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Embracing a third culture: our family’s journey from Europe to the US

A reader asks how our acclimatization to life in America is going. Here’s an account of how we navigate education, identity, and belonging across continents.

Chris Frost, a subscriber in his eighties from Surrey, asks how things are going for us in the US since we moved from Europe. Chris, a retired engineer from England who raised kids in a multilingual household (like us) and lived abroad for several years (again, like us), may know a thing or two about the topic.

“So Nico, I want to hear progress on your house, and how your children are dealing with the US education system.”

Due to our correspondence, Chris is aware that our children are experiencing the transplant of their education from the Old World (their European half) into the New World (their Californian half). In some ways, our three children have lived the move as a natural return “home,” only this time, instead of coming to California to spend the summer, they spend here most of the year and travel to Europe in summertime and, sometimes, on winter holidays.

Open doors at school in central Barcelona, December 2012

How difficult has it been to land in a very different school system? The most difficult part for any family we’ve talked to, either relocating nationally or from abroad, is getting to pick your school district, which will determine where your kids will go to school, a very similar system to the Catalan and French ones, which we were familiarized with. But once this is taken out of the equation, acclimatization went smoothly, considering that old friends are far away and it takes some time to get to meet new friends. And, no surprise, it’s more expensive to live in sought-after school districts.

Growing up as an also-American abroad

The experience hasn’t been as challenging as we initially thought since our children’s identity contained already an American side, nurtured with constant visits and family relations; influenced by their upbringing, their English accent tracks that of their mum and relatives in California (a native American English accent, and not a foreign accent like mine or, say, a British one). Living in Europe doesn’t always translate into acquiring a British accent, even when your teachers and anglophone friends where you live tend to use a British accent.

By contrast, other members of my family in Spain, who are also married abroad, speak British English at home. It’s quite amusing to see our kids with their cousins in Barcelona speak English among themselves; pay attention, and you’ll hear American English and British English at once, peppered with sentences and expressions in Spanish and Catalan, depending on who is also at the table.

Fontainebleau, June 11, 2016

Our adaptation journey didn’t start when we decided to relocate from Paris, where we lived for four entire school years (plus two more in Fontainebleau), to California, where we’re just finishing our children’s rather pleasant second school year. Our three kids were born and started school in Spain, so this is at least the third big contextual move since they started developing their own agency in this world. We faced the challenge of nurturing an identity and sense of belonging with two strong components: one at home and another at school and with relations.

Now, Chris’ children are older than me, so I assume things may have changed since he was in my same position today, whereas our experience may be a little different, though it’s also one story of cultural exogamy (or marrying outside one’s own reality): Chris married Helga, a German citizen living abroad; they lived for some time in the US and Europe but settled in Chris’ old family home early on, so their kids spent most of their formative years in England. I can see, however, how Chris would relate to our experience.

Children’s impressive plasticity

Our trajectory played out a bit differently: I was born and raised in a Spanish region with strong language and cultural particularities, Catalonia, so early on, I navigated the coexistence of two languages (Spanish at home, Catalan at school and with some friends and relations) naturally, as do hundreds of millions of people living in bilingual (or trilingual) areas across the world. I guess a British analogy to my experience would be that of a Welsh individual growing up in a reality where English and Welsh coexist socially and at school.

Even so, Chris and Helga, or Kirsten and me, never left the values and realities of the Western world when creating our families. In other words, we probably had it easier than many other people who had much more complex and interesting biographies.

And, though this cultural coexistence is never symmetric or frictionless, I was lucky enough to grow up at a place and in a moment when the two official languages, Catalan and Spanish, were taught at school and widely used in media and within society, while there was at least a third language taught at school. In my case, I studied French for one year early on, and then I switched to English. Further down the road, already in the then-secondary school system, I also learned two languages that had little to do with today’s realities but offered a solid path to dive into the classical humanities: Latin and a blend of ancient Greek (mostly Attic, with one year of Homeric Greek to study the Iliad). Overall, language immersion expanded my views and made me less of a one-off person, though many people struggle with identity and define their politics and view of the world from their stance regarding one of the two co-official languages.

