It’s one thing to travel, spending a few weeks abroad absorbing a foreign culture through the lens of a tourist. But it’s quite another to trade in your American life for a brand-new one in a French village that you’ve never visited before.
In moving earlier this year to Samois-sur-Seine, a picturesque place of 2,000 residents that’s a mere 40 minutes south of Paris, I left not only my Chicago condo behind, but also a good life with wonderful family and friends. Doing the “expat thing” isn’t totally new for me—I spent nearly one year living and working as a freelance writer and consultant in Florence, Italy, from 2004 to 2005. But the world’s changed immensely since then. Facebook wasn’t yet a global phenomenon. Nor were either Twitter or Skype, back in the days when I used to spend 300 euros a month just to make calls from my Italian mobile (I didn’t have a house phone) and for nowhere-near-high-speed Internet access. Life was so expensive I ended my European adventure a few months early, thanks largely to the unfriendly dollars-to-euros exchange rate. Still, for those of us with the “hot foot,” as my good friend’s father calls this inability to stay grounded for long, the question isn’t whether we’re going to pull up stakes and head overseas, but when—challenges be damned.
Determined to move back abroad, I’d first considered Buenos Aires, Argentina, the “Paris of South America” that wooed me after two great trips. Life was affordable there, but round-trip flights certainly weren’t. Then Panama City, Panama, got the nod, being in the same time zone as Chicago and reasonably priced. Plus, the country’s got lots of Black folks! But then, thanks to my very good friend Katherine and HER very good friend Hannah who lives near Samois-sur-Seine—I discovered this most magical place last fall. I’d already begun the process of renting out my downtown Chicago condo, was slowly consolidating my “stuff,” and was mentally readying myself for another round of expat life. But despite my love of big, crowded cities, when the opportunity arose to move to Samois, my spirit said “OUI!” without hesitation. Sometimes, life choices feel divinely inspired—and this was one of those.
So I’m here, taking a “sabbatical” of sorts in a scenic place where I’d hoped to finally free myself from the stress of super-long work hours and daily life here in the States. No doubt, life as a freelance consultant and writer isn’t without its time-consuming chores and details. But here in Samois-sur-Seine, French artists, writers, poets and musicians have found sanctuary and inspiration for generations. This serene and charming place is the sort of “home base” I need, despite my love of crowded big cities.
As I set off on this adventure, I join legions of Black American expatriates before me who moved to Europe in search of cultural exchange and self-discovery. And again, I’m joining a legacy of African-American women who longed to experience life here without constantly being viewed through other people’s lenses, which are often colored by prejudice and race. Dance legend Josephine Baker probably started it all with her move to France in 1925. Ageless diva Tina Turner reinvented her life, first with a move to Zurich, Switzerland, then to the south of France. The same has been true for countless other Black women who neither sing nor dance for a living but sought to shape their lives far away from their American homeland, far from the very real comforts of life in the United States.
Just as was true when I moved to Italy, it’s a fascinating time to be an American living in Europe, during this age of unprecedented global upheaval and uncertainty. And it’s especially fascinating to be a Black American in a country like France, where you’ll see Black folks from throughout the Diaspora and former French colonies like Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone most places you go. But as the London riots showed us last summer—and the protests that literally fired up the Paris banlieues (suburbs) in 2005—despite our similar skin tones, Africans’ and African-Americans’ experiences within the same countries often are light-years apart.
So just how are we Black Americans being perceived—and received—in countries around the globe? What do we as African-American women experience when we get out and about in this fascinating world of ours?
While I’m here, I’ll be writing about African-American women and our nearly 100-year history in France, beginning with the French embrace of entertainer Josephine Baker back in the 1920s. I’m hoping to share the diverse and fascinating stories of those who call France home today.
I’ll continuously challenge my notions of identity – what it means to be Black and American, unmarried and 40-something. About balancing my status as an “outsider” with a new, in-between one that straddles my former American life and my evolving French one. I hope you’ll join me for this adventure, one I feel incredibly blessed to embark upon right here, right now.
A Chicago native, freelance Travel and Food writer Maureen Jenkins will share her perspectives on African-American expatriate life in Europe on EBONY.com. She also blogs at UrbanTravelGirl.com, which features her thoughts “on Black women living globally through international travel.”