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Being an Expat in France – Vive la Difference! Two girls stories

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Being an Expat in France – Vive la Difference!

by Veronica Lavil living in Sorbonne, Paris. Blog – kikalavil.com

I moved to France when I was 19 from a small town in Indiana. Moving wasn’t new to me, in fact, I had grown up on the road. I had been to (if I counted correctly), ten schools by that time. I had grown up between two cultures, Spain and the United States, so I always felt out of place. That’s where I came up with the line for my blog, « a beautiful, jumbled mess of cultures » because that was how I had always felt growing up. In the States I was the Spaniard and in Spain, I was the American. I never felt like I had been approved by either culture. One of the most important reasons of why I left the States comes down to, after lots of inner interrogation, I was looking for my place in this world, and that was why I decided to do it in a foreign country, where I wouldn’t be in either culture I had grown up with and had to try to « claim » it. 

I had always been obsessed with the French language. My mother says that when I was little, I would try to put on the films in French, but she would change them to Spanish that way I would be completely bilingual and I wouldn’t get « more confused ». Today, she regrets not having let that motivation to learn French from a young age get in the way of learning Spanish. I still would have learned Spanish, I just would have had a larger foundation in French by the time I was older. 

Moving to France also came with the fact that I wanted to have a gap year after high school. I had moved around a lot, so my credits had been mixed up by my last high school, and I had graduated the way they wanted me to but not the way big colleges were expecting me too (it is a complicated system in the states). After finishing high school, I looked at ways to move abroad (either the Peace Corps, Work Away, and being an Au Pair). My mom liked the Au Pairing version the best, since I would be going to Europe and be taken care of by a family. 

I arrived to Nice on August 14th, 2014, and this was my first time in France. I barely spoke the language (I knew the basics from high school). My host family was nice at the beginning but I felt like they were on top of me to spend « family time ». At the beginning it was nice, but after a few days I did feel an urge of culture shock and wanted to spend some time alone, which didn’t exist in their vacation home with the father’s parents. I noticed they could be a bit condescending, telling me they thought my French would be better, etc. I brushed it off saying it was only the beginning. The day we were leaving for Paris, where I would spend my year, I got up in the morning and snuck to the bathroom. I was wearing my pajamas and hadn’t brushed my hair or anything, and I was also on my period and had a tampon in my hand. As I passed the dad in the hallway right before I entered the bathroom, I smiled but quickly snuck away. Once I was done and headed back to my bedroom, I could hear the dad yelling in French. The mother came to my bedroom and told me that in France, it was a long tradition that the younger people say good morning to the older people in the household (this is honestly an old thing. The French do say « bonjour » to everyone by politesse). I excused myself and when we re-crossed paths, I told the father good morning in English and he replied that we were in France and the word was bonjour. That was the start of what was to come with this family. 

Cultural differences are hard in general to get accustomed to. How a culture eats, how they speak, how they interact… with the family, it felt like once I started getting things under my belt, they would throw something else my way. Already, they were condescending to the American culture, and would forget that I came from a Spanish one as well. They would always test me at the table, whether I would cut my lettuce (in France, cutting lettuce is seen as rude. You are supposed to fold the leaves), whether I could cut my meat/seafood correctly, whether I would keep both of my hands on top of the table (thanks mom for being strict on that one) and even how I would set the table. When I would astound them with my table manners done correctly the « European » way, they would say « our old au pair wasn’t able to do that ». If I did something incorrectly, they would blame the American culture, and if it wasn’t that one, it was the Spanish one. I started picking up French quickly, and could only understand a lot more than I could speak. One time, I arrived to dinner and nothing had been set up. I had been out with a friend and when I arrived asking about dinner, they reminded me that they had been out to dinner with one of their friends. I nodded and before I left, I heard them speaking amongst themselves that I was awful at French and that I wasn’t making an effort to learn it (which I was. I was also taking French classes and wanted to pass a French exam so I could be accepted by the Sorbonne). By the end, I left my contract earlier than expected. When I told them I was leaving, they interrogated me and asked me if I had found a boy. When I said no, they asked me if I had found a girl. My sexuality had nothing to do with why I left them, and yes, I had found someone, my French boyfriend. But hey, they didn’t need to know that.

