The new year has got me thinking, not just about my goals for 2017 (there are many!) but about the many ups and downs of the past year. What a crazy, emotional, exciting, stressful, challenging road that has brought us to this moment! And what have we learned through it all? A lot. So much that I thought I would share a few of those lessons with you – namely, what I’ve gleaned from our first 3 months of life abroad in Paris.
Now, I know what some of you are thinking: 3 months really isn’t that long. True, in the grand scheme of things. But, anyone that has lived overseas in any capacity – whether it was for a year-long work exchange or a semester study abroad or even a summer-long mission trip – will tell you: life abroad will change you and change you quickly.
So, here are a few lessons, 10 in fact, that Chris and I have learned after only 3, short months abroad.
Lesson #1:Your possessions back home aren’t as important to you as they seemed before.
While I have missed my family and friends (and my cat!) like crazy at times, I have not once longed for a single item in our storage unit. Never. Not one. The only times I’ve even thought about our storage unit at all over the past 3 months have been when we have to pay the monthly bill (boo!) and whenever I lay my schemes for The Great Purge of 2017, which will be occurring as soon as we return to the States. The fact of the matter is, my possessions will never make me happy or fulfilled or even secure. I’m in this for the good stuff: experiences, memories, and relationships.
Lesson #2: Learning a language through immersion is not that simple.
I came to France with the naïve inkling that I could just wander the streets of Paris for a few months and then – Bing, bang, boom! – be able to speak fluent French. I have to laugh at my former self now because, unless I were following a native speaker around everyday, engrossed in constructive, corrective conversation, it’s nearly impossible to really learn a language this way.
Don’t get me wrong: I have learned A LOT of vocab over the past 3 months. I know how to wish someone good luck and ask them where they’re from. I can confidently place my order at a restaurant and 92% of the time I even get what I thought I ordered! I can even say quite a few (handy) swear words. But 9 times out of 10 I will get the article wrong or conjugate the verb incorrectly… and don’t even get me started on verb tenses! I am not just going to “pick up” the language on my own. The alternative? Put in the hard work. And, enroll in a language class! (I start on Monday — wish me luck!)
Lesson #3: Vote with your feet.
There’s an unkind stereotype in the States that the French, specifically Parisians, are a bit, shall we say, snobbish. Well, I am here to tell you that this is absolutely not true!… for most Parisians. Most of the people we’ve met – shop owners, servers, grocery store check-out people – have been kind and welcoming to Chris and me. We’re the cute American couple who is trying their very, very best to speak the French language and practice French customs. (Bless their hearts, as they say in the South.)
But, to some Parisians, we are less than cute. Sometimes, we even annoy the crap outta them. And they won’t be afraid to show it. Now, I hate hate HATE annoying people. An eye roll or an exasperated huff has, on more than one occasion, crippled me into being afraid to visit shops and cafés – especially on my own. But, I’m learning that it’s okay to purposefully seek out and frequent the businesses that are welcoming to me, and to stay away (far away!) from the businesses and people that are belittling. In other words, my feet have voting power. And, for that matter, so does my wallet.
Lesson #4: Rely on the expat community for advice and guidance.
You know who taught me to vote with my feet? My Australian friend, Diane. She and her husband have been living in Paris for about 2 years, learning and growing and doing this whole expat thing just like Chris and I are. We met at church, which is where I have made a gaggle of international friends who all speak English and who are trying to make a go at life in Paris. I can say with the utmost sincerity that I don’t know what I would do without the support of our church community. I trust and respect their advice because most of them have been here in the thick of it too. I’ll also say that, while church is where I found my community, there are many other outlets as well. After a quick and dirty Google search, I found expat support groups and meet-ups for internationals from all over the globe.
