Navigating Expat Life: Advice from Our Members

05 Oct 2018 11:27 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

The Fall is a time when we naturally see a number of new expats make the move to Paris.  The process of moving to Paris is one thing. The process of making it a home, or at the least feel comfortable is quite another.  Knowing that many of our members are not just new to AWG but new to Paris, I have been thinking quite a lot about this process and what to write, being a relative newbie myself.  Almost at the very same time, I received an email from one of our long-time members inquiring into the blog and I thought, “I bet our new members would find it helpful, or at the very least reassuring, to hear the thoughts / advice / experiences of some of our members who have established their lives here.  I know I would.” 

And, so, this entry is courtesy of Rebecca DeFraites.

Rebecca has been a member of AWG Paris since 2005.  She is intimately familiar with the organization, having served on the Board from 2006 until 2018, having served as VP Activities, VP Membership, our FAWCO rep and President.  She is continuing to serve American women living abroad, now serving at Membership Chair of FAWCO. She just celebrated her “expat anniversary” on October 1st, the date on which she, 14 years ago, signed a lease and officially moved to Paris.  Needless to say, she has navigated quite a few waters, administrative and personal alike here in Paris!

I hope you enjoy her entry as much as I do and welcome any other of our long-time members to offer their words of advice for future postings.

“Our VP Communications asked me to write briefly about my first year here and what was hard about “fully transitioning.”  Fully transitioning? I gave that up that rêve a long time ago. I am an American in every cell (cellule) in my body and will always be.  That being said, I often gauge my current degree of Frenchness by what I am wearing and my day’s activities. Hmm, today -- French top, French skirt, French tights, French (sensible) shoes and OMG -- today I am wearing French underwear!  My scarf I bought in the US to celebrate the 300th anniversary of New Orleans, arguably still at least marginally French.  I had lunch with two fellow Americans at Le Bistro Perigord, a charming inexpensive restaurant near Notre Dame.

This evening I am going to my local gallery to celebrate the PACS (civil union) of two neighbors, one French and one American.  French will be spoken. I will understand a third of it. I will beg people to speak doucement, doucement s’il vous plait (it seems to go over better asking people to speak sweetly rather than to speak lentement. I don’t know why.  Ask Véronique Bawol at her next cooking class; Véro speaks excellent French).

I would characterize this as a one foot in each continent kind of day which, after fourteen years, is more typical than not.

The first year was just flat-out hard.  I did not join AWG until after the first year.  Like many voluntary ex-pats, I was going to do full integration.  I would make only French friends. This did not work exceedingly well.  I did know French people from our various trips here over the years but, well, at the end of the day they were just so French.   I spent a good deal of time feeling lonesome and talking to my family in the US even though I was married to a fully cooperative American husband.

I am not what I call a “love ex-pat,” that is, someone who falls in love with a French man and decides to stay.  Member-at-large, Sara Sautin is a long-term love ex-pat having been married to “Jeff,” whose actual name is Jean-Francois, for more than forty years.  I was also not a “trailing spouse,” as many AWG members are. When I later became president of AWG Paris, I had two trailing spouses on my board. They were both MBA’s.  Needless to say, it was a pretty high-powered bunch.

In my later work with AWG and FAWCO, I have come to realize that everyone’s first year is hard.  Imagining myself a trail-blazer (and yes, of course I was going to write a book), I had no idea how predictably I was behaving.

The most important integrational event that first year was to BUY A CADDIE.

In those days, French people were not nearly as willing to speak English as they are now.  My landlord, for example, an elderly professor of endocrinology with those wonderful French old-man eyebrows which old American men just don’t have, reported to me once that, despite twelve years of English in school, he was afraid to speak it.  He didn’t want to look like an idiot. I’m thinking, Jean-Claude, you’re an esteemed professor of endocrinology -- no one could possibly think you an idiot. But, to this day, I have never heard him speak a word of English.

But, to the caddie.  I knew they are practical.  I knew they are a necessity.  I don’t own a car. But I thought I’d look like a little old lady in rolled-down socks if I actually rolled one along the Boulevard St. Germain.  But my back was giving out and I’m not even sure if you could get your groceries delivered back then. I had scouted out a place to get one. I was going to go to the BHV.  I girded my loins. I made it to the Caddie Department. I probably said I wanted a poussette which used to mean caddie but now means baby carriage. I had to answer way too many questions -- did Madame want it pliant ou non-pliant?  I decided I wanted it be folding. And how many liters did Madame require? How the hell should I know? I think in gallons and quarts, not liters. I ended up with a forty-liter folding purple caddie. I felt silly wheeling it across the Seine from the BHV.  But, after its first trip to the Monoprix, we fell in love. That purple caddie wore out a decade ago. My current caddie was inherited from an AWG member who was repatriated. It is a nondescript brown and is fifty liters. It holds more and is sturdier. But, as I write this, I realize that buying that purple caddie, in French (!) and then actually rolling it along the Boulevard St. Germain, was the absolute highlight of my first year.  It was also the first day I got asked for directions by a French person. That was also pretty cool.”

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