Tag Archives: So, you want to be an expat, eh?

The trials and tribulations of being an expat, the emotional and cultural journey.

Voila, dude!

Merci Google Images

The longer I live in France, the more I see a melding of the American and French cultures. Even in the commercials, there is a lot of English used. I’m not sure if the French culture is aware to what degree, as they may think it is simply advertising speech or an unfamiliar French word that they have now learned. The same is happening in American culture as well with the French language. Some feel that this melding of cultures is dangerous while others think that it is a natural and welcomed evolution for both. Whatever your school of thought, things are changing. The world is becoming smaller and better connected through the amalgamation of movies, TV, streaming video/radio, social networking, podcasts, blogs, you name it. No surprises there, but it did get me thinking about language similarities between French and English.

For just one example, the French use the word voilà like Americans use the word, dude (It’s OK, I still say it too). It reminds me of the Rob Schneider skit where he compares the word ‘dude’ to ‘Aloha.’

When I first arrived in France, I heard people use voilà, as my dad would say, like it was ‘goin’ out of style’ (Southernese for ‘a lot’). People used it in so many ways, it took me a while to understand the differences. Voilà literally is a contraction of ‘voir’ (to see) and ‘la’ in this instance, meaning ‘there.’ In the US, it has more of a ‘presto’ connotation, which is also one of the French uses along with many others. Voilà can be used in the following ways as translated to English:

1) See there or it’s there.

2) That’s it!

3) There you go!

4) That’s obvious (should be obvious).

5) So be it (what can you do about it?) Somewhat futile situation, apathy.

6) You’re right.

7) You’ve got it! (the hang of it.)

8) A response to surprise or like presto

The word also comes equipped with a sound effect, similar to what we would call a ‘raspberry’ or dare I say, fake flatulence noise? Just for fun, try holding air in your mouth with your cheeks puffed out. Then, let the air out quickly to make the sound effect. To release the air quickly and to fine tune your sound effect, you can use your index finger and gently poke one of your air-filled cheeks to let just enough air out to sound authentic. My belle soeur (sister-in-law who is a French-speaking Belgian) is a pro at this and I credit her with the perfect technique. 

Literally, for the first 3 months, I simply learned the word used in all the appropriate scenarios and many French had no idea that I didn’t speak the language. It was the perfect answer when you have no answer! The word dude may be the closest thing to it, but I think it still may fall a bit short. Perhaps using a ‘what’s up’ as a compliment may get you closer to the meaning. So, Voilà (insert sound effect-ppbbtt) my friends, if you can understand the multiple usages of the word and master the technique of the sound effect afterward, you too can survive in France! As you can see, it really is an amazingly versatile word. Use it freely, just don’t forget the accent at the end, s’il vous plaît!


Posted by on April 14, 2011 in Daily life in France


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Driving in circles: earning the ‘360 degree honk’ in France

Textbook example of how to navigate a roundabout in a perfect world

In all my years of driving (once considered a good driver in my own land), I’ve never been more humbl…no, make that humiliated, than by getting what I call, the ‘360 degree honk’. This didn’t happen in one trip; rather, this self-appointed, renowned title was earned through many painstaking moments of confusing roundabouts, tiny mountain roads with minimal signage, wrong turns, blood, sweat and tears (mostly by those sharing the road with me) later.

Even if you don’t live in Europe, you know what a roundabout is. Roundabouts are becoming increasingly popular in the US, but for the most part, are still relegated to shopping centers and smaller neighborhoods for their aesthetic value. In France, there is definitely an etiquette to the roundabout which yet again, I learned the hard way. This [style of learning] seems to be a disturbing trend with me, but then again, there would be no blog, right? So where was I? Oh yes, driving in circles.

It was a nice day, the sun was shining, birds were singing, the whole nine yards. What could possibly go wrong? You know that expression, ‘you can’t get there from here?’ Well, now that logic makes sense to me! The roundabout, at first glance (see diagram, if you’re a visual person) looks pretty simple: goes one way, exits to the right (in France), seems straight forward enough, no problem I thought. Insert misconception and foolish optimism here. I won’t walk you through the diagram, that would just bore all of us (including me) but I will tell you my hard-earned short cut: stay in the inner lane until you are less than 180 degrees from turning (roughly 2 exits). If you are turning within 2 exits, stay in the outer lane. And as a true southerner would say, “believe you me,” that little tidbit alone is worth its weight in honks.

In trying to navigate roundabouts, I have have been honked at from every direction, but the ‘piece de resistence’, the act that completed the circle of shame, was when someone honked from ahead of me. Now, I don’t mean across in the opposite lane, I mean directly in front of me. Maybe I was following too closely, but that’s a  pretty common occurrence which generally goes unnoticed in France, so I was truly at a loss as to why that final ‘blow’ to my already fragile ego, was necessary in this particular woman’s mind. In fairness, I’m sure she was just as puzzled and angered by me, which truly does make me sad that neither of us understood what went wrong. But, in that moment, I decided to be triumphant instead of defeated! Why? I achieved what I suspect few people have, ‘the 360 degree honk.’

