How to have a great life as an expat in France

I’ve been in france almost a year and I find myself reflecting on this time and smiling at how everything worked out perfectly in the end. Exactly how I would have wanted it. Anybody who asks me now how is life in france I’d reply ‘it’s so good. It’s so soo good.’ But it would be a bit dishonest because it was a long road to get to this point. I think back to those seemingly endless months of endless sadness and despair. And I wish I could go back in time and tell myself to be more patient. I would be kinder to myself and remind that I should take it one day at a time. Dark days don’t last. Difficult situations become easier with time. Time. That is the solution to a lot of problems. Time and steady diligent work and the courage to start each day anew and not be discouraged no matter how disastrous the one before it was.

To anybody who finds themselves in a foreign country with a language different to your own and a culture even more so, here are a few tips to succeed in your new life.

  • Learn the language: If you don’t speak the language fluently take the time to really learn it. Your overall experience in society will be influenced a lot and be even richer according to how  well you can communicate with people in the local language.

Even if you were moved to a large city like Lyon or Paris where a lot of companies conduct business in English, at some point you will have to interact with someone who only speaks French.

It might happen when you find yourself in the middle of a riot a common occurrence in France.  With all the streets suddenly closed off and anxious to find your way home, you only option to do so might be approaching a grim faced policeman holding a gun in one hand and a ballistic shield in another and asking him for the way out. Chances are he will be able to best respond to you in French.

Or in a  more calm scenario you might be at the grocery store looking for a particular ingredient  and the worker speaks english but very little and you being the one who needs help will have to rise to the occasion and explain your case in French.  Or an old lady might approach you asking for help, help that you can give if you know how to communicate in French – the only language she speaks. It feels good to do a good deed, it feels even better to do it in a foreign language.

There will be endless opportunities to interact with people in the community but if you are closed off because of the language barrier you’ll miss out. Learning a new language is hard, it might be tempting to stay in a little bubble of expats who only speak English. However, the best part of living in another country is really immersing yourself in the culture and language is the first step. So take the time and learn the language. Take a class and be diligent with the studies, listen to French music, watch French films and don’t worry if at first it’s daunting and you understand nothing after a while you’ll realize that you were learning all along even when it didn’t seem that way.

  • Make friends! I was most looking forward to making friends with French people but it wasn’t as easy as I anticipated. Most of it was my own fault. When you’re new in a place and self conscious about your language skills it’s easy to feel intimidated by locals. And if it’s one thing French people aren’t really known for is going out of their way to rope people into their social circle. Any french person will readily admit to being quite cliquish. They will be polite with you and will talk to you but the chances of being quickly invited to ‘hang out’ are quite slim.

There are a lot of Americans in France. But I didn’t want to come all the way to france and then still be around Americans. Europe is quite large and diverse and a city like Lyon is cosmopolitan.  Once I let go of the stress of trying to find real french friends and the despair at not being successful  I decided to embrace everyone else. I made one friend from California and together we went out of our way to expand our social circle. We made friends from Sweden from Britain from Germany, Canada, Italy and Turkey. Some closer than others but it was great to get to know each other from so many different places. And there was so much to learn. Join facebook groups and force yourself to be social. Attend meetup events and speak to people. You will find people who just like you recently moved to the city and are also looking to make new friends. Go for it!

  • Be honest with yourself and do the work necessary to ensure that you don’t fall into the dangerous trap of ‘them versus us’.

I was around a group of Americans those first few months and a lot of time was spent criticizing France and French people. I believe we felt alienated and so our response was to put ourselves on a pedestal and try to convince ourselves of how much better and advanced we were unlike the French people who were so rude and ignorant and backward.  Not us! We were innocent babes whose only mistake was coming to this god forsaken country in the name of broadening our horizons.

