Living Abroad: The Evolution of Holiday Menu Planning

Growing up in Canada, our Christmas dining festivities would start with a Christmas Eve tourtière (meat pie). For the actual day of Christmas, I’ve always thought of our dinner as fairly classic. We had the turkey, dressing/stuffing, potatoes, Brussel sprouts, sweet potatoes etc followed by an array of desserts. For us, it was normally Nanaimo bars  and a version of trifle my mum made based on the ones she had growing up in the U.K.  When my aunt married into a Ukrainian family, we HAPPILY added his mother’s amazing cabbage rolls to the menu. Did it traditionally fit with turkey and the trimmings? Not really. Did we care? Not at all.  They were delicious and a culturally important addition to the family.

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My own version of tourtière made at high altitude one Christmas in the French Alps

Since then, I have moved around the world and experienced first hand the role food memories play in people’s lives. If I taste a Nanaimo bar, I think of Canada. Fish and chips takes me mentally to England. Paris Brest sees me walking down memory lane in France. Food is important to our memories and most importantly, it helps us feel connected to the past.

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Paris Brest, I love you!! 

Our very first Christmas in Paris saw me panic a bit at the thought of the large shellfish dinner that is traditionally held on Christmas eve. I’m allergic to shellfish so this new tradition posed a problem for me. Instead, we embraced the addition of caviar, smoked salmon, plenty of champagne and the Bûche de Noël (aka Yule Log cake).

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Fish and Chips make me long for the U.K….

When we are lucky enough to return to my husband’s native England for Christmas, a personal highlight is celebrating Danish Christmas with his brother and family! I wouldn’t dare attempt to replicate my Danish sister-in-law’s cooking but I can assure you, that Risalamande (the best rice pudding I’ve EVER had with warm cherry sauce that is actually eaten as part of a game) and the browned sugared potatoes are both part of my Christmas flavour memories now.

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Risalamande – and I won the prize. Again. Sorry!

If you’ve stuck with me this long you will start to see my Christmas flavours and ideal menu have not stopped growing!  Each taste represents happy memories in my life and makes me think of the people I’ve been lucky enough to call family and/or friends over the years. In 2015, we relocated to Switzerland and saw the heavy introduction of cheese in both raclette and fondue format at Christmas time!  In addition to cheese, we’ve embraced panettone in our household as staple during the holidays!

 

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Bûche de Noël – Yule Log

So, what is an internationally-confused menu planner supposed to do?! In a world without calories my perfect Christmas would include tourtière, panettone, turkey and all the trimmings, brown Danish sugared potatoes, fondue, Cabbage rolls, smoked salmon and caviar, Nanaimo bars, trifle, risalamande and a bûche de Noël…all washed down with a few glasses of champagne! Phew! I’m not sure I could manage that! (Don’t even get me started on the challenges presented by living internationally with trying to locate and buy 90% of the items on my Christmas menu wish list!!!) 

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that we have decided when we spend Christmases here in Switzerland, we will continue with the fondue-inspired meal. It’s how we celebrate Swissmas. This doesn’t mean we don’t miss all those wonderful flavours, we just keep them as happy memories, locked in our hearts, until the years when we are able to travel for the holidays.

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Swissmas Fondue dinner – 2016

 

This year, no matter where you are in the world, if you sit down for a holiday meal of some sort, think about how your family’s menu evolved. How have you chosen certain items over others? Who do the dishes remind you of? These same thoughts can be applied to many different cultures, but I can’t speak for others…only for myself. As long as my mouth isn’t too full 😉

 

 

Photo credit: Jennifer Hart – StockphotoVideo – Kalim – cynoclub 

 

Living Abroad: The Problem With “Best and Worst Expat Locations” Lists

“No place is ever as bad as they tell you it’s going to be.” – Chuck Thompson

I read a post recently that was making the rounds on Facebook about how awful life is in Switzerland for foreigners. This wasn’t, sadly, a shocking post for me to read as I have come across too many of these to count over the last 5 years relating to Switzerland and internationals living/working here. Depending on your life, you may or may not be aware that international/expat-focused websites, as well as reputable news agencies, love to publish annual lists entitled something akin to ‘Best and Worst Places for Expats To Live’. These lists often accompany anecdotal ‘evidence’ positioned as truthful information to support whatever their survey monkey results found. There are some disturbingly common themes in these types of articles and I’d like to confront them head on.  I am a FIRM believer that your experiences living abroad are highly influenced by your own actions and when I come across something along these lines that continues to perpetuate the idea that one person’s take on a short-term assignment abroad will speak true for 100% of the people that move there, I get frustrated, sad and angry.

