To be or not to be… this has been my question
by Jocelyne Rigal
I was born in Paris, but conceived in my mother’s hamlet. As a child, I travelled back and forth between my province of origin and this big city. I spent several years with my paternal grandparents – my parents were too busy working 24/7 to take care of me, then a toddler girl.
That made for a first gap.
Then the gap widened.
I resettled in Paris at age six to be with my parents, two conservative shop owners who believed in the value of hard work and entrepreneurship (and it made sense too, in the early sixties… but did the stork make a mistake when delivering me to their doorstep?). I attended a lay primary school in a multi-ethnic quarter which suited me.
But we moved. My secondary school was a formal and private Catholic school, for upper class, professional families. Not for people like myself. I felt (and I was too, to a certain degree) rejected: here I was, a stranger in my own country. A deep sense of alienation followed, which lasted for many years. Not to mention that I realised that I was not, ahem, completely straight, and was living unhappily in my female body.
Partly because of my rural roots, I found that living in a big city like Paris was suffocating. In my mid-twenties, I had the opportunity to move on, when I relocated to Ireland with a student grant. I eventually married an American and we had two sons. We divorced after a difficult marriage.
So here I am.
I have felt that I never belonged to any group, to any place. Always on the edge of things, of places, of groups. Be it family, religion, politics, sexual identity, national identity, I felt I never adhered to anything specifically.
For a start:
Family is a strange thing to me… I like to think my friends constitute some sort of a chosen family. As an only child, I have so few people I can call family. My mother, now 87, is widowed and no longer capable of living independently. I help her in every way I can, even though our relationship has always been less than easy – but my parents have drummed into me that you do no dump close relatives. Touchingly, I am one of the few people my mother can still recognise.
I could have never raised my sons the way I was raised. While growing up, the motto was still ‘children should be seen and not heard’.
I could have never raised my sons the way I was raised. While growing up, the motto was still ‘children should be seen and not heard’. As a mother, I wanted more than anything that my sons had friends, fun and warmth. Unsurprisingly, my family felt that I was not disciplining them enough. Besides, the massive change in the technology I have seen in my lifetime is another reason why the education I received was obsolete when I brought up my sons. (By the way, while a computer keyboard is an invaluable tool for people with bad handwriting like myself, I still go for pens and paper – two relics reminiscent of my childhood and now about to belong to a gone by era – whenever possible and I remain shy when facing some of the newest technologies.)
As for religion, I grew up with Catholicism – a part of my schooling too – even though it was not much adhered to by my family. But I reject this religion, its leaders, rites, its decorum, and I question their basic tenets. Yet, I like to call myself a Christian with an attitude. These human centred values mean something to me. That God was made into a human being validates the human experience, yours and mine, with all its frailty. In addition, religion is more than an institution and a set of beliefs. It’s a culture, too. And I do not feel like discarding that part of my cultural heritage. I sometimes wish I could find people like myself in some Christian affiliation.
Politically speaking, I don’t think I ever was of the same persuasion as my conservative parents. I gave a try to Ireland’s Green party, but I never quite had the time to become fully committed. Yet, they are somewhere close to what I consider as my political opinions.
My political attitudes spilled over my relationship to the labour market. I could never have been a shop owner like my parents were, like some of my paternal family were. I was never after money like them. My father recognised, too, how much the labour market had changed, and is now giving a lot less opportunities to people who have little training but are willing to work hard – like him. In that new environment, where big companies have become prime employers, I hated the ten years I spent working for a multinational (I had little choice when I joined them, because of financial pressure). In what was to me a capitalist temple, I felt I had to compromise with my political beliefs, and where the focus on human-centred values was, I think, only a façade. I felt better working in smaller settings, interacting with people and doing work that could improve people’s lives.
My sexual identity was another piece of my personal jigsaw difficult for me to figure out as it did not fit in any clear cut category. In the end, I have come to see myself as bisexual – that will do. If the concept is still emerging and contested by some people (and sadly so, by some gay people), at least I feel covered under this umbrella. This is the only emerging tradition I can identify with.
As a foreigner in Ireland, I have felt a new kind of freedom. Foreigners are allowed some level of eccentricity, I think.
When it comes to national identity, I feel Ireland has helped me to free myself from the oppression I felt in France. Has helped me to become me. As a foreigner in Ireland, I have felt a new kind of freedom. Foreigners are allowed some level of eccentricity, I think. I have found the Irish quite tolerant, by the way, and a lot more so than the French. It is normal to feel as an outsider when you are a foreigner – while you should not feel that way in your birth country. Lately, Ireland has given me some freedom from my male partner – who lives in France – when he gets too much on my nerves (these men!). Living in Ireland allows me to reassert my bisexuality, too.
And yet… I have grown to miss France, her language, her literature and the culture of my youth. All those things which feel so familiar to me. I sometimes wish I had moved to a sunny, southern, French small city. France is also after all, a beautiful country, where the sun is warm, and the food lovely. For these reasons alone, I’ll never be other than French.
I am still learning (gracefully?) to navigate between both of my countries: Ireland and France. It’s hard to travel several times a year between two countries, to deal with two tax systems. I rarely go to Paris now, but go several times a year to the village my father came from and where I spent part of my childhood, to help and visit my elderly mother and see my partner.
I have no relative left in Paris, but two of my best friends live there, and whenever I visit them, I go back to the places of my youth. I like to revisit my favourite quarters, where I spent much of my free time as an adolescent. This makes for moving and nice walks. I like to see the big museums and the major exhibitions we do not have in Dublin. But I am glad not to live in Paris any longer. The stress of this big city is just too much for me.
‘Stuck’ between France and Ireland, I also see myself as a European – and very strongly so. As part of my European heritage, I’ve come to realise that Christianity is a useful tool when travelling and when meeting other people. English and French are two languages which will get you anywhere throughout Europe, and I’m comfortable with them both.
My sons, not unsurprisingly, see themselves as a patchwork made of several origins. To the extent that my younger son once said in an interview: ‘I was born here but I’m not Irish’. What is nationality in our changing world…?
Yes, I do not fit neatly in any category, in any country. A quite painful feeling indeed, even if – sometimes – I have felt that I should feel free and be proud to resist categories. People like me are needed to make things change, too.
But a lot of people, and at an increasing space, challenge traditional categories, too. Categories and countries are constantly changing, anyway. And at a greater pace now than ever before, due in part to constantly changing technologies. I’ll have to live with this. And try and be happy like this.
Jocelyne Rigal has spent much of her life trying to be at home within herself and this in shifting contexts. She is French but spent most of her life in Ireland. She graduated in Sociology and in English from Nanterre University (France) and from Trinity College (Ireland). She has worked in a range of jobs to make money for herself and her two sons which she raised as a single parent. Throughout the years, she has found the time to do what she likes the best: writing and reading, travelling and going to movies, and keeping in touch with her favourite people. She currently – and finally!- feels content with herself, a multifaceted individual, and with her complex, but interesting, life.
Lita is a professional visual artist, based in Dresden, Germany. After gaining a Master degree in Graphic Design (Saint-Petersburg State University of Technology, Saint-Petersburg, Russia) and second Master in Contemporary Art (Aalto University, Helsinki, Finland), she is committed to the jungle of contemporary art. Painting and collage are the key media of her practice. Balancing between disgust and attraction, working with topics of identity and trauma via mass culture and social constructs, she aims to provoke and broaden the spectrum of normality. Exhibits nationally and internationally, discover more litapoliakova.com, @litalitism, @litacollage