Obstacles to Language Learning: An Expat’s Experience

tshirtLong before I even knew it was possible that I would ever live in France, I had a desire to learn the French language. I was at the top of my French class for two years in High School, so I had a positive association with it. Besides, it seemed that my bilingual friends all had more fun. So, when I actually knew I was moving to France, I was looking forward to the language experience. Was.

I told myself that my priority would be language learning. I intended to take as many lessons as I could throughout the week. I even started before I left, taking some lessons with a friend and using online resources like Duolingo. Once I got to France, though, I was faced with an unanticipated reality.

Obstacle #1: Location

My French-born bestie back home had filled my head with ideas of free French lessons designed to help immigrants fit in. Having taught in a Continuing Ed program at a college, I had preconceptions of free daily classes taught by entertaining teachers. I loved the idea because I learn better in groups. Unfortunately, the reality was that I was way too far away from any such program, living in the country as I was. And having just arrived, I was nowhere near tapped into life here to know what was available. However, eventually, as luck would have it, I found affordable group French lessons once a week in the closest town fifteen minutes away. What a godsend! The teacher was a Brit with dramatic flair and fabulous sense of humor. I was so bewildered and homesick at that time, it was always a delight to go to class and remember how to laugh. I also made friends with a couple of native speakers and had some lessons that way, but it was far too easy to succumb to speaking English instead.

Eventually, other classes surfaced nearby. Of course, they weren’t free, but they weren’t wickedly expensive either. Some of them were better than others. I ended up quitting one class even after purchasing an pricey book because it was just too slow for me (hard to imagine!) and the content seemed far too touristy. About six months in, I eventually learned of a program for which I qualified through the French unemployment bureau. I signed up but never heard anything back. With some persistence, I did finally manage to re-enroll after several more months. The class only met once a week, but it was free, and it was all morning long, but for a while, I was the only student. This had advantages and disadvantages: the positive was individualized attention; that also happens to be the negative. This situation eventually morphed into two classes a week, both mornings and afternoons. Now sometimes, there are other students, but usually it is just me.

Obstacle #2: Stuffed!

I was so excited that I’d be going to classes twice every week for the entire day. Was. Quickly, I began to realize three things: 1) I hated waking up at 7AM 2) I hated having a two-hour lunch break with nowhere to go and 3) there was no room in my poor brain after 2.5 hours of French, let alone 6! Maybe immersion is the way to go for some people. I can’t think of a bigger nightmare. I get so flippin’ exhausted! I can’t imagine being in it all day every day. Maybe it’s because I’m introverted; I need to be alone with my thoughts. At any rate, more is not necessarily better! When there were other students, I could get a lot more out of the day. When I’m on my own though, it’s quite difficult because of the intensity…and frustrating too because what I need most is conversation with others.

Obstacle #3: STRESS!!!

I know that stress has a huge role to play in one’s ability to learn a language…or anything else for that matter. Fact is, settling into a new country is a stressful endeavor. When you are worried about figuring out why there’s a problem at your bank or about whether or not some important piece of paper has been lost or processed, it leaves less room for new stuff. When class rolled around, some days, my mind would be on other things making it very difficult to pull up the words I needed. This had no end of negative impact on my self-confidence and sense of self as a highly intelligent, capable person with a love for learning. In fact, I increasingly felt as though I was living through the eyes of my fragile special needs students back home. I had a sense of what my brain was supposed to be doing, but it just wouldn’t cooperate, making me feel like a failure. When I had a medical emergency last year, I couldn’t say anything but “merci” at the hospital. The doctor was a real prick about it too, making fun of me. (He inspired the above T-shirt!…though it is mostly me who has to get over it!) Believe me, having a crowd of nurses and doctors over your head saying things you don’t understand while they do whatever they want with you is sufficiently nerve-wracking to affect one’s ability to communicate anything!

Obstacle #3: Priority

Even though I came here with learning French as my priority, the fact is, other things took over…important things…like my mental health. I had to battle growing anxiety; there were many relationship problems and bureaucratic obstacles to work on too. I needed time for making friends and other things that were actually enjoyable to me just to keep myself sane. Then I realized I had to get going with my business, promoting, networking, writing, painting… I had to keep some semblance of life going because I was falling into despair. Finding myself and my happiness became my priority. French was just another unpleasant but necessary task I had to do every week. I felt some guilt over this. How dare I come live in a country and NOT make the language my priority? But life was happening, and if I wasn’t careful, I would end up sick, tired, and even more depressed than I already felt.

