How to adjust to life in a new country

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 Continue reading “How to adjust to life in a new country”

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.

Continue reading “How to have a great life as an expat in France”

How to job search while maintaining your sanity and social life

Wake up in the morning. Check email. Nothing but junk. Have breakfast. Check email. Random messages from mailing list you’ve unsubscribed from multiple times. Read. Work on assignment. Check email. Nothing. Close computer, unlock phone check email nothing.

This is the type of cycle you might find yourself in during a job search period which can easily be 9 months of agonizing wait. You can apply for hundreds of jobs and 5 or 10 months later get a single callback that can lead to a job making everything else seem like wasted time. With this in mind, the key is to not let your job search consume your entire life, to continue living even while under the dark cloud of temporary unemployment.

Continue reading “How to job search while maintaining your sanity and social life”

On Manspreading and intraracial micro-aggressions

I totally forgot about man spreading until I moved to Lyon and started taking public transportation daily.  It’s a strange experience sitting on the metro next to a guy whose legs are so wide open you’d think there was an invisible force pulling each knee apart. You might think that upon seeing someone arrive to sit in the seat next to them they would pull their legs together to give the person some space the same way one would move a bag to their lap to free up the seat for a passenger but no.

I wonder what happens when it’s two men sitting side by side. Would they close their legs then? Or would they both continue forcing each leg as wide apart as possible so that the thigh of one presses against the knee of another in equal but opposite directions.

Continue reading “On Manspreading and intraracial micro-aggressions”

An American in France: On transcending nationality

With the 4th of July being tomorrow I feel an internal fire of patriotism the flames of which are being fanned by the voices of the scores of Americans who have recently swarmed Lyon, France.

 It’s the week of the FIFA women’s world cup and as the host city for the semi-final and final matches Lyon has overrun with visitors most of whom appear to be Americans.

As for me, I haven’t felt this American since I landed at Charles de Gaule last August and the border agent smiled at me when he saw my passport and said ‘Americaine? Bienvenue!’.

Continue reading “An American in France: On transcending nationality”

9 Hours in Marseille

One of the easiest and most enjoyable day trips from Lyon is to Marseille. After you’ve laced your most comfortable walking shoes, take the first train from Lyon Gare Perrache at 7am and two hours later you’ll arrive at Marseille Gare Saint-Charles. This train station is within walking distance to anywhere you need to go. Don’t bother to get a metro or bus ticket, simply exit the train station and begin walking down the hill.

The best way to explore most cities is by wandering around with a general sense of what you might find. Marseille is no different. I didn’t do much research before this trip. I had a goal to be pleasantly surprised. I knew there would be many interesting murals and Continue reading “9 Hours in Marseille”

How to thrive during scary times.

 Military officers from Opération Sentinelle patrol the streets in the Croix-Rousse neighborhood of Lyon. Opération Sentinelle is an ongoing state of emergency operation in France due to continuing terror threats and attacks.
Military officers from Opération Sentinelle patrol the streets in the Croix-Rousse neighborhood of Lyon. Opération Sentinelle is an ongoing state of emergency operation in France due to continuing terror threats and attacks.

I have this running (admittedly very dark and somewhat inappropriate) joke about how every time there is a terrorist attack/natural disaster/very bad thing, people on social media usually find some way, even if by jumping through enormous hoops to make it all about them. 

So when Notre Dame went up in flames a few weeks ago everybody posted photos from their 2008 trip to Paris claiming that they were JUST there and are so thankful to have escaped harm. And also obviously much more heartbroken about the whole thing than you could possibly imagine.

I always wonder why people want so badly to be associated with terrible happenings. Is it that we have an inherent longing for close calls to get our adrenaline up? Do we all harbor secret death-wishes? Do we long to be present at our own funerals to see who will show up and who will shed the most genuine tears? Are we desperate to see if anybody will mourn us when we are gone or if life will really just carry on as we suspect it will. 

Today I spent the afternoon working on my videography project around Lyon and ended the day in the Croix-Rousse neighborhood where I enjoyed ice cream under the summer sun and then saw a movie with my friend. Late in the evening on the way home we checked our phones for the first time all afternoon and both saw concerned messages, me from a friend and her from her mother. There were reports of a bomb going off in Lyon and they wanted to make sure we were unharmed.

Turns out a parcel bomb was activated in the city and several people were wounded.  I read a news report and was stunned to learn that the location of the bomb was a street corner I walked by some hours earlier.

My friend and I laughed nervously at our narrow escape and then both fell silent as our individual thoughts consumed us. Then I felt a strange sensation. It began in my knees, like a dull tremor that became an obvious shakiness. Was it fear?

Weak in the knees. I always thought this phrase was reserved for feelings of romantic deluge.

I felt uncertain, anxious and suddenly suspicious of nothing in particular but also everything possible

I was just there!