Once I left, I felt free. I lived with my boyfriend for a few months out in the countryside (since he is not based in Paris) while I was looking for an apartment. That was difficult though, since his small town had basic transportation and getting to Paris would take an hour and a half. I worked with a new family located my second year, but instead of being an au pair, I was their nanny. That way, I had total independence from them and my life out of work was mine. 

Dating someone that is not from the same culture is difficult. Especially when you don’t speak the same language. Frédéric and I met in a bar 7 months after my arrival (people always like to think that is the reason I stayed, but I had made my decision 3 months in). The first sentence I said to him he corrected, and I just smiled and knew I needed him in my life. For a while we debated whether we should go out together, or just remain friends. In the end, we liked each other too much and two and a half years later I am happy to call him my partner. We have had everything thrown at us, from cultural differences, paperwork, language… it has been messy but we want to work as a team. Today I speak French thanks to him, and now he is learning English. He was the first person to know when I was accepted into the Sorbonne, and he was my first supporter and always has been. One of the reasons I fell in love with him was for how much he pushes me to accomplish my dreams and be what I want to be. 

I was accepted to the Sorbonne in May of 2016. I wanted to study Political Science but was not accepted. Instead, I was accepted into the History program, which I am still ok with. My final goal is to become a journalist. The grading system here, the way they test and they way they write papers and debate is completely different. My first semester grade was lower than I expected, but was still passing. The second semester, since I had gotten accustomed to the system, I had a higher level. People ask me why I decided to study here, and the reason is because I am a European citizen (Spain) and in France, if I have the equivalent of their « BAC » (final exam in high school, which in the states is our high school diploma), I have a right to study, as long as I have the French language level. In the states, due to the mix up with my credits, I would have had to work through community college and then a four year school, which would have taken the same amount of time as what I am taking now. I took two years off, but I will graduate by the time I am 24. I would have been in debt by the time I graduate in the states, but here, last year I only paid around 200 euros to go to school (plus my books). 

I remember people telling me back in the states before I moved to France that I was making a big mistake and that it was a waste of money. I wrote a few articles for certain websites back when I arrived to France announcing what I was doing, and some people criticized the fact that I was taking time off and just partying my way through Europe (I wasn’t). I realize that I am privileged to have been able to make this move, and I won’t deny that. I don’t have to do anything with visas due to my Spanish citizenship (and yes, I am also an American citizen), but moving to France was on my money that I had saved in high school for college. I took a risk on myself and went outside of the lines, something I will never regret as hard and lonely as it sometimes gets.

Find Veronica on Instagram

Another French Life —

By Ciara Doran in Saissac. Blog – coolthingsilove.com

Myself and my French partner made the hasty decision to move to France almost three years ago. It was something i had never imagined in my life. To be honest, up until three years ago, if someone had told me i would be living in France and raising my kids here, I would never have believed them! I had never even once visited France on a holiday, even though its only a short distance by plane from my native home in Ireland and I couldn’t have envisioned starting a new life a country where i don’t speak the lingo.

Here’s how it happened. I had been living the dream in New Zealand for five years on a work visa and enjoying a laid back life of carefree bliss. The latter part of that time was spent in a tiny village in the south island called Lake Tekapo. It was a beautiful little ski resort village and had the most picturesque scenery i had ever encountered. I felt lucky to be blessed with the beautiful surroundings every day, but unfortunately it was so remote that i often felt isolated there. Even though there were plenty of people my age and lots of parties, i always wondered if, perhaps, life was somehow passing me by.

