Happy Anniversary to Moi: Two Years in France

Today marks a very special time for me. It was two years ago that I landed in France, newly shed of most of my belongings and all I’d ever known. I thought this would be the perfect time to reflect summarily on my experiences in these past two years.

Image Source: Flickr Photo by: Michael Wilson
Image Source: Flickr
Photo by: Michael Wilson

Year One:

Complete and utter disorientation. Bags always half-packed for home. Steadily devolving language skills brought on by overwhelming stress. Mountains of bureaucracy. Anxiety, depression, grief, loneliness, and despair. “Oh, God, what have I done???!” Inability to nurture self and relationships. Awkward dependence upon others and an unbelievably steep learning curve.

Year Two:

Dwindling bureaucratic challenges. Oscillation between optimism and pessimism, socializing and withdrawing. Rediscovering and redefining of self. Healing through turning inward. Knowing more of the language than I think I do and surprising myself on several occasions but still having zero confidence with it. Sick of being dependent, but still not able to do much about it. Trying to create opportunities and relationships; some take off, but most fall flat. “This will never work!” Every day I wake up, so every day I keep trying.

Year Three???

Well, I don’t know yet, obviously. But as I am still here, my intent is to dig my heels in, force myself to find more opportunities to integrate, do some things that scare the crap out of me, and refocus on the language in a more regimented way. To be honest, if it weren’t for the political situation in the US, I may very well have gone home by now where I know I can make a decent living and be surrounded by like-minded friends and community where I can solve all my problems IN ENGLISH!

But here I am, and here I remain, for as long as I do or am allowed, taking it one day at a time, dreaming a little bigger, using my energy in more effective ways, and simply remembering to practice gratitude, courage, resilience, and opening to possibility. Oh, and French!

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!

Getting My Hands Dirty

Like many expats, finding myself in a strange land with none of the same resources and friends has inspired me to try new things. I recently tried my hand at ceramics at Les Bidoux, an art studio near Riberac, something I hadn’t done since I was child of around 10.

I had no idea that it would be so rewarding. Just getting my hands in the cool, earthy clay was a very pleasing experience. Slapping the hell out of it wasn’t half bad either, a move required to get the air bubbles out. (Marvelously therapeutic! But I won’t tell you who or what I thought about in that process.)

Jessie Mooy is the artist that runs the studio. I count myself truly fortunate to have her in my neighborhood…well, near enough. She’s not only very knowledgeable and helpful, she’s also an inspiring artist and turned out to be a kindred spirit. When I was considering taking the course with her, it was once I saw her website and artwork that I became truly excited. Her pieces are amazing!

I spent a month of Tuesday mornings with Jessie and two other women in the studio, driving about an hour each way. It was totally worth it. We all got on well and enjoyed one another’s company and artistic process. Dutch, English and some French was spoken…mostly English, though. Jessie always treated us to a tea break in her garden too which was nice…especially as the weather was just turning warmer.

mugnpot 2 better I think I really wanted to make sculpture right off the bat, but the teacher suggested that there were some basic techniques I needed to learn first. So the first thing I made was the little blue cup by pushing my thumb into a ball of clay and then using a manual wheel to shape it. outside one1 (Medium)

Afterwards, I learned to coil which resulted in the mug pictured here with an unintentionally-but nonetheless-ergonomic handle just right for my hand. It is a small thrill to drink my morning tea out of something I made myself!

For my third piece, I jumped right into sculpture; that resulted in my little fairy and snail statue which now sits on my front steps. Are they perfect? No. Does it matter? No. The fact is, I had fun. And I even want to do it again.

My husband and I joke now about my 100 mug, but of course, I got a lot more out of the lessons than a mug. I got to meet some lovely fellow-students, got to feel in control of something at a time when my life was feeling completely unrecognizable, learned a bit of technique and more importantly, discovered I wasn’t all that bad at it.

Virgin Expats – Don’t Panic; You’re Normal!

In my last post, I wrote about how living in a foreign country felt a lot like I imagined a fish out of water would feel…sputtering to breathe, violently flopping and groping for life, longing for the simpler days of the fishbowl.

The more I talk to fellow expats, the more I realize that many of the feelings I’ve experienced my first year in a new land are all too common. There is some relief in that. Actually, there’s a lot of relief in that because at first, I thought it was just me. I thought I was losing my mind!

So I write this post for fellow expats out there, men and women, who shared my starry-eyed hopes of an enchanting life abroad only to discover that the grass wasn’t really any greener, just different. If you have been or are now experiencing any of the following, don’t panic; you’re normal!

suitcase-clipartDo You Regularly Experience Complete Discombobulation?

