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. If you missed my last story on Expat Dating, feel free to check it out here.
Moving abroad presents us with so many moments for growth, personal development and life-altering experiences. But, at some point or another, we all learn that it also presents us with moments of extreme humility. I have spent hours cringing in reflection upon things I have said and done since stripping myself of all my cultural norms and moving abroad.
When you haven’t lived abroad, you don’t realise how much of your life you take for granted. Like, saying hello to people. You know how to do that so well you don’t even think about it. However, when you move abroad, this simple act becomes a challenge you didn’t even know existed.
In Canada, firm handshakes and hugs were the norm depending on how well you knew someone. I’m a hugger by nature and this was totally fine with me. What I’m not ok with? Kissing people I don’t know. So what did I do? I moved to Paris. The land of the two cheek air kiss. I took me years to figure this one out. The when and how and whom of kissing was all too much for me. I never quite knew when someone became a person on your kiss list and, to be honest, I still don’t. I spent a decade in Paris hoping a French person would offer up their cheek first. Most often this worked well. Sometimes, this was a massive failure.
Take my school gate incident. I’m cringing already thinking about it. A mum I had said ‘bonjour’ to for a few months greeted me a bit more enthusiastically one day in order to present me with a birthday invite for my son. Cool! At the end of our conversation, she leaned in for the au revoir kiss. Or. So. I. Thought.
In her world, she was leaning forward to scratch her knee cap. In my world, we were going for kissing. This didn’t end well with me kissing her and her not kissing me. She looked horrified and muttered at the end in painful English “oh, you wish to kiss me…”
Die. Die. Die. Melt. Please floor soak me up whole now!!!!
I made my DH take the kids to school the next morning because, well, once you’ve crossed the ‘we now kiss line’ you MUST ALWAYS DO THE KISS! Every time. Hello. Goodbye. Without fail. Dear lord, I wasn’t ready.
After some time and move to Switzerland later, I thought I had left the kiss and all its stress behind.
Not even close.
We became friendly with our neighbours in the early days here and one day the father passed me in the street and said his ‘bonjour’ and asked how we were settling in. All very nice stuff as we’d only been here a week and having someone know us and check in was comforting. At the end, I saw what was definitely the au revoir kiss lean in and I thought ‘I can do this, I am Parisian’ and went for it.
Only…in Switzerland, the kiss is different. When I thought we were done the obligatory 2 kisses, he kept going. Only, I didn’t. In the middle we met, lips touching and a thousand ‘I hate my life’ thoughts coursing through my soul. I made out with my new neighbour. Week One in Switzerland: check!
How could I get it so wrong???
I rushed home and googled ‘bisous Suisse’ (Switzerland kissing). Dang it all to heck, the Swiss kiss THREE times! Not to be outdone by their Parisian counterparts, they went and added a prime number of kissing to the cultural awkwardness!!
I’m not silly enough not to realise in the grand scheme of life that making out with my neighbour and a French mum are minor blips in life but these are the moments that I swear change us the most as foreigners abroad. We step so far out of our comfort zone that stepping back in seems difficult, if not impossible. Take the hug now, my favourite greeting. On my last trip to Canada I was shocked at how intimate it seemed in comparison to kissing someone on the cheek. Well I’ll be darned, I no longer know which one I prefer…
So, the next time you see me, don’t be surprised if I hug, handshake and kiss you all in one go. Heck, I might even throw in a little dance or two. Just blame it on no longer having an engrained, reactionary culture to dictate how I behave anymore (or the wine).
Photo credit: Jennifer Hart, Fotolia