Don’t you recognize Mary Holden? An American. Age 36. Twelve years in Paris. Three years back in North Carolina during which she has come back four times. Long-distance marriage to French animation artist, Jean-Luc. Two bi-cultural daughters. A half dozen odd jobs of varying levels of interest and pay. A succession of apartments and little pavillons. Enough frequent flyer miles to get to Hong Kong and back, Business Class. A deep love for daily Paris life and yet a gnawing alienation from both her indigenous and adoptive countries. “I don’t feel good over there and I don’t feel comfortable here. It’s confusing; there’s so much I miss wherever I am,” she admits.
Mary could be a lot of us. In fact, Mary is not at all atypical of today’s expatriate. Her existence is perhaps perfectly indicative of that semi-joyous state of cultural confusion that blesses and baffles the lives of thousands of anglo-saxons who have voluntarily uprooted themselves and can’t seem to go back. Going home is the ultimate act of ambiguity. You never are quite sure if you’re coming or going, if you’re returning or visiting. You’re excited to go back and ready to leave again. You replay the existential ebb and flow of your exile each time. Too long away to be in sync with the life you once owned, you’ll never feel wholly French. You’re an American in Paris, a stranger in America. Welcome to the Third Continent, where you compose the best of both worlds and try to mask or flee the worst.
Mary is back in Paris this summer to renew ties with France and firm up local support for her cultural project in Black Mountain, North Carolina. Curiously, but not difficult to explain, after an extended transatlantic jeunesse of wandering and soul searching, she is on the warpath to create an archival museum for the celebrated bastion of experimental liberal arts education Black Mountain College (1933-56), in her home town – in the heart of the American Bible Belt! Isn’t creating a museum like setting down roots, rendering a permanent connection to a place, assuring a continuity with the past, forging history? That’s what complicates the expatriate experience, where the only sense of permanence comes from the constancy of change. And that lack of connectedness is often what drives one to Paris in the first place, a mythic city of belonging. We want a history.
Born in Connecticut and raised in Swannanoa, North Carolina, where she lived on the campus of Warren Wilson College where her father was president, Mary quit school at 16 in search of adventure. “I still don’t know what I want to be,” she offered between bites of a salade niçoise at a café on the Place Saint Sulpice. At 17 she was tap dancing in San Francisco and waiting tables at a truck stop.
It was in the Big Apple that she met her French husband-to-be, a pied noir from Algiers via Nimes, in New York to study film. Thus, a sort of expat himself. This too is true to the experience. Culturally uprooted people tend to share a strong affinity, a common experience of being mixed, and often end up joining their lives, a phenomenon that ever further deepens their cultural complexity – and that of future children. In Paris, the great number of people with hyphenated last names tends to reflect the remarkable quantity of culturally fused couples. Of course, it’s America that’s called the melting pot, not France. True, but in America the fusion creates a singular blend that we call American; in France, the distinct cultural ingredients are what’s celebrated, not the generic gateaux. In America we have marketed the homogeneity of the whole; in France we revere the integrity of the parts. Think wine and coffee let alone multicultural couples.
In 1982 Mary and Jean-Luc set up house on the rue de Moines in the 17th and Mary landed a quick job at the Bistro de la Gare, but got canned on her second day. ‘I couldn’t speak French, plus I didn’t know how to open a bottle of wine. Once, I put it between my legs.” Next, she found herself modeling wigs for 800 francs a day. That lasted one day. After a stint at the Studio Astre as a photographer’s assistant she landed a job at Robert Sarner’s English monthly Passion Magazine , which followed the Paris Metro in the long line of expat publications and dominated the anglophone press in this city for for much of the 80s before being bought out by London’s Time Out and finally folding.
Soon Mary found herself behind a lens pointed at such French intello luminaries as Bernard-Henri Levy, Marek Halter, Philippe Sollers, and the radical publisher of l’Idiot Jean-Edern Hallier, who insisted that Mary photograph him in bed. “There was also the transvestite that I shot in my apartment in his Marilyn Monroe outfit,” Mary remembers with fondness. And that too is why expatriates believe themselves to be here, to be free of the trappings of Puritanism and someone else’s moral impositions, to be free to be someone else, to find a transvestite in your apartment, a wild publisher in bed. “I probably lost money at that job in that I only got 1000 francs a month and had to pay for my expenses. But it was fascinating.”
Ironically, it was in Paris that Mary learned about Black Mountain College. And this too is true about what we come to love about being expatriates: we learn about ourselves and our past lives in ways we couldn’t had we stayed put in Kalamazoo, Dublin or Oak Park. In a linguistically foreign environment writers tend to hear with greater precision their own language and voices. Black Mountain was a ten minute drive from her childhood residence, but it was in Paris that Mary started hanging out with artists who took immediate interest in her pays natale, noting that Black Mountain College attracted such major players as Robert Rauchenberg, Cy Twombly, Buckminster Fuller, Merce Cunningham, John Cage and scores more. In Paris, she knew these names from the Pompidou Center. Black Mountain College students in Paris include artist Gregory Masurovsky, Charles and Fanny Dreyfus, Margaret Dwight and painter Leo Krikorian.
Three years ago, Mary decided to create the Black Mountain College Museum at the site of the old college, which closed down in 1956 under the rectorship of poet Charles Olson, and has lived-on only as a privately owned summer camp called Camp Rockmont. She packed up the kids, left her marriage in the long-distance emotional state of limbo that so many culturally-mixed marriages have experienced, and settled in the hills of western North Carolina, trying to reunite with her past.
The conservative attitudes of her region, the influence of Senator Jesse Helms, and the wave of support for House Speaker Newt Gingrich, has only helped confuse Mary, and other expatriates who have yearned after years abroad to give the US a new shot. The enigma is reinforced when one considers that the culture of work is far easier to master in the United States than in France. In the course of four phone calls, Mary set up a Black Mountain Symposium at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in May 1994, hosted by George Plimpton, founding editor of The Paris Review, which moved its editorial base from Paris to New York in 1965. “Everything has been easy after living in Paris,” where bureaucracy and red tape zap to near-extinction many cultural projects and discourage creative people in general. And it’s true that the formalist trappings of French administration and the difficulty of working in France continues to be an obstacle to expatriates, sending many home or off in search of less aggressive bureaucratic regimes. The quality of life in France, most American expats agree, is higher than in the US. What does Mary miss most? Fresh bread, shopping every day, the aesthetics of the food. “In the States people see eating as something to get over with as fast as possible. They always have something else to do after they eat.” In France, the table is often the final destination.
So how does one live in two worlds? Mary’s trying, as are many of us, with varying degrees of success and failure, joy and pain. Today, Mary is looking to increase the archival donations of past students and faculty members. And of course a cool 2 million dollars to build the museum would help. At the same time she contends that she wants her girls to come back to school in Paris. “It’s more wholesome,” she explains, cringing at her choice of adjective. “We think of things ‘wholesome’ as American.” The field of practical and philosophic preferences between the two cultures keeps expatriates perpetually divided. We are obliged to make our lives over, and it is precisely that act of self-composition that is so attractive.