Expat Year 2: Life Learned and Lessons Lived
Another pass around the sun à la française. I looked back on my post 365 Jors: The Expat Life from last year and was so eager to write this one as I could tell that I was just getting started a year ago.
This year was a big mix of accomplishments and set-backs, joys and griefs. I traveled to some really amazing places, I learned a lot, had some incredible highs and also a lot of rough patches. It’s pretty impossible to sum up a whole year, much less the second set of 365 days as an expat, but here are the top 8 things I’ve learned, with some “pro tips” to boot.
1. The French STILL aren’t rude.
This will be a whole blog post one day, but for now, I’ll say this: Yes, there will be rude people everywhere. France is not exempt, but it is not even close to a rule or a valid stereotype. I’ve honestly met more friendly and kind people in France than I have in America, at least proportionally. I think the stereotype comes from a combination of tourists acting as if they are king, lack of social awareness/cultural understanding and French people being nervous to actually speak in English. I’ve learned French in Paris, so I have spent a lot of time here where I couldn’t speak the language, whereas now I speak nearly 100% French in public. People are charmed by the fact that I am an American that speaks French and thus do engage more readily, but I have always had lovely encounters with the French, dating back 16 years. PRO TIP: It comes down to, 9 times out of 10, be a respectful, lovely adult and they will be lovely right back. It helps if it is includes some French, even if it’s just two words.
2. Language and culture are inextricably tied. You can’t learn one without the other.
Language learning is not just a new set of vocabulary and grammar rules. You will never EVER be fluent if you learn a language in this way as you will be missing the essence of the language, the context in which it is spoken and the perspective of the world it communicates. While my vocabulary and grammar have certainly improved this year, perhaps more importantly my cultural and historical knowledge and understanding have widened. There are still plenty of things I don’t understand and I’ve had a lot of unexpected culture shock, but finally I have started to be able to see things from a French perspective more readily and that impacts and informs my daily interactions. PRO TIP: Watch TV, read books, learn history, and, most of all, hang with the natives! Always be curious and a sponge.
3. It takes a village.
Again, this one deserves it’s own post because it is SO CLUTCH. This is not something I have learned just this year, but has been reinforced enough that I have to repeat it. This immigrant/expat life just can’t happen if you go it alone. I had some friends here—both American and French—when I moved, and before I even arrived they were helping me find my way. I am a member of several expat communities, I am (unofficially) part of a French family now, and I have made French friends that have also added a layer of richness to my life that I didn’t have a year ago. I’ll never for a moment pretend that the life as an expat is easy, nor all wine and cheese and Eiffel Towers. It’s really hard actually but I can get through it largely due to the people around me every step along the way. My village is precious beyond words to me. PRO TIP: Find your village. Love them hard. Be part of other people’s village.
4. Bureaucracy is a nightmare.
Last year I had some visa issues, but really it wasn’t as bad as it was just annoying. I had NO idea what this year would hold. I moved during a visa renewal which literally put impossible restrictions on the finalization of the process (so, pre-pro tip: avoid this at all costs). Then I had to quit my classes a few weeks early to spend the night on the sidewalk outside the préfecture, which still didn’t result in me getting in at the préfecture. Finally, when I got a coveted appointment, the lady made me cry and I found myself in yet another impossible situation. Luckily she made some exceptions for me the second time around, and I got a short renewal. I currently find myself in another bureaucratic dark hole with a visa appointment on the last day of my current visa. Fingers crossed. PRO TIP: Bah, document everything from day 1. Try to ask lots of questions. Bring everything to your appointments because there will always be stuff they ask for that are not on the list. And always, always bring your resiliency!