Switzerland is the fifth country I have lived in. It is not perfect but it has been my favourite place to call home.  It trumps Canada, where I was born, England where, you know, fish and chips are available ALL THE TIME, France where the Eiffel Tower makes every picture look better and the USA where I learned about deep fried cheese curds. It is better than all of that (to me) but it wasn’t Switzerland that made that so, I also had a hand in making this the best place for me.

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This is not the worst country in the world to live…

So, if everything is so great for me in Switzerland, why does it pale in comparison to somewhere like Singapore that often tops the Best lists, or at least rounds out the top 3? Well, it’s easy. Comparing a country like Switzerland where someone will relocate and live in a local community, immersed in a culture and language they don’t know, is unfair vis-a-vis countries like Singapore where people are relocated to a prefabricated community compound. You cannot, and should not, compare the two. Relocating to a compound gives you ready-made friends, already international in nature and most likely aware your arrival is imminent. These pre-fab friends come with insider knowledge that helps you to avoid the pitfalls of international relocation that befall many of us. I have seen Facebook status updates from friends that received welcome gifts from their new Irish neighbours in Malaysia and a welcome basket waiting at the home for friends relocating to Dubai. Whilst we didn’t experience any of that, we did get an offer to use pots and pans from our Swiss German neighbour in case we hadn’t unpacked them yet…same-same but different?!

Now, I’m not about to fall into the trap of saying one is harder than the other and that ALL people that relocate to Asia move to prefabs and that ALL people that relocate to Europe do it solo because it just isn’t true. Local-base relocations are not harder, they are just different and that difference is never accounted for in the Best and Worst lists. Local moves do require more effort to break into a community because you are unlikely to spend your time living on the outside of local life. At some point you must integrate and there in lies the problem with comparisons. When you move somewhere where you know you will never blend in, you give up the hopes of that and settle fully into international/expat life. Expat parties. Expat friends. Expat schools. Expat life. When you move somewhere and WANT to fit in, you are swiftly and painfully confronted with the realisation of how hard it is to make friends as an adult. I have discussed my own failings on this topic here.

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I was definitely lonely at times in Paris…having a dog helped that 🙂

So before you move abroad and before you trash another country online, take a moment to get to know yourself because you will make or break your stay in many many ways. Yes, the culture may not be ‘you’ in the end but there are always silver linings and ways to make things work. Knowing what you are willing do beforehand will help you out. I repeat: You MUST know yourself before you accept a local life assignment abroad. Are you a go-getter? Are you willing to put in hours of effort to make a social life? Are you willing to do EVERYTHING to make your new life work? Or, will you arrive and complain then send an angry article off to be published about how crappy life is abroad? Will you blame the locals for not falling at your feet to become friends with you? Will you expect them to wake up one day and think ‘omg  is that a new American neighbour I see?! We must become best friends!’ (this won’t happen). If you aren’t a go-getter, perhaps think twice before accepting a local-based assignment. Try somewhere that will put you on a compound or near one so your lifestyle won’t change much, just the scenery.

International/expat life is not easy, even though it looks quite glamorous. It has changed me in every single way and I’m forever grateful. However, that change comes from the hard times that challenge you. Expat lists mean nothing about how you will respond to a place, trust me.

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‘Hello, WISCONSIN!’ My old home where almost 20 years later, I still am in touch with most of the amazing friends I made there.

Alas, I leave you with some Forrest Gump mama-style wisdom. Life is like a box of chocolates, it is true. But are you going to be the kind of person that throws the whole box out just because the strawberry creams are hiding in there somewhere or are you going to give it another chance in the hopes that you come across a little slice of heaven? I know what I would do…

 

 

Photo credit: Jennifer Hart, Fotolia

 

 

 

 

Dîner en Blanc Paris – 2017

I’m lucky and I know it.

