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Expat life is like a box of chocolates…

Forrest Gump courtesy of Google Images: Click on the image to see the original movie trailer

We’ve all seen the movie, Forrest Gump (screenplay by Eric Roth and directed by Robert Zemeckis) and unless you are “just plain ornery,” as my dad would say, you enjoyed it. The movie is now a modern classic (even though it varies greatly from the book, by Winston Groom) and I still love how it speaks to people in different ways and on different levels. Somehow, we can all see our lives a bit clearer through the simple eyes of Forrest and the wisdom of his determined mother.

Over the past year, I’ve come to appreciate the many similarities between my expat life and our lovable, even if not so bright, movie friend. Yes, life is like a box of chocolates, but if you’re anything like me, I still fight the urge to pinch the one I’ve chosen, to figure out what’s inside. I asked some friends for their favorite Forrest Gump quotes for inspiration and here are the most endeared ones and how they relate to my expat life:

“Run Forrest, run!” (Jaimmie H.)

The lure of starting over and making a fresh start certainly ‘holds water’ (makes sense), as a Southerner would say and sometimes the restlessness in your heart for worldly adventure just makes you feel like running. Whether running back to a place where you used to belong after a long absence or away from a place where you never felt you belonged or just letting go to see where life takes you. As expats, we seem to be either running  to find whatever is on the other side or perhaps running from ourselves in some way. Whatever our reason, standing still is just not an option.

“Sometimes, I guess there just aren’t enough rocks.” (Kelly S.)

Expat life is often very frustrating and this quote conjures feelings of frustration with myself; not with others. The generalized anxiety that you feel about the drastic change in your life and frustration (in my case) about not feeling like I was learning and assimilating fast enough, made me appreciate this expression which Kelly describes as, “…the most eloquent expression of frustration and anger.” Jenny’s desperate act of throwing rocks at her childhood home in an effort to soothe her pain, only broke her down in the end. I think we can’t help but collapse and fall (just like Jenny) when we realize throwing rocks doesn’t heal us.

“I’m not be a smart man, but I know what love is.”

This would have to be my personal favorite. I’ve mentioned it many times, that you often feel obtuse and I’ve struggled with communicating my thoughts and feelings by not having a command of the language, but through my actions, I showed people I cared. Whether I was making them a homemade banana bread or trying to speak their language to the best of my ability, they knew I was showing them love on some level. This quote reaffirms that love is universal, true and essential to all of us.

“She taught me how to swing and I taught her how to dangle.” (Tim G.)

“Simple and innocent joy”, is how Tim describes this one. As an expat, you do learn to connect to the simple joys in life, perhaps because when you are not proficient in the language, you begin to see people differently–more based on their expressions and mannerisms, because you have to rely on them so heavily when verbal communication is hindered. Funny how not understanding a language or culture can lead to a different kind of humanistic understanding. I was able to see the beauty of a person more clearly, such as the kindness in their eyes or even the vulnerability in their smile and connect with them more on a child-like level. Trusting in their simple willingness to help me and them seeing the joy of learning in my face. Very much like the way children get excited when they get answers to their never-ending questions and make their parents proud.

 “Sorry I ruined your Black Panther Party.” (Tim G.)

This one strikes a funny, yet sad chord with me. In a previous article, I talked about the evolution of friendships, (as a native Memphian turned expat) and the toll it takes on friendships. Memphis is famous for BBQ, blues and Elvis, but it is also the city where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. For these reasons [friendship and racial hardships], this quote is a double entendre for me. By leaving, I did dampen the good times my friends and I shared and may have left a bad taste in the mouths of those who were upset at me leaving them. The other side of this quote is that the city of Memphis (and south) has certainly borne the burden of racial and cultural change and is still to a degree, trying to recover from its past wrongs. Initially, we laugh as Forrest is genuinely upset by disturbing the ‘party’, but he also couldn’t sit back to see someone he loved being hurt. Part of me is sad for leaving my family, friends and hometown and leaving them to deal with the hurt, but some things you just can’t continue to watch. It doesn’t mean you don’t feel the pain of what you left behind or your responsibility for it. Maybe forgiveness will come for both myself and my native city. That is my hope.

[At Jenny’s grave]

You died on a Saturday morning and I had you placed here under our tree. And I had that house of your father’s bulldozed to the ground. Momma always said dyin’ was a part of life. I sure wish it wasn’t. Little Forrest, he’s doing just fine. About to start school again soon. I make his breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. I make sure he combs his hair and brushes his teeth every day. Teaching him how to play ping-pong. He’s really good. We fish a lot. And every night, we read a book. He’s so smart, Jenny. You’d be so proud of him. I am. He, uh, wrote a letter, and he says I can’t read it. I’m not supposed to, so I’ll just leave it here for you. Jenny, I don’t know if Momma was right or if, if it’s Lieutenant Dan. I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it’s both. Maybe both is happening at the same time. I miss you, Jenny. If there’s anything you need, I won’t be far away. (Cary P.)

