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Oh my, I said WHAT in French?

Created by New Orleans artist, Dr. Bob

As you can imagine, the language barrier is a biggie, so I would be remiss not to post (first of several) about this particular hairy monster that we must adapt and adjust to as best we can. To sum up the language ‘thing’, the motto is just, ‘be nice’. As a Southerner might say, “when you don’t know the language from a hill of beans, it’s best, just to be nice.” When I was fresh off the plane, I smiled so much, my cheeks hurt, but now I just have really strong cheek muscles and it has served me well. When I arrived, my french was relegated to just the basics–‘bonjour’, ‘merci’, ‘au revoir’ and of course those that all of us learned from Lady Marmalade in the 70’s (we all know the ones, let’s leave it at that!). Needless to say, a big portion of humble pie is always on the menu when you are learning a new language.

Let me tell you about one particular piece of humble pie I ate. I was already nervous, because I was to meet my husband’s family for the first time. I worked overtime before they arrived, cranking out the french lessons one after another using my language software, zipping through each one before the characteristic harp noise could signify that the right answer was chosen. Man, I was ready and thought I would be OK, as long as the topics stayed simple (insert misconception #1). But no one ever talked about dogs, cats, airplanes or boats, which is the useless dribble you learn first. I tried to insert the topics when I could, but frankly, I was even boring myself in doing so. Then, to add insult to injury, I mispronounced one of the simplest responses, ‘merci beaucoup’ (phonetically correct: mair sea/bow coow) instead, I pronounced ‘beaucoup’ incorrectly as, ‘bow cyu’.  In doing so, I essentially told my future brother-in-law, that he had a nice derriere. Not the lasting impression I had in mind, but boy, did I make one! He smiled and kindly corrected me, understanding what I meant to say while preserving both our dignities, thank goodness! Then I thought, oh my, to how many others had I said it incorrectly? I could only hope that they all understood too and knew that I tried my best, as evidenced by my good-hearted brother-in-law.

It really was and still is amazing, how accepting people are when you at least try to speak their language. I have been told by a few native French who have encountered more than a few other English speakers (namely Brits & Americans) who come and expect people to adapt to their way, with no intention of learning the language. This was shocking to me. Again, as a Southerner, my family would be aghast to know that I had been a guest in another country (similar to visiting someone’s home) and didn’t do my best to be a good one during my stay. I think learning just a few words of the language in whatever country you visit or live, is very much like visiting a friend’s home and bringing a small gift to show your gratitude. It is a gift to see the world and meet new people, so why wouldn’t we treat it as such?

Looking backward through the binoculars, it is difficult to humble one’s self in needing the help of others and becoming dependent on the kindness of strangers. So much rides on a first impression that to look foolish for not saying something properly, can be very disheartening and prevent you from dusting yourself off to try again. So, I can certainly understand why there are people who do not learn because of their fear of being humiliated or not being accepted. Sadly, the opposite is true from my experience. People want to help you when you make the effort. Just think of friends, coworkers or your own children who you knew were doing their best to learn and they smiled when you tried to teach them. The same philosophy works, be nice and try your best even if it’s only a few words, use them and you will be surprised how well and how far it will take you!

 
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Posted by on January 7, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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From vacation to expatriation…

Tulips on a cornerstone, growing on their own

Previously, we talked about how to spot in one’s psyche, the desire to expatriate, even for just a little while. We all do it to some degree with a vacation, getting away from the mundane to embrace a temporary sort of life that gives us the mental boost to soldier on, or as they say in my former neck of the woods, ‘cowboy-up’ to the responsibilities of life. So, we all have a need to expatriate for brief times over our lifetimes.

What makes a vacation turn into expatriation? Let’s start by saying what expatriation isn’t. It isn’t just running away from responsibility, because at some point, no matter where you live, life does require certain things from us as humans…you’re an adult, you understand. It also isn’t that I hate my country (although the politics can be upsetting) or my southern heritage, or that I am ashamed to be an American in any shape or form. Quite the opposite really, I am still a proud American and Southerner (yes, and in that order–surprised?). And barring any legal reasons for leaving your country of origin, I think most of us love our heritages and the countries from which we hail.

