The American Church in Paris, Sunday May 25 2014
Nancy and I decided to attend the 11 o’clock service this morning at the American Church in Paris. It’s a large complex on a fancy street. We were surprised to learn that it was first established over 200 years ago – 1814! To think that even that far back there was an American presence in Paris large enough to warrant an American Protestant church here is pretty amazing. Apparently, since the birth of our nation, Americans have been fascinated with France. The buses run especially slowly on Sundays, and we arrived, from a fairly large distance, after the service had begun. People were still arriving, and the sanctuary was full – no seats anywhere. We finally found two seats way up toward the front on the other side after exiting and then re-entering the sanctuary on the side further away from the entrance from outside.
This church is non-denominational, with a mainline protestant feel. In fact, most of the present staff turned out to have Presbyterian origins, but that varies over time. It is not affiliated with any specific denomination, although there is a loose alliance of “American churches” in several European capitals. The service felt very comfortable and familiar. The special music was provided by an excellent choir visiting Paris from New London, CT . One surprising aspect of everything we experienced was that it was very American in every way, although as we met different people, they turned out to be from all over the English speaking world. There was also a seminar on pastoral caregiving being given during the afternoon by a Chinese-American psychiatrist and teacher of pastoral counseling from New York City. We stayed to hear her, and enjoyed a very interesting and useful experience.
I found it fascinating to talk with American expatriates who had been living in France for some time – in some instances, decades. They shared a common feeling that they would never really fit in as if they were French. When I had spent three years in France as a graduate student many years ago, I had come to a decision point at which I knew I could work and live in France, which I loved – I could spend my life here. I also knew, precisely, that I would never really fit in, as I had gotten pretty well acquainted with other Anglophones, mainly from Britain, and despite their apparently perfect integration into French life, they still felt very foreign. Based on that observation, I decided to return to the US rather than spend a fourth year in France. I know now that I was never destined to fit in that well in the US either. But if I had stayed in France, I never would have realized that, and, like these expatriates we met today, I would probably have maintained a nostalgia for the possibility of fitting in well somewhere.
I traveled back and forth quite a bit between France and the US for about 10 years after I returned to make my life in the US. Finally, though, pinned down by job and family duties, it became too onerous to go back and forth, and I ended up spending my whole career and raising my daughter in the US. Now that I have started to come back again to France, I’ve realized that in addition to my relative comfort as a US citizen and resident, a part of me also needs to speak French and to experience the rhythms and spirit of life in France. That connection with France and with the language and culture of France from my young years became a deep part of my being, and in a way I belong here in France almost as much as I do in the US. I’m glad that my life circumstances have allowed me to return here, to rediscover and reawaken that neglected region of myself. In doing so, I’ve experienced a sense of deep fulfillment of a need that I had forgotten about.
Visiting the American Church today, with its American language and atmosphere led me to reflect on my American side in contrast to my French self. I found it pretty amazing to have that taste of America in the course of a Parisian Sunday.