Life is a funny thing. I started writing this article a few months ago and decided to drop it and move onto other things. I would frequently think about it but still wouldn’t feel legit enough to write about it: I thought it was too personal and too egocentric. For some reason I felt people would not understand, would not recognise themselves in my story. That is until recently, when I met with one of my fellow Belgian expatriate in Paris. Talking with her I felt relieved. It was liberating. It so happens we both moved to France at approximately the same time and she was/is experiencing the same culture shock that I have been going through. Discussing our experience made me realise I didn’t need to hide from those feelings. So here I am, almost 6 months later, working on those words I pinned down and abandoned.
As far as I can remember I have always wanted to live abroad. I suppose my parents are to be blamed for that although they would rather have me and my family living closer to them! I was born abroad and moved to my “home country” when I was 3 months old. When I was 4 we moved to California and stayed for about a year. When I was 15 I had a big map of the United States above my bed and only one dream: move to the US! I think it is fair to say I always had it in me, this desire to move abroad and explore the world.
When we moved to Chantilly it was based on a common decision taken by my husband and myself. One taken for his job but together. I’ll be honest, although I have always wanted to live abroad, France never made it to the list of places we would fancy. Too close to home, too similar and yes, way too many Frenchies! Our first year in France was difficult, whether for the kids or for us. I remember being quite lonely and ready to move somewhere else as soon as the topic would come up (it obviously didn’t happen as we are still in France!).
During that year I did meet two lovely French ladies. One was as lost as me having just moved back to France after spending 4 years abroad. She never got comfortable and left from one day to the next during a school holiday; I never heard from her again. The other one was a lovely woman and we bonded as our daughters were in the same class. I really liked her but at the end of the year they moved to the other side of France. Beginning of year two I was back at square one not knowing anyone and feeling more desperate than ever. During that time I never considered myself or thought of myself as being an expat*. I hadn’t read any book on expatriation nor was I following blogs on that subject. Being a French native speaker in France people automatically assumed I was French. That’s right, I don’t have that thick Belgian accent French media keep depicting and mocking! In some ways I think I was trying to push aside the differences for the outside world and act as local as one could do/be when inside I was screaming “I am not like you”.
My luck came at the beginning of the second year of our stay. I met with the expat community in my little town. Funnily enough it is quite large. Anyways, I made friends and discovered the amazing support network the expat community forms. We are all in the same situation: no family or friends back home to rely on in case of emergency (be it for the need to spill out your guts, laugh, have a good rant or give a hand on an unforeseen occasion). I felt incredible and like myself again. But how? How and why I had missed on that for a year that seemed to have last forever? Was I trying too hard to fit in and be a local? All I know is that it was like a new world was opening up in front of me, for me. I made some really good friends, created deep bond with them. But that’s also when I started feeling like a fraud.
By that time I was reading about expatriation, learning about the different phases/cycles expats go through, the friendships, the goodbyes and so on. I would recognise myself in all of these facts. Yet I didn’t feel fully entitled to accept those feelings. On one hand I was admitting and accepting I was not a local and I too was an expat; on the other hand I would think “but I only come from the country next door and I speak the local language”. Having lost a lot of perspective during that very lonely first year I started to doubt myself. My friends were not speaking French when I was mastering it. Did I have the right to find it difficult living abroad? Plus I was kind of close to home. I now know for a fact that a common language and distance are in no way what makes your experience easier (or not) when moving abroad.
Cultural differences cannot only be associated with language. Housing, food, transportation and ways of thinking are all to be taken into account. Expatriation is not only about cultural shock, it is about taking a leap into the unknown. Leaving your home, your family, your friends and sometimes your job. Having to move to a place you might have never been to, creating new habits, new routines, learning about the do’s and don’ts of the country where you have decided to put down your suitcases. Finding your way around in the supermarket, managing to get an appointment with a general doctor, wondering where you’ll find a good dentist, an eye doctor, a school, … and getting accustomed with the way doctors prescribe more or less medicines in your host country (and believe me, in France considering the length of the prescription you get at the doctor you may come to think you are about to die each time you pay him/her a visit!!).
Leaving everything behind takes a lot of courage and I no longer look at expats the way I used to. It might be financially comfortable for some (it is far from being the case for everyone, this is a well-spread misconception of expatriation) but emotionally it is not a peaceful joy ride. It requires you to be strong and to adapt. Look for opportunities. Don’t compare with what you had back home: it’s worthless and consumes energy that would be better spent at making friends and creating a new social network.
In order to not feel like a fraud I “just” need to stop brushing aside and ignoring the fact that I live in a host country that is my current home; it comes with conflictual feelings that’s all. We all need to feel part of a community, of a group because when you don’t, it is just you, on your own, and that is no fun. The desire to belong to something is a basic need. I guess for me it is the expat community as it is the one I feel the most connected with at the moment.
Looking back I must say moving abroad was probably one of the best decisions we took. It might not always be easy but what an adventure! I feel richer everyday; getting to make friends and meeting people coming from different places and backgrounds; it is definitely an eye opener. Culturally it is intense and I love this. Many people say expatriation can be addictive. I definitely get why and can’t wait to continue to discover the world!
I have come to realise I am not the only one to experience these feelings which is why I have decided to publish this personal post. I’d love to hear from you in the comment section here below! What has made living abroad easier? Is it anything like what you expected it to be? Don’t be shy!
* In this post, when using the term expat I am referring to anyone having left his/her home country on a voluntary basis. It is in no way related to the type of contract one might have signed with his/her employer.