I am not exaggerating here (maybe a little). Some days I wake up and feel like my head in where my elbow used to be and my toes are in my ears. I drop things, break things, burn things, forget things, don’t know what day it is, and stare out the window as I try to make sense of a list of things to do that might as well be written in Klingon. That wouldn’t be such a big deal if I was by nature an airhead. But I’m not! I’m a highly-efficient, organized Virgo! These things should not be happening to me!!! But they do. It’s all part of the “fish out of water” package. Everything here seems to take 5x as long to accomplish and at least 2x the effort. Setting up a simple account online, for example, requires Google translate, a keen intuition, and prayers that nothing times out before you can hit the “validate” button…assuming you can find it. It’s exhausting and frankly unnerving. Thankfully, some days are better than others. I live for those days. On the rest, I can only surrender.

Do You Feel Isolated & Alone?

I’ve read even expats in major cities complaining of loneliness and feelings of isolation, so I can’t blame it entirely on the fact that we’re living in the middle of nowhere. But I suspect it doesn’t exactly help! The thing is, even when you go to a market or join a group or whatever, you still might have a sense you don’t belong. Faces are unfamiliar, and even those you are getting to know are still much more distant than your friends and family back home, who themselves are receding in a dreamlike fashion. When watching others engaging warmly, it can bring on pangs of nostalgic longing and sadness. Such feelings rise, sometimes stay a bit longer than preferable, but they always fade. Many say the trick is to just get out there and meet people. But even that is not always an easy solution. Add the language barrier to the mix, and in fact, that solution is often just another problem. Maybe the only thing for it is to lean into the isolation and see what’s there and what it has to teach us.

Does Paralysis Strike?

There have been days, weeks even, when I knew I had to do something like decode a letter from the bank or try to make an appointment not knowing whether or not my communication attempt would result in success or not, but I just could not take action. Sometimes, I would experience so much anxiety that I would go through a kind of mental paralysis. My mind would just stop working completely. It was like an advanced stage of the discombobulation I mentioned. I couldn’t possibly do anything more than sip tea and watch Netflix. I wouldn’t even want to answer the phone when it rang and deal with yet another thing I couldn’t understand. The inability to move is a horrible feeling.  But you know what? It doesn’t last forever either. Strike while you are able and rest when you can’t. No biggie (albeit a tad scary).

Are You Having Unpleasant Thoughts & Emotional States?

Loss of identity (who you were) and lack of identity (who you are becoming) is a delicate place requiring an abundance of self-compassion, stillness, and self-care. It is all to easy for an anxious mind to create all kinds of painful stories of blame, mistakes, bad choices, and loss. When doubt enters, expats can be plagued with loneliness, sadness, helplessness, grief, shame, and withering self-confidence. We always have more going on that just a move, too. I, for example, was grieving a parent and entering a change of life and in a new relationship on top of leaving everything else and everyone behind. The stress of so much change spiraled out of control sometimes resulting in depression and despondency that I seriously had to claw my way out of. I didn’t have a lot of help to do it either. Part of me was ashamed to reach out to friends and family who would only offer advice and/or worry. But they couldn’t understand; only someone who had lived it could possibly understand. I tried to get some medical help, but I knew going in they would just try and medicate me, and I knew that wasn’t going to solve anything. So, I did a lot of praying. I also found an expat counselor to talk with, and WOW was that enlightening. She made it all so simple. I was in a process that others have survived before me; I wasn’t alone. And then one day, watching a Star Trek re-run, I just made a decision to refocus…be like a Vulcan and take the reins back from my mind and emotions. I couldn’t have done it before then. When the time was right, it just happened. I stepped over some invisible barrier and new from that day forward, though it would be an uphill battle, it was all up to me. What was I going to believe? What was I going to think? Where would I put my energy? Who would I become? Getting to that point, however, took just about one year.

Are you an expat, virgin or experienced? Would you add anything to this list?

Top Tips for Fish Out of Water

It’s official. I have been living in France now for one whole year. On some days, I was pretty sure I was not going to make it because either my marriage was going to drive me to a padded room, the next bureaucratic hurdle would give me a heart attack, or my complete disorientation would have me hiding under the sheets for a month. I’m happy to say, despite my worst fears, none of that manifested…though some of it got awfully close for comfort.

I’ve been taking this anniversary to consider how far I’ve come. I hear myself saying, “Honey, you’ve taken on a huge transformative process…bigger than you could ever have realized. Hold on to your heart. It’s still going to take time and lots of strength. Give yourself that time and keep the faith.”

Moving to a foreign land, leaving so much behind, being in a new marriage, not speaking the language, having to learn how to do things all over again in a completely unfamiliar way, all of it was (and continues to be) a HUGE transformative experience. Even after a year, it is still difficult to process at the speed to which I once was accustomed. I’m still learning. I’m still a fish out of water.

fishbowl In fact, being an expat is a lot like being a fish out of water! Think about it for a moment. A fish that is, for whatever reason, not in the water it has been swimming in all its life isn’t long for this world. It can’t breathe. It can’t swim. It’s floundering. It’s flopping madly. That’s just the reality of the kind of transformation expats undergo. Sure, maybe some are better equipped psychologically to handle it. Great! But for the rest of us, it’s living in a state of shock that’s way beyond culture, and usually with none of the support we were use to at our disposal.

