Home is Away from Home

Written by admin on October 16, 2009 – 3:48 pm -

You’ve moved to France, (or another foreign country), and it’s now your primary residence. Unless you were kidnapped at a very early age, it’s nearly impossible to lose your native identity and your sense of place and roots. Even if you wanted to, you can’t—and most people don’t and shouldn’t. But the question remains:

How do you become acclimated to a new environment? Some people don’t and choose to live exclusively in a community comprised of fellow countrymen and -woman. Realistically, that’s the same as never leaving the security of home (with some added inconveniences) and why bother if you’re not up for a new adventure and the opportunity to be exposed to different things and new cultures? Sure, there are trailing spouses who’d rather not be trailing. But there’s a reason they signed up for that duty and it’s better to make the best of it than sitting around bitching and moaning.

If I sound somewhat emphatic about moving from place to place, it’s because I left the U.S. kicking and screaming and full of resentment over giving up my fast-track job. My husband was offered a six-month-long gig that was simply too enticing for him not to accept. That was nearly 22 years ago and I became the one who developed an incredible sense of travel lust. But our initial foray into living in Paris didn’t begin well at all.

While Victor was working 18 hours a day (yes, people do work in France—if they’re foreigners), I was left to deal with the nitty-gritty and back-to-back house-guests in a language I didn’t speak… mais pas du tout. Learning how to operate the appliances was a major challenge, and I’m not quite certain I do now. Fahrenheit and Celsius, ounces and grams and all of the dry measurements left me stumped. Please have compassion. This was pre-internet and I assembled a list of each and every conversion.

There are so many ways to throw yourself into a local community—clearly some places are easier than others. Contrary to what some people may say about the French, they’re comparatively open, if you make the effort. This isn’t to imply they’re ingrained with the “welcome wagon” culture. But they won’t go out of their way to snub you unless you’re downright unpleasant. And they’re as curious about the newcomers to their apartment building or street as you are about them.

My husband had no idea about the stress I was assuming. All he knew was he was going from one office tower to another and had to produce and quickly. Victor was talking the same “language” and actually could have been in any country because his working environment was essentially the same. The canteen at his new job in a building at La Défense did serve substantially better lunches accompanied by wine. But they didn’t merit his coming to Paris since he wasn’t in Paris proper and couldn’t see buildings designed by Baron Haussmann unless he was looking through binoculars.

Back to getting settled—and no, I didn’t know anyone when I arrived in Paris: I knew I had to take drastic measures. I attended one meeting at the American Women’s Club, and knew it wasn’t my thing. Most of the attendees had children and wanted their offspring to retain their American background and not have their lives disrupted more than absolutely necessary. The women insisted on drinking instant Nescafe—but I won’t go there.

Children actually facilitate matters when making international moves. They meet on the playground and start chattering away nearly immediately. If only adults had the same language facility as young children, their lives would be so much easier. Parents soon find themselves struggling to converse with the other park goers. Schools bind people together because of shared common goals and seeing that their children are educated.

If you don’t have a child (and don’t think that moving can’t and doesn’t take definite tolls on them), a great equalizer is dog, especially in France, which is pooch heaven—almost literally: the largest pet cemetery in the world is in Asnières, just north of Paris. Even if you don’t speak a common language and can’t carry on a conversation, dog owners are always able to communicate.

Attend bi-lingual groups where people do language exchanges. There’s always an English-language publication where people want to meet and mix. And I don’t mean dating sites even though having a French significant other will catapult you into speaking the language quickly, that is, if your spouse or mate doesn’t object.

If you’re in France, attend wine tastings. Take cooking classes. Go on tours of neighborhoods where attendees aren’t speaking exclusively English. Take or tag along on museum tours. I’ve even been known to read French children’s books and find the pictures help a lot.

Give yourself permission to watch French TV. One of my most vivid memories of that was watching four women sitting in a group nude from the waste up. One man was clearly in charge and this was at 10 am. After a few minutes I realized that the doctor was discussing breast cancer and the importance of women doing self-examinations each month. But for a moment, I was startled and wondered exactly where we’d moved that porn was being shown during the day.

If you’re politically inclined, join the overseas chapter of Democrats and Republicans Abroad. Not everyone speaks only English because many members are coupled with natives.

Do take language classes. They’ll enrich your stay and ability to communicate with potential friends and neighbors. Plus, you won’t miss out on some of the subtleties of the place that’s your temporary (or longer) home. Whatever you do, and this is hard for a lot of people, speak the language even if you do it with a terrible accent. People appreciate your trying and you will improve.

It may not be quickly and you may never develop a refined accent. But you’ll know you’ve arrived when you can do battle with the phone company. The representative will probably call you Américain(e) but what the hell. That person can’t usurp what you’ve learned and experienced. No way, Jean-Claude.


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