were spoken, and how the positive is so quickly forgotten.

My 5-minute exchange with Monsieur Xavier should hold infinitely more power than every snotty comment I've ever received in France. It's up to me to keep it that way. While I know it's easier said than done, for my own preservation, I must choose which words have power over me, and which should be discarded like a piece of merde.

The next time (and there will be a next time) I am subjected to verbal flagellation for daring to be born a Yank, I have only to breathe in deeply, and reread this entry.

PS: Monsieur Xavier is only one of the countless wonderful French people who have touched my life in a positive way. Whether a chance five-minute encounter or a long term friendship, I've met enough lovely French people to give me a generally good impression of this country. I wouldn't be living here if that wasn't the case.

PPS: Special thanks to Master T and his fabulous blog Floating in France, for giving me the inspiration and courage to rant, and for letting me know I'm not alone! Check out his blog: http://frenchiflyable.blogspot.fr/

01 June 2012

Did I mention I'm a songwriter?

When I'm not teaching English or designing, I am also a songwriter for French soul singer Loretta (formerly known as Laure Milan.) This is the first single, "Miss You" from her upcoming album. Please share with as many people as possible!

Quand je ne suis pas en train d'enseigner l'anglais ou faire de graphisme, je suis aussi parolière pour la chanteuse de soul Loretta (anciennement connue sous le nom de Laure Milan.) Voici le premier single "Miss You" de son prochain album. Faites touner ! 

12 May 2012

France has spoken. Change is now!

Symbolic red roses
It's been a nail-biting two weeks here in France, but at last, my friends, colleagues and I can breathe a collective sigh of relief. François Hollande has defeated Nicolas Sarkozy 51.62% to 48.38% in the runoff election and will become the first Socialist president since François Mitterrand in 1995. 
Among friends May 6th, we sat on the edge of our seats, anxiously counting down the minutes until 8pm, and when the photograph of Hollande filled the screen of our television, we lept to our feet screaming in joy, and wasted no time popping the cork on several bottles of champagne. Sam lifted me up in his arms and whirled me around in a circle before placing me on the ground and whispering “This is good news for you... for us.” I could have cried tears of joy. He was right, I can feel it is the dawn of a new France.
A triumph for multiculturalism in France
After a round of celebratory drinks and bises, we took to the streets, a homemade banner and several bottles in hand. A very elated, multicultural crowd had gravitated to the main square, Place du Capitole, in front of the city hall to celebrate. Sam and I took off running, jumped up on a ledge of the majestic brick building, and unfurled our banner to be met by cheers and camera flashes. We later befriended two lovely Muslim ladies, who although born in France, confessed to being treated like second-class citizens. They complimented our banner, and we shared our mutual hopes that this president would embrace cultural diversity and women's rights.
The air was filled with blaring car horns, cheers, singing, and noise makers. It was the sound of hope restored.
Sam and I with our banner... We had a little help from Obama...
 Visually, Place du Capitole was a sea of blue, white and red flags, pro-Hollande posters, and of course, hand-held smart phones to document the historic event. For me, the most stunning visual element of the evening was the fresh red roses being waved in the air and carried through the streets. Not only is red the color of the Socialist party, but Toulouse is famously referred to as la Ville Rose. I found this beautifully symbolic. Although the red roses were used to celebrate the victory all over France, Toulouse is the only city able to claim this special double meaning. I felt so very privileged to be celebrating this event in Toulouse, la Ville Rose... And could not prevent myself from belting out Edith Piaf’s “la Vie en Rose” as we walked through town, a newfound spring in our step.
It seems as if everyone I knew was celebrating at Place du Capitole; my law students, my colleagues and several friends.
Of course, Sarkozy’s supporters tried to stir things up, driving by hurling insults at the crowd, waving French flags (and middle fingers), but for the most part, things remained calm.
As Hollande addressed the country after his victory, he acknowledged the 17 year gap since the last left-wing president. 
 "Many people have been waiting for this moment for many long years. Others, younger, have never known such a time. ... I am proud to be capable to bring about hope again. I know what many people feel -- years and years of wounds, of ruptures, and we have to repair, recover, unite. That is what we're going to do together.”
The day after the election, world markets plunged, and eurozone debt fears have been reawakened around the globe. The media is speculating that the election of Hollande is a catastrophe for the debt crisis. I remain optimistic about Hollande’s plans to focus on growing the economy rather than Sarkozy’s austerity policy. I think much remains to be seen and that we should give the president-elect his chance.

