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!

Back to French Class: The Zen Approach

It’s no secret to my readers that learning French has turned out to be a bigger challenge than I thought. I started out so gung-ho only to find that the stresses of acclimatizing to my new life abroad were making it impossible for me to focus on language-learning. What I thought would be my number one priority became the last thing on my mind! Eventually, it became a downright aversion.

I let myself off the hook. I stopped trying to force it, and that was the right decision for me. But now, I sense a complacency encroaching, and I don’t want to be one of those people who lives here for 12 years and still can’t speak a lick of French (due to apathy rather than a cognitive challenge).

I’ve had three important points working against me:

  1. My husband doesn’t speak French, so there’s no practice at home.
  2. All of my friendships and/or business relationships are with native English-speakers or French who speak English, so there’s no practice there either.
  3. I’m a bit of a perfectionist and tend to be ultra hard on myself.

The truth is, one CAN indeed get away with not learning the language and still live here. It makes the world a bit small, but it can be done. There are consequences, for example needing help with critical communications and living with an undercurrent of fear of crisis, but it is possible. Since I don’t like the idea of living in such a small world and don’t much care for the consequences of not speaking the language, I’ve decided to try, try again. So, I’ve headed back to school to my neighborhood French classes!

Having been through, oh, six or so teachers, I’ve returned to the one I started with here. I seemed to learn the most from him. Whether that is because I was more motivated when I began there or whether he’s just a damned good teacher, I don’t know. What I do know is that not all teachers are created equal, just as all students learn differently. There needs to be a good match in style between teacher and student for anything to click.

I’m in a group of welcoming intermediate speakers. The class is given almost entirely in French. I only understand about 50% of it, but I don’t mind that so much. Mostly, I just want to expose myself to new vocabulary and a new insight here and there. I want to have opportunities to enjoy the language again rather than be intimidated by it.

I’ve noticed a change in my attitude for the better. I barely took notes at our first meeting today. I’ve realized that writing things down doesn’t really mean I’m going to remember. In fact, ironically, today one of the first things the instructor taught was something I had written on the very first page of my journal last time I was in his class…over a year ago! How’s that for progress?  LOL

The point is that I’m determined not to make “French class” a stress. This is a major shift that I want to cultivate and maintain. Maybe it took me a year and a half to work through being okay with not knowing. I’ve said “je ne comprends pas” and “je ne sais pas” and the dreaded “je ne parles pas Francais” more in the last year and a half than I’ve ever done in English in all the other years of my life combined! All that reaffirming of what I “can’t” do can’t possibly be good for one’s ego day in and day out!

It does, however, make it essential to drop one’s ego, come out of hiding, and stand proudly ignorant before the masses. So today, I sat there and let the words flow over me. Some I knew. Some I didn’t recognize. If my mind flew out the window to think of other things, I let it. If I made a mistake, I did my best not to care. If I had no idea what someone was talking about, I let it roll off my back rather than sitting there pretending I got it. My instructor said, “Ask questions.” And I intend to…but only if I really think it’s important. I don’t need to understand everything. Isn’t that wonderful?! I hope that if I have a day where my mind is overloaded and not functioning all that well, I can still uphold a “who cares” attitude. It certainly feels better!

I guess I’ve discovered the zen approach to language-learning:

Show up. Make it enjoyable. Forget the rest.

 

Meditation: The Key to Managing Expat Stress

I can’t believe it! I’ve been living as a resident in France now for a year and a half! Pretty sure I was passing out with an anxiety attack in my French class about this time last year.

Life abroad has been an amazing, inner-strengthening experience. Thinking back, I used to get so incredibly upset over the most uncontrollable of things…as if that would help! Now, crap comes at me left and right as it always does and has, but I’m letting it roll off my back more and resting in trust.

I know there are other expats the world over facing unbelievable difficulties as they adjust (or don’t) to life in another land. And there are those ex-expats who’ve returned home to discover that they’ve changed and no longer seem to fit in. We’re a different breed…expats…with unique concerns and needs. So I want to share the things that have truly helped me in the hopes of helping others like me.

To what to I attribute the shift that took place within me?

praying-1051078_640A DECISION

It started with a decision. I remember the day. I was doing what bored expats do, watching a Star Trek Voyager episode online, during which the cool-headed Vulcan, Tuvoc, was teaching the character Kess how to focus her attention. Something struck like lightning. In that moment, the knowing that that’s what it all comes down to…the ability to control our focus….became a reality for me. And I decided right then and there that I was going to apply myself toward focusing my attention on the positive, on what I desired, and on my own happiness above all else. I’m sure this wasn’t the first time I’ve come to this decision in my life (I seem to have a short memory!), but something was different this time. Something struck deeper, was understood more intently. It was a “pivot point” that changed the direction my life was going…which was down hill!

