[U.S + France]
Maxanna discusses her fearless move to France at the age of 17, the importance of traveling, and the positive effects of slow living.
Can you tell me about your life up until you moved to France?
I was born in Washington state. I started going on trips to France when I was in high school, and I loved it so much that I decided to move there when I was 21. I'd graduated from college in three years, and I was young. I saved up money and bought a roundtrip plane ticket. Y'all probably don't know what a traveler's check is, but it's when you go to an American Express and give them money. Then, they give you these vouchers, and because they have numbers on them and can be tracked, American Express can know when they get lost or stolen so that they can be replaced. It was better than cash. In the old days, you didn't use credit cards the same way.
Literally, the first year that I moved to France, if I wanted to call my parents, which would only be three to four times a year, you would have to find someone who would let you place a collect call on their phone. The operator would take your name and a callback number. She would then have to place the call because there was no satellite. It was literally sent through a trans-Atlantic cable -- like an actual cable across the ocean. You would have to just sit around all day and wait for the operator to call you back to let you know that your party was on the line. When you would talk, there was always an echo. I basically just disappeared for a year.
And they were just okay with that?
No! They were frantic, but I was just all about living an adventure. I was living with a family as a nanny. My boyfriend joined me at the end of the year, and I was hitchhiking all over France and England. I was being a neo-Hippy.
Were you always like that even when you lived in the States?
No. I didn't want to get in trouble. I never did anything illegal or crazy. I just wanted to see things. In college, I studied a lot of art history. I was intensely interested in artwork, so I was always going to museums. In Europe, every building you see is several hundred years old, if not a thousand or more. So you're looking at cathedrals and remembering the stories and sculptures that you learned about in class. It was really interesting seeing them in person and understanding how they fit in with history. It was an intellectual exercise for me.
I felt the need to travel and meet people.
Were you a nanny for many years?
No, I did that for two years, and then I moved back here for graduate school. I moved back and both for a while. When I moved back to France, I met my daughter's father who is French. So for the last eight years that I was living there, I was working as a college professor teaching business English.
You've had such a full life! Most people don't take, make, or even have those opportunities.
Yea. A lot of my friends graduated with marketable skills, but I had a liberal arts education. That's what my second graduate degree was about. I wanted to get a certificate to be able to teach in public schools where you could make a living. People actually don't want to hire you because they don't think that you can do anything. They don't understand that people with history degrees have critical thinking skills or writing skills.
I didn't have a career plan like my other friends. A lot of my friends were getting traditional jobs and already getting their retirement plans together at the age of 25. I was there thinking about how boring they were and how there was so much to be done in life. I didn't have a timeline, so I didn't start thinking about getting a career and retirement in order until I was around 40. I'm 61 now.
Do you encourage your daughter to do that?
Yes. In the last two years, she's started to explore. That's the thing about dual-national children. I uprooted her when she was 8 to come and live in this country. She didn't feel like she belonged and she wanted to have friends. She wanted to be and dress like everyone else. She wanted an identity. She spoke English, but it was her second language, and it was also mostly social English, not academic yet. She worked really hard to belong. Once she got into high school, she started appreciating her differences and feeling more comfortable with herself. Last year she skipped her senior year and was directly admitted into graduate school. For that program, there were some volunteering opportunities in Hungary, so she went there for a few weeks. She lived in a place where little English was spoken, and most communication was non-verbal. She was with child refugees who were from places like Syria where they grew up seeing their whole families killed from bombs.
She got the chance to travel by herself on little trains in a place. Since coming back, she now plans to finish graduate school, get however many years of experience she needs under her belt, and then move away. She wants to work in central Africa somewhere. She's really focused on adventures now.
That's not uncommon though for kids from two countries to just forget one and focus on where they want to belong.
Did you always feel like you knew yourself or did that happen as you traveled?
I would say that I probably had a really strong sense of what I wanted always. I'm not a fearful person neither physically or socially. I wasn't afraid to be in a situation where I wasn't in control.
I've always been very observant and willing to be in situations where I didn't know anyone. That's different from my daughter which is why I think it took her so long. She likes to know what's going to happen, what time, and what's going to be next. She's not comfortable with surprises, but I don't really care.
What was it like just up and moving to France? It sounds like you already felt at home there.
The first trip at 17 was the first big discovery. In those days, nothing was familiar in Europe. There weren't as many tourists, so you didn't hear much English. So I could spend six months in France and hear no English. There was one McDonalds in Paris. There was nothing recognizable. The clothes and hair were different. You could tell they were French. It was a culture shock.
