Shopping Reversals: An Expat Issue

baskets full of groceries clipart

When I first got to rural France, grocery shopping was a big disappointment. I came from a city with several natural foods stores, and I had very good eating habits. Coming here, though, my choices were severely limited. There weren’t as many organic foods available and finding decent gluten-free anything was a chore. Eventually, I scouted out some essentials and eventually found a couple of bio shops, but they were positively nothing like what I had been spoiled with in the states. With so little to choose from, my diet has become less diverse and not quite as healthy (but I’m working on that).

Recently, I took a short trip to the UK to attend a weekend event. Oh! The food available! From every nation! And the grocery shopping! Unreal! When I walked into Waitrose, I was in ecstasy and downright goofy with happiness. It was sweet grocery heaven. I was actually singing “Heaven, I’m in heaven and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak. And I seem to find the happiness I seek, when I’m shopping at the Waitrose down the street” as I walked up and down the aisles…mostly just looking.  It made several people look at me funny, but hey, my joy was THAT great. I was just so happy to see so many things! But as it was only my first night, I only need to grab some dinner and get back to where I was staying. So, I merely browsed with delight, really, wondering if the crowd around me had any sense of appreciation for the marvel that spread out before them.

lady shopping at grocery store clipart

My weekend event was all day and quite intensive. I barely had an appetite to eat during our lunch breaks and wasn’t all that hungry come dinner time either. So with great frustration, despite being surrounded by every possible type of restaurant on the face of the earth, I didn’t get to sample much. I didn’t really have time for any other shopping either although the stores were incredibly seductive. Where I live now, I count such a great deal on the internet…even for staples like decent toothpaste and epsom salts. Mind you, I’ve never been a big shopping person. In fact, I’ve always hated it. But living full-time in a shopping desert made me really appreciate all that was tempting me in London…right there for the buying.

Interestingly, when I found myself at a Whole Foods on my last day, in another rush to eat and get some things to take home, I found myself too overwhelmed. I was so unfamiliar with it all, and I didn’t know what I wanted. Ironically, I caught myself longing for my little local Intermarche and found comfort as I scanned the aisles and found French products! How’s that for reversal! Has living in rural France ruined me for life???

I think not yet, but I wonder what will happen if I stay here much longer!

Two Lessons of the Expat Life

detour-clipart-detourWhat’s showing up IS the medicine. It IS the help you need. I remember what must have been two+ years ago when I was visiting a friend for the last time before leaving Asheville, North Carolina, where I lived for the previous 10 years. I was so full of fear for the venture I was undertaking; I remember crying thinking, “I can’t do this!” He didn’t say, “You’re making the biggest mistake of your life,” which was what I was afraid of. He said, “You’re going to find all the help you need there.” Had I known back then the fires through which I would have to walk, I never would have left my bed, let alone my country. Yet, here I am. And if I look back on the time I’ve spent here, the help I needed (not necessarily the help I wanted but definitely the help I needed) has shown up. And I’ve learned two important lessons:

  1. We don’t always know the crap we believe until given the opportunity to examine it.

  2. We don’t always know the strength we have inside us until given the opportunity to need it.

Learning to Pray…in French

I remember when I still had that expat-adventure gleam in my eye and actually believed myself when I thought learning the language would be my first year priority. I knew I’d be learning to do lots of things all over again…using French ATM’s, using French websites, using French gas stations..not just to speak. What I didn’t know was that my first year would be one filled with so much grief and stress that the last thing I would want to do, let alone find myself capable of, was learning the lingo!

Now that I’m nearly half way through my second year, I’m a bit more relaxed with the idea. The challenges are still there, of course, but they are less inundating. The overwhelming loss and subsequent grief of what I left behind is finally abating. I have more time and more energy, both mentally and physically, to turn to the task of language-learning.

That said, I’ve barely begun. I suppose it was kicked off when a friend of mine from the states came for a visit. I arranged for her to teach a French immersion weekend to fellow expats here. Since then, I’ve been listening to French everyday by watching Un Village Francais, a TV series about WWII now on Netflix…at least in France. I use the French subtitles as I watch which is extremely helpful because otherwise, all the words just run together. I don’t really know what is sinking in and what isn’t, but I’m not making that my concern. I’m just trying to follow along, enjoy, and listen closely.

