Monday, 25 August 2014

Expat Revelations: How I've Changed Since Expatriation

Coming back from our holiday in Scotland this summer, as Understanding Frenchman and I hauled our luggage on to the train that would take us south, to. London and eventually to Paris, I was taken back in my mind to the day over a decade ago when I made that journey for the first time, all alone and dragging an even bigger suitcase behind me. It was a crossroads in my life, and I can't think of a single other moment when I have embarked on a path with so little knowledge of where it might eventually lead me. And so, this time round, it was the perfect moment to reflect on the next topic in the Expat Revelations series: how I've changed since expatriation.

Without a doubt, moving to France changed me. And yet, it's so hard to define exactly how. As someone else in this series commented, it's difficult to separate the changes that come with maturity from the consequences of expatriation, perhaps especially when you move abroad when you're young. Nevertheless, if I'm going to get to the point with this post, I suppose I'd better try.

I can relate to people from different cultures. When I returned to the UK after first living abroad, I was very conscious of how much people (particularly younger people - the age I was at the time) often depend on cultural references when interacting with each other. Making international friends forces you to seek out the more fundamental things that you have in common, but then you have the fun of sharing your cultural references and learning all about theirs.

I realise that opposing points of view can sometimes both be right. If I'm honest, I think I knew this intellectually for a long time before I started to really understand what it meant. Often, cultural differences come down to giving priority to different values, but people from both cultures would nevertheless acknowledge that the other culture's values are important. For example, a French friend who worked in Belgium commented that the. Belgians place enormous importance on a kind of democracy in the workplace. This is good in the sense that people get to have their say and feel their contributions are valued, but my friend found it very inefficient compared to the more hierarchical French system where the managers take a decision and everyone else (supposedly!) does as they're told.

I don't believe everything I read in the papers. There's nothing like reading the UK press's take on French affairs to make you realise that journalists, even resident foreign correspondents, don't always understand much about the society that they're writing about. Often they don't even get the facts right, never mind understand the context. This is why, for example, people in the UK think that the French all expect to retire at 62, when in fact the vast majority of my generation will work until 67 ... just like in the UK.

I can explain the make-up of the United Kingdom exactly (if you want to know yourself, try watching this excellent video), but I no longer get offended when people mix up the different terms (unless they're English of course).

I have different fears ... but that's a topic for next time!

Friday, 22 August 2014

Expat Revelations: Seeking comfort in a Strange Land

I managed to miss the deadline for the second post in Holly's Expat Revelations linkup, mostly because, far from seeking comfort in a strange land, this week I have been in a very familiar land and between catching up with family and friends and four glorious internet-free days in the Highlands, I'm a bit behind on everything.

After seven years of living in France, I tend not to experience homesickness much (and ironically, when I do, it's usually when I'm back in Scotland and am reminded of what I'm missing!) but there was certainly a period which I haven't blogged about much when I went through the full range of loneliness, frustration and regret that can arise when you move to a place where you know absolutely nobody and a job that isn't quite what you hoped would be and have to deal with the horrors of the French administration to boot. Nowadays, my need for comfort tends to result more from the trials of commuting and the trials of dealing with the odd stereotypically rude Parisian but a lot of the solutions are the same:

Appreciate what's wonderful about the country you live in: in my case, this can mean eating a delicious French treat, strolling around Paris with my camera or planning a trip to somewhere beautiful.

Talk to a native: a sympathetic local can help you understand a complicated administrative procedure, explain the logic behind systems and events that have you baffled and even just serve as a useful reminder that while there might be better ways of doing certain things, most of the sixty-million people who live in your adopted country seem to be getting on just fine.

Read blogs: as well as being a place to share frustrations, blogs can be a fantastic source of inspiration and a reminder of all the positive aspects of living abroad. I also find that writing mine makes me seek out what's positive and interesting in my life and makes me focus on that. Blogs also help by confirming that  a) other people have made this life choice and survived and even enjoyed the experience, and b) you are not insane for doing the same thing.