Instead of staying angry and embarrassed, I decided to just wave at my disgruntled road buddy. This had the opposite effect and resulted in angering her even more. I really only wanted to make light of the situation by my gesture, not insight her into a frenzy of French expletives! Sadly, I couldn’t have done a better job at making her angry if I had tried, ‘alors’ (oh well). Not a proud moment and I wish I could have written a different ending, but at some point, you have to put things in a new perspective or you just want to give up. So, waving became my coping mechanism in response to the 360 degree honk; I was liberated.

Bonne Route: Garonne-Danube vu par Clara

By basking in my pseudo-accomplishment, I was able to shrug off my driving ineptitude in order to keep trying. As expats, it’s inevitable; you will offend some people without even trying, so you have to find ways not to let it bother you and embrace the fact as, ‘c’est la vie’ (that’s life). Eventually, we all get over it [being offended] and ourselves in the process. My advise? Just keep following your own road, whether it leads in circles or not, learn from your mistakes and just keep on truckin’. Bonne route (happy travels) y’all!


Posted by on January 20, 2011 in Daily life in France


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Ex-pattycakes: building bridges, one banana bread at a time

For the recipe, just click on the banana bread! (also, I add 1/2tsp. cinnamon, but you do what works best for you.) ~Image courtesy of Google

What a wonderful surprise I received last week, homemade ‘bugnes’ (pronounced: “bewnye”, a beignet-style french donut)! Our downstairs neighbor rang (who owns the village grocery store) and brought one of my favorite things, that’s right, the bugnes. I don’t think I’ve met a Southerner yet who didn’t have an overactive sugar gland. My mother told me that when she was pregnant with me, she always craved donuts and sent my dad out on several sleepy-eyed mornings to curtail her cravings for the deep-fried dandies, so naturally, I blame her for nurturing my sugar addiction (mom, if your reading, you know I still love you).

You may be thinking, what do banana bread and bugnes have in common besides both being desserts? Nothing, except the story I’m about to tell you. If you’re from the US, you already know that banana bread is an American classic, but in my parents’ household, it boarders on iconic status! My dad would say, “Momma, I wish I had a dollar for every banana bread you’ve made and I’ve eaten.” Every time my mom asked my dad what he wanted for dessert, he would always say, yep, you’ve guessed it–banana bread. Truth is, I wasn’t much of a cook until just a few years ago, because when you grow up with a great Southern cook in the family, ‘you’ve got a hard row to hoe’ (‘Southern-ese’ for big shoes to fill). So instead, I became a stellar sous chef and dishwasher–voilà. I hear your wheels turning, do you know where this is heading? With so much change hitting you from all sides trying to adjust as an expat, we often default to our comfort zones. In my case, my default mechanism was the one thing that didn’t need translation, food.

If someone makes you something, they like and appreciate you or they wouldn’t have done it. The gift of food says it all. So I wondered, what can I do to show my appreciation for helping me feel welcome, tolerating my abuse of their language and meeting every question with a preemptive head nod and two second delay before responding in my best pigeon French? I know, I’ll bake them a banana bread! Curious how what makes us feel comfortable, becomes something you then want to share with others. In my case, when I was at my most vulnerable, I wanted to share a happy memory from my childhood in the form of banana bread.

So, never having made a banana bread in my life and after a few failed attempts (with tweaking the recipe from American measure to metric), I was finally ready to make deliveries! And with a big American smile and a good dollop of nervousness, off I went rounding the village like some ‘half-baked’ St. Nicolas! I gave everyone between La Poste (post office) and the boulanger (baker), a banana bread. And without having to say much, let them know I genuinely appreciated their help at a time when I needed it most. I told them that it was a special dessert from the US, particularly in my family. They were all so shocked and excited, that it was touching. I found myself having to say, “De rien” (you’re welcome) very quickly and scoot out before the unexpected welling of emotion became obvious. Believe it or not, I’m not a crier, but the expat experience will pull emotions that are buried inside you, by awakening your joys but also your hidden pains. I guess that day, the emotion of being away from home, family and all things familiar (even though I’m 43 years old), hearkens back to our childhoods to that place of comfort we could all run to, whether it was our parents (if you’re the lucky ones), our favorite stuffed animal or imaginary friend. We all need to feel comforted when facing the vast unknown, just as we did as children and that never changes no matter how old or wise, we think we’ve become.

In making each delivery, it felt great to see their eyes light up as some asked, “Pourquoi (why)?” I just simply responded, “pour votre patience avec moi (for your patience with me) and skirted away before the water works began. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, in receiving baked goods from my neighbor, I now know that on some level, they like and accept me, no matter how awkward I feel. Even though I am still very different from people in my village, France and Europe as a whole, in the end, what a comfort it is to know that some things are still universal. Food is a tie that binds us all and making something from the heart and sharing it, is the universal language of caring. Bon appétit, ya’ll.


Posted by on January 13, 2011 in Daily life in France


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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!


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.


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


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