To anybody who has or is planning to move to a new country especially one with life in a different language, here are a few tips to help you navigate the journey ahead. These are some lessons I learned from settling into a new life in france after not having taken a French class in over a decade and narrowing down my possessions to three suitcases so not having some home elsewhere waiting for me to return to at the end of it all.
1. Be strategic with your movements. Speaking a foreign language can be panic inducing. Being in a stressful environment like in line to order or to ask questions can turn the stress up a notch and make it hard to find your words. Until you gain your bearings, organize your day so your speaking intense tasks are scheduled outside of rush hour. Go to the grocery store mid morning or mid afternoon, go to the bakery very early when most people are still asleep. Museums and boutiques are more empty during the week so you’ll be able to ask questions and make small talk to flex your language muscles without the pressure of crowds to make you self conscious about your speaking abilities.
2. Pick places to become a regular. If there are things you’re going to do often, like grocery shop or pastry shop, or sit in cafes or eat ice-cream while it’s nice to try new places, do so and then pick a few spots where you can become a regular. This is a good way to get to know people and to have people get to know you. In france people can seem standoffish at first but once they warm up to you they are the nicest and most genuine. The difference between france and America is in America the customer service is very in your face. Lots of smiling lots of high pitched voices lots of ‘oh my god I love your dress’ and forced intimacy. In france people keep more of a distance and it’s a slower process to welcome someone but once it’s done it feels real.
Unlike in America where you can take a class with someone for an entire semester and sit and chat and laugh with them only to meet them out on the streets and greet them and be met with a blank stare or even a raised brow that you would dare acknowledge them outside of the normal situation where you meet. That has never happened to me in france. The girl that works at the cafe I frequent I see her on the street and we greet each other with a smile and a hello. The same with the guy who works in the bakery I visit a lot. Become a regular somewhere and I twill give you a feeling of welcome and camaraderie that will tide you over until you get a chance to make actual friends.
3. Take out your headphones!! Being aware of what is going on around you is smart on a safety level but it’s also handy to pick up phrases and sayings by overhearing conversations between native speakers. I learned so many sayings by listening to conversations on the train. It’s tempting to want to isolate yourself during the first few months when your feeling very separate to everyone but as time goes by you’ll miss out on training your ear to the language by hearing it spoken around you. Also you’ll miss out on opportunities to speak to people. having in headphones in is the universal signal for ’leave me alone’ but as the new person in town you want people to speak to you as much as possible! Even if they are asking you questions you’re not able to answer yet!
As months go by and you start to walk more confidently because you know your way around people will approach you to ask for directions or simple questions. It’s a good way to feel a part of the community and you can even improve your vocabulary when you try to explain something to someone and don’t have a word they will understand what you’e thing to say and help you complete the sentence.
4. Be open to different types of people. If you’re 21 it might seem like your friends should primarily be the 21 years old. If you’re in your early 30s 20 year olds might be quite annoying. But it is possible to find like minded people of all ages. Don’t be afraid to move away from a group if it doesn’t fit you. You might feel a bit desperate being in a new country and try to attach to people very quickly just so as to not be alone. But if you find that a group of people you’ve aligned with are really not the best fit for you don’t feel guilty to move away from them and start over.
That was my situation when I first moved here and a group of Americans tried to rope me into their pack. I felt as if maybe I should stay with them and even though we didn’t have the same interests I thought that perhaps they would think that I thought I was better than them because I wanted to move away. And they did. But it didn’t mater because at the end of the day I wasn’t here to please them. I ended up befriending women who were old enough to be my mother, some who were grandmothers, some who were not even 21 and from all over the world. The thing was that we had similar interests and our spirits meshed.
5 Don’t be afraid to share your interest with others and invite people into your world. I’ve found that people in general are open to meeting others and making new friends. And people also like to try new things and learn new things about themselves. I used to wish that I was a part of a writing group. In California these were usually paid workshops that are quite expensive and not very diverse. And what was stopping me from starting one myself? Well I don’t know any writers. Or so I thought. One day I told a new friend that I was going to a cafe to write and asked her if she wanted to come along. Turns out she loved writing but hadn’t done so for a whilee ’I never finish a story,’ she said. ‘I’d love to!’ And then another friend also was also interested. So the three of us met up and spent 2 hours in a cafe writing. And then we did it again the next week. If I had never suggested it I would have never known we had that common. Don’t sit wishing and hoping and wondering. Put yourself our there and you never know who has similar interest to yours until you speak up
6. Humble yourself. There’s something about being American that makes you feel like you deserve certain things. You deserve excellent customer service, you deserve a type of freedom and space. It’s that American entitlement I guess. I always thought I didn’t have it because I wasn’t fully American. And then I came to france. And. I saw how slowly things move and how indifferent people seemed to be and how workers seemed to spend all their free time dreaming up ways to WASTE customers’ time. My blood boiled so many times I wondered how it didn’t boil over and spill out through my pores. But when you’re a visitor or a new person in a new place you really will learn the art of humility. There will be a lot of misunderstanding and you’ll grow a type of patience you didn’t think you had in you. Because what can you do? Learn how things work before you criticize and adjust accordingly because you are in a foreign country so things will be done differently to what you’re used to. Just accept it and act accordingly.
7. Don’t take things personal. This is a good rule to follow throughout life, but settling into a new country it’s especially necessary. Because you’re already on high alert and your esteem is precarious you have to be very vigilant about how you react to people and situations. If someone treats you in a way that’s less than ideal it might be easy for it to hit on your insecurities – or as we say in the Caribbean for them to mash your corn. So if someone makes fun of your accent you might think that they are doing it in a mean way. If a couple of store clerks laugh a bit too menacingly after you complete your order and turn to leave a store you might think they are laughing at you. If you speak to someone in French and they respond in English (this is one of the most crushing things) It can feel like they think that your French is so bad they just can’t even be bothered to speak it to you. This is what traumatized me the most, but over time I came to realize that people are actually doing it because they think they are doing you a favor. Or because they are excited at the chance to speak English themselves! It has nothing to do with you!
8. Don’t be so quick to jump into a relationship. There’s nothing more lonely than being in a foreign land. You have to start over everything from scratch. If you are single you might think that a relationship will be the cure all for these blues but no. For one in a new place it will take some time for your confidence to be rebuilt after it’s taken the inevitable a hit. The worse time to jump into a relationship is when your confidence is not 100%. Manipulative types can smell low self esteem from a mile away and they NEVER have good intentions You will be looking to a partner to iron out wrinkles in your life that only time and your own efforts can smooth. Also you might be tempted to retreat into them instead of being out and doing the work that is necessary for you to get to the point of settling in.
No matter how strong the temptation I would suggest waiting at least 7 months before entering into a relationship. That way you’ll be able to find yourself and your footing. You’ll explore the area, you’ll find your favorite spots, you’ll make friends and you’ll carve out a life for yourself on your own terms. Then you can consider a relationship from this strong footed place, a fulfilled life that can be expanded further with someone else.