Most of my life I have lived abroad. I was born in South Africa during the apartheid period and felt it necessary to leave straight out of boarding school. My departure was not entirely politically motivated. I think I left because at 17 I wanted to find out who I was, and I thought this would be made possible by another language, another country.
Of course, living in France in a French family as a paying guest did not actually help much with the discovery of my identity. On the contrary, I remember wandering the streets of Paris on my own beginning to wonder if perhaps I was giving off an unpleasant odor. I knew no one, and no one seemed to want to know me. Perhaps my mother believed the aristocratic French family (a baroness, her son, and granddaughter) would provide company, but what they were interested in was mainly the monthly check. Soon after my mother had left, they asked if I would mind if a sweet Swedish girl moved into my room. Hoping for company and not daring to say no, the Swedish girl duly arrived, installed herself with the sole basin behind a screen, but never addressed a word to me.
Or perhaps Mother thought I would find friends in the crowded, dusty amphitheaters at the Sorbonne, where I was doing a course on “Civilisation Francaise.”
Instead, I wandered the beautiful streets of Paris alone, a voice in my head recording my actions like the secret sharer of my existence. I kept feeling, watching the bateaux mouches sail silently by, and remembering the French novels I was reading: Madame Bovary and The Red and the Black, that I should, I should be enjoying myself. I should be lying breathless in the arms of some young man. Where was my Rodolphe? Where my Julien Sorel? What was wrong with me? Why did I not meet anyone or certainly no one suitable?
If I did meet some young man in a café, he seemed almost about to fall asleep shaking my hand and looking over my shoulder. Even my studies in a foreign language came to me as through a glass darkly. Whenever I attempted to speak French in a shop or in the street, my interlocutor would frown in a puzzled and almost disgusted way as though the sounds coming from my throat were dirty or certainly disagreeable. I began to feel — well, stupid, bereft of my own language.
Later, I was to marry an American and came to this country where people spoke at least a version of my language, though the cultural references, the past experiences, were so often different and alienating. My different accent, taken often for an English one, gave people the impression I, too, was different, or thought I was, perhaps superior, putting on airs, thinking myself better in some way.
Still, being on the outside and able to observe a foreign culture and a foreign land has its advantages. It was not for nothing that Montesquieu, when he wished to give a portrait of France before the French Revolution, chose his Persians as observers of the strange customs of the country. Being a foreigner, an outsider, particularly for a writer, enables one to comment on the civilization that might not welcome one with open arms.
Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including the recent Dreaming for Freud.