You really can ever be too careful nor can you ever be too safe. Living in a country that seems to be under a constant state of high alert for potential terrorist activity is unsettling. But it can also be a bit liberating.

You see, it’s all a matter of how you think about it.

If you feel like your chances of surviving each day have lessened a tiny bit then maybe you will go out of your way to make even more of your life while you have it. If you accept that tomorrow isn’t promised you might be more inclined to make the most of today and every other day.

 During my first few months  in France I was constantly watching my back. Trying to see who was around me and what they were doing. Is this man standing next to me on the metro with an oddly shaped object in the back of his coat strapped for a suicide mission or is he just wearing a back brace. Is this man staring at me from across the street about to attack me or is he just idle. Are these police patrolling the metro station because they know there is a terrorist lurking in the shadows about to make his move and shoot up the place or are they simply taking precautionary measures?

Almost a year into my sojourn I’ve relaxed a lot (though not completely) and no longer harbor constant fears of impending doom. I admit that at the back of my mind I do believe that it’s possible that something tragic could happen at any moment, but I’ve realized that there’s not much that individuals can do to avoid every bad thing that could possibly ever happen. To do so would mean staying indoors aways, never venturing out to do anything and essentially not living at all.

To live means to accept that good things will certainly happen to and for you and also not so good things will likely also happen at some point. To live also means to accept that some times you’ll be happy and other times you’ll be sad. Sometimes you’ll be healthy and other times you might  be sick or injured. And one day you will die. Ideally it will be when you have lived a full and rich life and it will be of a natural cause and not at all painful. But who knows. Instead of being obsessed with a simple fact of life – that at some point it will end,  the best way to truly live is to  accept that the future is somewhat unknown and so to make the most of the present. 

France in the era of the ‘Gilets Jaunes’

These days in France, on Saturdays in particular, it seems as if chaos is the order of the day. What started the third weekend last November as a protest against fuel price hikes and proposed tax increases, has escalated to a weekly brawl throughout France but notably in Paris and other large cities like Lyon where I have been living since August. Each Monday morning I check the news to see what went down, if anybody died, what happened to the protester who took up the tear gas canister to throw it back towards the riot police (he lost four fingers)  and to stare incredulously at photos of burning police vehicles as the Eiffel Tower stands defiantly in the background.

As an American living abroad I was strongly encouraged to sign up for state department alerts, you know, to keep me safe from terrorist harm. Well,  there’s nothing more anxiety provoking that starting each day with an official sounding email warning of a POTENTIAL terror activity/violent protest/police beat down and being left perplexed because the area of concern could just as well be my own living room or back yard. So what, I must just stay cooped up in my bedroom closet all day like a fowl? And what if the weather is beautiful and pleasant, or I have plans to meet up with friends for coffee and have to go out on the street? What must I do then? Stay home? To be safe? What point is the point of being safe if it means giving up your freedom to live your life as you please?  Life is a never ending game of risk analysis, the factors just differ depending on where you are in the world. 

Public transportation shut down is a common theme of these protests. Whether it’s the metro workers the ones doing the striking or the Metros are shut down as a precautionary measure –  apparently tear gas leaking into underground stations make for an unpleasant and dangerous mix. But a few added miles of walking isn’t anything to cry about. 

As for my general composure, I am glad I finally got a handle on  the extreme anxiety that plagued me for the first 4 months here. Triggered each time I came upon grim faced gendarmerie patrolling the streets with full military gear and matte black assault rifles, their fingers ever so close to the trigger.  Alert and ready to protect and in the process rendering me completely terrified. People can get used to anything. And I suppose I have finally gotten used to the bizarre aspects of living in Lyon, France. A city which seems to be constantly on a high alert for terror activity, and where civil service workers seem to love nothing more than a good strike or as they call them ‘manifestations’. The gilets jaunes are a special case though and after months of their antics I find myself a bit indifferent.  

So now when I see things like grown men fighting each other in the street with gulf clubs I just watch them like it’s a soap opera and chuckle to myself. (from a safe distance of course).

And when on a day like last Saturday I was in a shopping center that out of the blue closed all it’s exits (these aluminum garage type doors that appeared out of the blue) instead of panicking I simply found a security guard and asked him ‘qu’est ce qui ce passe?’. It turns out this was a precautionary measure to prevent the vagabond gilets jaunes from entering and wreaking havoc as they are wont to do.

A helicopter had been hovering in be distance for the entire afternoon and police sirens rang out continuously. I decided I’d rather not be trapped somewhere so found another security guard, one of the numerous who also seemed to have suddenly appeared out of thin air and asked him which exit was still open. Sure enough there was a small exit and the man guarding it said to go ‘tres vite’. 