 I found myself going down a very dark path. I realize first hand that the norm when you don’t understand is to attack and dismiss. A harsh realization.  I stayed with this group for a while so as to not be alone but after every outing I felt ashamed of myself and quite closed-minded. It was not  how I wanted to spend my time so I distanced myself and decided to go it alone until I met other likeminded people. It was a lonely time. But it was necessary to reflect and be aware of how I was contributing to my own torment. I made a conscious effort to not take things personally and to try and seek understand before all else.

So when the woman in the bakery was short with me, my first thought was that maybe it was because she could tell I was a foreigner and couldn’t be bothered, but then I realized maybe she was just tired. When a woman in the metro waited until she was right next to me and elbowed me with such force my rib felt bruised for a few days after, I wondered how come she singled me out of entire wave up people moving up the metro stairs at rush hour, maybe she was one of those underhand racists I’d heard  about –  the  ones who try to be a bit more subtle about it. That would be one way to do it, single out the only brown body in a crowd and take a sharp jab at them before they have a chance to do anything about it. Or, maybe she was just a crazy coot and I happened to be the unlucky one she lashed out at.

You have to really remain open minded and pick your mental battles. For me I decided to stay woke but also not being too quick to judge feel outraged or offended.

After some months the sun came out again and it seemed like people were suddenly being nice and kind and welcoming. I couldn’t tell if they were nice to me because the weather was beautiful or if they were mirroring my mood back to me. My newly carefree and confident demeanor that came from finally being able to communicate with confidence and being able to navigate my surroundings seamlessly

  • Be patient. My first 4 months in France was a never-ending walk of shame. I was constantly making faux pas, misunderstanding people and growing frustrated with others and with myself.

It didn’t help that given the different time zone I felt completely alone. The moments when I was really going through it, almost everybody I know who might have been able to offer moral support was fast asleep. It was a time to figure out how to truly be independent and self sufficient.

But one day you wake up and realize that your first thought is in French and the dream you had the night before was also in French. You’ll prepare breakfast and then head to work or to play. It might be summertime so a lot of lost souls (tourists) will be trying to find their way. Someone will ask you for directions and you will answer calmly and knowledgeably.

You might be waiting to cross the street and accidentally step onto a patch of freshly laid tar then jump back just in time before your foot becomes one with the pavement. The French woman standing a few steps away will look back at you and smile and say (in French) that she just did the same thing. You’ll both laugh and make a bit more small talk. When the light changes to let the pedestrians go you’ll wish her a good day and she’ll return the greeting.

You’ll go to the bakery to grab a sandwich for lunch and the woman who was working when you first arrived in France who you haven’t seen for a few months will be there. She will greet you with the biggest smile and ask you if all is well in a way that you can tell she really is happy to see you. On your way out she will wish you Une très belle journée  and you will know for sure that she remembered you and was happy to see you. It’s a beautiful thing when someone is happy to see you.

Later that evening you’ll meet a group of friends for un verre (a drink). One Canadian, one from Fiji, one from Sweden. You’ll speak English with French thrown in here and there for emphasis. There will be no underlying shame at speaking English in public because it will be a choice. Your French is perfectly fine but you choose to speak in your mother tongue and there’s nothing wrong with that.

You’ll see French people doing French things like rolling cigarettes with one hand in the metro and greeting each other with audible kisses. A couple next to you on the metro will be kissing passionately. You’ll pass a couple on the sidewalk doing the same. In cafes they caress each other and stare deeply into each others eyes. You see them at museums and on the sidewalk waiting for the light to change. always kissing alway caressing everywhere you turn! So French, so romantic! You might even find yourself doing the same with your own French love.

One afternoon you’ll run into your French friend on the street who is with 4 other people you’ve never met. You will greet her with la bise and she will introduce you to her friends all of whom will greet you with la bise. You’ll realize that in less than 5 minutes you’ve given 10 kisses and think that you’ve never before been so close to so many people. And you’ll realize that you feel at home, not just because of place but because of how you move through the spaces around you, how you react to people and how they react to you. It’s a feeling of being comfortable in your body in your soul and a connection to  and a new understanding of life and living. And it’s a beautiful thing indeed.

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