Moving abroad can be both exciting and stressful. The thrill of living in a foreign land combined with the pressure to assimilate evokes a mix of emotions.
The first time I lived in a foreign country was back in 2012 when I moved to Switzerland. In fact, this was the first time I had even left the United States. While I loved Switzerland, something was missing. It always felt temporary. I remember wondering if I would ever be able to call a place home, other than the US.
A year later, I moved to France. While my first impressions were not ‘this is home,’ there was this ‘something’ I had been searching for.
In France We Say Bonjour
This past weekend I returned to Paris to visit a good friend, Damien. It has been 7 months since I moved to Strasbourg, and I was looking forward to returning to a city I once called home.
As the train pulled into Gare de l’Est, I had this instant feeling of nostalgia. It reminded me of the day I moved to Paris from Zurich. I remember thinking it was one of the most chaotic cities I had ever seen.
In retrospect, Paris is not more chaotic than London or New York. I had just arrived during rush hour, so, of course, my first impression was pure chaos.
But now, it felt like home. I don’t have to think about which metro to take or which bakery sells the best baguettes. It’s something I know…as if I had spent my whole life in Paris.
I arrived Friday evening and we ordered pizzas from my favorite Italian restaurant. As we, or more I, devoured the delicious pizza, we began to plan for Saturday. We decided to walk around Parc Floral de Paris. We both have been into photography for some time, and I was looking forward to using my new Nikon D810 camera.
The next, day we met at Parc Floral de Paris. Since we arrived at the opening, it was empty and we had the whole place to ourselves.
As we strolled through Parc Floral de Paris, I began to think about my time in Paris. I had lived, now, in the UK, France, and Switzerland, and, for some reason, France felt more like home than the others.
I turned to Damien and said, “You know what? I love everything about Paris.” As I rambled on about all the things I loved, he said, “It’s not Paris you love, you just like the 11th arrondissement.” “Well, yes! Everything is here, the best bakery, restaurant, and the list goes on. It feels like home.”
On the one hand, he had a good point, but, for me, it really was France. While I can say this now, it’s not something I would have said 7 years ago.
It’s always challenging moving to a new country, especially, one where there is a language barrier. This was, for me, the most difficult part about moving abroad.
I remember the first day of my first job in France.
I wanted to arrive early at work. I always like making a good first impression. So, I jumped out of bed like a kid on the first day of school and ran to catch the train.
My first meeting was with human resources. My boss showed me to the office and introduced me. I said, “Hi, how are you?” Her first response, “In France, we say Bonjour….so Bonjour!” I froze. Even, my boss looked stunned.
I had made a terrible mistake, I thought to myself. On my first day, with my first sentence, I had managed to offend someone. This was not my intention. I knew to say bonjour, but we had been communicating in English via email so I answered without thinking. I had also been living in Switzerland where everything was in German, so I was not used to hearing French. I apologized, but it was not well received.
By the end of the day, I was repeatedly told that I needed to learn French. I felt awful. I was planning on taking courses, and I had, in fact, enrolled in a course that was starting the following week. The day ended as it had begun, stressful and exhausting. Things were going to be more difficult than I had anticipated.
In retrospect, I was a bit naive. I went home telling myself that I should have taken courses before arriving, but it was too late now. I would just have to study…a lot.
Je viens de vous le dire: Juste Leblanc.
As the months passed, my French improved. I was taking classes twice a week, had a tutor, and my workmates were extremely helpful. I have to admit, it was not easy. I often arrived home late, sometimes past 10 pm, and, then I had work in the morning.
My weekends were spent doing homework and studying. And, in the beginning, it was hard to see the progress I was making. I felt like every conversation was a struggle. I had to translate everything to English in my head, and, then, respond. And, sometimes, it would take me several tries to pronounce a single word. It was utterly exhausting.
There was this barrier I had to cross. I had to get over my fear of making a mistake and feeling embarrassed when I could not pronounce a word.
I watched French movies, French TV, and even listened to French music. I was persistent and determined to learn French. Eventually, I was able to have a conversation without translating every word. The moment I realized this was the moment I saw my progress. I began to see the value of all the work I had done, and I could see people, in turn, appreciated my effort.
After 6 months, I was able to have a full conversation in French. I, even, organized the Christmas lunch at work. But, the real triumph was when I began to tell jokes in French. Now, I was able to relate to people on a different level. I was able to understand a different part of the culture and adapt.
There is one famous joke in the movie Le Dîner de Cons that stands out.
In one scene, the following dialogue takes place:
Pierre Brochant: Il s’appelle Juste Leblanc.
François Pignon: Ah bon, il a pas de prénom?
Pierre Brochant: Je viens de vous le dire: Juste Leblanc.
If you speak French, you can’t help but laugh. And, the fact that I could laugh, was a huge breakthrough. When my workmates made a reference to this scene of the movie, and I could understand, I felt like I began to fit in. I was no longer the outsider who had to ask, “What does that mean?”
After we finished our tour of Parc Floral de Paris, we headed to my favorite bakery. Of course, it’s in the 11th arrondissement.
Moving Aboard – Lessons Learned
Before moving abroad, I never realized how challenging it could be. Now, after 8 years of living abroad, I have made a lot of mistakes, learned a lot, and have a lot of advice.
Here are my top 5 tips to consider when moving abroad:
1. Language – Try to learn as much of the language as you can before you arrive. One of the best language applications I have found is italk.com.
2. Adapt – Remember you are not home. There are different customs and you will have to adapt. Sometimes you can feel as if you are losing yourself, but remember it is part of the process. Over time things will begin to gel and you will find your comfort zone.
3. Patience is your friend – Take your time to understand the people, the language, and the culture. You will not be able to learn everything in a day. Give yourself time to settle in.
4. Find something that makes you feel at home. Moving abroad is not easy, and there will be moments where you miss home. Find an activity or hobby that is a constant in your life. For me, I go to the gym and take boxing or spinning classes. It helps me to feel grounded, and it remains constant no matter where I live.
5. Accept that it will not be easy. Just because you decided to move aboard does not mean everything will go according to plan. There will be misunderstandings and annoyances along the way. Learn, adapt, repeat.
Moving abroad can be stressful and at times overwhelming. Just remember it takes time to adapt and settle in. If you are patient with yourself you are guaranteed to have a good time and appreciate the experience.
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