Outside in the unseasonably warm afternoon I wondered why any of this was necessary as among the normal looking people there was but a single weak looking yellow-vest clad man leaning against a post, just cooling out in the breeze.  As usual the French police and security system seems to do the absolute most to ensure safety. To the point where sometimes it feels like terror prevention in itself becomes terrorizing to the everyday citizen. 

Tensions remained high throughout the day. I could see it on people faces and almost felt it in the flesh on my walk home, as I rightfully crossed the street while keeping eye contact with the luminescent green pedestrian icon flashing in front of me, a car came less then a foot away from knocking me down. I guess he was in a bit of a hurry. Unscathed, I shook  my head and said to myself ‘re- Bienvenüe a la France’

The pharmacist.

I said the name in English but he’d never heard of it. I did a quick google search for a French translation, which I should have done before I even entered the pharmacy. After a few seconds of silence, he asked if I could explain what it does. I hesitated. I searched for the words. I found them. Yes, I knew exactly how to say in French – what it is meant to do. The word is déprimé. I couldn’t bring myself to say it. 

I thought of what he would think of me ‘What on earth does she have to be depressed about?’

Even though I knew he didn’t know me or anything about me and had no reason to judge me, especially with him being a medical professional and all. Still….

‘C’est un vitamin peut être…’ I said, sheepishly 

‘Ou peut être ç’est avec les vitamins?’ 

In Walgreens this is the case, nestled between Vitamin E capsules and Vitamin B complex that’s where I’d see it. I’ve never bought it though. The times when push came to shove I tried the real thing. It didn’t work. Too strong. Never got around to going back and trying to find something that did work. I had this crazy idea of fixing myself. Thinking my brain into calmness.  

D’accord he said with a tone of resignation. He seemed to accept that he wasn’t going to get that far with me.  When he glanced down at his hands and inhaled then exhaled quickly, I realized that he probably could read my mind a little bit, and could sense my trepidation of saying out loud what I wanted. He looked up carefully and asked quietly ‘Maybe it is for when you feel a little bit sad?’

Un peu triste

As he said those last three words he looked at me with such understanding and caring it reminded me of the time years ago in Port of Spain when I woke up from my first spinal surgery and Dr. Toby was rubbing my toes asking me how I was feeling. 

‘Oui, oui! C’est ca.’

I was barely able to contain my relief that I didn’t have to say it myself.

He didn’t have the exact thing but said he had something very similar. It was completely natural. I paid 19 Euros for a bottle of 60 capsules, got instructions on how often to take it and after thanking the pharmacist, high tailed it across the street to buy a bottle of water to swallow the first dose. For the rest of the day I felt reflective and relieved.

Why was I so moved by this encounter with the pharmacist? And why did it seem to have an immediate affect, a sort of relief from the feelings of despair that had shrouded my existence for the past 4 weeks and grew more suffocating with each passing day?

Depression is a strange phenomenon. If that’s what’s wrong with me in the first place. Whatever it is, it manifests in a type of loneliness that is so pervasive it seems as if I am constantly sinking into an abyss with no chance of ever escaping. It is as if darkness is a force and at the same time a location.

Imagine being pushed away from everyone towards yourself, and then folding in upon yourself so that everyone else and the rest of the world is nothing but a stifling cloud that keeps getting closer and closer, and you feel as if you must escape it. But the further you retreat the darker it becomes and the less air there is to breathe.

Now imagine all of this is happening but to the outside world you seem perfectly fine, with a perfect maybe even enviable life.

Maybe you have your dream job or healthy hair and flawless blemish free skin. Maybe you drive a luxury vehicle and live in an enviable zip code. Maybe to everyone else you dont have anything valid to complain about. First world problems, if even that.

When you wake up in the morning you feel lucky that nothing on your body hurts, but still, your mind is in flames. 

This battle is not new to me. In fact my first foray into the depths of such despair came when I was merely 7 years old. But over the years the episodes have become more frequent and much more devastating.

It was after I had that encounter in the pharmacy however when the pharmacist phrased it, with no judgement, with no mocking as being ‘just a little bit sad’ that a weight of shame was lifted off me. No I wasn’t just a little bit sad, but him phrasing it like that was like a recognition of whatever it was that ailed me was real and nothing to be ashamed about and perhaps even something that could be managed. The same way when you are a little bit sad it’s not the end of the world. Maybe, I thought, whatever it is going on in my mind might also not be the end of the world, and it’s just a matter of identifying if and then figuring out how to deal with it. 

The pills did something for a few months. It was like a volume button to turn down the tormenting voices in my head. But they are stil there, rendering me almost incapable of doing anything productive and certainly preventing me from doing anything creative.

When I think of how many quizzes I’ve done online and how many Wikipedia pages and Psychology Today articles I’ve read trying to diagnose myself, it’s laughable. Well, today I decided that enough is enough. Maybe in France is where I will find some real help. Some guidance. Some answers. I have an appointment in 2 days. I hope it will be a step in the right direction.