Open doors day at the school our kids attended in Fontainebleau one hour south of Paris

Chris is right to ask us about our children’s transition from continental Europe to the United States education system during their middle school and high school years (and thus skipping elementary school). Unlike other children speaking more than one language at home and at school, their transition benefited from the fact that they were raised speaking English at home with their mother, and they visited California and other parts of the US for at least one month and a half a year since they were born. We also observed that English became their language of choice when alone and talking among each other, even when their mother wasn’t present. In addition, this familiarity was complemented early on with some notions of English at school.

How to land in a different culture

That said, one part of their upbringing may differ quite a bit from what Chris’ children may have experienced growing up in the sixties or from what I experienced growing up in bilingual Barcelona during the eighties and nineties: even if our three children started kindergarten and elementary school in Barcelona like me, and thus added English to the local Catalan-Spanish blend, we soon moved to France when they were very young (8, 6, and 3).

When we decided to move to France, we acknowledged the language barrier we would encounter; grammatically, Catalan and French aren’t much different, especially in written form, but this theoretical common ground wouldn’t come easily orally, so we decided that we would smooth the transition by finding a place with a bilingual school English-French, ideally used to welcoming kids from abroad with little or no knowledge of the local culture. We were lucky enough to be able to choose the area based on our needs as a family and weren’t tied to a particular place due to our professional careers. That’s how we found that Fontainebleau, a small town one hour south of Paris known for its royal palace, surrounding forest, and international schools, was a fit. (Fontainebleau is the place where Napoleon remained, confined in his apartment, to hear from the French Senate. On April 4, 1814, Napoleon was forced to abdicate. To this day, it keeps a royalist, Napoleonic, and Catholic allure; during WWII, the palace was a German headquarters, which prompted US General George Patton to liberate it in 1944).

A picture I took years ago at the Square Patton (Fontainebleau, France)

There was one initial cultural shock at school, where all of a sudden, they didn’t know any kid, whereas Catalan seemed to have morphed into some strangely relatable language they didn’t quite grasp for weeks, identifying it as French later on. However, the school had an American-born principal they could relate to, benefiting from a well-funded immersive class designed for children coming from abroad whose parents mainly taught at the local business school or worked at some international company or organism nearby. Weeks passed, and one day, something had just clicked: they could read, write, and speak the language a bit, though it helped that other kids at the same school were in the same situation.

Two full school years later, we decided to move to Paris to get to know the city, first to the 9th Arrondissement near the Place Montholon (10 minutes from the Opera Garnier) and finally to the 5th Arrondissement near Pont Saint-Michel and Île de la Cité. First, our children joined a Montessori school with well-off “bobo” (aka “bourgeois bohemian,” nothing to do with the meaning of “bobo” in Spanish) parents, including some accomplished artists. As their French improved, we decided to leave the bobo-expat bubble and enroll them in the public system like any French kid from the “quartier.”

Particularities of third culture individuals

By then, someone introduced us to a notion regarding children living abroad that I had not been aware of: the notion of “third culture.”

It was during our third school year in Paris that Inés, our oldest daughter, began studying at Collège Montaigne near the Luxembourg Gardens, doing a fully bilingual French-English program locally called Section Anglophone. I went to a bookstore in central Paris to buy a few English books that she was required to read. The place’s name, The Red Wheelbarrow, hinted at a bookish owner interested in poetry, so I asked the only person at the store, a middle-aged woman with glasses and salt-and-pepper hair, about the titles. Her name was Penelope, and her accent was North American; I assumed she was from the US initially, but she explained she was Canadian. Interested in my background, given my non-native English accent, I explained that the books were for one of my kids, that my wife was American, and that we had lived in Barcelona first, so our children had to navigate different languages and places from an early age, and English had become their language of choice when talking at home or with each other, or when reading or watching cartoons for fun.

So Penelope, my interlocutor, brought up the notion of the “third culture kid.” Sometime after, Penelope would appear as one of the literary hosts of a video tour around the Paris locations inhabited and mentioned by famous writers, which we called In Search of Lost Books (the video was sponsored by Google Maps, the only sponsorship Kirsten has engaged in on her channel).

“What are third culture children?” I asked. “One thing I’m sure about,” she said, “is that third culture kids are something many families in Paris experience.” She went on to explain that she and many of her friends had raised children in Paris, the epicenter of a culture other than their parents’ culture and country of nationality. Many international families (those euphemistically called “expatriates” because they are not economic immigrants, and those called “immigrants” simply because their passport or economic situation weren’t socially sanctioned with the same positive perception) living in places like Paris consist of foreign parents of one or two different cultures, often belonging to traditions outside the “francophonie,” raising children in a predominantly French reality.

