What can I say sometimes other than ‘this expat life is no joke’! I know from the outside people see the glitz, the glam, the travel, the benefits, etc., but from time to time, I think it is good if we all ignore that part for a bit and turn our attention to some of the more difficult moments. Yes, I know, this sounds boring but it needn’t be. In fact, most expats you will meet have a wicked sense of humour and humility. We might not have started out that way but cultural barriers, linguistic errors, removal from what we know and who we know, and multiple social blunders have stripped us of our sense of cool. We learn to laugh at ourselves. With this spirit in mind, I’ve decided that from time to time, I will dig a story out from ‘the vault’ and share with you my sometimes bumpy ride as an expatriate.
Back in 2006, when I was a newcomer to this whole lifestyle in Paris, I was the queen of social blunders. I made mistakes. I mouth-kissed people who were attempting to do bisous (or cheek to cheek kiss greeting as is customary in many European countries). I drank coffee with my dessert (mon Dieu!) and I stumbled daily in navigating Parisian life. I had a certain flair for making a mess of things! I would call home and be told it can’t possibly be that bad. My impression was that it was hard to conjure up feelings of sympathy for people living la vie en rose!
But Paris was, well, Paris. It is tough city to relocate to. I was 29, newly married to an Englishman and kids were not on the agenda yet. How do you make friends at 29 years old? When you are a kid you can walk up to someone around your age in the park and ask if they want to play. As an adult, that takes a very creepy and inappropriate twist. So, I went on, what I call, expat dates. We weren’t looking for love, we were looking for company. I met other expatriates living in Paris and we tested each other out. Could we? Would we? Should we be friends? Do we have enough in common beyond ‘we aren’t French’ to keep us together?
Sometimes this worked and sometimes it was a big fail. I remember one that went so horribly wrong that when I ran into the woman a few months later in the street, I hid behind a smelly Parisian garbage can. Yes, I was a wildly mature adult living the glam Paris life! She had been the angriest person I had ever met and I felt, at the end of our lunch, that I should have charged her for a counselling session. She hated Paris. HATED it. Lots of people have anger towards Paris but this was something else!
Shortly after we ordered wine and lunch, it started.
“Why would you move here? It’s awful.” Uh oh!
“It smells.” OK so this can be true sometimes.
“Parisians are the worst people ever.” No, they are grumpy and angry and VERY self-important sometimes but they are not the worst people ever.
“Don’t even try to get decent tea here.” I didn’t try this and wasn’t bothered about it, either.
“The restaurants are awful.” OK this was NOT true. There were some dodgy places but that happens everywhere.
“You will never fit in here.” Hmmm…partial truth?
“You will need to diet to live here. You’re a bit big-boned.” Thanks.
“French men are pigs.” I have never dated one, I can’t speak to this claim!
“France will suck all the life out of you.” There’s plenty still kicking around in me.
“You smile too much for Paris. They’ll hate you.” Yeesh!
You get the picture, right? This went on and on and on. She spent 90+ minutes trying to convince me to get out while I could. Like it was an easy option to do so! If I tried to counter with ‘but aren’t the pastries to die for?’ she would shoot that down or remind me I’m a bit fat for Paris (this was PRE-kids, remember!!). Negative Nancy was in the house. I decided that even if I was having some real homesickness for maple-flavoured anything, strangers that greet each other on the street and an easier time getting my point across, I was going to ditch our attempt to become friends and make my way in the city on my own.
Ditch this attempt is exactly what I did. I tried to wrap up our lunch early and I thought she understood my need to leave when I said something like, I must visit the toilet and when I get back I will need to pay and head out. Clear, non? When I returned to the table, I saw that she had ignored this and ordered another round of drinks. I panicked! How could she possibly have more to say about hating Paris? So, I did what all mature adults do. I threw 40Euros on the table and ran out of the restaurant without saying a word. I know she called my name but I was done. I didn’t want to live in Paris with her words in my head and heart and I wasn’t adult enough to say that.
I avoided a phone call and text from her over the next couple of days. I felt awful and I had done something unforgivable. I know that and learned from it. To her, I’m sorry for my own behaviour. In truth, she was my sole expat dating fail on an otherwise pretty perfect record. However, I was too embarrassed and freaked out by our lunch date gone wrong to try again for a while, so I got a dog. Not just any old French froufrou, teacup sized dog. I got a black labrador retriever. We named him Leni and he went everywhere with me. He became my best Parisian friend for a while and together, we ventured throughout the city. He dined in Michelin starred restaurants, went into Gucci, Louis Vuitton (he was about 20kg too big for that early 2000s dog bag everyone had) and had his photo taken with countless tourists. He made me get over my shyness to explore the city and for that, Leni, I thank you as you were invaluable to our lives in the French capital. I eventually made amazing friends, had kids and life in Paris became a lot more settled but Leni never left our sides. Except for the time he jumped in a prostitute’s van in the Bois de Boulogne. Perhaps that will be my next confession From the Vault…
Photos: Jennifer Hart