Lake Tekapo

My work visa was keeping me there due to the rules stated in the conditions and i began to feel trapped. I lived there for three years, so when i found out the restaurant and bar that i managed was changing owner, i felt like the universe was telling me to take a leap of faith. It was the push i needed to make a move. I decided not to accept my new contract offer and find a job somewhere new. This was a real step out of my comfort zone, since i knew how hard it was to get a visa contract from an employer you had never worked for previously. I just felt as though, if i didn’t go now, my life would be spent sitting on the fence. I didn’t even have another job lined up but i just thought, this is it, its now or never. I began applying for any suitable jobs within the same field. Due to restrictions on my visa type, it would have to be the same job title. I knew this posed as difficult but i was a hundred percent determined and convinced myself i could do it.

I got my lucky break within a few days! I couldn’t believe how blessed i was to be offered an even better paying job with the same title in a beautiful seaside town called Akaroa, a French settlement in New Zealand, only three hours away. It was one of the most beautiful places i had ever visited and couldn’t believe my good fortune. I would arrive with all my worldly belongings and leave behind everyone i knew for an exciting new life. It was both terrifying and electrifying. I was so excited to see what the future held for me. But altogether scared of how it would be, starting over again. I went for a visit and met the business owner, signed the contract and applied for my new visa. Nail-biting stuff as i waited the response. Sure enough, it came through within a few weeks and i was on my way!

Akaroa

I started work within two days of arriving and i soon fell in love with the stunning scenery and the hustle and bustle of life there. It was so much more lively and full of young people, so naturally i was over the moon. I felt like i was on top of the world. After only a few weeks, i met the love of my life, Tristan. I hadn’t had a proper relationship in ages since it was hard to meet anyone, living in the middle of nowhere. We immediately clicked and i just knew he was the one. His french accent and lovely manner had me roped in and soon we were inseparable. We ended up moving in together quickly.

I fell pregnant and we were both really happy. We decided to have the baby in New Zealand as we both wanted to live there permanently. Everything was fine, we were making all the arrangements and looking forward to the birth. Tristan had really wanted to visit his Mum in France and he had a flight booked so off he went on holidays for two weeks. I decided not to go since i was six months pregnant and it was a 24 hour flight in total. All seemed to be going well until one night i got a phonemail from Tristan to say his Mum had died suddenly from a heart attack. It was an awful shock and nothing we could do. I felt so bad for him, my heart ached. The next day i made the decision to hop on a flight and come to France. I needed to be there for him and it was the least i could do.

Arriving in France, it was a sad time but relieving to finally be there for him. We drove from the airport in the heat as it was the middle of summer. I couldn’t believe the sheer beauty of the landscape, the tiny historical villages and ancient history all around me. It was like something from a movie. Or a book where you visualise pretty, floral gardens and old stone walls. Lush greenery and exquisite old houses. It was something i had never experienced in such vast quantity. Every little village told its own story. Winding roads leading to new discoveries everywhere. They are obsessed with roads here, its really a place you can get lost. Its somewhere you want to get lost. I now understood the adoration people had for France. It really is a unique and well kept beauty.

The House

When we arrived at the huge stoned mansion in the countryside, i was completely blown away. It looked like it should be a museum. The vast walls went four stories high, leaving beautiful open spaces inside. The ancient original panelled windows were still functioning due their perfect craftsmanship and had stood the test of time. Giant doors leading to huge rooms full of light. The architecture was superior. I imagined whoever lived here were the elite of society back in the day. Talk about a wow factor. Every room and winding staircase told a story of its own. Some rooms even had the original wallpaper. Flagstones paved the entrance and the original floorboards prevailed. I marvelled at the original features and how they been preserved.

I fell in love with the old house and when i was led into the garden, it reminded me of the story “The Secret Garden” from my childhood. It had an arch shaped cast iron gate which was rained on by purple wisteria. The wisteria had spread all over the massive balcony out the back and on along the gate. Meandering through the garden were plentiful and pretty flowers of all kinds. It had originally been an old paper mill and the structure of that remained. A river, perfectly formed ran along the side of the garden and the further you delved, the larger it got until you reach a little basin in which you could swim! It was truly beautiful. I loved being there.

