Moscow to Paris: It is possible to be a coach-class expat

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Anne Penketh adapts to a new life as an expat in Paris.
Anne Penketh adapts to a new life as an expat in Paris.
Image: Janca

I am a coach-class expat. I’m the one with my legs crunched up in economy class, pretending to read the inflight magazine, traveling with an airline that provides free alcohol to counter the utter panic of fear of flying. Every bump of turbulence gives me a sick feeling that this time my number must be up, so my eyes immediately seek out the flight attendants to see whether they are panicking too. Unfortunately for me, my fear of flying is also coupled with an irresistible urge to travel.

I’ve lived in so many countries that I know from experience that if you see a neon sign that says Casino in France, it is just as likely to be a supermarket as a place with a roulette wheel. If I’m invited to a fancy dress party in New York, I will never wear a tomato disguise like that poor Brit who didn’t know that fancy dress in America isn’t a costume party but a formal event calling for dinner jackets and evening gowns.

Since my twenties, I’ve moved from my original base in London to work abroad in Montreal, Paris, Moscow, New York and Washington DC. I’ve just moved to Paris after a three-year stint in Washington. But don’t even think about envying a glamorous, jet-setting lifestyle. In fact, coach-class expats like me are to be pitied. That’s because moving is not just an escape, it’s calling yourself into question every few years, and injecting yourself into a new community where everyone is a stranger. And just when you’ve consolidated a really good group of friends, it’s time to move on again. It’s sad because we end up belonging nowhere, often deprived of a vote that would attach us to home, an entirely notional place which exists only in our heads.

There’s more of us now, than back when I started. Current economic realities mean that even diplomat friends of mine on the UN gravy train travel in coach class these days. Governments and international companies have rules which mean that no longer can you expect to get your foreign accommodation paid for along with the kids’ private schooling. In the old days, it was possible to practically live off expenses. Gone are the days when someone would exclaim generously at the end of a meal: “it’s on me,” meaning the company they worked for. Now it’s everyone for himself or herself, with waiters requiring a higher degree in maths in order to process a bill for 7 people.

Of course some can still get away with it; the global business executives and my “new” Russian friends who never seem to count the cost of anything. But spare a thought for the rest of us, crammed with the huddled masses in economy while dreaming of a time gone by.

When I lived in Moscow, I was surprised when a teacher friend told me that the children of diplomats were an underprivileged class with problems galore. I can imagine it must be the same for army brats. To compensate for our rootlessness, we expats hang out together, laughing about the local customs as though we are from a superior branch of the human race, and analyzing the people through a magnifying glass like anthropologists. More often than not, a knowing eye roll says it all. Pass the cliché and stereotype, everyone else is too something—the Russians are too passive, the French are too arrogant, the Americans are too self-obsessed, the Canadians are too boring. Only we are flawless, except that the Brits seem to have a reputation of taking French leave just as the bill is delivered.

Even if we wanted to, it would be hard to integrate. In the US, we Brits are immediately categorized as “other” as fast as you can say elevator.  So in a sense, Washington, a city for transients if ever there was one, is the perfect place for expats. It’s rare to meet a native Washingtonian—my DC friends are all newcomers, hailing from Arizona, New Jersey, Missouri, and New York. My departure came amid the endless round of farewell parties by the expat crowd of diplomats, international business people, and journalists. In my circle alone, there has been a spate of farewell receptions for friends leaving for Hong Kong, Berlin and The Hague.

Do I envy them? Not any more. For me, it’s the ninth time that I’ve packed up my things, and this time was worse because in the past I’ve seen the other side of the coin. When I moved from Moscow, as a foreign correspondent, the international movers turned up and whizzed through an apartment like a white tornado, disappearing with every last item tidily packed into boxes. When I left New York, they even took  cleaning detergent from the kitchen cupboard. They might even have picked up some cockroaches. So my move from Washington, three and a half  years after my husband died, was particularly painful. Not only did I have to sort out the last three years of my life – (do I really need four pairs of sunglasses? Do I really have to throw out all those theater programmes?) – I had to do it alone.

The last few days in my DC apartment were spent sleeping on an air mattress provided by a kind friend, with only my laptop for company. The rest of my IKEA furniture had been sold.

Then it happened. The email from Air France offering an upgrade to business class, for a fraction of the price of my coach class ticket. I grabbed it, fantasizing about the extra luggage allowance, the bottomless champagne, the flat bed and a pilot without a death wish.

Of course it was not to be. Two days before my departure, the airline contacted me: “The number of available seats for this offer do not allow you to take advantage of it.” The special offer was withdrawn. I was back where I belonged, in coach.