5. Integrate with the culture.
This one goes hand-in-hand with number two, but it is a bit different. I know some expats who stay in their expat bubbles and make only expat friends where they speak only in English and can always stay in their comfort zones. In a big city like Paris, you can do this for YEARS, or a lifetime really. But you will be missing out on so so much. I adore my expat friends and many of them are part of my village. I wouldn’t and couldn’t do this gig without them. But this year my language level got to the point where I could actually start to really get to know the family. I can make friends and socialize in French. This all adds so much value and removes so much fear from my life. About a year ago, when I had to repeat a whole level of language classes after spending a month in the States, I was determined that I would force myself to not shy away from speaking. Jérôme made it exclusively my job to make all restaurant reservations. I hated it, to be 100% honest. But now, there is little I don’t understand and little I can’t say (even though I still make lots of errors and a thick accent). PRO TIP: Set aside your fear (and pride) and push through the discomfort of leaving your own language bubble and community. The rewards are so rich on the other side!
6. Find (and maintain) balance.
This goes for so many things and is something I’ve really struggled through this year. After about 18 months of nearly non-stop intensive French classes, I was SO fried. My health started to break down, which was terribly frustrating as I came to France to recover from chronic health issues. Determined to break the cycle before it got out of control, I worked hard to rest, re-find an equilibrium and focus on self-care for a few months, which paid off in a big way. Paris has so much to offer that it can sometimes be overwhelming and frustrating because you feel like you are missing out when exhibits and events slip by. Thankfully, there will be a whole new set that open next week that will be just as equally amazing. PRO TIP: Have crystal clear priorities and fight to maintain them. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed and miss out on the unique opportunities you have as an expat.
7. Watch out for those anglicisms! They will keep popping back up and getting you in trouble.
Ha, two of the first things I said to Jérôme with my EXTREMELY limited French skills were huge faux pas. “Je suis chaude” is literally translated in English to be “I am hot.” It was summer time, we were swing dancing and I was sweating. Then I said, in typical American style, “Je suis excitée!” I had just arrived in Paris and I was experiencing new and exciting things every day. Turns out, both of these phrases are ways of saying you are turned-on sexually. Luckily he knew enough English to reverse-translate what I was saying and we just laughed about it. A few weeks later, when I was with his family and experienced my first real French-family meal, I beamed “Non merci, je suis pleine!” and passed on seconds. That translates literally to “I am full” but really I had just told them that I was a pregnant animal. 😳 Fast-forward to just a few months ago, I told a professional “Je suis très ouverte.” I was telling her that I was open to her ideas and would follow her creative lead. MINCE ! I did it again! While this one can technically go both ways, it is likely going to be taken with a sexual connotation as well. I thought I had learned all of the things to avoid, but apparently not. And, most recently, I told a friend that “Je vais faire un petit jeune” which literally translates (well, when you spell it correctly, but I was typing and I didn’t) “I am going to do a little fast.” Except what I actually said was I was going to do a young (male). Turns out of you want to talk about fasting, the circumflex and reflexive pronoun are super important. I’ll update next year if I have actually made it through the list or if there are more that I’ve added. PRO TIP: Try to learn these, but most of all don’t take yourself too seriously. These make for great inside jokes after you have learned them.
8. You have years. You are the day.
This one is a combination of language and philosophy, but from the moment I put these two things together, it became a favorite language nuance. In French, when you talk about age, you use the verb avoir, to have. You aren’t 33, but you have 33 years. They belong to you. You have them, and with that comes the concept of earning them and being able to profit from the experience of these years, regardless of what they may have held. They aren’t just years that passed, but they are years you have in your history, your story. On the other hand, when you talk about today, a day or date, you use the verb être, to be. For example: What day are we today? We are the 29th of May. We are. And with that carries this nuance of being in the moment and then once you live those moments, you then collect them and add them to the rest of what you have. Live it and then collect it, pack it up into your suitcase filled with all the other days you’ve earned, adding to the varied collection that belongs to you. And this brings me back to my favorite mantra and final PRO TIP: collect moments, not things. Those French are deep, non?
So there you have it, a little bit of what I have lived and learned in the past 365 days! Any questions? Drop me a comment below!