Educated abroad, they are France's new foreign legion

Seattle's French Underground: Today's graduates are more likely to have studied abroad, and they're more open to leaving France for career opportunities – glamorous and humble. Many of them are settling in metro Puget Sound. Part 3
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Seattle's French Underground: Today's graduates are more likely to have studied abroad, and they're more open to leaving France for career opportunities – glamorous and humble. Many of them are settling in metro Puget Sound. Part 3

Third of a series

Two recent arrivals to metropolitan Puget Sound are Stéphane Arlot, who is among thousands of French nationals here, and wife Jaymi, who was born in Pullman, Wash. The couple met neither in France nor in America but in County Cork, Ireland. Their romance is a product of Europe's Erasmus program, a very contemporary part of the new French mobility.

Twenty years old last year, Erasmus is a scholastic equivalent of the accords that allow the free flow of money and workers across European Union borders. Talk to a dozen young French folk and you'll find at least one touched by Erasmus. This is not least because of 2002's hit film L'Auberge Espagnole (The Spanish Hostel). A saucy tale of life and love among Erasmus students, it is rumored to have doubled French enrollment in the scheme.

Like low-cost airfares and high-speed communications, Erasmus creates a fresh sense of potential for young Europeans. French youth, especially, experience it as a counterbalance to strictly traditional schooling. Thus, even without a high-end diploma from one of France's grand écoles (his degree is from Nouvelle Sorbonne Paris III), Arlot felt comfortable coming to Seattle without work arrangements already in place. Once here, he found not one but a pair of jobs. He taught French at Seattle's Alliance Française, which does not require U.S. teaching certification, and he worked shifts in an ultra-Seattle coffee-shop chain.

The latter, says Arlot, changed his point of view dramatically. "I was amazed at how important management techniques were, how careful management was to make sure I felt understood. I had worked in Paris, and the chemistry was totally different. Now, I find myself asking much more, 'So what do you do?' Because I understand the point; here, a job defines you much more."

Seattle's service protocols, however, unsettle him. "The way people greet you when you go into some place, then keep on talking - you would never see this in France. When I went back and I said, 'So, how are you doing?' to shopkeepers, every time they would look at me and ask, 'Do I know you?' They would actually ask me if we had met before. Because there is just so much more reserve."

"My whole life I've been taught," he adds, "that, to be responsible, you maintain your self-control. Here, it's much more about exploiting your emotions. How you use emotion is a big part of the difference in cultures. At home, we won't tell our friend we think they're in a bad relationship. We keep that inside; we don't tackle delicate subjects easily. In Seattle, it's considered bad if you don't do it. It means you're not telling your friend about something that's seen externally."

For Arlot, life in the region is full of revelations: the frequency of travel, the ease with which plans are changed, even the structure of political caucuses ("I still have a hard time with that"). "It all seems very prosperous - and maybe it is. But you feel a lot of anxiety under the social fabric. That's the case for health insurance, it's the case for car insurance, it's the case around retirement. You have to be young to be part of what I would call the mainstream."

Arlot is now enrolled at Washington State University's Vancouver campus, studying for an American master's degree in education. He aims to teach American literature (his degree subject) in high school - and he definitely plans to keep teaching French. Being married to a native American, he says, is significant. "If I have a question, I can ask her and we discuss it and, in the end, we agree or disagree. Or we just accept that there is a difference. That is one of the most important things, just accepting the differences."

Another French Erasmus alumnus is Olivier Fontana, who moved to Issaquah in 2003. A graduate of L'Ecole supérieure d'Ingénieurs en Electrotechnique et Electronique, he spent one Erasmus exchange in Milan and another in England. After meeting his wife, Tanja, in France, Fontana settled there. Fontana says he always planned to work abroad. "My little personal way of capturing it was this: 'If I have to get caught in traffic, in the rain, late at night when I'm tired - I would rather be doing that in a foreign country.'"

To implement his ambitions, Fontana earned an MBA at Rotterdam School of Management - one of the world's most international business institutions. Afterward, when Royal Philips offered him "a perfect job," the Fontanas settled quite happily in the Netherlands. Then Tanja won the American Diversity Visa (the famous U.S. "green card lottery"), raising the possibility of American work and residence. "I'm not superstitious," says Fontana, "but this was once in a lifetime. So I started applying everywhere, just to see what I could find." Flown to Seattle for an interview at Microsoft, he says, "I just fell in love with this place."

If our region pleased him as an environmentalist, it also it gave Fontana an unexpectedly Proustian jolt. "Because when I was a kid, we would go on vacation with my grandparents, always to the north of Italy. With all the Douglas firs and all the pines growing here, every time I hike, the smell takes me right back to childhood!"

Fontana has become an enthusiastic Northwesterner. He writes a private blog about technology, global warming, politics, management strategies, and the area's natural wonders. He lobbies his local Costco to stock more Nutella ("it's not French but, as French people, we must have it!"). He haunts the Issaquah farmer's market and buys his family's meat in the form of "half a cow" from a small local farmer in Oregon. He has even reconciled himself to our paper towels ("at least 50 percent bigger than those in France"). "There is not another place," he says, "I would rather live."

Yet, as Fontana notes, some differences are unbridgeable. "Even here, the cliché version of France is almost unstoppable. Partly because, when strangers look at a culture, they don't realize how things can be two sides of a single coin. People here say, 'The French are so lazy, you have huge vacations, you have that short work week.' Then the same people tell you, 'Oh, I just love Paris! I adore how you can sit in those cafés for hours, just hang out and talk.'"

He is also aware that situations like his are special. "None of us French tech guys came here because we had to. Maybe you want this experience outside of your country; maybe you're attracted by your idea of Seattle culture. Maybe it will do something good in your job. Whatever the reason, it's not like my grandparents when they left Italy. They did that because they had to eat."

Next: They'll always have Paris.


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