There are certainly a lot of expat sites out there, most of them practical, many of them personal, but fewer dealing with the wellbeing of trailing spouses and expats of all kinds. It’s one of the reasons I’m taking this blog in a new direction. It will, of course, still be my story, but I also plan to focus more on wellbeing and things I’ve found that help with the anxieties expats face such as meditation.1283375516

So, I now share with you my 3 Top Tips for Fellow Fishies Out of Water.

Don’t take on more than necessary in your first year.

Whether you’ve planned your move for several months or several years, there’s still going to be even more to do than you ever thought possible, and despite your best efforts, smart goals, and good intentions, you may not be able to put everything in place as quickly as you’d like. When I arrived in France, I had to deal with the usual amount of paperwork (usual for France!) to establish residency, healthcare, banking, and all that fun essential stuff. I also had to learn how to drive again because my husband’s car was not an automatic. On top of that, I had to learn my way around, set up a household, and learn a new language. Plus I was planning to start a business, trying to keep up with three websites, painting, writing, trying to meet new people, and trying very hard not to cry every day. You know what? It was too flippin’ much!!! Some things HAD to be done and they weren’t very fun. Other things I had to let go. I couldn’t live up to the bar I had set for myself. I was surprised to find language-learning taking a back seat. It just was the way it was. I simply didn’t have the energy or focus to keep at it as I had planned. My health and sanity was far more important. I can’t even imagine how families with children manage such a massive relocation!

Find ways to stay connected to what you love.

You’re going to find yourself surrounded by the unfamiliar while all the while longing for the comforts of familiarity. Bringing those two things into balance can require some serious creativity. I came from an amazingly happy and vibrant community in which practically every other person was a massage therapist or yoga teacher and every other store was a whole foods market. I landed in the middle of grape vineyards with no cell-phone reception and the nearest town 15 minutes away. There was no dance church on Sundays. There was no weekly drum circle. There was no community acupuncture. The point is, the things I loved, that fed me and kept me healthy and happy, had vanished. I had to not only discover but create new avenues of connecting with things that inspired and motivated me. I always loved dance so I found videos about dancing to watch. I listened to music that I hadn’t listened to in ages that connected me to different times in my life. I made youtube my constant companion for new yoga workouts and meditations. And Facebook was a majorly important venue for helping me stay connected to friends back home. You get the idea.

Don’t believe everything you read or hear. Go straight to the source.

I’m including this very practical tip here because not doing so has been the cause of all kinds of grief for us, and I’d like to spare other expats that experience. It isn’t easy to get the answers to your questions, especially when language is a barrier. But it is tempting to rely on the internet, either on articles published in your mother tongue or on forums with fellow expats answering your questions. But the truth is, as incredibly helpful and reassuring as these sources can be, they are often filled with hearsay, outdated information, and/or experiences not at all relevant to your personal situation. The best thing you can do if you need an answer to an important question is ask the agency, bureau, expert or organization directly involved even if it isn’t the most economical approach, and even if it means hiring a translator. In the long run, it can save tons of energy in unnecessary worry or costly mistakes. That being said, prepare yourself for the thrill of getting different answer even within those agencies, bureaus and organizations!

And here, some additional tips…

Spend your AM and PM in nurturing activities.

The thing is, life abroad is challenging. I’d often find myself in a state of anxiety, irritability or overwhelm. It seemed to come out of nowhere, but in fact, there was just so much to process on a daily basis! By setting aside time morning and night to just be still, think about the day and all the thoughts and feelings that arose, by emptying the mind and body, you’ll be a lot better prepared for whatever you have to face the following day…and you’ll sleep better too!

Exercise!

Okay, exercise makes it on just about every list having to do with health and wellness. It’s no surprise. Our bodies needs exercise. I know that without my morning workouts, I would be a complete and utter nutter and feel miserable. It doesn’t matter what form your exercise takes. It can be anything as long as you do it. It’s just so so so so so important. Get it?

Indulge but don’t overdo it.

Okay. You find yourself in some bizarre new world with some pretty amazing foods at your disposal. What do you do? Eat them, of course. Some of the most wonderful things about France are the cheese, the wine, and the pastry! It’s okay to enjoy some of the best things about your new life, just don’t make yourself feel worse in an attempt to make yourself feel better.

Expect to feel completely weird 90% of the time.

I suppose not everyone will experience this, but don’t be surprised if you do. You can be doing the most mundane of tasks…pumping gas, turning on the oven, looking out the window. It’ll just hit you. Best not to focus on it.

Keep swimming.

Oh, the days I just wanted to throw in the towel! They would come so hard and so fast and so often. They still do. I’ve been told it takes expats about five years to really settle into life in their adopted country. (I don’t know if I’ll make it that long, but I’m still gonna keep swimming!) The point is, you’ll probably have days like that too when it all seems too hard, too impossible, and feels too wrong. All I can say is, tomorrow you may feel differently.