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The International Writers Magazine: Life Abroad

My Fabulous Expatriate Life
Amanda Callendrier
Photo : Sabine Zahner
Oooooh, you're an expatriate. That must be so exciting!


This is what people coo at me after they find out I live in France. I protest that it's not terribly exciting, really, but to no avail. They sigh, imagining quaint cafes, berets, men on bicycles wearing striped shirts. “That is so glamorous,” they gush. “I love your sweater! Did you buy that in Paris?”

“Uhhh, no,” I mumble. “I think it came from J .Crew. A couple of years ago.”

The truth is that I want it to be fabulous, my life as an expatriate. I wish it were fabulous. Like many English majors, I got sucked in by all of that expat writing. Paris seemed synonymous with creativity and sophistication, and I hoped it could transfer these qualities to me, as if by osmosis. Despite my terrible French, I was able to foster this interest by studying abroad during college. Perhaps I may have indulged some fantasies about spending all my time writing in cafes on the Left Bank. Perhaps I may have spent a lot of time in cafes and bars, not so much on the writing.

It sounded so exciting, the life of an expatriate writer. Even though everybody knows that Hemingway committed suicide and Fitzgerald ruined his health, the lifestyle nevertheless manages to sound appealing, as if you could just take the fun and erase the hangovers. It's like wanting to go to a Gatsby party, wear one of those silk shirts and forget about all the rest- the longing, the despair. It doesn't work that way.

So faced with the dichotomy of the fast life versus good health, my own life couldn't be duller. I don't write in cafés. I write on my office computer, shutting the door against the clamor of my children, the din of a soccer game on TV in the background. I wear mostly jeans and sweaters when doing this, and flip flops, sometimes with socks. I don't combine writing and cocktail hour, although I've been thinking lately that maybe it wouldn't hurt.

I have some great English-speaking friends, but I wouldn't call it a circle, or a club. My children do not go to fancy international schools. I hang out outside the public elementary school, looking like any other mom, until I open my mouth, that is. The others accept me as one of them, which is no small feat in my region. I have been elevated from the ranks of the tourist, but bestowed with the tint of exoticism. The stereotype works the other way, too. When I tell the French villagers that I relocated from Buffalo, their eyes get all shiny, “New York! Oh la la!” I try to explain that New York City was an eight hour drive, but it's useless. “Oh, you must hate it here, with all the cows!” The truth is there are plenty of cows in Western New York.

They do exist, the fabulous people. I live on the border of Geneva, Switzerland, and the fabulous ones live within its city limits. Like Fitzgerald said, “they are different from you and me.” Yes, usually, they do have more money, but it's more than that. It seems to be the land of the real expatriates. Everyone is foreign. Everyone speaks English. Many of them live in the area only temporarily, before being whisked away to London, Dubai, New York. They are in short, not me.

There are two distinct groups of us, those who work, live, and participate in the complicated city just next door, and the dullards like myself who spend most of their time in the countryside. The distance is minimal, but to a non-Geneva person like me, it's a destination nevertheless. Perhaps it is only a twenty minute drive, but it involves PASSPORT CONTROL, and is therefore Other. I may be a seasoned international traveler, but on an average Wednesday, I'm content to plod through my local grocery store. Wouldn't I love to have coffee, or a drink, on the Quai Mont Blanc, overlooking the lake? I like to think so, but in reality, it's just too much work to get there. My own balcony is so comfortable.

It's there, this other land, so close I can touch it. So close I could visit it every day if I wanted. The idea of this is fabulous. And I have to admit that the possibility of fabulous is something. A day at the lake can be more than just an outing on a boat, but a real postcard-perfect scene. Maybe it isn't every day, but it's more often than once in a lifetime, which is what many folks, the lucky ones even, content themselves with.

A friend recently reminded me of a great scene in Good Will Hunting, where Robin Williams' character tells Matt Damon's that he's never really experienced life. He says that Damon may be able to recite facts and dates, but that he doesn't know what it smells like inside the Sistine Chapel. I thought then, how fortunate I am to know. OK, so it smells musty, with some BO from the tourists mixed in, but I know. Rome is a short flight, an easy destination for a weekend, rather than a trip many only dream about.

I may not be fabulous, not like Zelda Fitzgerald or Grace Kelly, but maybe it's not fair to pooh-pooh my proximity to all of this, to the nearness of adventure, even if it isn't a daily reality. I know what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. I know what the Eiffel Tower looks like at night. I know what the water tastes like in Evian. Maybe that's fabulous enough.
© Amanda Callendrier
acallendrier at

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