Obstacle #4: Motivation

I am not married to a French-speaker. I’m married to a Brit who barely speaks French himself. So, we don’t use any French in the house. It’s a definite handicap. In addition, this region is absolutely crawling with English-speakers. I’m glad, actually, because it is saving my life. But at the same time, it sure doesn’t motivate me to learn more French. I realize it will ultimately shrink my life to the size of a peanut if I don’t learn, but for now, while I’m still just trying to acclimate and be at peace, I’m not terribly motivated to push. In my life, there have been many things I wanted to learn…how to play guitar (abandoned), karate (abandoned), reading music (abandoned), Chinese (abandoned)…  Who knows why we both decide to pick something up and why we eventually put it back down again? If I stay in France, obviously abandoning French won’t be an option. But to be honest, it is one of the biggest reasons I want to leave!

Obstacle #5: Plateaus

As my current French teacher has pointed out, I’m a person who is used to having the ability to express herself in complex ways. I can’t do that in French. It is extremely frustrating. I have no interest in small talk, the weather… every day life, so to speak. I want to talk philosophy. I want to get complex! Alas, I have to contend myself with the mundane. There are just so many words I don’t know. I know what I want to say, but as I think how to say it in my head, I never know where to begin and everything just freezes. If I don’t know the first word, I suddenly don’t know anything. It is easy to fall into this idea that I’ve hit some kind of learning plateau in my first year… a plateau I’ll never get over. If I think back to how much French I knew last year at this time, I really have made progress. However, for whatever reason, on some days, I seem to forget everything! I’m not sure if it is because I’ve fooled my teachers into thinking I understand more than I do (I’m very good at not really knowing what anyone is saying but using context to figure it out), or if it is simply my almost 50-year old brain straining to remember things.

I know that a lot of people here give up learning the language. They feel it is too difficult and don’t feel they ever make any progress. I think I myself am going to have to fight those feelings. I’m not ready to give up yet. I might never be fluent, but it would be nice to feel somewhat confident that I can get by.

What has your experience been like learning a second language? What have been your biggest obstacles?




Business in France – A Whole New Kind of Logic

I don’t know whether to laugh, be disgusted, or terribly afraid. In January, I registered in France to start business as an auto-entrepreneur…er…scratch that…as of 2016, it’s now called micro-entreprise. Whatever it’s called, I have one…or became one.

My husband, on the other hand, has had his own micro-entreprise here for many years. Only he’s always been called a micro-entreprise because he started business before “auto-entrepreneur” even existed. Now, though, all auto-entepreneurs are called micro-entreprises. (Oh wait! I shouldn’t be using hyphens in those terms! The French just did away with hyphens…and the oignon which is now ognon but as far as I can tell, still a vegetable….which incidentally the French call legumes. But I digress.)

Art by Stuart Davies

Confused yet?

Perusing my Expat Facebook forums this morning, I read of yet another panicked businesswoman who has received notice of owing CIPAV, an agency responsible for retirement, a whopping sum of over €50,000. Sadly enough, this is an all too common experience here. French and foreigners alike doing business in this country are frequently driven to harakiri over such tribulations.

My fellow Americans, imagine if the IRS sent you a letter that said, “We’ve made a mistake. We are so very sorry. However, because we failed to collect from you the appropriate amount in social security contributions over the last several years, you now owe us $50,000 payable immediately. Have a nice day.”

It brings to mind memories of last year at this time, when my husband and I were dealing with a very similar issue. We discovered that he owed some €6000 to this same organization and were having some other very stressy troubles around money. We lived through that time, but we’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop because that seems to be what happens here. It’s almost as if these business agencies just make up things as they go along. And according to inside sources, this isn’t just the perception of expats but natives as well.

It just seems like if you don’t set aside at least 60% of your income here, eventually someone somewhere is going to claim that all that money you spent on food and rent was actually supposed to have gone to them. The problem is that nobody seems to know what the $#*& is going on in this country…EVER.

When I was preparing my business, I went through a program for the unemployed. It was very helpful, actually. My counselor was wonderful and even spoke English fairly well. She alerted me of my rights to join an organization called ACCRE which would result in a reduction of “taxes” or “cotisations” that I paid in the first three years of my business. What new business doesn’t need that? Of course, I affiliated myself…or at least, I tried to. At first, the registering agency claimed they had not received my application, so I had to resend everything, including a copy of a signed receipt that says they actually did receive my first application. I’m still waiting to hear back.

Yet again this morning, I read another panicked Facebook post from a businesswoman affiliated with ACCRE who is now being charged €3000 in back pay for going over some kind of income threshold. It threw several of us into a panic because it was a mysterious threshold that none of us had heard of!  Eventually, someone was able to cut through the underbrush and clearly explain the facts, but more often, the explanations sound something like this:

It’s because cotisations are regularized by a percentage of your expected income for the first three years plus the amount you didn’t make when you weren’t in business at all multiplied by the number of cats and dogs in your household. This is only reported in January, and only if you fill out form 8067 which you can only do online between December 13th and 31st of the prior year, but which is actually due Dec. 1st, and only if the website is working at the time. So really, everything is just as it should be. Simple!