I have to start there because I am fully aware that this particular night, in this particular city, draws a lot of ‘but how did you get invited?’ questions and comments. It seems part and parcel with the whole affair and trust me, I’d LOVE to bring everyone I know with me, but it just doesn’t work like that.

What am I referring to? Dîner en Blanc (White Dinner) in Paris.

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Cheers from Passerelle Debilly. Dîner en Blanc Paris, 2014.

I think it is important to tell my story on how I came to be invited to Dîner en Blanc in the first place.

Back in 2006, when I was still new to life in Paris, my new husband and I were out for an after dinner stroll through the streets of our arrondissement/neighbourhood. It was on this night that we stumbled across a large gathering of people dress immaculately, in all white, dining on prime rib, pastas, beautiful French confections, all the while sipping champagne from china flutes.

“What on earth was that?” I asked of my husband and he replied, “ah, that is the secret pop-up dinner called Dîner en Blanc. You have to be part of the who’s who of Paris to be invited.”

That crushed me. Couldn’t they just TELL I would bring the fun by merely inviting me? I spent the next few years in search of an invite or a connection to someone invited.

No. Such. Luck.

Fast forward to 2011, I had a client who was invited. I was excited for her but she flippantly said to me “I have to do this white thing tonight…how ghastly!” I wanted to scream I WILL GO IN YOUR PLACE but I held my cool. How was it she ended up being invited in her first year living in Paris when I had been trying for YEARS?!

So, I gave up. I really did. It wasn’t going to happen and I was just going to be jealous once a year of everyone having this magical night in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  It hurt to give up but I surrendered to acknowledging I wasn’t one of the ‘who’s who’ of Paris.

Then, almost as soon as I gave up, I received a random email from someone I had worked with as a marathon training coach. We had a long history of random encounters, from running Santa Claus races in costume together to laughing about mutual friends at a pub night for something entirely different, so random was not new to our relationship. He asked me in a very convoluted manner if I was “in or out” for something happening in June 2013.

WHAT?

Yes of course I was in (I always dive head first).

I asked what it was and he laughed, “I will explain later but you are on the list!”

OMG I’m on a LIST! I did not care what list it was, it was all so secretive and exciting! My husband was more practical asking “what if you signed up to run a marathon you don’t know about??” I wouldn’t listen to him (or pretended not to panic would be more accurate).

Then the invite came. We were cordially invited to Dîner en Blanc 2013 – location and time TBA.

Oh. My. Goodness.

Since that fateful email, we have attend 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and now 2017. The evening never disappoints, no matter how much work it is to bring your dinner, table and chairs with you through Paris.

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Place Vendôme, Dîner en Blanc Paris, 2016

I believe part of the magic is still in the details, or lack therefore of. People have all kinds questions about it and I refuse to answer many but I will tell you this:

  1. It is true that the date and location are kept COMPLETELY SECRET to diners. We find out the date a few weeks before and the location only once our designated team leaders have taken us there. We meet first at another location and come together at the last minute to set up, sit down and pop some champagne
  2. In regards to how we coordinate everything if it is all so secretive, we receive a list entailing the exact size and shape of chairs/tables and what is expected of us as diners
  3. We are in charge of our space: that means we must bring our own garbage bags and help clean up after. We leave the location as we found it.
  4. The date changes yearly
  5. The Paris event is ‘almost’ free of charge (change in your wallet could cover your fees) but I have heard that other cities charge quite a hefty fee (could just be rumours…)
  6. It is absolutely as much fun as it looks
  7. We do not automatically receive invite benefits to pass along to other friends, family members, etc (I’m sorry!!!)

So, with that in mind, I leave you with some photos from this year’s event. If you ever find yourself receiving a strange email asking “are you in or out”, I implore you to find your wild side and see what might entail.

For me, this is always a highlight event of the year and I will never take that for granted!

See you in 2018 (date and location to be determined, of course!)