"Therapy": this is what my expat friends and I call meeting up for wine and a moan. In the middle of a tough week, it gives us something to look forward to, and by the end of the first glass, we've usually finished whining!

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Go West

When you think of Brittany, what do you picture in your mind? Wide, sandy beaches and wild, rocky coastline? Tiny harbours and the the gliding sails of little boats on the horizon? White cottages with blue paintwork against a blue sky? Galettes, cider and steaming piles of delicious moules frites?

Most of these things can be found all over Brittany,  but if it's the picture-postcard images that you're looking for, the best place is without a doubt the department of  Finistère in the far west of the region. And that is where, armed with swimming suits, towels, and very few plans, Understanding Frenchman and I went for this year's Breton holiday.

We stayed in the Locronan, a little village officially described as a "petit cité de charme", and it was indeed charming.

On the way we visited the old walled city of Concarneau and, walking along the coast in a nearby nature reserve, finally saw the beautiful turquoise sea that features in so many photographs of la Bretagne but can be quite elusive in reality.

On our first full day, we visited the Pointe du Raz, the most western point on mainland France. Declining to pay 6 euros for the car park, we parked near a little harbour in the village of Plogoff and walked for about an hour around the coast to reach the point, which seemed like a much nicer way of arriving. We thought it might be heaving with tourists, but in fact it was quite calm.

After the Pointe du Raz we spent a wonderful afternoon playing in the waves at the Baie des Trépassés, a beautiful beach just to the north-east of the point. The water was cold, but so clear and inviting-looking that it didn't take us long to dive in and start enjoying the surf. After that, we made our way back to Locronan along the country roads of Cap Sizun, stopping to admire the cliffs and windmills on the way.

There's weekly nocturnal market in Locronan on Thursday evenings in the summer, but after a quick look around the stalls, we realised it was going to be difficult to find somewhere to eat that evening, as everywhere was booked up, so we drove down to the harbour town of Douarnenez. It was pretty, but much less touristy and more of a working port than some of the other places we visited, and it took us a while to find the street with all the restaurants in it. Trip Advisor gave us a good tip, though, and we had dinner at the Crêperie Tout le Monde, where everything was delicious but the best speciality was the Breizh Twixx, a buckwheat pancake filled with salted butter caramel and covered in chocolate sauce.

We were a bit pessimistic about our last day in Finistère because the weather forecast was terrible and we woke up to grey skies and rain. We abandoned our plans to go to the Crozon peninsula, and instead decided to drive back east along the coast, stopping off at the Pointe de la Torche and the village of Penmarc'h on the way. In fact, we were lucky and the rain stopped just as we arrived at the Pointe de la Torche. Even in good weather, the vast beach at La Torche is better known for surfing than swimming, as the strong currents mean that the sea is quite dangerous if you don't know what you're doing. We spent an hour or so strolling along the sands and admiring any of the surfers who actually managed to stay upright on their boards.

On the way back, we stopped off in Vannes to visit one of UFM's relatives. Vannes is a beautiful little city, but on a day in August that wasn't very great for going to the beach, it was absolutely heaving, and in addition, there was a braderie, where all the town centre shops were selling discounted items on stalls in the streets, so you couldn't really move for people. We went up to the ramparts and strolled past the port, then attempted to leave despite the traffic jams which stretched from one roundabout to the next, creating absolute gridlock. We can always go back sometime in the depths of winter to explore the rest!

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Expat Revelations: Self Esteem as an Expat

What happens when you take an introverted and somewhat shy twenty year-old who has never lived more than 120 miles from her place of birth, put her in a country where the people speak a different language and are not renowned for being immediately open and friendly, and expect her to do a job that she has almost no training which involves standing up in front of hundreds of people every week and talking? Today I'm joining Holly at English Girl, Canadian Man for her Expat Revelations link-up to explore the sometimes surprising answers to that very question!

