Charlotte is a “virtual” friend of mine I met through a Facebook group dedicated to bloggers. Strangely enough I already knew her blog “Beyond the bridge”. What a small world we live in! The tone of voice, the way she writes, I am a fan! Talking to Charlotte via Skype in January 2017 was great and strange at the same time: we had never met and there we were, chatting from afar about personal subjects. Two strangers bonding over technologies and a shared experience: expatriation. Charlotte was exactly how I pictured her to be based on her writing style: her voice, her laugh and her expressions were all in line with what is shining through her blog posts. When Paris meets Berkeley…
Charlotte, tell us a bit about you!
I am a 37 years old French woman, mom to 2 young children who are now 6 and 3,5. I grew up just outside of Paris where I studied modern literature at the Sorbonne followed by a degree in journalism. Until our move to California I was working as a written/press and TV journalist. In my job I often met people who I felt where not doing really well. The part of my job I preferred was telling their stories although I didn’t really know how I should answer or react to the situations I was confronted with, so I picked up psychology studies to complete my approach. I did everything at once: working, studying and starting a family!
Is this your first experience abroad?
Yes, it is. I currently live in Berkeley, California, where we moved during the summer of 2015.
Do you think you always had it in you to live abroad?
No, I never had that desire. I travelled to the US when I was younger and had you told me in 15 years you’ll move here I would have probably answered “yeah right, not in a million years!”. My husband got selected to go for 3 months to San Francisco to grow his company. When he came back he told me he wanted us to move there. At the time I said no: my professional network was well established, I was at the end of my psychology studies and needed to validate my degree. He insisted. It took quite some time… And after a year and half we left! I accepted for once in my life to go with the flow and let myself be guided, to not be in the lead.
Did you leave France knowing there was a secured job for your husband?
I so didn’t want to leave that I must admit I was a real pain. Looking back I think it was a good thing as I kept telling him we wouldn’t move if his situation was not secure, if we didn’t know where we would live and which school the kids would attend. I needed everything to be well prepared in order to be reassured.
One of my husband’s friends lived in Berkeley and recommended it. We visited it, liked it and decided if we were to move it would be there. Plus they have a bilingual school.
Was it easy to find a house?
We were told it would be mission impossible for us as we didn’t have the right papers, the credit score (a concept unknown to us in France but oh so important in the US!), no credit card, nothing playing in our favor. We were lucky and found a house 3 weeks prior to our arrival with a landlord willing to give us a chance, understanding how complicated it can be to move abroad.
Do you think you were well prepared?
For the practical things yes, psychologically not at all! We both thought we knew everything there was to know about the US thanks to the numerous TV shows and films we had been watching for years! Our English was good but definitely not sufficient!
We also didn’t realize how far San Francisco is and how the difference in time zone would impact our lives and our way to communicate with our close ones. Being on the other side of the planet means you are full of energy when France is ready to go to bed…
How easy is it to make new friends in California?
Our initial intent was not to connect with the French expat community, we wanted to live the experience to its fullest with the locals. We thought our level of English was sufficient to interact with people; but there are so many little codes and small talks you need to master, it was not as easy as expected. We had no problem meeting people but doing so on a deeper level was difficult. Sometimes you speak with very nice people, you feel you are connecting with them, they suggest to meet again but then don’t call back. It can be puzzling!
You need to accept that becoming friends with an American doesn’t happen overnight. We did receive a very warm welcome from our neighbors and love spending time with them. Nevertheless after 18 months we have more fellow French and European expat friends most of whom we met through school! I must admit without kids the experience would be much more complicated.
Is there anything special you like about the expat community?
When you are expat you get together with people whom you would have probably never met under other circumstances. I sometimes wonder if I would have been friends with this or that person back home. Expats share a common experience we can all relate to, we can discuss it and everybody gets each other and goes through similar phases. There is a real solidarity, a support network. Building a social network takes time: after 18 months I can finally say, for some people, that they are becoming friends. We see each other regularly, help each other out, organize dinner parties like what we had in France, rebuilding the world around a good bottle of wine. Friendships are taking form and I even start to have a network of girlfriends with whom I can do things I used to do in Paris and that I missed when we arrived in Berkeley. I still miss my friends back home, some friendships you can’t replace.
What decided you to launch a blog?
When you follow your spouse you leave your professional life behind and wonder what you are going to do. I took our move as an opportunity to ask myself a few questions I hadn’t thought about before. The fundamental question about what I really want to do remains and I haven’t concretely answered it yet. For once in my life I have time to give my creativity and desire to write more space so I started the blog. In the beginning I thought it would be something I would do in-between other things. It started with little things. I wanted friends and family to understand what we are living and give them a window on our life in the US. The more it goes, the more it takes up space and fulfills me. From chronicles it went to more descriptive articles, to interviews. It is evolving over time. It so happens I now want to develop it on a professional level. It all comes back to me being a journalist.