This probably captures my thoughts exactly, regarding my family and friends. Even though Forrest is in the world of the living and Jenny has ‘passed away’ (as we say in the south), he ends his soliloquy by pledging never to leave her. Even the ones who are upset with me by leaving, I pledge to never be far away. Even though the miles are vast, my heart is only a beat away. My friend Cary gave such a touching, raw and powerful description, I wanted to share it with you in its entirety:

We should all be so loved that anyone would be willing to care enough for us to utter and really mean those words. This reminds me I miss buddy hugs. The kind that are honest, forgiving. The kind that are “sideways” hugs. Never sexual, not family pats, but real, if you ever need me hugs. The kind that mean I don’t have any money, I can’t bail you out, but I would sell something to get to you.

I would be a liar to say that I don’t sometimes miss my old life: friends both old and new, family and all things familiar. I miss them but, just like little Forrest, I’m doing just fine…waiting for where destiny or the ‘accidental-like breeze’ will take my floating feather.

“Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get” (Pierre S. & Steph D.)

Arguably one of the most iconic quotes in the past 17 years since the movie came out in 1994, this quote resonates with us all and encapsulates the movie of all our lives perfectly. I guess what makes this quote extra special, is that in the end, just like chocolate, it’s all good, only with a surprise in every bite.

Honorable mentions: Couldn’t relate these directly to expat life, but boy howdy, did they make me laugh. Hope you enjoy them too.

“I gotta pee.” (Mike B.)

“Oh, yes sir. Bit me right in the buttocks.” “Only Forrest would use the word ‘buttocks’. (Chris G.)

“His name is Forrest too?” (Jeff B.)

“You’re momma sure does care about your schoolin’ son, mmm, mmm, mmm.” (Pierre S. & Steph D.)

Please share your favorite Forrest Gump quote with us and why it’s your favorite!

 
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Posted by on March 24, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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Expat relations: where have my old friends gone?

Over coffee this morning, I told my husband about a weird dream about an old friend. Long story behind the crazy dream (they rarely make sense to the waking mind, do they?), but more importantly, I started thinking of my old friendships and how the expat experience not only changes you, but also how your old friends relate to you as well.

To give you a bit of background first, back in my hometown (Memphis), I was part of a small but tight group of friends that worked together and played together. We looked forward to our lunches and then to our weekends plans with one another. As time went by, our lives changed with the advent of children, job promotions and losses and other family circumstances. However, we were still able to survive all those life events for 15 years. Friends forever! We toasted to it and declared it on many occasions, that no matter what happens, we will always remain friends.

At the time, I know we all believed it and wished it to be true. But after moving to Charlotte, NC, I began to feel the distance when I would go back home to visit. They all had lots of laughs, private jokes and experiences that they shared, that now had to be explained to me. I felt myself swallow hard with the realization that time and distance were starting to take their toll. My ‘tier one friendship circle,’ as I call it, was starting to deteriorate. It reminded me of the Millennium episode of  Seinfeld  when Jerry fell from the top 10 on the speed dial.

It was a year later, that I moved to France. After living in France for almost another year, I returned home again for another visit. What little familiarity that existed two years ago was now completely gone. The once comfortable ramblings had been replaced with deliberate and calculated chatter that only takes place between friends of friends desperately trying to find common ground. The magical connection was gone; Camelot had ended. My friends were vanishing before my eyes between uncomfortable pauses. There were even some friends that were no-shows. I’m not sure which was worse, the trite conversations with the living ghosts of my past or the absence of the ideal friendship that no longer existed. Maybe it was both; maybe they are one in the same.

In speaking with another friend about my angst over the apparent transition with my tier one circle, he told of how the same thing happened in his and his wife’s lives. He told me that you are the one who changes, it’s your friends who have stayed the same. I protested and said, “But, I’m the same person I’ve always been. I don’t understand why…” and in that moment, he stopped me and said, “no, you’re not the same.” Looking even more bewildered than before, I asked him what he meant. He proceeded to tell me that once you’ve experienced certain life events, you change and often without you noticing. It is inherent and inevitable.

Courtesy of Google Images

Funny how you don’t feel it happening, but it’s like a bowl of candy that starts out half full. With each day and each experience that challenges you, stretches your mind and touches your soul, you add another piece of candy to the bowl. Before long, you realize how much sweeter your life has become and how much you want to share this bowl of candy with all you meet.

