American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
SOME 'EXPATS' ARE NOT-SO-INNOCENTS ABROAD
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- Expatriates are either banished from their own countries or leave of their own accord. It's a rather negative-sounding definer harking back to Ernest Hemingway's novels set in the '20s -- chronicles of a bunch of expatriates hanging around in France and Spain. That disillusioned, cynical group of artists and writers exemplified "The Lost Generation," so-called by Hemingway after writer Gertrude Stein tossed off that line in a conversation.
In Paris last month, I sat at the table where they once sat sipping their pastiche and defining existentialism. Moving their intellectual conversations, albeit with slurred tongues, to a circular table upstairs in the corner of café de Flore, they escaped the increasing number of fans who found his pulpit, wannabe expatriates in Paris seeking "Papa" Hemingway and the lost souls around him.
Thirty years later, The Beat Generation, beginning with a few friends - again artists and writers - defined an entire period and a literary movement of that time. Unlike Hemingway, they personified a generation of poets and writers long before they were published.
The general impression was they were just beaten-down young people who didn't hold regular jobs and were rootless. The one most often considered the leader of the group, Jack Kerouac, said he took the word from "beatific" and wrote of the "secret holiness of the downtrodden." That theme runs through his "On the Road." (Think of the lonely truck drivers and the spiritual bums he met along the way).
The Beats had their wannabes and Greenwich Village overflowed with them - these were the beatniks - not artistic as the Beats, more like nudniks. The expatriates in the '50s were from over there to over here, not Americans abroad as in the '20s. Today, we have the expats.
No longer rootless, the expatriates in Paris today are usually working in an overseas bureau or the office of a major corporation from the States. It's a happy term, almost frivolous in conversation. There are bars enjoyed by expats, apartments housing expats, grocery stores catering to expats. I still consider it a negative term and would prefer Americans abroad, but I'm not one of them so I can only view the scene.
From what I've observed, they love being in Paris, feeling privileged to learn the language. Far from being downtrodden, beaten or lost, these Americans have health insurance, a dollar now worth more than the euro, newly minted currency for Europe that is replacing the franc as the instrument of financial exchange in France.
They are not tourists, they are residents. They have neighborhoods, an international culture, and money in the bank ... at home. They are happy.
There's still another influx of Americans into Paris, neither artists and writers as of old, nor as having accepted corporate transfers and assignments. These are Americans relocating to Paris in the wake of September 11.
Tourism is down in the City of Lights, but permanent emigres are on the increase. These are the new expatriates and true to the definition. They're leaving their native country of their own accord, bag, baggage, wife, kids, cats and dogs and taking up lif ein another. I rather think it's fear causing this run to a place not under siege -- as we perceive we are, afraid of terrorists ready to strike.
It's one thing to decide to retire in Paris or anywhere in the world. We can do that. And when we do it will be because we want to be there - wherever there is - not because we're afraid to stay here.
It's the "ex" in expatriate that disturbs me. I haven't lived in New York for 45 years but I am a New Yorker, not an ex-New Yorker; perhaps a transplanted New Yorker, but never an ex.
Speaking of New York (I know, I usually do), I met a law enforcement man on the plane who lives in New Jersey and works in New York City. He investigates medical fraud; he's not a cop on the beat. He said there is fear in New York.
"Oh, it's nothing you mention, but it's in the air. There is a difference since 9/11," he said. And this latter group of Americans going abroad for safety and assurance are not innocents abroad; they know about terror and what it can do.
If they have that fear, they will take it wherever they go. Fear doesn't go away when there's nothing to be afraid of, and there will always be something to be afraid of as long as there are terrorists. Or bad dogs, for that matter.
Although I am not a "my country, right or wrong," person, if it's right, it's my country. I can't imagine X-ing it out in favor of shelter in a country that has never done anything for me, nor I for it. I find it sad that people are disillusioned and cynical enough to start packing when they neither know where they're going nor what they'll find.
It looks like another lost generation has found a breeding ground.