By Elsa Court
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.
We all have questions we resent being asked. Having lived in the UK for 12 years, I am irritated when I am asked: “When are you going home?” French people ask me this, British people ask me this, and so does just about everybody who meets me for the first time. The question inadvertently implies I am not where I am supposed to be.
I recently met a London-based Australian whose response to that question is that he is too pale for the climate of his native country, hence his decision to settle in the more temperate UK. Londoners, he says, usually chuckle in embarrassment at the joke. Ready-made banter is the socially acceptable tool for dispensing with such enquiries.
The question touches a nerve because it dismisses the depth of attachment one can feel for an adopted home. Perhaps the inquisitors need to appreciate a strange phenomenon well known to expatriates: homesickness for a second home.
I have experienced many bouts of homesickness for the UK. When I returned to Paris after my first year in London, I pined for the UK capital. I was deeply melancholic, complaining about having to do without the things I had grown to love, from cheap fresh milk to strong black tea. My Parisian friends found me so insufferable they were relieved to see me leave.
Spending time in the US four years on, the feeling struck again: the sight of a Chelsea street in an old James Bond movie caught me off-guard and I felt the familiar pangs of homesickness. I have never lived in Chelsea or any other part of south-west London, and international film-makers’ idea of London rarely corresponds with the city I know. But still, I felt I was watching the city where my normal life was waiting to resume its course.
That summer, friends from France called. “How is America? And when are you coming home?” they asked. I would check my papers and mechanically respond: “I am flying back to London on September 1.”
“No, no,” they insisted. “I mean, when are you flying back home?” A tad irritated, I told them: “Like I said, I am flying into London on September 1.”
My obtuseness did me a favour. Ground down by it, my Parisian friends gradually dropped the dreaded question. They now ask: “When will you visit us again? And please will you bring us some tea from Fortnum & Mason?”
You can read more articles from our Expat identities series here
Photograph: Charlie Bibby