Kids making sense of the world

It was also our case; I was from Spain, and Kirsten was an American citizen. Our children carried both passports and spoke three languages associated with their nationalities: English, Spanish, and Catalan. But now they were living, studying, and nurturing relations in France, adding French to the blend. In addition, the public education system in Paris includes a third language of choice for kids taking French and, say, English. Their third language at school ends being Spanish, German, or Italian predominantly.

Third culture kids are at least influenced by three cultures: the heritage cultures of both parents and the host-country culture(s); however, many times, the parents themselves have grown up in countries that differ from their cultural heritage at home, adding complexity. Not surprisingly, most third culture kids are at least bilingual, having grown up at least partially in places other than their own culture where they have to socialize and go to school.

When studies have tried to assess the benefits and challenges of growing up as a third culture kid, many contrast the “expanded worldview” (a positive trait) with the fact that they may hold “confused loyalties” when it comes to national identity (a supposedly negative trait). Loyalties can be compatible, and there’s no better prize for an adult who grew up as a third culture kid to be able to speak or read literature in the original language with the familiarity of a native. Knowing other cultures in depth contributes to developing complex worldviews that favor empathy over stereotypes.

Using the school courts on a weekend (San Francisco Bay Area)

Many third culture kids also lack an “accent” when they speak the language/s they learned abroad, even though they didn’t grow up speaking them at home (it’s our children’s case when they speak French with a Francilien accent). Many of us who learned one or more foreign languages but never managed to do it early on never quite got rid of our non-native accent or grammar mistakes. Right before writing this piece, somebody posted a comment on a video we recorded at Martin Heidegger’s hut near the Black Forest, making fun of my “bad English,” which to him was a sign of a lack of knowledge on the topic (to most people, the definition of “good” and “bad” bears in their ability to tell or not whether the people they are listening to are relatable as members born in their culture or not).

There’s no such thing as seamless integration

Tolerance for “accents” and polyglots (even sketchy ones like me) is much higher in cosmopolitan cities. In Paris, for example, many secondary schools (collèges and lycées) teach German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and sometimes Russian as a third language of choice, whereas some selected establishments teach Hebrew, Chinese, and classical Arab. Most of these options also offer advanced “bilingual programs” for children culturally fluent, and we benefited from the Section International Anglophone, designed for children fluent in English. Our children took Spanish as a third language in addition to French and English, and they also benefited from a program funded by the Spanish Consulate in Paris, enrolling children of Spaniards abroad in selected locations in extracurricular Spanish language and culture classes, free of charge.

But there’s no such thing as seamless integration when a family moves permanently from one place to another. One of the things we have struggled with for weeks after moving somewhere else is what we miss from the previous home and routines; we are fortunate enough to have moved every time by choice and not propelled by economic or safety circumstances, as millions of migrants from around the world experience. We are conscious of this privilege; that said, moving permanently, especially between different cultures and realities, always carries tradeoffs. When one leaves a known environment and embarks on an effort that requires climbing a learning curve and experiences way more hurdles than previously, even on the most menial tasks—from going to the store to fill out some paperwork or participating in the new social fabric—, it takes time to acclimate to the new context.

Over the years, we have realized that we aren’t fond of searching for the easy comfort of existing activity-oriented expat communities abroad and prefer to undergo the difficulties of learning the language and culture and incorporating ways of looking into the world from these places into the reality of our family —and, perhaps, our personalities. We have noticed that when we visit Barcelona, Fontainebleau, or Paris, we can’t be out-of-context expats or tourists anymore; our connection with their culture, reality, and geography is so personal that we really feel at home. And yes, in these situations, we also feel the bittersweetness of reflecting on fond memories while conscious that the arrow of time goes only in one direction.

Landing in the CA secondary education system

In retrospect, one of the things that our children have come to appreciate from the places they’ve lived so far is the feeling that the door is open for them. They will always feel a bit at home there, whether they have relatives living nearby (it’s the case in Barcelona) or not (like in Paris); for friends, relations, and places make up for the familiarity our species craves when trying to make sense of the place where they happen to be.