The other day while taking a walk to clear my head, I surprised myself. Sometimes when I walk, I pray. So, I  started to pray. And guess what? I prayed in French. It didn’t just happen; it was intentional, but somehow it felt more sacred that way. Maybe it’s because I had to fight to learn every single word I used. Or maybe, as I had so few words at my disposal to do so, I felt each word more deeply. Or maybe it is just la musique de la langue that makes everything sound more beautiful.

 

From Expat to Refugee: Some Thoughts on the State of the World

heartyworldI know I am not the only person feeling discouraged and stressed out by the things taking place in our world today. The macrocosm is illuminating the dark and shockingly ugly underbelly of humanity as a collective, while each microcosm is being forced to face the shadowy aspects within as we all deal individually with the racism, corruption and greed, violence, hatred, powerlessness, and, well, the list goes on. These two cosmoses seem to be fueling, inflaming, and magnifying each other. Just as I find some peace inside myself with “how things are”, something else goes ballistic in the world. And just as I fall prey to my own sense of self-important worry, something out there gives me hope again. The dance makes it difficult to pin down reality…if there ever was one.

While a better part of me recognizes that what is happening is simply part of our evolutionary process, another part of me wonders whether we can build the momentum necessary to actually evolve beyond our self-destructive, self-hating habits as a species. Will we ever create a respectful, caring, just world with an appreciation for life? The forces of the status quo and egoic power have such an overwhelming drag effect. We may have to go kicking and screaming then to rise above it all and discover the illusory nature of self. What else is there to do? What else could possibly be of any importance?

I was excited at one time to be leaving the United States for France. I had no clue what expat life would entail, but I went for it anyway. Though I sometimes entertained the idea that I was “escaping”, I never really thought the US was all that bad. Nowadays though, between politics, GMOS, fracking, racism and gun violence, I’m feeling less and less like an expat and more and more like a refugee. What is happening to my country? What is this insanity that is seeping up through the cracks and crevices of so many city streets? And what, pray tell, can change the tide?

Personally, there is an almost endless onslaught of fearful thoughts about Brexit, making ends meet, the falling Pound, choices, finding work, moving or staying, unmet expectations and needs, not being able to master this language, needing to control…plus so many emotions, from guilt to shame to sadness to anger…and I don’t even know where they are all coming from! If I’m not careful, I am tuned into a station that plays negativity day and night, just like the news.

I have enough awareness and have done enough work to know that I cannot afford to entertain this onslaught. I unplugged from the influence of major media years ago, and now my work is uplugging from the 24/7 news channel in my head by placing my attention elsewhere. I take time each day to be in my body, stretching and moving. I take time each day to breathe and only breathe. I take time each day to listen to wise teachers and be inspired by their words. I take time each day to observe my mind without getting sucked into the propaganda that aligns so well with old wounds, ingrained fears, and ancient beliefs.

I don’t have the gall to compare myself to an actual refugee whose very life is dependent upon leaving his home. I’m aware of the plight of thousands rushing out of war-torn areas to face a world that doesn’t want them. And yet, putting the physical threats aside, I am without question a refugee from my own mind. My life DOES depend upon me leaving my thoughts, obsessions, habits, identification, preferences and aversions behind. If I do not learn somehow to let go of what I cannot control and allow life to be what it is, if I cannot cultivate an open-heart, forgiveness of myself and others, and an ability to be completely present and trusting in every moment, I’m as good as dead.

In this moment, I feel exceptionally blessed to be able to look out from my desk and see nothing but trees and grasses. Today the sun is shining, birds are singing and flying past, bugs are humming, and the donkey in the next field over is braying. There’s a cool breeze through the open window, and though I can hear the occasional plane or truck, there is so much peace here. Nature still has a hold here. And nature is keeping me sane.

My friends, wherever you find yourself, please heed me. Take time each day to unplug. Take a moment to recognize the truth of the moment in which you find yourself. Take note of the beauty that surrounds you. Set aside the swords you are carrying and the axes you’ve been grinding. You can pick them up again later. But give yourself a moment to let it all fall away. Let all that fear break into a million tiny, insignificant pieces. Breathe. Just breathe and know that you are okay. Everything is okay. If only for a moment, give yourself that gift. Give your body that gift. Give your heart that peace. Take refuge, my friends. The world needs our sanity more than ever.

 

 

A French Fête

ateThis weekend in the town of St. Aulaye just over the border between the Poitou-Charentes and the Dordogne, there was a huge festival known as La Félibrée du Pays. It is a  yearly celebration, held in different towns each year, of the language, music, dances and songs of the Occitan, drawing thousands of people.