Photo Credit: Jennifer Hart

Friday Featurette: An American Journey into the French “Tough Love” Mentality

A couple Fridays a month I will be featuring another blogger or up-and-coming writer on my site. Stories range from expat life to travel/adventure. If you are interested in possibly being featured, please read the info hereand get in touch!  You may notice differences in terminology, vocabulary and spellings here but I think keeping it authentic to the author’s voice and background makes for a richer reading. 

An American Journey into the French “Tough Love” Mentality
By: Heather Javault

After finishing university in 1998, I arrived in France young and eager to travel. While my friends were off getting their first “real” jobs, I was riding the Metro to meet up with new friends from all over the world. I was keen to learn and to see new things and I didn’t worry much about my ability to fit in or start a career a bit later. My goal was just to see the world and be happy.

Happy is such a simple goal, though. During my first year, I didn’t realize that little things were eating away at the person I was. I found it difficult working for the French school system as an English teacher but thought it was normal as it was not my culture. I reminded myself of this, asking ‘why should they adapt to me?’ but it began to affect my confidence. Maybe I just wasn’t good at being a teacher. The other teachers were always correcting everything that I did just as other people constantly corrected my French. When asked about it, they all said that they are trying to help me; that’s how they do things here. All these good intentions weren’t helping me though. They were not pushing me to do better. I felt stupid. I kept wondering ‘why I am still here?’ It didn’t matter that I eventually learned to speak near-native French. The success I achieved was never good enough. When I got a job as an office assistant later, I constantly had someone behind me correcting me or asking if I was sure of myself. My confidence was gone. The bubbly person I once was was gone. I saw my friends overseas move forward with their careers while I just stood still, doubting myself in another culture.

Shortly thereafter I convinced my new husband to move back to the United States. He was eager to try out the “American Dream” and I was just as eager to get back to family and friends. I found a job pretty quickly through a friend and it didn’t matter that I had absolutely no prior experience in Payroll and Human Resources because they said would train me! I was not stuck in an office assistant job just because I had to pay the bills, I could change and be whomever I wanted. My confidence slowly started creeping back and I felt like a whole new person. I was able to go out with friends and even attend their weddings without spending money on plane tickets. I had everything to be happy, but there was still something missing. There was no denying that I had two homes now and more importantly, two cultures. I realized quickly that my having two cultures had changed me and my friends did not want to hear me say things such as “Back in France, they do things this way…” I could almost feel their eyes rolling. I was going out and doing things as I had before I moved to France, but I always felt like I didn’t fit in anymore. I had new opinions and I didn’t agree with everyone as I might have done easily before. Some friendships stayed the same and embraced my new quirkiness, but other relationships grew more superficial. A large part of that friendship shift was a direct result of that fact that I had changed while others stayed the same. I didn’t share anything other than a past with those old friends. My outsider experience saw me increasingly annoyed with U.S. political elections. (Don’t even get me started on that topic!)

After 3 years of being back home but not entirely feeling ‘home’, my husband’s career choice brought us back to France. I had an 18-month-old son and I knew that I didn’t want to move back into our tiny apartment in the city of Paris, so we decided to settle down in the suburbs. I didn’t have a car right away and as I didn’t know anyone in my area so loneliness quickly settled in. My husband worked extremely hard at his job, which left us feeling like he didn’t even notice us most of the time. I had a hard time finding a job. The Payroll experience that I had in the US did not apply to French regulations and I was starting over. Again. I tried teaching English, but I always felt like I wasn’t very good at it. When I tried getting jobs, I never had enough experience in the field or I was too young or too old. There was always something that I didn’t have enough of. I went back to feeling like a big fat loser and in this time I gained lots of weight and I drank lots of wine.

I eventually had two more babies. It is true; the French health care system is great. Yet for me, I didn’t feel like a client to the hospital or to the doctor. Once again, I felt like everything I did was wrong. I gained too much weight according to the doctor. My veins were too small for the lab technician. I didn’t get up and walk around enough after childbirth. My baby was too big, too yellow, and too ‘baby’.

Going back to work after children was awful. The job I had was unnecessarily stressful due to a difficult manager and further aggravated by a very long commute. I spent nearly 4 hours a day on the train. Although I did my job well, it was never good enough.