There are things that can steal candy from you bowl, such as becoming sour on friendships that change or disappear all together or having one foot into a new culture but not yet fitting in; but if you can push past these feelings and understand that it is part of the process, you can live the sweet life! I would be a liar if I said that letting go (of old friends) has been easy, but I now understand that I was the one who left them. I changed. Although we’ve not discussed it and may never have the chance after all that has happened, I know that they are probably mourning the death of our former friendship too.

We all know that the old dies to make way for the new, both literally and figuratively speaking, but it still hurts when we loose a loved one in any capacity. Sometimes they are still living when we lose them and that can be what hurts most, the seemingly unfinished business of it all in wondering, why? So as an expat, your relationships will inevitably change but in the process, try to enjoy the ride. Enjoy your friends and family while you can and stay open to the new friendships that will inevitably replace some of the old ones. The process will be painful but it’s still worth the ride. ‘Profite de la vie’ (enjoy your life) y’all!

 
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Posted by on February 24, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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Pardonne moi, but your French tongue is in my American ear…

In case you may be thinking we are going to discuss something tawdry, sorry to disappoint (some of) you, but hope you’ll stick around for the explanation. In trying to interpret how an American ear interprets the French language, I got a chuckle from thinking about the circa 1980’s commercials for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups®.

Remember, “hey, you’ve got your chocolate in my peanut butter…” and vice versa? As a result of this fun, yet fattening (after satisfying my chocolate & peanut butter craving) promenade down memory lane, the metaphor of how the French language sounds to the American ear began to take shape. It can be a bizarre and awkward combination at first, but in the end, great for both and yes, can even be delicious!

In hearing how native French speakers speak English, it has really helped me get over the ‘literal hump’. By this I mean, I’ve actually learned more from French speakers who do not speak perfect English. They use French structured sentences as I use English structured ones, so in turn, I get to learn how to construct my phrases in the French way. Still confused? Ce n’est pas grave (no problem)! Let’s take some common French expressions and translate them into the literal English meaning:

Tout à fait ! (in French: “You’re right!”)

  • As an American learning French would hear: “All have done!”

Qu’est-ce que c’est ? (in French: “What is it?“)

  • As an American learning French would hear: “What is this that this is?

Ce n’est pas grave ! (in French: “No problem!”)

  • As an American learning French would hear: “This no is not serious” (Oh, contraire, I think it’s getting very serious!)

After learning some common and well used French vocabulary words, I thought, cool. I have the basics down, so when I hear those words spoken, I’ll immediately understand. Wow, isn’t French fun? I thought to myself. However; with the sentence structure being so different from English, I would often get stuck in the literal translation and become very frustrated to learn that I still could not make sense of the words when put into a standard French phrase. As my father would say, “I couldn’t make hide nor hair of it.” It sounded like a lot of random words, just thrown together with no rhyme or reason.

My ears would recognize someone say, ‘child….refrigerator…tonight’. But it was like playing connect the dots between French words. The words I recognized were either spoken so fast that I couldn’t understand them or they had not yet been added to my mental vocabulary bank. This resulted in multiple interpretations for the same phrase, such as “my child’s dinner is in the refrigerator for tonight” or “my child climbed in the refrigerator tonight,” I had no idea! It was a bizarre mix of clarity and confusion in one sentence (not sure which would represent clarity, the chocolate or the peanut butter–you decide).

There are also many words in French that have multiple meanings depending on how they are used in a sentence. Case in point: on my wedding day, my now mother-in-law (belle mèrereferred to my wedding outfit using the word, ‘toilette.’ Naturally, I thought she may have been asking me instead if I needed to go the toilet or perhaps did I want some’ eau de toilette‘ (perfume). So, I reflexively responded, “non, merci” (no, thank you) and then wondered, what if she really was comparing my outfit to the toilet in some way? Not the most comforting thought on your wedding day, but when I realized that “toilette” has the following meanings:

1) refers to your total outfit

2) to freshen up as in “faire la toilette”

3) “a cabinet de toilette” (dressing table) or “mettre sa toilette” the act of getting dressed

4) the bathroom

The veil of confusion finally lifted. My mother-in-law had actually complimented me on my outfit. Who could guess that it is possible to receive a compliment using the word, toilette in French? In the end, we all had a good laugh.

Putting all jokes and similes aside for a moment, learning French has been one of the greatest challenges of my life, and at 43, by golly, that’s saying something. Having learned Spanish in high school and college, I honestly thought learning French would be a breeze. Maybe it would have been if I was younger, I don’t know. Maybe age has nothing to do with it at all, but the fact remains, it has been much harder than I’d imagined. So I continue to press on (speaking French like a precocious 3rd grader now), knowing that the reward will far outweigh the frustration some day soon. Bonne toilette, y’all (and take that any way you like ;))!