The other benefit of getting involved in the expat community? International friends are the BEST. Now, if I ever find myself traveling to Melbourne, Australia… 😉
Lesson #5: Those insecurities and anxieties you’re able to suppress back home come to the forefront…
Moving abroad, even for a short time, is a crazy, emotional ride. It doesn’t really matter where you are – Bangkok, Vienna, Johannesburg, Paris – culture shock is culture shock. All of a sudden, you’re air dropped into an unfamiliar place filled with unfamiliar people and customs and languages. You’re not on vacation and you certainly aren’t in Kansas anymore. Somehow, you have to figure out how to function in this new place, all the while dealing with unearthed fears, homesickness, and feelings of inadequacy. I’ll admit to you that, even here in what is arguably the most beautiful, romantic city in the world, I have sometimes struggled to leave the safety of our apartment for the grocery store. The bottom line: while this experience has already proven life-changing, it hasn’t always been pretty.
Lesson #6: … but looking confident (even when you aren’t) is an acceptable coping mechanism.
Despite those insecurities and anxieties, you can’t allow yourself to become a slave to your apartment. I have found that sometimes the only way to overcome your fears is to put on your big girl pants and a sassy pair of boots, say a quick prayer, and strut out that door like you’ve lived here your whole life. The illusion of confidence – even if you don’t necessary feel confident – goes a long way; not only will the scammers leave you alone, but you just might convince yourself in the process. It’s worked for me!
Lesson #7: When confidence fails, being humble (and being humbled) is just part of the process.
In our first month abroad, after Chris and I had enjoyed a nice meal at a brasserie in Montmartre, I was feeling pretty good about myself. I had confidently ordered my own food (Puis-je avoir le quiche Lorraine, s’il vous plait.) and surprise! I got what I asked for! Score. Success. A pat on the back. As we headed for the door, I waved to the waiter that had been serving us for the past hour and exclaimed, loudly and with feeling, “Bonjour!”
Merde. (Those of you who don’t speak French will have to look that one up…)
Sometimes you won’t say the right thing. Sometimes you’ll embarrass the heck out of yourself and yell hello to the waiter when you meant to extend a simple good-bye. But failures, even little ones, can teach us important lessons… God knows I won’t be making THAT mistake again! It’s all just part of the learning process: admit to myself that I messed up, glean what I can from it, and then let it go.
Lesson #8: Even your horror stories are stories worth sharing.
This one has gotten me through many a debacle, but especially my fiasco at the French immigration office. As the issue was wrapping up and it was clear that I was, in fact, getting my stamp after a long and incredibly stressful day, I couldn’t help but to think, man, I cannot WAIT to share this story! Yes, it sucked. Yes, I would have preferred if it had never happened. But it did, and now it’s up to me to decide what to do with the experience. By sharing your story, you’re able to bring some comic flare into a situation that felt dire, or just simply invite people into your struggles and successes. You never know; there might be someone out there who can relate to your tale and find comfort in knowing that they’re not alone.
Lesson #9: It’s good for the soul to celebrate even the smallest of victories.
I can attest to just how vexing it can be to navigate the nitty-gritty logistics of a new place, especially in a second language. Chris and I are learning firsthand that there will almost always be more hoops to jump through than you first expect and that re-learning how to do even the simplest tasks – like laundry and setting up a cell phone plan – can make you want to pull your hair out in frustration. With that in mind, I have learned too that victories, however small, should be applauded. Even seemingly easy tasks done successfully become metaphorical feathers in your cap, reminders of what you can accomplish on your own (or alongside your partner!) in the face of what can be a truly challenging experience.
Lesson #10: New memories are not made on the couch. Nor are they made overnight.
Just over 3 months ago, a week after arriving in Paris, I included this lesson in my first ever blog post describing what I learned from my first, post-grad move to Tallahassee, Florida. It’s applied just as much (if not more) over the last 3 months as it did while we were building our life in Florida. You get out of an experience what you put into it. Everyday that I go out into the world and share tea and macaroons with a friend or gaze up into the rafters of the Notre-Dame Cathedral or people-watch in the Jardin du Luxembourg, I am making this place a home inside my mind – building it brick by brick, memory by memory. And it’s a home that I can always take with me, even when this adventure is over.