International Man: Could you tell us a little bit more about yourself?
Barbara Diggs: I'm a former lawyer turned freelance writer from Washington, D.C. I've been living in Paris, France for nearly 11 years.
Before I moved, I was working as a corporate lawyer in NYC. My boyfriend at the time (now husband) is German and wasn't sure whether he wanted to stay in the U.S. for the rest of his life. He suggested that we try living in Europe for a while. I was OK with that, but thought it would be a more equal adventure if we lived in a country that neither of us were from. One day when I was in Paris visiting a friend, I decided that this was the place and he agreed.
IM: Was it difficult to get residency in the country?
BD: Well, I had a bit of luck on my side. Just before we moved, I found a job as a lawyer in the international arbitration department of an American law firm in Paris. It was an amazing coup because I didn't speak any French and just happened to be at the right place, at the right time. (The firm needed someone with my exact experience – and needed me right away.) They took care of all my visa issues to enter the country.
As I recall, I first obtained a 9-month work permit and, until I married my husband 2-1/2 years later, I had to renew my visa every 9 months. Because I'm now married to an EU citizen, I have a 10-year carte de sejour (long-term residence visa).
IM: Do you plan on making France your home forever and becoming a French citizen?
BD: Ah, the question of whether or not we plan on making France our home… It's a bit complicated.
I think we have made France our home by default. We never really meant to stay here so long, but we've grown roots, made wonderful friends, our children were born here, we bought a house, and, well, here we are. We wouldn't be hugely opposed to leaving if some fantastic opportunity arose, but I think it would have to be a really phenomenal opportunity. I say the question is complicated because, though France is our de facto home and we're happy here, we're still strongly attached to our native lands and each think of those countries as our real “home.” France is mostly home because my life is here. If I left, I doubt I'd continue to think of it as home.
As for citizenship, I'm not exactly sure how it works, as it's not a question I've ever considered. I have some vague understanding that I'm eligible to become a French citizen at the 10-year anniversary of my carte de sejour, but I haven't followed up on this because I don't have a particular interest in becoming French at this point (I have no need to become French and my husband isn't French).
With my carte de sejour I can work and travel freely throughout Europe… and I guess in the end, I don't feel that strong a connection with French culture. I like living amongst the French, but I don't need to be French.
IM: You made an interesting career change in your life, starting out as a litigator and then moving on to become a freelance writer. What made you make that switch?
BD: I was unhappy with my life at the law firm – I was working way, way, too hard and traveling all the time. I was totally miserable, but one good thing came out of it: it made me think about what I really wanted to do with my life. And I realized that I wanted to live in Paris – really live in Paris – and write. So, I quit.
IM: How did that transition go?
BD: Looking back, I realize I had no idea what it meant to be a freelance writer. When I first quit, I was far more interested in running around Paris and learning French than developing a writing career. Sure, I was writing, but I wasn't very disciplined about it. I didn't treat it like a business at all. In fact, I didn't even think of it as a business! It was just me wandering around Paris with my notebook and scribbling with the vague hope of getting published. I started writing a non-fiction book on intercultural weddings, but it stalled. Over the years, I began to understand the business of writing – the discipline, focus and thick skin involved – and only then did my writing career begin to take off. (In my own defense, I also had two children during this period, so my mind wasn't entirely on writing.)
IM: Did it require any special paperwork to be a freelancer on French soil?
BD: It doesn't require special paperwork to freelance, but if you want to be an official business, you need to become an “auto-entrepreneur.” The auto-entrepreneur system is a (relatively new) business status for small businesses and self-employed persons in France. We're taxed on our turnover, rather than being subject to a flat tax. It's really easy to set up, but there are certain limitations. For example, you can't make over a certain amount in any given year, or have employees. I was able to become an auto-entrepreneur because I had a carte de sejour. Had I quit my job without being married to a citizen of the EU, I couldn't have had an official business here. My work permit was only for the job that I held.
IM: What major differences do you see between living in the States and now being in Europe?
BD: Life is more relaxed in France but easier in the U.S., if that makes any sense. Here, there's no societal pressure to work, work, work all the time. Vacations are sacrosanct as is family time. People enjoy leisurely lunches – even during the workday – and usually eat with their families at night. I love it; that's great. But on a day-to-day level, life in the U.S. in much less complicated. There's less bureaucracy, people are more willing to go out of their way help you, and there's a stronger “can-do” mentality. In general, the French have a big “can't do” mentality that is particularly frustrating for an American. In terms of safety, I do feel physically safer in Europe. When I visit the U.S. and hear news full of shootings and carjackings, it's shocking. Not that violent crime doesn't happen here – it certainly does – but it doesn't occur anywhere near as often.
[For Part 2 of the interview, click here.]
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