Back to the question by Chris Frost from Godalming: our move to California felt easy in many predictable ways but was also challenging in other regards that we had not predicted. Despite the cultural differences between Barcelona and Paris, our children recognize their school years in both places as a part of one integral experience they identify as “Europe.” The idea of Europe has never come easy to Europeans who rarely leave their local realities, though it only takes a long stay abroad to acquire the required perspective that makes one realize that there’s indeed one such thing as one European reality, urbanism, way of life, and set more or less loose common values.

Chris Frost helped develop the first electronic financial messaging between financial institutions, SWIFT

We lived in dense, exciting places within Europe, but somehow our children mention that the less dense, quasi-suburban reality in which they are now immersed is more “dynamic” and less “rigid.” Instead of trying to adapt to predefined categories and expectations, whether at school or in their quotidian endeavors, they now feel that they can shape their experience and tweak it to their needs. PISA outcomes aside, As parents, Kirsten and I have discussed that this impression may originate from the fundamental differences between the US public education system and its European counterparts.

We talk from our two-year experience at two school districts from the San Francisco Bay Area that have the means and social fabric to offer exciting school subjects in an environment open to inquiry and respectful of ones opinions. We aren’t naïve and know that the children’s experience changes between schools and school districts. From our kids’ perspective, the American public school system benefits from a teaching style that is more dynamic and open to participation and less based on predefined templates of inherited models of unidirectional lecture (the “magister” giving a “master class” to passive alumni asked to pay attention and annotate silently).

Europe vs. US: tracking vs. comprehensive schools

This impression by our kids is based on reality. American secondary schools are typically comprehensive: all students attend the same school, usually very big, but have a variety of course options to choose from, which means that US teenagers get used to switching classrooms and classmates throughout the day, depending on their selected courses. Europeans will only find this level of personalization and dynamism when they go to college.

Chris Frost at his property near Godalming; this hut built by the common garden is used by friends and acquaintances when at the property

Instead of a comprehensive model, most countries in Europe follow a tracking system in which students follow different academic tracks, and decisions that will affect future academic choices are not easily reversible at a younger age, often around 14-16. For example, I liked math and physics but loved literature, history, and ancient languages, so I ended up choosing humanities. Perhaps (and this is a big “if,” as always with out-of-context speculation), if I had attended a comprehensive system, I would have tried to manage to do everything at once. Our children adore this possibility.

A difference that didn’t come easy to our oldest daughter, a rather bookish and reflective character, is the lack of strength that American schools have regarding the humanities compared to their European counterparts. US high schools have a broader curriculum with many electives and extracurricular activities, whereas European “lycées,” “institutos” or “gymnasiums” have share a more rigorous academic focus: public schools often undergo a regional and/or national curriculum followed by all students. The lack of rigidity of US high schools comes at a price. If American kids have the feeling that Europeans are opinionated and somehow knowledgeable when it comes to the humanities, there’s an educational basis that explains this perception.

Secondary education is also longer on average in Europe, from six to seven years, whereas American teenagers typically spend four years in high school, from grades 9 to 12, and every one of these grades has a bigger pop-culture significance, as expressed with the identifying names freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior (that my brain refuses to learn, BTW).

The new physical environment (and a perceived extracurriculars race)

Having landed in coastal California, a region that seems to have designed its middle schools and high schools to take advantage of virtually perfect Mediterranean weather, our kids have come to appreciate their bicycle ride or walk to school, even though sometimes they miss the bigger urban and experiential density of European cities. They soon realized that secondary schools have well-funded sports facilities and extracurriculars (sports in particular) are much more important and more embedded within education in the US.

To me, the middle schools and high schools I’ve seen in California resemble suburban college campuses and don’t relate much with secondary education centers in most European cities and metropolitan areas.

Our oldest daughter, a Junior, has found to share many things with her friends studying in Europe: they all feel such a level of pressure and need to perform in order to attend the college of their future choice that I’m beginning to think that the best role for a parent is to avoid contributing to the anxiety-inducing, high-stakes rat race that seems to have become something that shouldn’t define the rest of your life. Didn’t youngsters attend college to learn and establish their own social bonds, entering adulthood sometime along the way?

Some vernacular by the road near Godalming, UK

We read every day about the risks of the online world as a source of malaise, extremism, or alienation. Yet, many of us are lucky enough to enjoy a world of relations and perspectives that would have been much harder to achieve in a pre-Internet world. Accessing the personal experience of other individuals in similar situations can help third culture kids avoid “culture shock” when they move to different countries at an older age. For example, we noticed that our two younger children did acclimate somehow faster in France than our oldest daughter, who had left Barcelona at an older age and with a broader knowledge of Catalan and Spanish.