MEDITATION

As a result of my decision, I turned my attention to meditation on a daily basis. I’ve meditated off and on for years, but now it became a matter of life and death to apply what I’d learned over the years.  Taking time every day to stop and empty myself of my fears, worries, judgments, criticisms, and need to control was crucial to changing the way my mind had been wiring itself since moving abroad and the stresses that entailed. I learned to spend hours just sitting, feeling the sun, smelling the grass, enjoying the breeze, watching the sky. Like most people, I had to work through the guilt and idea of “doing nothing”; I knew deep down that I was actually doing something more important than anything else could ever be.

SPACE FOR GROWTH

As a result of my decision to be happy and my dedication to meditation, I started to grow again in ways that felt beautiful. I practiced self-inquiry diligently and began to question my sense of self and the identity I believed myself to be…as well as the identity I believed I lost as a result of moving overseas. This added so much space to my life…space to accept things that previously would have driven me mad. I began to live less in the past, though I had a pretty good handle on that one to begin with, and less in the future, which had always been my weakness, prone to catastrophizing and projecting struggle and negativity into tomorrow. It’s so much easier now to notice when I’m doing that out of mere habit and to bring myself back to the moment…a moment which is a lot more pleasant that my warped imaginings!

Life isn’t perfect. I am and will always be a work in progress, I suppose. But now I can live with that. Meditation has been so powerful and so important to my ability to withstand my expat experience that I’ve decided to reach out to other expats to promote the practice of meditation among us. We are a unique group of people with unique issues…facing isolation, the breaking apart of the known and comfortable, overcoming and often failing to overcome language barriers, going through challenges the likes of which others can’t even imagine. Meditation is a lifeline throughout those experiences.

So, in addition to offering meditation locally, I plan on offering meditations via on Facebook through the International Daze page now renamed Expat Sanctuary. These will be video meditations that you can tune into and watch at your leisure. Please like and follow the page where I will continue to share my writings as well as tools and tips for improving well-being and inner happiness, all with the Expat in mind. Think of it as a place to turn to to retreat from the challenges of living abroad and as a reminder to spend a few minutes every day stopping, emptying and refreshing the body, mind and spirit.

What has been your greatest challenge to peace of mind as an expat and what have you found to help?

 

 

 

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.

Ex-pat-e-cake

So, yes, this blog is taking a slightly new direction. In February, I came to France to stay with stars in my eyes and butterflies in my heart. It didn’t take long for intense grief, identity crisis, and culture shock to set in. Now, 9 months later, comes a gentle and humble acceptance of reality which includes a floundering marriage and many other surprises – some good, some…”meh”.

I certainly had no clue what I was in for. I think if I had, I would never have done it like I did it. Alas, I did the best I could, and now I’m a lot wiser for it.

If I were to bake my Expat-experience cake, up to now, the recipe would go something like this:

You’ll need at least 3 cups of the Great Mystery to set it all in motion
Add 1 cup of complete and total disorientation
Throw out all the comforts of home
You’ll need to process several pounds of the language but only have 3 T. in the cupboard. The processor will be broken due to overwhelming stress. This will lead to a bitter flavor, but make do.
Take 2 c. of complete and utter isolation and plan to do everything you love alone in your room.
In a separate pot, pour tears of grief over incomprehensible loss and mix with 2 completely different love languages that keep crossing wires. Stir in the following spices: nothing in common, unanticipated debt, and learned helplessness.

Strain the relationship. Set aside the juices of depression, aggression, tension, and early signs of peri-menopause including personality changes, distorted thinking, utter exhaustion, hot flashes and a myriad of other ludicrous symptoms that make you doubt your sanity.

Combine everything in every bowl in the kitchen so there’s more to clean. Use copious amounts of anxiety to help stiffen the batter so you end up in the hospital from a panic attack.

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

For the frosting:

Melt a whole stick of mastering the standard car, 1/2 c. going to the store a whole hour away alone,  and selling a hand-full of articles with 1 c. of your very first art exposition. Add 2 T. of “Oh my God, I just managed to have a sort of a conversation with someone”. Stir in essence of walks in the woods singing at the top of your lungs. Add a friend and neighbor who actually takes an interest in your work. Stir well.

Spread the frosting on the cake to create many crests and valleys. Top with sprinkles of crushed heartache.

Serve with trick candles.

I’ve had my fill of this particular cake. I’m working on a new recipe now. Stay tuned…