It was however, a sad time so i couldn’t fully appreciate it. When it came time to decide what to do, we had to decide quickly. It would be a decision that would affect us for the rest of our lives. Tristans step Dad had just lost his wife and would be all alone for Christmas. He had raised him for most of his life so he couldn’t bear the thought of him being alone. I began thinking of my own mother, living in Ireland. Its so far away from New Zealand and soon we would have our baby. We agreed the best thing for everyone was to return from New Zealand and live in France. It was a very quick decision considering we would have to go back there, collect all our belongings, flog most things and return within a month! I was six and a half months pregnant and only allowed to travel up until seven and a half months, so it was really a crazy venture. We booked our flights and went. It was sad leaving our life behind but we knew it was for the best. I was scared to make such a huge move into the unknown but it had always worked well for me in the past so i was motivated.

Arriving back in France was a relief, to be finished all that travelling and the long haul flights. It was tinged with sadness from all the events that lead to it but it was a new beginning so i embraced it. The hard part for me would be the language. It sounded like rapid muttering! Thats the best way i can think to describe it. I was completely flummoxed. I cursed myself for choosing to learn German instead of French in school. Little did i know, the language was going to be a huge barrier for me.

The next scary realisation was that i would be giving birth in a month in a foreign country with no grasp of the language. I suppose once you know when to push thats all that matters, right? People thought i was mad and when i think of it, i probably was, but my life just propelled me in this direction and there was little i could do but try and learn how life in France really worked. There were dinner parties and long lunches that went by in a haze. Not knowing the language was very isolating and altogether awkward. Im an introvert so i was really struggling. On the plus side, the food was really top class and i began to realise why the French are famous for it. I was more than happy to have three and four courses for lunch and dinner and going to restaurants is commonplace, so that made me happy! Soon after, it was time to bring our beautiful new baby into the world.

Along came little Tara and our lives were changed forever. She was the best and most beautiful thing that ever happened to us. All i cared about was being with her and making our little family happy. I started embracing French culture and doing as the French do in order to settle in better. I started having the odd glass of red wine, eating the smelly cheeses and trying all the new foods. I had always been against trying them before but the more i tried, the more i enjoyed. I started trying my best to make conversation even though people often looked at me as if i had two heads. The pronunciation is so hard in French that even if you know the words from reading them, chances are you are saying it wrong and no one understands you! I did a two week crash course in the first weeks i had arrived so i knew the extreme basics but i was a long way away from normal conversation. Everyone made an effort to help me along though and i found once i tried even a little, they warmed to me.

Sometimes i just wanted the ground to open up and swallow me but i knew i needed to soldier on. To this day my French is nowhere near fluent but i can get by and get my point across. It all comes from sheer determination and i was lucky to have a very supportive boyfriend through it all.

At times it was isolating, since i didn’t want to drive for the first while. They drive on the other side of the road so i was scared to attempt it with my baby in the car and before when i was pregnant. When i finally plucked up the courage, i realised it was easy. My mind had warped it into some impossible task. It just came naturally and i was driving everywhere since i had new-found freedom. I began sightseeing and it was fantastic to just go driving and end up discovering new places.

My mum was able to visit me all the time and vice versa as we were living near a Ryanair airport so that was a life-saver. I really needed her during my low times and Tristan was working long hours since he had bought a restaurant so it was often lonely in that huge house. I hadn’t quite bonded with his step Dad and never really felt at home there. It was a beautiful house, but it wasn’t ours and i felt more like a long term guest. After a while, he met someone and we began looking for our own house. It was a big relief to have our own place and we couldn’t wait to find somewhere.