At this point, I tried to get myself into shape. Years of abusing my own body were showing and it was clear I wasn’t taking care of myself. I always saw people running and I wished I had the running power as well. So, one day I got myself out and started. I ran a little bit more every day. I signed up for races. I earned finisher medals. I had one thing in my life that made me proud and that gave me back some of the confidence that I had lost after years of negative thoughts. A friend challenged me to sign up for the Paris half marathon. I thought she was crazy, but I said yes. She totally flaked on me, but I kept training. I ran a 10k in December in 1 hour. That is not fast but record time for me. I could totally pull off 21k! And I did! I walked some of it, prayed to every god I could think of for it to be over, but I did it. It took me three hours. My feet were burning, I had chafing in spots that I don’t want to mention, but I did it. My kids greeted me at the end and cheered for me. They were proud of me and I was too. But, when I got to the medal stand, I got a medal that looked like it came out of a cereal box. Other runners had these glorious, gorgeous medals. Mine was practically plastic and half the size. They explained that they had “run out” of the other medals and because I was too slow, there weren’t any left. The email that I received from organizer after questioning what happened confirmed this. He said that I should be happy that they “let” me finish at all. Once again, I wasn’t good enough. Over the year that I trained for those races, I met incredible people that told me that it didn’t matter how slow I run. I was still a runner. This guy’s email brought me down a whole lot of pegs. I felt sick. I wasn’t a runner; I was just some fatty that wanted some shiny bling. During the race, I had people pass me and give me “high fives” and “thumbs up” I thought they were cheering me on, but maybe they were just laughing at me. That sounds extreme and dark, but that is what I started to feel. In the year since the race, I might have started to run about 5 times. I just can’t seem to get back out there. The running shoes only recently came out again when my 11 year old tried to steal them from me.

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Why do I let so much get to me? Everything I have just written makes France sound like an awful place. The thing is that while all of these experiences were happening, I never realized that it wasn’t because of me. I have spent most of my adult life doubting myself.

I am recently (and happily) unemployed. I have an idea for a new project and it is going to be really hard to pull off in France. A career coach at the unemployment office even suggested that I move back to the U.S. to fulfill my dream. It is actually this same career coach that brought on this whole enlightenment. She said that the French from a very young age are taught negativity. In school they are not taught that they could do better but that they are not doing good enough. I didn’t understand before she said this why my kids hated school so much. I loved primary school but my kids say they feel stupid. They don’t think they will do good enough. They are always anxious about how the day will go. With my North American upbringing of positive encouragement, I can see why the opposite would have such heavy effects on me.

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The French mean well. They see correcting as way to help. They think that negative remarks will push people to try harder. They are the Jillian Michaels of the education system. Tough love encourages good results. I mean, it worked for them, right? They are immune to feeling bad about themselves because they have built themselves armor against it. When I think about the administrator that emailed me from the half marathon, maybe he was just trying to push me to train harder for next year. My kids’ teachers are just trying to push them to strive to do better. Not everyone can come in first place. The North American way of giving everyone an award just for participating isn’t building fighters.

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Look at me. I cried over a medal.

 

Heather Javault came to Paris from Massachusetts nearly 19 years ago with a dream to travel. She fell for a cheesy pickup line for a “real French kiss” and never really left. She now putters around the suburbs of Paris with her husband and 3 children and constantly plans new projects and vacations. You can follow her latest project on her blog So Full of Crêpe or catch up with her on her facebook page.

From the Vault: Confessions From A Kissing Failure

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.

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Pucker up, foreigners! It’s bisous (kissing) time!

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.

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My favourite kind of cheek kissing 

After some time and move to Switzerland later, I thought I had left the kiss and all its stress behind.

Nope.

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

From the Vault: Confessions of Parisian ‘Expat Dating’

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.

 

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Our first apartment in Paris – that’s us on the balcony. It was our home for 4.5 years (Paris, 1er Arrondissement.

 

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!

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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?

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Looking out at the world below. Paris circa 2006.

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.

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Do bad days happen in Paris? Yes. Yes they do. However, in my 10 years living in Paris, I fully admit that this never stopped being an amazing sight to behold!

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…

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Leni and I walking in the Marais

Photos: Jennifer Hart

Living Abroad: What is an Expat?

