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Secret Life of an Expat: Border of Exoticism


a blogumn by Gudrun Cram-Drach


M’s work sent him on a last minute business trip to Montreal. He managed to work it into the bargain that I get to go. too. Montreal is a five hour drive from my hometown of Portland, Maine. And it happens to be the week that my cousin is coming back from California for a baby shower, celebrating the first great-grandchild born on our side of the family.

So after a few days exploring Montreal, a truly bilingual city that is the perfect place for an American/French couple to visit, I am pulling up to the U.S. border in a lime green Hyundai with Quebec plates. I hand the border officer my American passport and a California driver’s license, and have my French carte de séjour handy just in case he wants more ID. He says,

“Where do you live?”


He looks at my documents.

“Where are you going?”

“Portland, Maine. I’m from there.”

“You have a California driver’s licence.”

“Yeah. I used to—”

“Uh, okay… Where are you coming from?”

“Montreal. My husband was sent there on a business trip and I…”

Please don’t tell me to pull over so you can search my car.

“You’re just all confused aren’t you?”

“I guess so.”

Don’t tell me to pull over, or I’ll miss the 6:00 pm dinner with my nonagenarian grandfather.

“Where do you work?”

“I don’t work yet, I’ve only been in France a year.”

I know this is no excuse.

He says, “It’s probably a good thing that you don’t work. You’re all confused anyway.”

I heartily agree.

“Okay,” he says, and hands me my documents.


He gives me a little salute and wishes me a nice day.

As I pull away, I realize that my situation is a pain in the butt to explain. I wonder whether I enjoy explaining myself or not. I think a tiny part of me always wanted to be an expat, though I never consciously directed my life that way. Sometimes I wonder if it’s because I thought expat life was exotic, like it is for James Bond with his secret compartment full of passports and currency. When I explain myself on a superficial level (which I’ve done quite a lot in the last 48 hours), it sure sounds fancy, but ask me more details and I’ll mar the image. Or maybe I became an expat as a result of a need to externalize into reality the feeling that I never quite belonged. If I was actually a foreigner in a strange land, then I could stop wondering why I often felt that way.

Tonight, when I went out to dinner with my cousins, I had three kinds of money in my wallet. I was anxious to point it out, because I don’t think I’ve ever had three kinds of money in my wallet before.

“You’re so exotic,” a cousin said, right on cue. Which is what I wanted him to say, of course, but it the other side of the symbolism of a multi-currencied wallet is that I’ve done a hell of a lot of traveling in a very short time. And I’m tired.

So yeah, I’m all confused. I have a California driver’s license, a Maine address, and French working papers. I have Euros and U.S. dollars and Canadian dollars in my wallet. This is nothing compared to some people I’ve met, children of multi-national parents who grew up in a third country and have 3 passports and who knows what other kinds of papers. But I’ll carry on. I’ll drive back to Canada today and fly back to France tomorrow. Then I’ll sleep.