As a family, we try to cultivate a particular sense of belonging, and we are fortunate enough to keep friends in France and to have relatives and a house of our own to go back to when visiting Spain. It takes them just a moment to fall for a rich sensorial relatedness with their environment, even though they haven’t lived in Catalonia for a long time now. Proust’s madeleine effect is real —and very intense among third culture individuals.

The challenge of keeping remote relations alive

A case in point is maintaining a fruitful relationship with many friends and acquaintances, which in our case comprises many parts of the world; keeping long-distance relations alive with meaningful correspondence or even one-on-one interactions is challenging but not impossible when participants understand that the goal isn’t to collect people in social networks without ever really interacting, nor engaging in real-time conversations no matter when.

Between the futile action of collecting friends’ avatars and real-world interactions, there’s a rich gray scale of engagement with others, both in real-time or asynchronously. Synchronicity or even presential encounters are sometimes difficult to replace since we tell so much out of spontaneity, same-place interaction, and gestures; at another level, synchronicity is also an open door to solicitousness and interruption, which can feel especially tolling when our work demands focus.

However, delayed relations are especially effective in improving the signal-to-noise ratio. Writers and prominent figures in any imaginable discipline requiring focus and commitment have loved asynchronous interactions over the centuries—and not always due to the lack of real-time communications in previous eras: pen pals establish long-term bonds that may lack dynamism in the short term but are compensated with depth and high-stakes content.

Whether emails are up to the task or not is a matter of another article/s. However, there’s no reason to think it’s impossible to enjoy high-quality epistolary relationships via electronic messaging. Perhaps we’re creating now long-term bonds that others would enjoy in the future, the same way they like to read the letters between Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Edith Wharton and Henry James, or the “selected epistolary” of some writer or artist we respect (that is, the edited letters that person sent to other figures and close relations over their lifetime).

A wall worth contemplating, Godalming, southwest Surrey, England, UK

Some of us lack asynchronicity because, when used properly, it switches the focus from immediacy and superficiality to the marrow of things. But, like anything not happening in person, it requires the commitment of participants to avoid platitudes and try to keep the often long-distance pen pal relation alive.

A corner of Surrey, UK

We don’t like to miss out on people who, for different reasons, don’t write lengthy emails or messages but manage to tell their stories in a few words. Such messages have often sparked a meaningful interaction that ended in a video production on Kirsten’s channel. Our friends from the historic city of Godalming, midway between London and Portsmouth off the south coast of England, are a case in point. On September 2022, Chris Frost posted a message on our contact form:

“From the UK: you might be interested in our improved WW1 German prisoner shed.”

Geodesic coordinates followed, locating his property somewhere between Godalming and nearby Milford. A conversation ensued, and when we traveled to the UK in the fall of 2022, we made plans to visit the area, which—we read—was the birthplace of Aldous Huxley and, among other things, became the first population in the world with a combined public and private electricity supply.

Chris and his wife Helga Frost welcomed at their somehow alternative compound, which had much more to show than the converted prisoner shed from the Great War that had become their main residence. The farmstead included many dwellings and activities welcoming several family generations and friends growing something in the garden, taking care of the farm animals, or restoring old motor vehicles at a shop within the property. An old 18th-century farm was now a place to gather during family reunions on the ground floor; and a shared home on the first floor.

We connected with Chris and Helga for many reasons. Like us, they had married outside their circles (Helga is German); they had lived in North America and Europe and traveled extensively in a “campervan” spirit even when campervans had not been conceived yet; and, like our own children, theirs had also experienced the coexistence of different languages and cultures at home.

Our visit to the Frosts felt short, though we had plenty of time to walk around the property and hear about Chris’ role as an early computer engineer in creating the first global payments network, SWIFT, back in the early seventies. He also had worked in the San Francisco Bay Area decades before, and, as he explained his days on the US West Coast, he pointed at a tree nearby: the redwood he had brought to England as a seed was now towering above the property.

It took Kirsten some months to edit the video on our visit to Chris and Helga Frost’s Godalming farmstead, a place to celebrate reunion and camaraderie. Months after we posted, they hosted their extended family at the converted old farm to celebrate Christmas:

“Well done you both; your video has revived ever so many friendships all over the place. Many thanks and Happy Christmas. Chris and Helga.”