Saturday, 15 November 2014

Where is Home?

Home: is it here?
In the film L'Auberge espagnol, which tells the story of an international group of students on the EU study-abroad programme, there is a wonderfully true-to-life part of the opening scenes where the main character is waiting at the airport with tears running down on his face and another sympathetic passenger takes one look at him and simply asks, "Erasmus?" At the end of the film, when the academic year is at an end, the exact same scene is repeated, except that this time the character is not setting of for foreign lands, he's returning "home" to France.

In contrast is the experience of passengers arriving on international flights at East Midlands Airport in England. Rather than the messages you see in most airports welcoming travellers from elsewhere and generally trying to convince them of just how wonderful the local area is, the signs at East Midlands simply read "It's good to be home." While it is undoubtedly true that more people leave the East Midlands to visit Paris than the other way round (the fact that the staff on the plane only speak English and you can only buy your in-flight snacks in pounds sterling are also clear testaments to this), it made me laugh to see how clearly those signs were aimed at the stereotypical Brit who has seen the Eiffel Tower sparkle at night or eaten paella on the beach in Spain but is now just relieved to be back in a civilised country where he or she can be sure of getting a decent cup of tea.

These two snapshots for me sum up the difference between "home" for an expat or immigrant and "home" for someone who has never lived somewhere else. Because "home" isn't just a geographical location; it's the place or places that have shaped us in a positive way and made us the people that we are. As a result, when we arrive we feel joy at the familiarity of the place (which can also be a familiar excitement), and when we leave, we have the sense of leaving a little piece of ourselves behind.

It takes time to feel comfortable with that shaping. I believe that, along with loneliness and missing friends and family, fear of how expatriation might change us is a major part of homesickness. At the beginning, we'd rather avoid all those difficult processes and stay the way we were before. But slowly the changes settle down inside us and we realise that they have become part of who we are.

So I wouldn't exactly say that home is where the heart is. It's more the places that have entered into your heart, the places which you have allowed to change you, and the places that bring a lump into your throat when you leave and when you arrive.

... Or here?
Thanks to Holly for inspiring this post via another Expat Revelations series.You can find links to more posts on the same subject over at

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Lessons Learned from French People: How to Complain in France

As a foreigner living in France, one of the earlier lessons that I learned was that sometimes in a difficult situation, you just have to suck things up and deal with them. When you are newly arrived and trying to acquire a carte de séjour, a place to live, a bank account, a telephone and an electricity connection, the hoops that you have to jump through seem endless, the demands that are made of you appear completely illogical, and the way in which you are treated, as a customer or member of the public, can be very different to what you are used to. Often, when faced with a problem, the easiest way to deal with it is to ignore it, or at least find the least confrontational way around it. In my time here, I have gone from being someone who, while not being a particularly demanding customer, would generally speak up about a issue that bothered me to being more likely to swallow my anger and possibly vent it all on my blog, facebook or to any innocent and sympathetic soul who would listen.

The good news though, is that it doesn't (always) have to be like this. Being here for longer and observing French people in operation at close proximity has taught me a few lessons about how to complain about customer service which I would like to share with you here today.

1. Know who you are dealing with. If it's public administration, sucking it up is probably still the best strategy, although you can sometimes convince them to be kind to you if you go the right way about it. (Stephen Clarke's Talk to the Snail has some great advice on how to do this.) If it's a small business, a lot will depend on whether they perceive you as a potentially valuable customer or just a passing tourist. But large national and international companies (unless they have a monopoly, like the SNCF or ERDF) are often keen to keep you happy if you explain the problem in the right way.

2. Call the unsubscription hotline. A few weeks a go, our internet connection failed, leaving us with no internet, phone or TV for several hours on a Sunday night. Technical support were too busy to take our call, both that evening and the following day (by which time the problem had luckily been resolved), but a quick call to the "cancel your contract" number 24 hours later got us a significant reduction of that month's bill. (Understanding Frenchman has also used this strategy to get discounts with Canal+ in the past just because he finds their full-price service too expensive - always worth a try but we haven't had Canal+ for a few months now after that strategy failed last time.)

3. Listen to their explanations but don't back down. Many procedures are genuinely complicated in France, and there may be a good reason why something doesn't happen as quickly as you had hoped. But if you have paid for a service you haven't received, the company needs to do something about that, whether there is a reasonable explanation or not.

4. Learn to recognise nonsense. When you first arrive in France, many, many things seem illogical, hence the reactions I described at the beginning of this post. After a while, though, you start to understand the reasons behind procedures (see point 3), which can be very good for your stress levels. Nevertheless, there is a certain type of employee who will feed you any kind of nonsense just to get away in time for lunch. A great example of this was the time I once tried to exchange a ticket at the Gare de Lyon after I received an email from the SNCF telling me my train had been cancelled and they first tried to send me to the Gare d'Austerlitz, despite the fact that their ticket bookings are online and nation-wide, then told me it was up to me to prove the cancellation as they had no record of it on their system. Luckily, I was able to whip out my phone and show them the message that they had sent me themselves!

5. Send an email. For a long time, I believed that companies in France found email far too easy to ignore and that face-to-face or phone was best. That's changing though, and writing an email gives you the chance to organise your thoughts and perfect your French, which can be difficult in stressful situations. You can also follow up calls with an email to increase your chances of getting the compensation you want.

6. Let them know that you are upset without upsetting them. I find that French people are often naturally quite defensive, so being too aggressive in your approach can backfire. Explain that you are disappointed and unhappy, and give the reasons why, but don't take it out on the person you are talking to. Apart from anything else, it's probably not their fault. Phrases like "Je voudrais vous signaler ma déception" are useful.

7. Be patient. Going through all of the steps above can take some time, especially if you're used to "Anglo-Saxon" customer service. What I have been encouraged to discover recently, though, is that it really can be worth it. And if all else fails:

8. Drink wine :-)

Does anyone else have any top tips to share?