When I first moved to Paris, I came on a sabbatical from my legal career to learn French, a lifelong goal, childhood dream. By the time I was about half way through my courses at La Sorbonne, I realized I didn’t want to go back to my life as a big city lawyer, with the stress and the pressure and the long hours and the live-to-work lifestyle. In just a few months, I had been captivated by France, by Paris, by the French mode de vie – work-to-live, not live-to-work.
The end result, after graduate school at Sciences Po Paris and meeting my husband, was becoming a French Madame. (It sounds so funny, Madame – at 32 I don’t feel old enough to be a Madame!)
In my time as an expat since those first days of the sabbatical, living in an adopted country surrounded by a culture not unlike my own but vastly different in certain important aspects, I’ve learned a number of invaluable coping habits that might be of use to anyone living in a foreign place. (I wish someone had told me these things five years ago!) Even if you are a long-term visitor like I started out being, or a you’ve come to a new place for job stint, or your embarking on a new life, as I eventually did, these will help you get through some of the “what the …. is going on” moments you will inevitably encounter.
1. “But I am speaking French…!”
When I first came to France, I knew about three words of French. ‘Bonjour’ spoken with my then terribly pronounced accent as ‘Bond-jor’, ‘Merci’ as “Marsay’ and ‘Au revoir’ as ‘oh-vorer’. It was embarrassing. But I had come to Paris to learn French. And I threw myself into the task.
Learning a new language for some is not easy. Learning a new language in your late 20s is almost impossible; at least it was for me. There was a time when I was certain that I wasn’t going to make it. I just couldn’t get my tongue around the words. I couldn’t pronounce anything correctly. I didn’t understand all the tenses. With time, I could understand but was too shy and embarrassed to speak.
Then I undertook an immersion. Eight weeks of not a single word of English. The impetus for this rather drastic action was a family holiday when I would for the first time meet my then-boyfriend’s French parents. Reason enough!
It’s been four years since that summer when I started the immersion, and I now am, finally, finally, fluent!! Thank god! I mean really, it certainly did take long enough.
And sometimes I still don’t feel fluent. Take yesterday as a perfect example. As we have all this construction happening in our area at present, cooking is a little difficult so I gave into my laziness and went to the local épicerie (corner store) to buy a can of ravioli for dinner. The owner couldn’t for the life of him understand what I was asking for. He being an immigrant to France too made the whole exchange a comedy of errors. Suddenly, he asked me if I was American and the conversation unfolded a little something like this:
“Yes, I am American.” I replied in English.
“Oh. I have son at school, Georgia.” His accent in English in heavy but I can make do.
“Oh the South. Well, I was born in the South.”
“I from Iran. Iranian.”
“Oh, interesting. How long have you lived in Paris, then?”
“Comment?” His English was failing him. I tried French.
“Combien de temps avez-vous habité en France?”
“Oh, oh, 14 years.” He’s reverted back to English.
“J’habite en France depuis 5 ans.” I’ve lived in France for 5 years.
“Do you speak French?”
I am speaking French!
Of course, the moral of the story is not to give up on learning the language of your adopted country. It makes them feel that you are at least trying when you stammer through a nicety; it differentiates you from the cavalier tourist who thinks the whole world must speak English fluently. And when the progress doesn’t come easily, don’t let them get you down. It happens to the best of us.
2. Create a new family.
When I first arrived in Paris, I didn’t know anyone. I had to create a circle around me of friends who became like a second family. This is an important step and one that is not always easy to do. The French, for instance, are rather reserved toward friendship with étrangers. Like most of us at home, they already have their circle of friends and they are happy with the stability of that group. The French aren’t as friendly or as superficial as us Americans, who immediately make friends with everyone but find most of the friendships aren’t of much durable value. When you become a friend to a French person, you are so for life. You’ve passed all the tests, and they’ve passed yours. The French have a different system.
I had a core group of six or seven friends during my first years as an expat who became my family away from home. They were invaluable to me.
You need to make a home away from home.
3. Conform your expectations.
French service is not American service. The French wait in lines at the Post Office, at
the bank, to get their driver’s license, to renew their passport. And they wait a long time. The officials or employees, especially those bureaucrats who wield their only power in this office, take coffee breaks right when you arrive at the front of the line and make no apologies about it. They chitchat with their fellow workers endlessly while you wait to be served. They seem to move in slow motion.
Part of this is a result of politics, I’m persuaded. People can’t get fired in France (it is very difficult to fire someone), so people are secure; they don’t worry about job performance. The other part has a twofold explanation: the French culture of enjoying life, and the idea that class systems based on money or position are taboo (a throwback to the Revolution, I’d say).
Reasons aside, an American looking for American style service in France (or in Paris, at least) will be astonished, frustrated, angered, resentful or any combination of the above before you arrive at your desired conclusion.
The trick is to keep calm. Remember, you chose to live here. They aren’t in America. You’re in their country. This is how things are done here, and you need to adapt.
For me, going through the hurdles of visas and cartes de sejour was a nightmare. I’d have to come back five or six times before they finally accepted my documentation. No one ever gave me the same demands. There is no manager to complain to. I would have a 9am appointment, arrive a little early to realize that 100 other people had the same appointment. I’d end up waiting four hours or more. I was reduced to tears several times in the privacy of my bedroom after several of these rendezvous.
And then all of a sudden it all made sense. I was expecting them to be kind and friendly when I walked up to the counter. I expected them to tell me exactly what I need to bring and then accept it. I expected them to have a copier in the building to make the umpteen photocopies required (infuriating me for wasting all that paper!). I expected them to take credit cards for the payments; instead I was sent to a Tabac to by a stamp as payment (yes, a postage stamp). I expected American customer service with a smile, the client is always right philosophy.
But those were my American expectations. And this is France.
Now, anytime I have to go to a governmental rendezvous or take care of some task that in North America would take a few hours tops, I bring a long novel, a notebook, and cancel anything else I had on the agenda for that day.
I’ve adapted to their way of doing things. Ever since, gone is the frustration, done is the anxiety that I’ll be late for the lunch I planned after my 9am appointment. Gone is the rush of indignation when this clerk tells me the exact opposite from what the last one told me. I’ve freed myself from the aggravation. I simply smile and tell them I’ll get those papers together and ask for another (fourth, fifth, tenth) rdv.
4. Bring a little home with you.
When I got married, I arranged for a container to ship over many of my furnishings and personal belongings that had once been in my apartment at home. I brought over family photos, knickknacks that remind me of university, law school and old friends. I have my favorite sheets and the pictures that have hung in my bedroom since I was a little girl.
I feel at home walking into my apartment from the relatively unfamiliar city outside.I have things that link me to my past, reminders, faces. The mix of old with new creates a seamlessness in my disordered past that invites a warm cozy feeling. Home is where the past meets the present and together they lay way for the future. Home is where you feel like yourself. It helps to be surrounded by your most precious belongings.
5. Keep laughing, keep smiling.
You’ve adopted a new country but that doesn’t automatically mean that they want to adopt you. Fair enough. Immigrants don’t have an automatic say in how things should be run in their new countries. We don’t get to lead or direct or demand. We are new-comers. We need to appreciate. We need to accept. (Otherwise we should leave and find a more suitable place to reside.)
Be respectful of your adopted countrymen’s way of life. Don’t try to change them. If you want an American lifestyle with American conveniences, go home. Embrace what is new to be discovered in this novel culture open to you. Learn another way to live.
And when it all become too much, which it will every now and again, just keep smiling. Reengage your sense of humor. Laugh it off. “So they’re totally inefficient and unstable lunatics, yes, yes. But I still love living here.”