A response to Beth Mann’s post, “My Secret Republican Side”.
It’s hard to see completely clearly within yourself, but I know that most of the major decisions I’ve made in my life point to love being what motivates me. Which made it sort of funny when, about half a decade ago, after years of trying to be able to live in Paris (during which I’d been everything from a student, to a teacher, to a writer working on a project about the city), and with my options now running out, I had a French immigration agent give me this advice: “What you really need to do,” this middle-aged woman with a sensible haircut said in an equally sensible tone, “is find a French citizen and get married to him.”
Love isn’t a reasonable or predictable thing. I’d first come to Paris at the age of 13, with a student organization. Though I’d read a lot about this legendary city and was eager to see it, and though I’d been enjoying my French classes at school, I had no particular expectations of how I’d feel when I got to the City of Light. But I ended up falling in love. It was as strong and all-consuming as a first love always is. Paris’ architecture, its winding river, its past that you can almost feel in the air, spoke to me. I felt at once connected to my literary and historical heroes, and totally and completely myself. I felt at once calm and energized walking along the streets. For the first – and, so far, the last – time in my life, I felt completely, totally at home. I knew this was where I had to live.
Love often involves shocks and things you have to come to terms with. I soon learned that, no matter how passionate I was about Paris, no matter how much I was willing to give – and give up – staying there would be almost impossible.
Let me count the ways a foreigner can live long-term in France: 1. Work for a multinational company that is willing to let you transfer to its French branch, or get hired by a French company for whom tax penalties and other expenses incurred by hiring a non-European don’t matter. 2. Get refugee status. 3. Have a child in France, who would thus be considered a French citizen. As its parent, you would be allowed to remain in the country. 4. Be able to contribute something so extraordinary to French culture through science or the arts, that an exception would be made for you. 5. Marry or get PACS’ed (The PACS is basically a civil union, and is open to both heterosexual and same-sex couples) with a French or European citizen.
Though it seems like there are a lot of options, none of them are simple, and I wasn’t even applicable for many of them. My love of Paris kept me going, though. Eventually, I found myself plotting a sham marriage with a Frenchman who wanted to get US citizenship (which is even harder to obtain than French citizenship). Our plan ended quickly and disastrously for many reasons, including this one: Although movies would tell us otherwise, it’s probably not a good idea to fall in love with the person you’re supposed to fake-marry. In the meantime, I’d made the acquaintance of someone who’d created a new website about Paris. After a few months of correspondence (I’d returned to the States by then, and was working to save money so that I could go back to my beloved city and try again to find a way to stay there permanently), he told me the site seemed to be doing well, and he needed someone to translate everything into English – he could give me a work contract in a month or two.
And so I headed back to Paris, and spent the next two months helping him create a database of short articles about the city. My days were full of love and hope. It was at this time that I ended up meeting an eccentric, history- and movie- loving French guy with a cat, who became my boyfriend. One day, my soon-to-be-boss asked me to meet him at a restaurant. When he arrived, he looked harried. He told me he couldn’t do this anymore. I realized with horror that he was having a sort of nervous breakdown.
Once again my dream of living in Paris had slipped from my grasp, like something slapped out of my hand. I staggered out of the restaurant, too shocked to cry. I sent a text message to my boyfriend, to tell him what had happened, and that, since I now had no way of legally working here so I could pay rent, I’d be going back to the States soon.
And then, my dream came true. The boyfriend left work and came home immediately. After letting me cry out my disappointment, he reminded me that he’d been saying I should come live with him. The offer still stood. I’d found a way to get a long-stay visa, so it was possible. After several months of living together, we knew we loved and trusted each other enough to make a bigger commitment. And so, we went to the Mayor’s office and got PACS’ed.
Although nothing is ever for certain (until I apply for, and hopefully get, French citizenship, if the boyfriend wanted to leave me tomorrow, I’d be back where I was), my story has a happy ending. But here’s what I know for sure: If it hadn’t, I would still have done what it took to live in Paris. I was prepared – and am prepared, if it ever becomes necessary – to live under a bridge and eat fish from the Seine like Alfred Jarry did once upon a time, to stay here. I’m prepared to work without working papers, to seem to live an ordinary life, while secretly bearing a long-expired visa. This is where I belong, and I’m prepared to fight for that.
I feel no sense of guilt about this: Immigration laws are, in most cases, relatively recent human constructs. Up until a century or so ago, people could settle pretty much in whatever land they pleased. And while I understand a need for order and regulations, what I’ve never understood is, if a person isn't a criminal or afflicted with a contagious illness, and is willing to work and contribute something to a place, and not abuse the system, why they shouldn’t be allowed to live there? In my opinion, it should work like this: You're allowed to live in a country, but if you break any laws, you’re out.
As I wrote at the beginning, this post is a response to Beth Mann’s piece about illegal immigrants. In her reply to the comment I left there, Beth wrote: If I was unhappy where I lived, I would not move to another country hoping I would just assimilate somehow, some way. I thought for some time that I might move to Canada. The first thing I did was research the various paths to citizenship. When I realized the difficulty, I moved within my country. There is NO WAY I'd move my entire family under the assumption that a country should just take me in. Well, I'd have to say, unless I was under dire circumstances.
Reading her words, all I could think was, “How lucky you are.” How lucky anyone is, to be born in a country they love or at least find comfortable enough to live in.
And how lucky I am, really, to want to live in France because of passion, as well as a strong belief in most French laws - and not because I was trying to flee starvation or political oppression, or any of the numerous other evils that courageous people try to escape every day, doing whatever they can just to be able to live decently.
How lucky I am to have had the resources - financial help from my family, a college education - to help me all those years in my persistent quest to live where I wanted to live. How lucky I am to be able to stay here - and to know I have the strength to do anything I have to, for that to remain so.
What about you – if you couldn’t live where you wanted by any legal means, could you be an illegal immigrant?