Case in point. My husband recently hit his own threshold and was required to start collecting TVA (VAT)…sales tax…on his invoices. So, being dutiful, he registered for a tax number and proceeded to collect sales tax. Several months later, a business associate in the UK relayed to him that they shouldn’t be paying this tax due to some agreement between countries. Even our French accountant said, at first anyway, that this was not true; he did have to collect tax. Eventually, the accountant discovered that he indeed did not need to collect the sales tax after all, meaning he now had to reimburse this UK business several thousand euros in taxes. Thank God he hadn’t paid it to the tax department yet. I shudder to think of the chaos that would have induced.

Nothing ever really adds up in France, at least not in my experience so far. What good is an estimate if it’s off by thousands of euros or a schedule of fees if they are just guidelines? And the worst part is, there is ZERO protection, it seems. (If I’m wrong, someone enlighten me.) Banks, agencies, bureaus…they all seem to be able to make up things as they go along and never inform anybody…let alone each other! Talk to one person, get one answer. Talk to another and get another answer. Choose the answer you like best, but be prepared to pay heavily for it in two or three years when someone just back from vacation decides they don’t like the answer you’ve chosen!

This is one crazy Matrix, here.

Believe it or not, it’s been good for me. It’s forced me to let go of my high ideals of efficiency and organization. It has also given me excellent practice in reigning in my total freak-outs to find that the sky hasn’t actually fallen and that the sun still rises in the East. Of course, the Sun is one of the last remaining free enterprises!


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?


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…

Manifesting a Carte de Sejour

I have been remiss in my blog writing lately. Chalk it up to STRESS!!! I haven’t been able to keep my lips from trilling, let alone write something cognizant. Not that I haven’t started a couple of posts. It’s just that, half way through, I realize I’ve written nothing but incomprehensible dribble with no beginning, middle or end. C’est la vie in transition.

So much has been “up in the air” lately. It’s like we started to juggle several balls which just evaporated over our heads. Now we anxiously await their reappearance. Stuart and I have adopted this fascinating shoulder shrug and blank look that we make several times a day…just to remind ourselves we don’t know WTF is happening, and we just need to accept that we are “squeaky mouse toys” in the rabid teeth of God. It’s been an exercise in sensing. Do we turn left or right here? Do we proceed with x and forsake y or go through with y and hope it doesn’t make x impossible. And what about z? And what really matters? What steers the ship when there are no stars? (We’ve decided the answer is desire. Desire, and trusting our desire, is all we have to go on.)

Despite the cray-cray, I’m starting to feel more at home here. I’m starting to make friends. I’m getting a bit of a routine. I’m sleeping better. More importantly, Stuart and I are laughing more. It’s taken near a couple of months, but I dare say I’ve survived the 1st passage.

Now for the 2nd initiation…becoming official. I’ve been here two months making it time to apply for my Carte de Sejour, or residence permit. We asked a French-speaking friend to help us out with the process (may our rabid-toothed god bless French-speaking friends everywhere). While we waited to hear back from him, we began the mammoth task of gathering our paperwork in triplicate with translations. Guess we waited a bit too long though because my appointment at the prefecture isn’t until the 2nd week in August, a whole week after my visa expires. Hmm…

After our initial freakout over the fact that I’d possibly be “illegal”, we started doing our research. Would I be mercilessly tossed back to the states or would it be best to use my return flight ahead of time? Would I be fined thousands of euros? Would I be forbidden from ever returning to Europe or unable to return for 3 months if I overstayed? Would I get stuck in France unable to leave? You would think the answers would be fairly straight-forward. Wait, did I just say that? If I have learned anything so far, it is that when it comes to bureaucracy, there are no straight-forward answers!

I have one helpful person telling me to seek help at my Mairie (Mayor’s). I have another telling me to ask for an extension at the prefecture. I have other information that says I have rights as the non-EU spouse of an EU citizen and still another perspective offered that tells me to “chill” as this happens all the time, especially in summer. Yet another new friend with a sense of humor says she’ll see me when I get back from the states (tongue -in-cheek) if they let me back.

After a morning of sweating it, we have now decided not to sweat it. It’s too tiring. We have our French-speaking friend who will be on the horn the next time the prefecture is open (a very narrow “two days a week for a few hours” window for residence permits) with our remaining questions. And who knows? Maybe he’ll get some different answers or even a moved-up appointment. We’ve heard that happens depending on who you talk to around here.

We’re still hopeful. My “Carte de Sejour” ball has been tossed into the air. It is now floating invisibly through the Manisphere (that’s the atmosphere where manifestation happens), and we shall wait patiently for it to reappear hoping we don’t get cruelly bonked! Stay tuned…