Last weekend I had dinner with some friends, whom I met during my French lessons when I moved to France. During this enchanting dinner in the countryside, as were chatting and laughing with no care in the world, It just struck me that, wow, I’ve actually come a long way since then! I was so comfortable, chatting away to waiters in French like it was the most natural thing to me.
Having lived in England for almost two decades, It wasn’t easy so to feel settled in France. Anyone who has travelled to a place so different from their homeland would vouch for some sort of culture shock experience. And for us who have relocated, especially late in life, we can definitely relate to the culture shock phases namely; the honeymoon, frustration, adjustment, and mastery.
Honeymoon. I remember feeling over the moon the first month or two after moving to France. Everything was fantastic! The food (which by the way is still delicious), the wine, visiting all the beautiful French towns, listening to French (which sounded so beautiful even though I understood zero). And If someone ever wronged me, I would dismiss it as ‘the French way’ and ‘aww, how cute!’ But of course a honeymoon is short lived, and soon reality came knocking.
Negotiation. So after the honeymoon period wore off, everything that used to be charming and rosy started to be annoying. I started to compare every little aspect with my home country. I started to notice how unclean the streets were. The droppings that were left for others to walk on, ugh! I remember for the first time encountering the rebel in me that I never even knew existed. I tried to find every excuse under the sun to fly back to England. I missed my friends, my old apartment, my old job, my park where I used to run, even the lady at the corner shop.
Adjustment. Well this period was interesting. I remember how people kept remarking how fast I’d learnt French and how I was so good at this and that and so forth (oh those praises really help guys, give them in abundance please). At this point I had joined a few clubs which I will mention below. So all in all I started to feel that I was getting somewhere and the feeling of wanting to pack my bags and fly back to England had finally subsided.
Mastery. So the final phase in the process is the adaptation. It does not come over night. It’s a lengthy process but quite rewarding when one reaches it. For me personally, I felt like this after I had mastered the language, made some friends and I’d started working again. I felt a sense of belonging. I felt like I was part of a community. I no longer feel like a stranger when I walk down my street or jog along the river.
Learn the lingo
Language can be such a huge barrier. In France you will find that not everybody is fluent in English or even if they can speak a fare bit, they do not dare to speak as they are accustomed to perfectionism. In remote areas, you will struggle to find people who speak English. So my best advice is; learn the lingo! I wrote an article last year on how I did it. Feel free to peruse.
Get out there
It can be daunting to be in a new city. It feels like a fish out of water but one must try and overcome this. Start to do the things that you did back home. Whether being going to the gym, the local library or even a trip to the hair saloon (although this could bit a bit tricky to start with, see my rant). These are things that you identify with so losing them all completely could only make matters worse.
Join some clubs and try to make friends
As soon as I could state my name and address details in French, I went to join the local gym. And my tip here is ‘try to be sociable’. Hellos and goodbyes come so freely for the French. A person at the back of the bus would coolly burst their vocal cords in shouting ‘merci’ to the bus driver. So they are quite nice like that but when it comes to forming close relationships, oh man, you gotta do some work there! By the way if you are sporty then you will love the south of France. They are absolutely sports fanatics so surely you won’t be deprived. And I find sports lovers so outgoing and all about the team spirit, so thumbs up there.
Join expat communities
There are a lot of people living abroad, you are not alone. They all share same anxieties and frustrations so occasionally its good to meet up to exchange ideas. I joined Internations, which is fantastic. As much as I appreciate being in contact with the expat community, one must remember that its equally important to actually mix with the locals. So If I were you, I wouldn’t get too attached to people from home, which brings me to my next tip.
Apply the tough love rule
Resist the temptation of staying too close to home. I think the temptation to stay in your comfort zone is quite strong. I remember wanting to text, Whatsapp and call everyday-ok, every hour!. This really interferes with the integration into the new environment. Stop dwelling on the past. Resist the temptation and instead, try to reach out to your neighbour and so forth. After all, this is your new home. If it helps, try to remember all the positive aspects in the new environment and highlight all the bad aspects you did not like as much back home. Sounds like playground? Yes, but it worked for me.
‘The devil makes use of idle hands’. If you don’t keep busy, you will have a lot of time in your hands to ponder about all the cultural wrongs and whatnot. Let me tell you, you will not change a thing there, it’s like that! C’est comme ça! It’s a complete waste of energy. So instead, be productive and try to keep busy. Studying the local language can pretty much take up your day anyway. But with that said, to feel absolutely integrated into a community, one needs a sense of purpose. A job can bring a lot of satisfaction on this front. However, It can be tricky to start working straight away. I met so many qualified people at the French school but none of our qualifications were valid in France. I worked as a Senior Biomedical Scientist in UK. Here in France, they said that I didn’t have the right qualifications, thank you very much! So you now what? I noticed the demand in English language training, I got my teaching qualifications, and now I fill my days helping people to communicate better in English and thrive in their businesses. And I couldn’t be happier.
It’s funny but the whole time when I first moved here It took me a while to actually admit that “I live here’. I the beginning it was just a holiday and later It felt like just a rough patch and it will pass. I made my poor husband so worried. Of course I moved here so that we could be together but he had/has such a demanding job and works all hours. So I was alone a lot during this process. But after some months of living here, I’d say a good 12 months, I started to feel like yes ‘I live here’.
Of course I am no expert on these matters. I am just sharing my experiences and what worked for me. Have you lived (do you live) abroad? How was/is your experience?
Happy relocation. It gets better and better.