Elsa Court is a French woman who has lived in the UK for more than a decade. In this monthly column she discusses contemporary issues raised by living in a foreign country today, such as origin, identity and belonging.
I like France: I sometimes miss it. I find Parisians rude and French people in general complain a lot, but otherwise I rate France pretty highly thanks to its culturally vibrant cities and lush countryside. One of my favourite things about France, however, is that it is the only country where people do not ask me where I am from and then judge me accordingly.
Some expats see the absence of this question as a good reason to go home. Austrian editor Theodora Danek, who has made a career of promoting international literature in English translation, left the UK in March when the UK was originally scheduled to leave the EU. She returned to her home city of Vienna with her British partner in tow. Since then, she has been sharing the joys of no longer being an expat: hanging out with family and hearing her partner, on his way to becoming bilingual, translating English catchphrases into German. “Maybe the thing I enjoy most about being back in Austria is that people’s understanding of my personality here is not refracted through the lens of my nationality,” she tweeted in April.
When I became an expat, I could not touch a frying pan without being told that I was a great cook, thanks to France’s reputation for fine cuisine. It took my friends years of knowing me to admit to themselves that their assumption was not reflective of my actual cooking abilities.
Some stereotypes are positive and I cannot complain about France’s reputation for style and taste, but I have often found that the line between innocent and more problematic generalisations can be very thin. Danek tells me that, sitting in a pub in Durham in northern England with friends a few years ago, she was perplexed when another customer told her that “Austrians were OK” because “they had helped us during the war”. She was left to make suppositions about who “us” was in this context and the war he was talking about.
I cannot blame anyone for letting nationality colour their perception of a person, especially for one they have just met. I did this before moving abroad. British culture made a strong impression on me when I was growing up in France. Tony Blair is the first UK prime minister I remember: he was relatively young for a politician and had an air of modernity which Jacques Chirac, a Charles de Gaulle admirer who was elected president of France in 1995, did not. There was a sense of confidence to the UK in those years. At 11, I was in love with the Spice Girls but by 13 I had shifted my attention to the Britpop bands of Oasis and Blur. In France, the union jack was seen as a subversive symbol on clothing. I knew British culture was cool before I knew what cool was.
All of this left me with the impression that British people were infectiously confident but also cosmopolitan. Of course, this was more reflective of the mood and politics of the country at that time — the “Cool Britannia” era — than the entire population at any given time.
As Simon Kuper recently pointed out, it is possible to look at the larger picture of “national brand perception” through an annual index generated by Ipsos since 2005, which asks people in different countries for their perceptions of 50 countries. This shows that the UK has been among the top three since 2014. Not bad for a country whose desire to leave the EU has been perceived negatively in European and international media.
The Ipsos ranking suggests that even as political tides are shifting, a country’s image on the international scale is very slow to change. Getting to know people for their distinctive personalities and actions, rather than where they come from, also requires patience.
You can read more articles from our Expat identities series here
Photographs: Jack Sullivan/Alamy; JMEnternational/Getty Images; Segio Gaudenti/Getty Images