On a crisp, bright January morning in 2008, Paul and I walked across the Rhône River at the Pont Wilson bridge, headed down the wide street, and into the block that is taken up by the stately Prefecture Building to became French.
After over three years of paperwork and waiting, we had been convoqués to receive our French naturalization papers.
I did not feel particularly sentimental or excited about this step. After all, we began the process for our son, Andrew, who was asked to try out for the French national baseball team, but could only do so if he were French. We were told that if the whole family were applying for French citizenship, the process might go more quickly for Andrew.
The day of his 18th birthday came and went without him becoming French. Bye-bye national baseball team. Soon after, Andrew left for the States for college.
We, however, received notice of our acceptance later that year. Paul and I had agreed that with political situations so volatile throughout the world, and visas harder to come by in France, perhaps it would be a good idea to be French.
I was never the student who dreamed above all else of going to France. I was not the girl who soaked up the culture like a fish in water. I was enchanted, but also intimidated, feeling I didn’t have the personality to embrace France. I was too sensitive and sentimental. But I came, out of a call, an obedience, a scary step into the unknown.
And I stayed. We stayed. Twenty-five years in the country is enough, I suppose, to merit being French. No matter that I still don’t sound French. Even after all these years, my bonjour betrays a Southern accent (south of the US, not south of France). But I have grown to love the people, one by one, and the country, visit by visit into its untamed countryside and historic villages.
Anyway, here we were at the Prefecture with a group of other people, all waiting to become French. We looked around. We were one of the rare white couples. Most of the people looked North African or African or perhaps Middle Eastern or Eastern European.
I felt a little rebuke in my spirit, realizing that this ceremony meant a lot more to most of these people than it did to me. I would still retain my American passport. But for them, this was their hope, their future, their security.
Eventually, we were ushered into a beautiful room, a grande salle, where two women greeted us and instructed us to have a seat in the red velvet-covered folding chairs set up for us. A magnificent oil painting of a scantily clothed man chasing a scantily clothed woman—Greek mythology, perhaps—kept watch over us from one wall.
The ladies were friendly, professional, and actually made the event seem joyous. A celebration. They explained the importance of the papers we would be receiving in our dossier. The paper that mattered the most, the one that said we were French, was indeed unique, one of a kind, never to be reissued. “Guard it with your life,” one of the women said. “Make photocopies and keep it in a safe, safe place.” In case of fire, she told us what to do, who to write to.
One by one or couple by couple, we were invited to come forward, sign a paper, hand over our carte de résident and receive the dossier with our French naturalization paper, our certificate of birth and of marriage, our livret de famille, a copy of the French national anthem, the Marseillaise, and a few other things.
A young man volunteered to read the letter of welcome from the President of the Republic. Then the woman presiding reminded us of the cost of this citizenship, the cost of liberté, egalité, fraternité, of the many other foreigners throughout the centuries who had been ‘naturalized’, become French and some, become great men and women of France.
And as she spoke, something happened inside me.
I felt a stirring, a pride, a thankfulness and even a tear or two in my eyes. We’d given a good part of our lives to this country—not in a grand way. In a soft and subtle way, but we’d done it out of love for the Father of nations and for the French, and that day, I was suddenly very proud to be française. I felt hopeful and happy. I especially felt the joy of these other people, most needing, probably desperately, this nationality. For us it was un plus, for many of the others, essentiel.
So now I am French. And American.
And yet, deep down inside, I am neither. I am a wayfaring stranger, a citizen of heaven, waiting, at times impatiently, for my Savior to call out to me and say, “Welcome home to eternity.”
Until that day, I pray I, we, will serve Him with honor and dignity and integrity in whatever land He calls us to and for however long He asks us to stay.