Yep, I can hear you thinking–so, if expats are proud of their country, then why do they leave? I can only answer for myself and each individual has their own reasons for wanting to plant new roots. For me, it was simply to experience something I couldn’t find at home: new cultures, norms, attitudes, sights, sounds and having more of a sense of the world, of which I was only a small part–this is the paradox of being an expat. By this I mean, the very thing that draws us into this experience is the very thing that can make it so joyful and paradoxically, so difficult and often painful. Frankly, I don’t care for the term, ‘expatriate’ or ‘expat’, because the term does seem to imply some degree of dissatisfaction or alienation from one’s country, but I guess we can thank SEO for propagating the term, yes, I’m being cheeky here.

Where did my vacation turn into expatriation? The short answer is well, over a man. A man from my past (13 years to be exact) that re-entered my life and boy howdy, did my life turn like a dog’s hind leg! Yes, I wanted to experience all that life had to offer, but just like every dreamer, sometimes it’s more comfortable to feed the dream versus live it. When push comes to shove, even dreamers can be afraid to look down into the cavern of change and jump. But at that moment of truth, (such as the night before the movers arrive and your whole life is either in a box or sold) you finally let go, both with tears and hopeful expectations.

 
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Posted by on December 22, 2010 in Daily life in France

 

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Are expats born or made?

War monument beside the church in Le Sappey en Chartreuse, France

Well, the short answer is of course, who knows? But, admittedly, I’ve always wanted to learn French and live in France for a very long time now, for reasons still unknown to me.  Maybe you’ve seen similarities in your life such as, have you always gravitated toward European design or euro-inspired objects?  Or have you unwittingly surrounded yourself with things that hearken back to another era and have always had a deep-rooted desire to see more than just your backyard? Friends and acquaintances who traveled were always so exciting and a bit of a mystery to me. Somehow, they always seemed ‘different’ when they returned, but I could never put my finger on what it was at the time, that made them seem that way.

According to recent and ground-breaking cognitive research, the ‘nature vs. nurture’ argument, is becoming more definitive on the roles of genetics and environment and the eternal tug of war that they play with our futures.  Leading experts in cognition are suggesting that 60 percent of who we are is genetic and the remaining 40 percent is environmentally determined (to find out more on this subject, reference: The Owner’s Manual for the Brain, Second Edition: Everyday Applications from Mind-Brain Research by Pierce J. Howard, PhD).  Does this mean we only have a 10 percent margin of error to get it right (relax, only joking of course)?

Growing up, our family would go on water skiing trips with my aunt, uncle and cousins. Those times were indelible and I remember how much fun we had skiing until our legs were weak and could barely walk at the end of the day, have a great meal with family and then sleep like a rock, all to do it again the next day. The place were we camped wasn’t far (only about a 2 hour drive) but it felt like a world away to us! To this day, my parents are still camping (not water skiing anymore though) and seeing the US via their RV and loving it. In college, my friends and I would go hiking and camping in local national parks all within a day’s drive.  Just like in my childhood, it wasn’t too far away, but we felt like we were–and on a student’s budget, that was a good thing! What’s the point? Everyone enjoys a vacation, but most are ready to get back to their routine and life as they left it. For a future expat, something is always missing when you get home, you miss that ‘far away’ feeling.  You are still restless, still wanting more but not sure why or how to remedy it. This may be the first sign that you are starting to become, as I like to say, ‘a citizen of the world’.  If you’re looking for a cure, there isn’t one. Vacations may only be a short-term fix to your ongoing condition.

What is it that makes a seeker, seek?  A wanderer, wander?  In my case, it appears it was a bit of both (nature & nurture). The truth is, we don’t know why some of us have the urge to travel, to see the final frontier, to boldly go…OK, I’ll stop, you get the point.  What we do know, is that it [desire to see/know more] is part of what drives us and calls us to risk so much and gamble on the unknown.  I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything, but we can underestimate the commitment, emotional toll and conversely, the complete joy the experience brings. Please do share your expat stories, other travel stories or questions with me and feel free to suggest future topics.

Happy travels (bon voyage)!

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2010 in Daily life in France

 

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