I am absolutely overflowing with pride for my adopted country. This is fantastic news for me, as an immigrant in France. Possibly next year, I will have the right to vote in municipal elections. And who knows, in five years time, perhaps I will be voting in the next presidential election, as a French citizen! My life in France has taught me that all is possible, and now that there is a president who will look out for my interests, I am all the more optimistic that the dream will continue.
Vive la France. Le changement, c’est maintenant!

03 May 2012

French Election Anxiety: Flipping off Sarkozy

It’s hard to believe that in three days, France will have elected its next President.

Nearly two weeks ago, I watched anxiously as the candidates were narrowed down from 10 to 2 in the first round of elections. Sitting on the couch among French friends, chills of anticipation rushing down my spine, I realized that I was as excited about the results as they were. I have been carefully following this election, listening to each candidate, and have come to realize that I am probably more excited about the French elections that the American ones… I suppose it’s normal, considering where I call home now. As the two finalists were announced, we all groaned in despair. We hoped to see right-leaning incumbent president Sarkozy eliminated in the first round, but alas, he took a close second to Socialist candidate François Hollande. We exchanged nervous glances. This is going to be a close one. How ever were we going to survive two agonizing weeks before the second election?

A few days ago, relaxing on the couch watching the news with Sam, my French boyfriend, we learned that President Sarkozy himself would be holding a rally in Toulouse that afternoon. Sam glanced at me and said, “We’re going.”

Already aware of his less than favorable views on Sarko, I looked at him as if he was joking.

He wasn’t.

The next thing I knew, we were crammed among thousands of Sarkozy supporters brandishing French flags and posters with the slogan “La France Forte” (A strong France.) On my tiptoes, I managed to steal a few glimpses of the president… Briefly his arm, a bit of his face, and then a full view of his stunning singer wife, Carla Bruni.

Several of my law students were present, some wearing Sarkozy stickers and distributing literature. They smiled excitedly when they saw me… I averted my eyes. I did not want to be associated with this man.

The atmosphere was tense. I have never been to an American Tea Party rally, but this is probably the closest thing to it. Sarkozy, in top form as a dramatic orator, cultivated an ambiance of fear and mistrust, proclaiming that France would become the next Greece should his opponent Hollande be elected. He then moved on to the subject of strengthening French borders and removing France’s participation in the Schengen Agreement.

From there, playing on the emotions of an eager crowd, he went on to discuss his plan to reduce the number of immigrants in France by half in his next term, to prevent immigrants from entering French territory without speaking fluent French first, and to protect the rich history of France. He went on to extol the virtues of French cuisine, history, language, arts, culture and of course, the Christian faith (odd to mention religion in a supposedly secular country.) He went on to explain how immigrants were threatening these core values, and that they were failing to integrate properly into the French way of life.

The crowd, pushing and shoving, a literal sweat box, jeered at the mention of immigrants in France. A man next to me proclaimed loudly “ François Hollande, president des immigrés!” (the immigrants’ president.) Every now and then someone fainted from the suffocating heat, and had to be carried out. Every time that happened, the spectators inched forward to take that person’s place. The tirade against immigration continued. He did not even try to mask his disdain for North African Muslims. I was simply appalled by practically everything that came out of his mouth, and even more by the exultant reaction of his supporters, who hung on his every bigoted word.

I dared not speak out loud, for fear that my foreign accent would provoke a mob-like reaction. I glanced at Sam, whose mouth was tightly clenched, eyes blazing with rage. It was all he could do to keep himself under control.

Tears brimmed in my eyes despite myself. The crowd was chanting anti-immigrant slurs, and Sarkozy seemed to be feeding off their energy, his voice soaring above the cheers. I looked around at the people in the crowd, trying to understand why they hated me so much, just because I was foreign. It was impossible not to take it personally.

The crowd occasionally erupted into orgasmic applause, frantically waving their flags. I stared at the tricolor flag I have come to know and love as much as my own stars and stripes, and suddenly, I didn’t recognize it.

“I know it’s difficult for you to be here, but you need to see that there is not just one France. There are two.” Sam whispered in my ear.

Indeed, this is nothing new. I have always believed in two radically different Americas, both considering themselves patriotic. I suppose it should be no different in France.

As the speech came to a conclusion, the crowd began to wave their flags and sing an impassioned version of  “La Marseillaise.”

One of my most cherished dreams is to sing the French national anthem after receiving my own flag at a French citizenship ceremony.  Becoming French… Just the thought brings me shivers of joy. That’s why it killed me so much to see the flag and national hymn hijacked in a way, and used as instruments of discrimination and hate. This is the atmosphere I would have imagined in France in the 1930s, not in 2012!