We began our house hunt and viewed all kinds of buildings, big and small, even a castle! We had to find somewhere close to the restaurant for Tristan and i needed somewhere a bit more lively as i was becoming bored of living in the middle of nowhere. The tiny village we lived in didn’t even have a shop. Lots of tiny villages in France are like this and its not like anywhere else i have travelled. There are ghost towns everywhere where you wouldn’t see a soul on the street. I needed somewhere with a bit of life and at least one shop! Luckily we soon found our dream home. We fell in love with the view. Its directly in front of an ancient castle and a panoramic view of the Pyrenees. We had hit the jackpot as it only cost a fraction of what we expected to pay. Needless to say we grabbed it with both hands. It needed a lot of work as it was very old and run down but we seen the potential and it was full of charm. Best of all it was ours!! There were two shops, a butchers, a post office, community hall and even an ATM!

 

I started to meet more and more people and began socialising again. French people sometimes came across as a bit stuffy or even rude, but i learned that it was merely a culture difference. For instance, i used to get offended when i would say hello ‘bonjour’ to strangers on my walk, only to be ignored. Afterwards i realised that its a bit odd here to say hello to strangers! I decided i would continue as i had always done and even if i was ignored i would say bonjour again the next time i passed. I ended up getting to know the neighbours, even for a chit chat. Another thing i noticed was how people don’t really talk about the weather here. I got some funny looks or was even sometimes ignored when discussing weather. Its very bizarre but again, not something that is done much here. In general i find the French don’t like small talk. The culture is so different to what I’m used to, where you just talk about random stuff for the sake of a chit chat.

Table manners are important! You need to remember to excuse yourself when you leave the table and have proper etiquette otherwise you will be getting some odd glances. On the other hand, what we might consider rude, like talking politics or religion over dinner is perfectly fine. In fact, they love a good heated debate. Money is something that is definitely off the cards for discussion however, that is the height of rudeness, so beware! They talk with conviction lot but its not argumentative, more passionate. Its confusing at first and i thought they were all always arguing with each other over dinner haha.

They worship their food and eat pretty much everything so you need to make an effort to eat whatever is served. That was a hard one for me to accept but the fear of being the rude foreigner spurred me to eat things i would have never touched. Now i love trying new foods and I’m way better off for it. Its more about understanding the way of life here than judging it. Once you embrace their culture, you are in!!

Its definitely different but as they say in France ‘vive le difference!’ and you need to love the differences to truly settle in to life here. Once you get over the initial awkwardness, like kissing strangers on both cheeks or hugging someone only to have them freeze up, (since its not really the done thing here), it becomes a humbled way of life. Im glad i had the opportunity to live in such a different country, with all its perfect imperfections. It has that ‘je ne said quoi’, i can’t put my finger on it. I never dreamed i would end up here but now that I’m here, I’m happy!

 

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Comments

  1. cW
    June 19, 2017 at 3:32 pm

    The stories are amazing yet very different. I love it. I love the ups and down that makes me want to root gor you ladies so tremendously. Bravo.

    • blognewser
      June 19, 2017 at 8:20 pm

      Thanks, glad you enjoyed reading our stories!

  2. Throughtheiris
    June 24, 2017 at 8:07 am

    Hi! Very interesting subject which resonate with me as I am a French expat in the UK! I can relate to some of the stories. Luckily, I arrived for an Erasmus and it was really a fairy tale for me! Anyway! Liked the two different stories but would love to have seen more pictures along the way 🙂

    • blognewser
      June 24, 2017 at 2:29 pm

      Hi, thanks for your comment. I will add some more photos, cheers for your feedback!

  3. Yolanda
    June 24, 2017 at 3:22 pm

    These are two great stories! I think it takes such courage to love in a different country. Kudos to both of you!

    • blognewser
      June 24, 2017 at 4:20 pm

      Aww thanks, nice of you to say! 🙂

  4. Su {Ethan & Evelyn}
    June 24, 2017 at 4:08 pm

    This is such a great post and what amazing stories are from these two very brave ladies! Incredible! I admire how crazy (in a good way – of course) they are. What a wonderful ending to their new beginning to their stories too! Thank you so much for sharing I really enjoyed reading the post.

    • blognewser
      June 24, 2017 at 4:19 pm

      Thanks, it certainly seemed crazy at the time but yes, it all ended up being fine in the end! Glad you enjoyed reading the post!

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