Karen is a good friend of mine who comes from Chile and has been living in France for 11 years. She is full of life: if I had to describe her I would say she has a colourful personality and is a smart woman. Karen’s laugh is communicative. She loves to travel and takes every opportunity to discover Europe and its culture. We met a couple of years ago through our sons who both attended the same school in Chantilly. I wanted to interview Karen for this series about expatriation to understand the process behind her integration in France and why she had chosen this country to put down her suitcases.
Karen, tell us a bit about you!
I come from Santiago, Chile. I moved to France 11 years ago to follow my husband whom I met in Chile and we have 3 kids born in France. Upon our arrival we first lived in a tiny city up North then moved to Paris and few years later to Chantilly. In Chile I had started studies to become a nurse. I am busy preparing for an exam to pursue in that direction.
Was your move a well thought process?
Oh no, it was on a whim! I met my husband in 2002, we saw each other a couple of times that year. We flew back and forth a few times between France and Chile in 2003 and then he came back to Chile to properly and old-fashionably ask my dad for my hand! We got married in March 2004 and I moved to France in April 2004. We took our chances!
Did you speak French at the time?
Not a word! When I arrived I took a class geared towards French native speakers going through a rough phase in their lives. It was really hard as I was surrounded by problematic people. At the end of 2004 I could understand a little bit of French thanks to the radio (France Culture). A year later I went to university to learn the language. In the beginning I didn’t understand a thing, they could have been talking Chinese I would not have seen the difference! After a year I was able to speak (Karen is fluent in French).
What were your first years like in France?
The good thing is I wasn’t expecting anything. In the beginning I felt really lonely as I couldn’t communicate. In our little town people didn’t welcome foreigners. I had 2 really bad experiences there. One time I went to the supermarket and they thought I was stealing. They put me in a cabin, I had to get undressed and they searched me. I called my husband who had an important job in the area. He had to come and pick me up, he was really upset (not with Karen). The second time the baker refused to sell me bread because she didn’t understand me. I didn’t like that town and took the train as often as possible to spend time in Paris where we eventually moved to 5 years later. On the positive side I was very lucky because my husband’s family welcomed me with open arms, it helped a lot with my integration. Our move to Paris changed everything. I worked as a real estate agent for a while in the city and loved it. In Paris you have more foreigners and locals are open-minded, they want to get to know you.
What do people say when you tell them you come from Chile?
Older people immediately ask me questions about Pinochet and his dictatorship. I lived difficult things but I don’t see them as a traumatism, it is part of my life. They want to know how it was. When I give them details they find it terrifying but at the same time you can read the excitement in their eyes. Younger people are interested because they want to discover the country.
Are there big differences between Chile and France?
Having children made me realize how education is different. When I was living in Chile, parents and teachers would get together with the children; there would be lots of exchanges. In France it is more segregated. I find the education in Europe to be colder than the one in South America; there are more rules. I had to adapt as my kids are growing up here. When I go back to Chile with my kids people find me too strict, they tell me that’s not the way they do it. Nowadays over there it is “the child is king” that rules.
Do you hang out with the Chilean expat community in France?
In France I never searched for the company of other Chileans. I feared we would immediately have deep and serious discussions; which is something I’m not looking for with strangers and also I thought it wouldn’t help with my integration. It is almost as if I had 2 parallel lives: Chile and France. I don’t mix them up when I go to the other country. I feel integrated in France although it will never be at 100%. You have to accept that.
Did leaving in France make you richer as a person?
Yes! Completely! Although I am still missing my professional fulfillment I am happy with who I am today. I am curious, I learned a lot. I am another person. All of that thanks to moving abroad.
Do you think you always had it in you to live abroad?
I did want to go to Canada as an exchange student when I was much younger, other than that not really. Chile is a very isolated country, kind of an island. On one side you have a huge Ocean, on the other huge mountains! You can’t go anywhere by car as it is complicated: up North you have Peru and Bolivia with a gigantic desert in between! I did want to see something more and moving to France was a great opportunity to do so.
Did moving away change your views on your home country?
Yes. Chile was doing well until the fifties: it was a poor country but a good one, influenced by Europe and more specifically by France. When Pinochet arrived it all went down; the dictatorship years devastated the country. Nowadays, copper is its principal resource and because of China’s growing need in copper the production increased making people richer. When I go back it feels like a rich country without culture. It is changing though because people start to travel and discover the world making it more and more interesting. It is a small country with a small population. I love my country and appreciate my roots that remain strong and engraved in me.
What role do social medias play in your life if any?
It helps a lot. When I left Chile I had to buy telephone cards: for 15 euros you could speak for 7 minutes! Internet is great for keeping in touch.
I get to spend a day in the place you call home. Where am I? What should I do?
Home? I never really thought about it! I think it would be France as I feel so comfortable here and everything is so beautiful. I would take you on a tour of Paris starting with the “cité” island where it all began for Paris, then “Notre–Dame” church where I would tell you all about its history so you can appreciate it better. We would continue with Saint-Michel, a few typical Parisian passages then Saint-Germain-des-Prés. We would have lunch on place du Tertre or I would present you wit a selection of delicious French cheeses.
If we visit Chile, is there a culinary specialty we should try?
Yes, the “pastel de choclo”. It is composed of hard eggs at the bottom covered with minced meat, chicken, raisins and on top a corn paste, basil and a little bit of sugar as the finishing bit. You stick it in the oven and it gets crispy. It’s delicious!
Have you ever been to Belgium?
Yes and I love your beautiful country! I love Bruges and Gent; it is an enchanted country. Living in Europe is so great as you get to travel to so many beautiful and interesting places.
Karen, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions and being part of this interview series.
If you are an expat or once were and would be interested in being featured in an interview, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me, either via the below comment section or through my about page where you will find my e-mail address.