Guest Post by Barbara Diggs
Lucky is the expat that has no lingering guilt associated with his or her decision to live abroad. But, I think, rare is that expat also.
Maybe you feel a bit guilty about how living abroad will affect your children, or you worry about the feelings of loved ones left behind. You might even have conflicted feelings about preferring another country over your own.
For me, as excited as I was to move to Paris nine years ago, I felt terribly guilty about leaving my mother behind.
At the time of my decision to move, my father had died only sixteen months earlier and my mother was still adjusting to her new life. Even though my brother and sister lived in the same city as she – and I didn’t – I fretted that I was bailing out at a time that she needed me.
Moreover, I knew that even without the complicating factor of my father’s death, she wouldn’t really understand or appreciate my desire to live in another country. This was a woman who lived (and still lives) five minutes away from where she was born, grew up, married, divorced and married again. Although she’d visited many U.S. states, she had never left the country and nor expressed any desire to, save a vague wish to visit the Caribbean.
I knew she would see my wish to live in Paris as evidence of my so-called “wildness” (she thought me “wild” because I did things like go skiing, parasailing, and make trips down the coast of California alone), and because she’d consider the move to be “wild” and strange, it would worry her.
There was no particular point at which I broke the news to her. I had decided to move to Paris after visiting a friend there on the back end of one of my “wild” ski trips in the French Alps. I was leaning out the windows of my friend’s apartment on rue du Bac, watching ordinary scenes of Parisian life below, when I became gripped with the notion that I had to live in Paris. I didn’t want to be another fly-by-night tourist exclaiming, “I feel like I’m in a movie!” when wandering down Parisian streets. I wanted to have a real relationship with the city.
Still looking out the window, I called my boyfriend (now husband) in New York and said,“Let’s move to Paris,” and he said, “Let’s do it.”
When I returned to the U.S., I was bursting with the news, like a girl in love. My mother heard the news of our decision along with the rest of my family and friends, but other than getting a queer deer-in-the-headlights look on her face when I talked about it, she didn’t say much. She probably didn’t take me seriously since there were few people less equipped to move to Paris than me: I couldn’t speak a word of French, nor was I qualified to practice law in France, and I was too saddled with student loans wait tables or teach English.
It was only when I got a lead on a law job in Paris it dawned on her that I was determined to make the move happen. When I told her about the potential job, a pained expression crossed her face and she wailed: “Can’t you wait until I’m dead?” I shot back: “I have to wait that long? You’re only sixty-five!” But even as I hugged her and told her not to be silly and to think of all the great trips she would take, guilt grabbed my heart and twisted it with both hands.
Fifteen months after I made that fateful call to my boyfriend, he and I moved to Paris. (How we both managed to get jobs is another story.)
A full year later, my mother made her first trip across the Atlantic Ocean. I cannot describe the pleasure it gave me to see my homebody mother sitting in Parisian café (fanning her hands against the smoke, it’s true), savoring a chausson aux pommes, or gasping with delight upon seeing the Eiffel Tower or Sacre Coeur.
As she visited more and more over the years, I marveled that this woman who had only been on an airplane two or three times before I moved, had grown so comfortable with international travel that once when her plane was diverted to Lyon because of fog in Paris, she hardly turned a hair (while I was freaking out with worry). When she safely arrived in Paris she mused that next time she would like to actually see Lyon.
My husband and I have been living in Paris for over nine years now, and my mother comes over two or three times a year. She walks down Parisian streets and handles basic transactions with an ease that makes me swell with pride.
While I still have rushes of guilt about living abroad, a year or two ago, she said something that assured me that I made the right decision. She was at lunch with a friend and other people she didn’t know very well, when the conversation turned to Paris and London. “It made me feel so good that I’d actually visited these places and was able to join the conversation,” she told me later. “I probably knew Paris better than anyone there!”
I realized then that my expat journey has been a journey for her as well — an enlightening, confidence-building journey in which she has discovered the fun of being “wild,” and the pleasure of having an intimate relationship with a city that most people only dream of.
Isn’t it lucky, then, that I didn’t “wait until she was dead” to move to Paris? Sure, she misses me … but if I hadn’t moved, there are other things she would have missed as well.
Barbara Diggs is a lawyer-turned-freelance writer living in Paris. She blogs about her expat life at International Mama.
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