Thursday, 27 September 2012

How to be a Happy Expat Part 3: Be Yourself

When I first moved to France, I received several marriage proposals within the first three months. I was chatted up everywhere, from the Champs Elysees to my local bus stop. And I was followed on several occasions in locations ranging from the local forest to the toilets of a cafe on the Rue de Rivoli. Some of it was funny, but mostly it was downright sinister and I wanted it to stop.

That doesn't happen to me any more. Now it could just be that I am older and uglier but to be honest I don't think most of my stalkers/suitors/wannabe fiances were that picky. I suspect it's because I don't stand out as a foreigner any more. Something about the way I walk, the way I dress and, most crucially, the way I make or avoid eye contact with people has changed and I no longer look like the kind of girl who might get engaged within two minutes of meeting a random stranger in the street.

Feeling that I fit in in France is lovely. But even better is the fact that, now that I do (most of the time), I also feel free to choose not to fit in, some of the time. On the Paris metro, for example, the best way to fit in is to avoid human contact of any kind as much as possible. But I've noticed that when people do communicate, whether it's the driver cracking a joke on the loudspeaker or Understanding Frenchman offering to carry someone's buggy up the stairs, people really appreciate it. So now, when the anonymity of the city gets me down, I make a point of giving up my seat, holding the door for people, and thanking them with a big smile when they do the same for me. It might not be very Parisian, but it makes me feel better. And I know enough not to do it with the guy that's going to follow me for half an hour just because I looked him in the eye. Other small acts of rebellion include wearing plastic flip-flops in town just because they're comfy and thanking people, British fashion, more times than is really necessary in any transaction

One of the lessons I've learned from living abroad is that you can't change the world. But sometimes, you can change your world, and that might be all you need to stay sane.

4 comments:

  1. Ooh, I like that "fitting in" theory, because I was going with "older and fatter" (me, obviously).

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  2. Haha, Gwan, I think I'm in denial about the fact that that might be a possibility. Mature, sophisticated and unapproachable, perhaps ...

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  3. I have a hard time getting to the unwanted an unsolicited attention women get in France in some places. And you are right, when you look new in town, naive, young, lost or a combination of all that, it's worse!

    Last time I was in France, a guy wouldn't leave me alone at the bus stop. I was like "are you freaking serious buddy? I have a wedding ring and a baby bump!!"

    I'm sure the sixteen-year-old French I used to be would have been more assertive, but I'm too Canadian and polite these days.

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  4. Zhu, I think that's exactly the problem - actually those annoying guys, nine times out of ten, are not that big a deal, but when you're not used to it, it's hard to be just rude enough.

    I can't believe it still happened to you with a baby bump though!

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