We trudged out of the arena, a bit deflated by the whole ordeal, when we were stopped by security forces. We were behind a barricade, and were told we would have to wait until Monsieur le President had left the venue before we could walk home.

After nearly an hour under the intense Toulouse sun, biting our tongues amid the pro-Sarko chatter, a heavily escorted black vehicle passed by. In the back seat were the president and his celebrity wife, waving to the people behind the barricade, probably three meters away from us, close enough to make eye contact. I noticed a brief interruption in his plastered-on politician’s smile, and noticed a hint of confusion on his face.

I turned to Sam just in time to see his defiant middle finger displayed in all its glory before the horrified face of the President of France. A few second later, the car had continued on, but there is no way the gesture went unnoticed.

After the barricades were removed, we chuckled the whole way home over Sam’s candid message to the president, but inside, our stomachs were churning with uncertainty. The idea of five more years of Sarkozy frightens me very much, as an immigrant, as a resident of France.

Last night’s televised debate between Sarkozy and Hollande was riveting. All I can do is wait and hope that the people with the right to vote will choose Hollande, which would make my life a lot easier.

Hollande will be speaking in Toulouse this evening. His posters and stage are already set up. “Le changement. C’est maintenant,” a party slogan reminiscent of Obama’s Change mantra during the 2008 campaign has me filled with hope. However, after seeing how Sarkozy excels at public speaking and mobilizing large numbers of supporters, I am unable to predict a winner.

It will be a close election, and, not having the right to vote in France, I feel powerless… I hope one day to have this privilege.

The longer I live here, the more French I become, the more I crave involvement in the country I have chosen out of pure love.

I hope Hollande is right.

Change is now.

 We managed to inch our way into this doorway, but never made it inside.

 The crowd listening outside the arena.

 Sarkozy's right-leaning slogan "la France Forte" 

 I managed to get this shot of Carla Bruni, but but unfortunately my shot of Sarko was blurry.

 The President's car leaving the venue.

 Sarko's right hand waves as his car pulls away...

11 April 2012

The Lost Year Recaptured

I realized recently that my life (and its recent unexpected series of events) is largely impacted by the existence of my blog, and for that reason, I should be taking better care of it.

As I ease myself back into blogging after a year-long absence, I realized one of the big reasons I was so discouraged from writing was that I dreaded having to write all the "catch-up" entries... A daunting task to be sure, especially after the events that have colored my ever-evolving life in Toulouse. My solution to this problem is to chronicle my "lost year," but in one single entry, in bullet form, no frills, no fuss (that's really hard for me to do!) Here we go!

My 2011 and early 2012 (abridged version)

  • I'm now officially a songwriter after meeting an up-and-coming French soul singer Laure Milan. Not only have I penned the lyrics for 5 songs on her upcoming album (sung in English), I've also done a fair bit of design (illustrations for one of her music videos, photography of rehearsals and concerts in Paris, graphic design for posters, web and CD covers) This gig literally fell from the sky, and not only have I been working on some great creative projects, I have found a tremendous friendship in Laure and her entourage.

  • I worked. A lot. As much as I would have loved to chronicle my "American girl teaching French people" moments (gems which never fail to scandalize and delight,) I was simply too busy living my teaching experiences to write about them! Living in downtown Toulouse isn't cheap, even when you're teaching 17 classes a week. For two semesters, my life was literally "Wake up, make photocopies, teach all day, come home, prepare tomorrow's lessons while eating what's left in the refrigerator, falling asleep in the process, repeat." On top of my teaching responsibilities, I was also bombarded by freelance design projects, many of which were for the university where I teach.

  • I reawakened my creative spirit, not just in my design work for others, but for myself. I painted several watercolors, and launched my new art portfolio website: www.jamiealexander.net

  • I was supported by the tremendous presence of my marvelous friends in France. They made the good moments unforgettable and the bad moments bearable.

  • I traveled a bit to preserve my sanity.... (Morocco, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, and pretty much all over France (lavender fields in Provence, the Basque country, the Loire Valley châteaux, the Alps, Le Périgord, etc.)

  • I discovered my inner strength. Losing a close family member, separating from my fiancé, and being unable to visit the United States for a year and a half did wonders on my morale and self-esteem. I was forced to pick myself up from the depths of despair and start again. As time passes, I am more and more convinced I am where I need to be, doing what I need to be doing, and should make no apologies for daring to live my dream.

