Becoming an Expat in France: Beneath the Surface
A lot of people dream of moving overseas and the romanticism of a life as an “expat” (which is a somewhat white-privilege word for immigrant, and one I typically try to avoid in daily life). They visit the country and can instantly re-imagine their lives there. A spark ignites and they start dreaming of doing the crazy: moving abroad.
I did it too. The first time I visited Paris was just weeks after I had turned 18. I was still living under my parents’ roof, I spoke ZERO French and had just graduated from High School. I am pretty sure if I had been there 1-2 years prior, I probably would have looked at becoming a foreign student, and instead of applying to Yale and Princeton, I would have applied to the Sorbonne and Beaux-Arts de Paris! Nonetheless, I was there the summer before I started college, so that ship had sailed. But the dream definitely sparked and I knew that one day, someday, I had to live in Paris.
Fastforward 11 years, I visited my friends in Paris and had dinner with REAL-LIVE EXPATS. They were several years younger than I, and had made the decision shortly after getting married that they were going to make that Expat in Paris dream a reality. Granted, they didn’t really know what they were doing, but they did it and they showed me that it was possible. If they could, I certainly could, too! Another two years later, on a fourth trip to Paris, that dream became an imperative now-or-never. I came home and poured myself into research and started formulating a plan.
Let me just say, if I did it, if they did it, so can you. I did it against all odds at possibly THE most inopportune time. I was chronically ill, and had been for over 10 years. I went to about 5 doctor appointments a week just to survive. I didn’t have a job, nor the ability to work or an updated portfolio. I didn’t speak French. I owned a home (that was deeply underwater thanks to buying before the housing crash). I had two pets. And I was married to a man that had absolutely no desire to join me. (No, I didn’t leave him for Paris, in case you were wondering.)
Let me just say, if I did it, if they did it, so can you. I did it against all odds at the possibly the most inopportune time.
But that summer, I knew the only way forward in my life, and my personal path of healing and renaissance, started with a plane ticket to Paris. The research began, as I had to figure out how to get a visa, where to live and how I was going to make it all work as an American expat. I opted to go the student visa route, and started looking for shoebox-sized studios. I read every blog I could find about others that had done it too, which proved to be absolutely invaluable for setting my expectations and truly knowing what I was getting myself into. I read story after story of the heartache and struggle that was the life of an immigrant. Most people said it was worth it, but it was a FIGHT to make it happen, much less long-term.
I decided I was ALL IN and prepared myself for battle. This wouldn’t be all wine, cheese and Eiffel Towers. My visa application ended up involving intervention from my local congressman. My apartment search turned into literally a full-time job and involved adding international calls to my cell phone plan so I could call Paris at 3:03am (3 minutes after business opened in Paris—long enough for them to make their coffee!) to try to snag a flat that was posted just the night before (waiting ’til morning in the US resulted in me loosing 6 others along the way). I poured myself into research of all things Paris, all things world travel, all things language learning.
When I arrived, it was a HUGE victory, yet the real battle had only just begun. Everything is hard as an immigrant. Everything is complicated. There is a layer of stress that is constantly added to life, especially until you can master the language and culture. Everything takes some helping hands and a village. Luckily, I have had a lot of help along the way, which is part of what motivates me to blog about my experience—I know it can’t be done without inside info and helpers.
People often express jealousy over people like me. Let me reiterate what my friend told me (that changed everything):
There is nothing special about me. I’m not particularly “lucky.” The only thing that is different about me is that I decided to do it and then I continue to fight for it every single day. Moving overseas is not about being special or having luck. It is about making a decision and being resilient. You have to really want this.
Everyone sees the Eiffel Tower pictures, our picnics and dancing on the banks of the Seine, the cheese, the wine, the bread… OH MY! It’s like living in a dream or on a movie set… and I won’t say for a moment that it isn’t. It is a dream and it is my dream! But what they don’t see are the countless appointments at the préfecture (where I have about a 75-80% failure rate), the inevitable blunders and awkward situations you find yourself in daily while learning the language, the exhaustion that sets in when you have to think about every. single. word. you ever want to say or you ever hear. The fear of telephone calls and regular human encounters. The difficulty of not being able to see family, especially ageing family, on a regular basis. Reducing your belongings down to the bare minimum so you can live in 15m2. Dealing with transport strikes and getting stuck in places you have never been, needing to find alternate transport. Relearning how to do nearly everything that you used to do in life. The crying breakdowns that happen “for no apparent reason” every 4-6 weeks … the list goes on. Don’t get me wrong, I am NOT complaining. I’m just keeping it real. Living in Pairs is nothing short of magical. But just with everything magic, there is a whole lot more that goes on beneath the surface. The magic is just the tip of the iceberg, even though it is the most rewarding and wonderful iceberg I’ve ever scaled.
Living in Pairs is nothing short of magical. But just with everything magic, there is a whole lot more that goes on beneath the surface. The magic is just the tip of the iceberg, even though it is the most rewarding and wonderful iceberg I’ve ever scaled.
My advice? If you want it, absolutely, 200%, without a doubt GO FOR IT. And if you are planning a move, I know it certainly takes a village! Drop me a line and check out my other blog posts about making the leap.