 
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Posted by on February 17, 2011 in Daily life in France

 

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Faux pas on aisle 4!

Thank you Google Images, I couldn’t agree more!

When thinking of shopping in Europe, one conjures images of sidewalk markets brimming with fresh fruits and veggies from the farmer’s garden. Those certainly exist and my husband and I enjoy them on Sunday afternoons. But just like in the US, there are chain stores where you get your non perishables as well. This is how I received a crash course in French grocery store etiquette.

First, please know that I’m not the kind of shopper who:

1) leaves a cart in the middle of the aisle

2) pays by check regularly and if I do, doesn’t fill in the check prior to checkout

3) invades your personal space in the checkout

4) abuses the express checkout by getting in the ‘10 items or less’ aisle with 11+ items

Admittedly, I do fancy myself as someone of at least average intellect, but the expat experience will sometimes make you think you are, as my father would say, ‘a few bricks shy of a load’ sometimes. So, I’m confessing now, that I did the unthinkable; yes, the almost unforgivable act of taking someone else’s shopping cart by accident. But before you judge me, please read on. And hopefully, just maybe, you can find it in your heart to forgive my egregious breach of shopping etiquette.

One of my favorite movies is Mr. Mom with Michael Keaton and I couldn’t help but laugh for thinking that kind of shopping disaster could never happen to me. Let me just say, be careful of what you find funny or ridiculous, because it could happen to you!

Granted, I didn’t knock fruit over or abandon a child in the cart, but the same awkwardness and cluelessness are spot on. As we do in the US and the UK, we take our carts (or trolleys for our UK friends) and mind our path while not blocking the aisles as best we can. So naturally, I did the same, keeping my path as close to the right as possible (or would it be the left in the UK?) and went about my shopping. I wouldn’t say I received dirty looks, but people curiously looked at the cart first, then at me. I didn’t understand that you don’t push your cart around all the time to each location, you instead park your cart in a general area and walk to get the other items you need, then return to your parked cart when finished. Well, didn’t get the memo, yet again. How can something as simple as pushing a cart, be so different in another country? It was when I realized my faux pas and began leaving my cart, that I unknowingly lost it! The one I returned to had the same stuff in it as I had and was in the same general area, so it must be mine. So I thought.

Getting in the checkout lane (or ‘till’ for our British counterparts), I noticed people stacking their groceries like mad onto the belt. It was at such a fast and furious pace, it looked like an actual race. Naturally, I followed suit and began to pile my items in anticipation of being next, as if I were to win an imaginary prize. If it weren’t for my husband telling me that you have to weigh and bag your own items, I would have been up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

When the clerk was ready, she began scanning my items at lighting speed, sliding them down the stainless steel chute, as I did my best to keep ahead of her by bagging at the other end, still with my eyes on the imaginary prize. Back in the US, I remember the young man who usually bagged my groceries would ask,  ‘paper or plastic, ma’am?’ In France, you bring your own bags or purchase them at the store. It’s not posted anywhere so if you don’t know,  ‘you’re just caught with your bags down.’ In the States, it would always amaze me how the baggers could quickly ascertain which items work best in the same bag and stacked them from heaviest to lightest on top and hand you your candy or gum in one fell swoop! Now, I was just cramming the stuff in the bags as fast as I could, in an effort not to hold up the line.

After the ordeal was over and it was time to return my cart, I thought; now, I can relax. Gingerly pushing the cart sideways up a slight, uphill grade (the carts have wheels that turn 360 degrees–see previous post for more irony) to its holder.  I began to take the coin out of the slot in the cart and it wouldn’t move. I pulled and pulled and still, nothing. I saw the chain and realized, ah, ha! There is a lock that clenches the coin and triggers the engaging or releasing of both the coin and chain. This [locking system] had escaped my notice upon getting the cart, as my hubby was kind enough to do it for me.

Feeling slightly empowered by my firm grasp of the obvious, I began to insert the chain into the wrong slot (the one holding the coin) for a good 30 seconds, which my friends, is a long time in ‘Cartworld’. Then, in a stroke of belated genius, I decided, maybe I should look at the other carts to see how they lock together (better late than never I suppose) and rejoiced at unlocking the mystery! The chain inserts in the back of the lock box verses where the coin is. After loading the car with my goodies (including a few surprises, like gaining some new items from the cart switch) I collapsed into the car from mental exhaustion thinking, and I’ve got to do this again next week?

Bonne courses, y’all (happy shopping)!

 
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Posted by on February 10, 2011 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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