This year was no exception. We didn’t know what to expect, but I certainly wasn’t expecting the crowds that were there. I’m not so sure the organizers were either, because by Sunday afternoon, no beverage stands had any bottles of water left, every toilet has a line to kingdom come, and some places has already run out of food! I hadn’t seen this many people in one place (or collectively in many places) in the whole time I’ve lived in rural France.

oneComfort challenges aside, it was quite a delightful spectacle. The entire village was decorated in bright and colorful, plastic flower bunting. There were hundreds of people dressed in traditional attire from various French regions. There were horses, musicians, dancers, lace-makers, wood-carvers, and people! (Did I mention the endless rivers of people?)20160703_155742

We walked through the throngs looking for some food, and not finding anything palatable, ended up standing in line a good 20 minutes for ice-cream. Nothing ever tasted so good. Shortly thereafter, we found ourselves in the middle of the parade (not on the sides watching like well-behaved spectators. Woops!).  We cut out on a side street and finally discovered some food, so we ate in reverse dining order.

St. Aulaye is a charming village…like most French villages. Around every corner is a picturesque house with a beautiful garden. It was an overcast day, but the sun had broken through several times making it quite hot. We walked around and foolishly became quite dehydrated. Eventually, I had a whopping headache and felt 20160703_154808near to passing out. We went to three different stands in search of water and felt like the Holy Couple, finding no room at the inn. Passing the First Aide station, we considered dropping right in front of them, thinking this would surely get us some water, but thought better of it since neither of us wanted to be taken to the hospital. The fourth beverage stand which was near the entrance (now our exit) was the true life-saver with a gleaming bottle of Perrier still in their refrigerator.

It was a semi-masochistic day of both pleasure and pain. How French!too

Common Expat Problem #2367: The Cost of Self-Advocacy

There are incredibly creepy corporations everywhere that feed on the certainties that people have busy lives and limited free time, and that those people’s desire to live in peace outweigh concerns over the pocket. Cable, phone, and insurance companies come to mind. When you are in your home country, battles over billing errors are frustrating but manageable. Most consumers don’t need to hire outside help to get things sorted…although some certainly do.

When you live in a foreign land and lack sufficient grasp of the language, when billing errors and account problems arise, you have no choice but to get help. You might be lucky enough to have a pool of friends to turn, but if not, or if you already feel terrible begging them for help repeatedly, you have to shell out some dosh to get matters under hand. It can be rather expensive.broken-cell-phone

My husband had a contract with #SFRMobile for several years. It had long expired, and we were paying month to month for an old phone we didn’t need anymore, so we cancelled the contract and switched to #Free, which saved us 70%. Cancelling was easy…relatively speaking. I managed to find a template letter en francais, edited it, and sent it recommande to ensure its receipt.

SFR cancelled the account promptly enough, but with no trace, making it impossible to log in and follow-up or even call. “Sorry, no such account exists.” In a letter, they said they would send a box to use to return the phone. They never did. Some time later, a letter came claiming we owed them 80 euros for the phone. My husband absolutely refused pay. In the meantime, we tried finding a place to drop off the phone with no luck.  Mailing it ourselves would have cost us as well, and the point was not to spend what we didn’t owe. Eventually, after several emails from SFR, we got a notice from a collection agency. By this point, we knew we needed help.

We hired someone to call the agency. He explained we were told we’d get a box to return the phone and never did. They agency told him that it was SFR’s fault and that they were forgiving the claim. Of course, none of this was in writing. All we had was an email from our friend and a verbal promise:

I had someone on the phone at [the collection agency].
I explained the case and they agree you should not pay !
They blocked the claim and asked me to call SFR, giving me a trick to bypass the problem of the ID (your number isno longer registered which makes impossible to reach the service). Unfortunately, the trick didn’t work.
I then called back – they are sending themselves the information to SFR, who may soon send you the
prepaid envelope. They said it could take some time, such intern mails being (slowly) treated by sfr.

So months later, we got another letter from the same agency again requesting we settle the amount we don’t actually owe to SFR. My husband, in his procrastination, had put off dealing with it, day after day, until we received a notice that the claim had escalated. Brilliant.

By this point, hubby just wanted to pay the frickin’ 80 euros and be done with it. In the end, we gave in, because who has several hours and 100+ euros to throw at an 80 euro problem? That’s my point. That’s what they count on. I suspect that companies like SFR are so bloody tenacious because they KNOW people will just up and give in. They must make most of their profit that way! It is nothing short of criminal.