Now things are more global, and you can go anywhere in the world and recognize things. As years have gone by, that's not really true anymore, but living there was really different from visiting. There's a lot of paperwork involved with living in another country legally. I applied for a student visa when I was studying there. As a nanny, I just followed the family's rules and then spent the rest of the time having fun. I'd meet up with other nanny's and go clubbing and just hang out on the weekends.
I had to go to different administrations and submit paperwork. Working there had its own set of rules. The culture was very different. Hypocritical isn't the right word, but here in America, everything is so sugar coated, nice, and positive. In France, it's not like people have catfights at work, but if somebody's done something that doesn't suit you whether it's the boss or a coworker, you just lay your cards out on the table and say it. That suited me very well, but coming back to this country, it didn't sit well with people at work.
How does speaking more than one language affect a person?
The thing about learning more than one language is that it opens you up to so many different cultures, but you have to be willing to open up. I've noticed that people tend to read and share things that confirm what they already think, but of course, you know that you have to have real infallible facts.
But that's hard when people don't believe facts. How does a society change without a solid belief in facts?
Exactly. You were my student when I hadn't been here long. A good teacher is always trying to get better by self-reflecting. The students may not remember French, but if they remember to be open-minded, tolerant, and interested in something that they don't know already, then I haven't wasted their time. I've finally perceived that is my mission. Instilling a kind of curiosity in my students is really important to me because we're going to blow the planet up if we don't learn to get along.
I totally agree. After the election, did you and your daughter consider moving out of the country?
Absolutely. That was one of the biggest reasons that I became a French citizen as opposed to just having legal resident status. You can't just go to a country and say that you want to live there. You have to have the right to live there. Because I was married to a French person and because my daughter was born in France, I had the right to ask to become a citizen or to receive permanent resident status. Knowing that by becoming a citizen that I would always be able to go back, I chose to do that. It's not any more complicated being a dual-citizen. You just have responsibilities like having to pay taxes in both countries.
I feel like if it gets bad enough here, while I love taking care of the horses, I don't mind getting on a plane and going back. I don't like people feeling that they have the permission to disrespect other human beings just because of the person who is in power says it's okay. I love everyone, and I don't care where they come from. I care about people treating me nicely. People deserve respect.
I remember when I was in your class, you would talk to us about life in France and how much slower paced it is.
Yea, I mean, I feel bad for the children here in America. Kids in France get two-hour lunch breaks, and they're not sitting at a table the whole time. They also receive vouchers for lunch, so that's free. Even for adults, vacation is government mandated. You're given downtime. People need that. I believe that unpaid vacation is inhumane.
Also, in France, the food is so much healthier because it doesn't have all of the chemicals in it. When you buy bread, it only has water, flour, yeast, and salt. That's it. It doesn't last for weeks like it does here. Fast food also hasn't permeated the culture, which is why I think people are much healthier there.
Since you've moved back, what do you do as an alternative?
I just buy organic fruits and vegetables, and I cook all of my food. I occasionally eat processed foods, but certainly not every day. It's all cultural. Little kids in France drink lots of water and milk. I told my daughter just to make it simple for her, "If you can't tell what it is when it was in the ground or while it was still making noises, you should not eat it." That simple.
In Europe, when a doctor is trained, in addition to traditional medicine, they are also trained in what is called "soft medicine." So if you go to a doctor in France and it's possible to treat it with homeopathy, they will. Of course, if you have a bacterial infection, they're going to give you an antibiotic just like they do here, but they are also going to write you a prescription for probiotics as well. I'd never even heard of an American doctor doing that here until this year, and this was happening in France 20-something years ago.
It's so different there which is why you need to travel.
I know! There are so many places I want to travel to! I think for a lot of people my age, student loans and other bills are a big hindrance. I think that it requires being very intentional in both thought and action.
I've told my daughter that she should join the Peace Corps so that she can travel. There's also the Fulbright Scholarship. It's honestly just about the living expenses. It all works out though.
I also think that Americans have trouble cutting back on things. If a person asks themselves the hard question, "Do I really need this in my life," the answer is almost always no unless it's food. You can always put your things in storage and just go. I'm past that time of my life where I'm interested in doing things like that, but I've done it. Those experiences are so amazing, but the time to do those things is now. You just have to go for it.