  • I spent a life-changing New Years 2012 in Paris. If ever your life is turned upside-down, I suggest a week in the City of Lights. Monuments, museums, strolls in parks, red wine, champagne under the Eiffel Tower at Midnight....being carried home from the Eiffel Tower after too much champagne... It was a desperately needed escape from Toulouse, and reality for that matter. While there, I was reminded why I was living in France, and that I was exactly where I needed to be. Of course the company didn't hurt... see below...

  • After 2011 had finished collapsing on me, I very unexpectedly fell in love with a Frenchman, despite the fortress I had erected around myself. He is a major reason for my positive start to 2012. I am starting to believe that I deserve to be loved again. Most importantly, I can laugh with him, which is something I hadn't done much of in 2011. For the first time in a long time, I feel like I can construct a future with someone.

    I see change within myself. I'm for the most part more serene, back in control of my life, which for several months seemed out of my hands. My parents told me a few days ago that this is the happiest they've seen me in YEARS. As I reflect, I realize they're right.

    In the US, I never experienced anything like what I've been able to live on a daily basis here in France. I feel like I have started to come into my own here. As my mother would say "blossoming." France has taught me that nothing is impossible. How else could an American graphic designer become a law teacher, songwriter, illustrator and world traveler?

    It does not mean I'm not scarred or terribly saddened by the difficulties I've experienced. But it shows that I have hope, that things are gradually turning around for me, and that with each passing day I have every reason to smile.

05 January 2012

My dreams came with a price in 2011

I haven't blogged in quite a while... That is mainly because the year 2011 hit me with a brick... more like an avalanche.

I buried my grandmother in early January 2011. I had the great fortune to be home in America for the holidays to be at her side before she passed. Nevertheless, the pain of losing her definitely set the tone for my entire 2011.

2011 would also see my eight-year relationship with my fiancé crumble. The agony of losing a relationship that I never thought would end left me feeling like the ground had collapsed beneath me. Without going into detail, the demise of our relationship was due to the fact that I saw my life in France, and he did not. While we both knew we were clinging to life support the last year or two, I lacked the strength to let go. He would be the one to walk away.

I admire his strength, because he awakened a greater strength inside of me, a strength I never knew I possessed.

I regret sincerely the pain we caused one another. He was and always will be a person who counted for me. The memories we lived together cannot be erased.

For awhile, I felt as if I was living a nightmare. So desperately I wanted to reclaim my "real life," the life I was "supposed" to have lived. There was a wedding dress hanging in my closet that would never be worn. There were dreams years in the making that had never been realized. There were children who would never exist now. For the first time in years, at 28 years old, my future is the blurry unknown. I felt like I had taken a train, and had gotten off at the wrong stop. This was never in the plan. I felt like a bird hovering near a broken branch. I didn't know where to land.

The reality of my decision to move to France has never been so cruel. Pursuing this dream has required countless sacrifices, but never like this. Was it worth it? I asked myself.

For months, my health suffered, my emotional state was plummeting, and my creative energy was crushed.

Walking down the street holding back tears was terrible. The people around me were oblivious to my torment. Even worse was standing before a classroom of students and pretending that everything was ok, even as they saw my reddened eyes and lack of passion as I spoke.

For the first time in my life, I spent the Christmas holidays in France, away from my family. Finances did not permit a trip to the States this year. If ever there was a moment when I NEEDED to be home in the States, this was it. But obviously life had other ideas for me, and this was simply not to be. I suppose crappy Christmases help you to truly appreciate the good ones.

I have never been so thankful to see a year end in my life. But, perhaps, all of this negativity signifies positive changes for 2012, changes that I do not realize yet. In the past few months, I have begun to see the beauty of the gift I have been given. I have a second chance at a dream.

Rather than seeing this as the death of what SHOULD have been, I am beginning to delight in the fact that I now have the chance to live the life I would have regretted NOT living had I pursued the original plan. The magical alternative. The unknown.

As of late I have had several friends telling me how much they admire my "avant garde" decision to take off for a new country and realize my dream, pursue my art, and live for passion, travel, and new experiences.

I have always been this way, since I can remember.

Staying true to myself has never been so painful, but I have a feeling that it has also never been this WORTH IT.

How can an artist continue to grow without heartbreak?
How can you appreciate true love until you've lost it?
How can you know how much your dream means to you until its been tested?
How can you know yourself if you sacrifice your dreams?

My optimism for 2012 continues to grow. And while that doesn't stop the pain, I know one day I will be grateful for the way things turned out.

It's a bittersweet feeling, but for the first time in many many months, I feel alive.

The Road Not Taken
Robert Frost 1874 - 1963

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth; 5

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same, 10

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back. 15

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
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