I know this problem isn’t just ours. Recently on a popular expat forum, several of us were getting into the trials and tribulations we’ve suffered at the mismanaging hands of SFR. Even a quick visit to their Facebook page reveals disgruntled comments. Ridiculous!

I hope this is the end of our story, at least, but there is a tiny little niggling something inside that says it still might not be. For example, how long does it take, once they get the check, to go through and cancel all the bogus claims and processes against us? Pain in the…

I’ll take a problem in my own language over one in a foreign language any day!!!

 

Bureaucratic Nutters

Stick ShiftI’ve been holding onto this post for quite a while. I was waiting for the dust to settle. Today, it has. I have picked up my French driver’s license! This all started back in early March of 2016. Here’s the story…

Recently, driving home from our local prefecture on a license exchange issue, my husband exclaimed, “There’s nothing scarier than a nutter with power”. He was referring to a woman at the prefecture who has been hell-bent on making my life miserable.

You see, certain US states have an agreement with France for license exchange. My state, Florida, is one of them. So, according to the Service-Publique France website, I can exchange my Florida license for a French one if I apply within one year of the date of my carte de sejour. So, I drove up to the prefecture to meet a friend and translator to make my application several days before the deadline.

Knowing from past experience just how French bureaucracy works, I made sure I was over-prepared. I had every single document listed on Service-Publique, in triplicate, translated when necessary, in addition to one or two other things I thought might come in handy.

Here’s how it went:

First, the woman to whose window I was called had to check that Florida was in the US (I’m not kidding). Then she claimed she couldn’t read the license (hence I pulled out my certified translation). Then she said it was too new (2013) and that the best they could do was give me a provisional license reducing me to a new driver despite 30+ years of experience and a spanking clean record. So then I explained I previously has a NC license which I exchanged for this FL one when I moved in the US. She said there was no note of that on the license and shook her head (at which point I pulled out a certified translated drivers record that said exactly that!) Then she said she had no history for my former license in NC (which I produced). Then she said, “We don’t have an exchange policy with NC.” No shit, Sherlock. But my license is from FLORIDA! She couldn’t have cared less.

She said all she could do (as it was out of her hands completely…forget the fact that the previous year this same woman somehow found the courage to make an executive decision and issue my husband’s license on the spot) was take half my application, tearing up the required form to request the exchange claiming it was unnecessary. Then she told me to return the following week if I didn’t receive a letter beforehand denying my request.

This did, regrettably, ruin my day. I was despondent. But after a night of very little sleep tossing and turning over whether or not to roll over and play dead over this or to go back and face her royal highness, I chose to go back. For one thing, it donned on me I had failed to ask for a recipisse or receipt for my dossier, something that the Service-Publique website clearly stated should have been issued. It took all my faith and courage but I was determined that A) this woman not determine my destiny and B) that I do something productive and healing with the toxic feelings in me.

I called upon my French teacher at the time who met me at the prefecture and filled her in. I went with the intent of asking for a receipt for my visit the day before because I didn’t get one, and if possible, to plead my case to someone else. No such luck.

Madame bore her usual sour expression, at first scolding my friend for skipping line (we hadn’t) and then rudely refusing a receipt when my friend requested it. That’s when Madame noticed my phone. It was like a light went off in her head. Yes, I was recording everything! Suddenly she smiled brightly. She said it wasn’t a problem that there was blue ink on my application (which yesterday she claimed was an issue), and she helpfully asked if I had with me a record that she refused to take yesterday. Imagine!! She still wouldn’t take my required form saying it wasn’t important “yet” and that I’d still have to go back next week…yes, with the very form she wouldn’t take.

I didn’t know what would happen next, but I was hopeful Madame would think twice about yanking this yank’s chain again. Camera-phones rock! She may not have given me a receipt, but I left with one all the same! It’s unfortunate. Miserable people spread misery. They can’t contain all that agony themselves. In believing in their powerlessness, they fail to see their true power lies in helping people overcome their difficulties, not in creating more for them.

Anyway, after three more appointments (one to turn in that form, one to pay for my license, and one to pick it up, in addition to the two already mentioned, for a grand total of 5 trips), I finally have my license in hand, and it only cost me just under 300 euros factoring in translations, administrative help, all that gas, and the actual cost of the license! I’m not complaining. I’m really one of the lucky ones not having to take French driver’s lessons! Do I hear angels singing???