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!