This summer for me marks the end of my fifth year in France. 5 years, four jobs, three addresses, two attempts to return home, and somehow, I find myself feeling settled and happy in this country, with no real desire to move on any time soon. I don't regret (m)any of the experiences I've had along the way and I suspect many of the lessons can only be learned the hard way, but, for what it's worth, here are my pearls of wisdom about how to turn a university year abroad into over half a decade of international living.
1. Location is important.
When I was young and naive, living in France was my goal and I didn't think terribly hard about the finer details. I've had some great experiences in the less visited regions of provincial France, and in my first year in particular, there were lots of advantages in being off the beaten tourist/expat track, but in the long term, a place that wouldn't make you happy in your home country isn't going to be that much different just because it's abroad. This isn't to say that everyone should live in the capital or the tourist havens, just that you need to weigh up the pros and cons just as carefully as you would in your native land.
2. Find your career
Not an easy one for foreigners in any country, and particularly not in France, where being different is often not an advantage. I happen to work in a sector where it's fairly easy to find a job anywhere in the world, but ironically it was returning home after years 1 and 2 that gave me the option of coming back to France to continue a satisfying career that I love. If I had been more focused on staying in France, either for myself or for somebody else, that would never have happened.
3. Have a balanced attitude to language.
During my first two years in France, I was very focused on speaking French at every opportunity (and luckily, in deepest Picardie, the opportunities to do anything else were pretty limited!). Now that my French is fluent, though, I really appreciate that I have a lot of contact with native English speakers as well. My French may have plateau-ed a little, but I think this is an OK trade-off for the fact that I get to maintain a linguistic balance in my life. There was a time when I avoided speaking English, and often felt taken advantage of if French people wanted to speak English with me, but I suspect I lost out on some interesting friendships as a result. By all means work hard to learn the local language, but don't underestimate the value of being able to express yourself in your mother tongue too!
4. Make local friends
Again, not always easy, but very important. Many of the best things about life in France occur in private circles (and, more specifically, around the dinner table!). Having French (or whatever nationality) friends, or (and I hate to wheel out the old cliche, but it's true) a French partner, allows you to enjoy all the things that make these crazy "What is going on here?" moments of the first year or so worth putting up with.Take the time to get to know people well and you'll gradually start to understand why things are they way they are too.
5. Make international friends.
Easy to do in Paris, perhaps harder elsewhere, but this is one of the best parts of living abroad for me. Being fellow-foreigners is an excuse to meet all kinds of interesting people and international friends can sate your appetite for foreign culture long after your French environment has started to feel like home.
Those are my tips. What are yours?