English Girl Canadian Man

I remember thinking during my first year in France that being a foreigner, and especially one who has a different mother tongue from the host country, is probably as close as I have ever been to understanding what it is like to have a physical disability. It's not that life is impossible, but you feel as if you depend so much more on the kindness and understanding of strangers to help you get by, hoping that they will speak slowly, make that extra effort to understand you and not assume that you are an idiot just because you made some grammatical mistakes. And it's not just langauge: the way you dress and behave also give away instant visual clues that you don't belong which can lead to, at the very least, stares, and at worst, perceived or actual danger. (I lost track of the number of dodgy men who used "you're not from here" as an excuse to harass me on the streets of Paris and elsewhere.)

So far, so damaging to the ego. Add to the mix whole classes of eight year-olds correcting your pronuncuation of "hamburger" (and that's an English word!), endless hours of smiling and nodding as you desperately try to catch the gist of conversations between people that you would actually quite like to be your friends, not knowing that you're supposed to kiss your sports coach at the beginning of a training session and six whole months of telling your neighbour he has a nice ass because you mix up the pronounciation of beaucoup and beau cul, and it's amazing that you don't just go and hide under the duvet and not come out until its time to go home.

Amazingly enough though, that was not my experience in France. Admittedly, for the first three months, I often hid under the duvet and mostly did just want to go home. But after that, I started to get that ego boost that comes from the massive sense of achievement when a sentence actually comes out correctly, you understand a joke in a foreign language or you relax enough at a party to actually appreciate the wonderful food, drink and company around you. And in a funny way, I think not speaking perfect French actually pushed me to get over my shyness because, knowing that the battle to be just like everybody else was already lost, I decided I might as well just open my mouth and say things anyway. And finally, while all the same old jokes about haggis, men in skirts and the Loch Ness Monster start to wear a little bit thin after while, at least being a foreigner provides a good opening topic of conversation.

I also think that I was lucky to have my first experience of being an expat at an age where so many aspects of adult life were new to me anyway. I think that people who first move abroad when they're older have more difficulty accepting that they don't know how to rent an apartment, open a bank account or declare their taxes because they are used to doing all of these things so easily at home. I also didn't have any professional pride to lose - I muddled my way through as best I could and that was that. And I was lucky to have a group of friends who where in the same boat with whom I could laugh off the embarrassing experiences over a glass of wine in the evenings.

More than anything though, I felt that my first year as an expat opened doors for me, in some ways practically, but even more so psychologically. Up until then, I was someone who had followed the normal path through school and university, partly because I wanted to, but mostly because it seemed like the obvious thing to do. In France, I started to be aware of choices and have more of a sense of what I wanted to do in life. I felt that if I could make it there, I could make it anywhere (thanks, Frank Sinatra!), and that gave me an incredible sense of freedom.

(I'm aware that this post focuses on the positive aspects of what can often be a difficult experience. Obviously, in eight years of expatriation, I've faced my share of challenges and fears as well and I'm looking forward to joining in the next three weeks' topics to explore these in more depth. Thank you to Holly for organising the link-up - it's been really interesting so far!)

Friday, 1 August 2014

Dans les Pyrénées

Normally I prefer words to pictures, but it's hard to find the words to describe just how magnificent the Pyrenees were:

The photo above is the Cirque de Gavarnie, seen from the Refuge des Sarradets, which we walked up to on our first day. The village of Gavarnie is not particularly easy to get to from Paris (it took me 13 hours on a night train and three buses), if you're not a hiker, it's a fairly accessible spot from which to get views of the high mountains. This is the panorama from our little campsite in the village:

The waterfall you can see in the pictures, at 422m, is the highest in France, with the largest single drop of any waterfall in Europe.

If you do like walking in the mountains, you can climb up to other peaks and refuges. This is the view from the top of the Petit Pimené, another of the mountains above Gavarnie:

What better antidote to a busy life in Paris could a person ask for?