 ”The loneliness of the expatriate is of an odd and complicated kind, for it is inseparable from the feeling of being free, of having escaped.”
— Adam Gopnik (Paris to the Moon)

In the last decade or so, the word ‘expat’ has rolled off my tongue more times than I can count. A short form of the word ‘expatriate’, Oxford Dictionary defines it as “a person who lives outside their native country.”  While this definition is true, to actually describe the life of an expat is incredibly difficult. I have toyed with whether or not to start writing a series here on being an expat as the internet is full of posts and articles already. After doing some quick searches, I became frustrated with two themes that popped out at me (this is definitely unofficial research): 1) Expats are living the high life in a luxury compound in some far, exotic place and, 2) Expats are miserable, suffering from issues of making friends and trying to fit in with locals.

Dictionary definition of word cultuvation
How descriptive are definitions when it comes to life experience?

Yes, there are many articles discussing the merits of expatriation and the downfalls with more finesse than that, but with the amount of annual lists of ‘best and worst places for expats’ being published these days, I thought it important to discuss ACTUAL expatriation. We they move abroad, expats are doing more than just leaving their life behind, they are gaining a new one (or many) in the process. They become exposed to differences they never knew existed. They learn things about the world they shamefully admit they hadn’t been aware of before. They change.  They also change how they view life ‘back home’. They see things in their native culture that might bother them. They see imperfections they didn’t see before. They see a place that they called ‘home’ for years from a different perspective. It can be scary to go through this process but it is normal and a balance between being from one place and being cultural enriched by another place is often found. This doesn’t mean expats all think their home countries are flawed. What it does mean, though, is that many find themselves no longer feeling 100% at ‘home’ in a place that they once were scared to leave.

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My junior world citizens running to the Eiffel Tower in their hometown, Paris.

With expatriation and all the changes that arise, expats often find friends and family back in their native countries unable to grasp the complete picture of what life their new life is really like. This should come as no surprise since they themselves were unable to foresee what their lives would be like once they moved abroad. Family and friends not understanding is normal and OK but it can cause frustrations, upset and misunderstandings. At this point, even those who strongly believed they wouldn’t move somewhere foreign just to make other expat friends, find themselves seeking others that ‘get it’. Expat friends often come on fast and strong. Someone I once knew, who eventually returned to her home country after a couple incredibly homesick years, told me expats can’t be choosey when making friends. I strongly disagree, but I will say the shared experience of leaving your native country and relocating somewhere vastly different not only tends to bond people together quickly, it can also trump other socio-cultural-economic differences which might have seen you not becoming friends with someone else if the situations were different. I don’t see this as not being choosey, I see this as sharing a mutual life-changing experience. Like new parents seeking other new parents to share their experiences with. It’s a needs-based relationship that plays an important role in an expat’s happiness abroad. Family and friends back home, don’t worry, we haven’t replaced you, we’ve merely added to our life and hopefully by doing so have stopped griping to you about things you don’t understand, such as why French bureaucracy is truly a mind-numbing experience.

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Lived abroad? Your life might look like this, too. The current state of my life: Foreign money. UK passport. Swiss permit. French driving license. Canadian birth certificate! All so confusing! 

Expatriation is scary. For some it comes with a clear end date depending on work contracts, visas, etc. For others, it is something more organic and undefined. When I moved to France, Mr H had 18 months left on his expatriation package. I moved there with the idea that in 18 months this might no longer be my home, therefore I struggled to really get involved in French life at first. I eventually got past that and made Paris my ‘home.’ Rather quickly, it seems, that 18 months turned into a decade, two Paris-born children, a labrador retriever and an eventual relocation to Switzerland. Along the way, I have learned that my home is where my children, husband and dog are. I have learned I can be both foreign and local at the same time. I have learned that expat life is definitely for me, despite the challenges and uncertainties it can sometimes cause.

I will be continuing this topic in the near future with subsequent topics that relate to expats and those out there who love us and miss us as we galavant across the globe. Stay tuned. I’m obviously not done with the expat train and therefore this topic is not done, either.

Photo credits: Jennifer Hart, Fotolia