Did you experience work in California?
Yes! Work is a means to integrate and understand where I live. At some point a company looking for French nationals contacted me. It turned out it was for Apple, The Company in California! I was hired after passing something like 300 tests and signing almost as many confidentiality agreements. I worked for them for 4 months and wasn’t disappointed! It was so different from what I was used to: it was work work work! Here they are much more direct and there is no affect in the work environment.
How did your family and friends perceive your move?
It is a good question. We had a bit of everything. Some were really happy for us and understood even though it was sometimes difficult. The first few months we tried Skype but it was complicated with the children who would only stay in front of the screen for 2 seconds. It was frustrating. You have to take care of everyone’s feelings, it is not straightforward, we went through tense moments, we were told we weren’t giving enough news. We try. I talk to my mom very often and I think she is positive about it. She doesn’t say it if it upsets her. I think she sees it as our adventure to live, she always supported and encouraged us. 6 or 7 months after our arrival we were no longer in the honeymoon phase with Berkeley. Once settled down you realize how much you miss family and friends. In those moments you feel quite lonely in what you live because even telling someone about it over the phone is different. Now it is going better.
Regarding my friends back home, some call me regularly or send emails or leave messages on my voicemail. Others I barely hear from. The “far from the eyes far from the heart” feeling was complicated to manage, you think they don’t love you anymore, they don’t think of you. As an expat you need to work on accepting that others have their life and that it goes on without you which is normal. I noticed that as an expat you should not complain too much about that. For example, when living in California some people have an idealized view of your/my life that is not at all in line with reality. If you complain it is as if you are breaking their myth and you are not allowed to do that.
What is the impact of expatriation on your family cell of 4?
Expatriation brought us closer together. Suddenly it was just the four of us in a new environment. We lived being out of our comfort zone as an adventure, doing things we would have never done back home and had forgotten about. Once your family is settled properly you can start looking at the outside world. We are now in this phase during which we are socializing much more and finding back a life that resembles the one we used to have.
Do you have lots of visitors?
Both our mom and close family came to visit us but otherwise not that much. As it is far away, when people visit they usually stay for 2 to 3 weeks. It is very pleasant and at the same time too much. It is difficult because you want plenty of people to come and visit. And once they come you realize how tiring it is. You no longer have those family moments you had in the beginning because you always have visitors. Again expatriation is all about finding the right balance.
How do you manage your trip(s) back home?
We need to learn how to manage expectations. Coming back for 2 months is not possible! Again you have to find a way to balance expectations and foresee enough time on location to see everyone. Our first summer was horrible, we did way too many things and ate non-stop. We were overtired and it took me a month to recuperate! For our second summer we will not embark on a tour of France. We might find a spot, settle down and people will come and visit us there.
What do people say when you tell them you come from France?
I don’t even need to tell them which country I’m from! My French accent does it for me! It is much better now but still, locals find it really “cute”! They always have something nice to say about Paris. Often they will tell you they studied French in high school and will inevitably say “Comment allez-vous?”! The French “art de vivre” is trendy and we are definitely in a category that is well perceived.
Did moving away change your views on your home country?
I would not have thought this would happen. I don’t want to be part of the people who criticize their country once they are far because I can’t stand that attitude. But when you move abroad you take a step back, and see some things more clearly, both positive and negative. The French narrow-minded way of thinking is crazy. I hadn’t realized this before. I find we are locked in certainties in France. We have predetermined ideas on almost everything and complain constantly!
I came to realize this as people are so positive in California. In the US you go through a negative experience and sometimes it is almost uncanny how they turn it into a positive one! This attitude sometimes seems a tad too much but mostly it feels good and often helped me to take a step back instead of moaning about it in a French way!! When you compare with France you realize there is a lot of work to be done in our country!
Being here I also realize that people in France do not see how lucky they are in terms of social security and education systems. France is such a beautiful country, the food is delicious, the quality of life is good. You need to value all of that. I love my country. Some people say they will never go back to France. If tomorrow you tell me I have to go back I wouldn’t be sad.
What about religion? Do you feel any pressure to attend a church whichever it is?
Before moving to the US we were told we should not discuss religion, sex or politics when invited, otherwise people would not like us. When our neighbor invited us for the first time, she talked about Hillary Clinton for 2 hours! We didn’t know what to do!! We were able to discuss religion and politics without any issue. It could be linked to San Francisco and the Bay area. To give you an example, sometimes for school you have to fill in questionnaires asking you about your faith. In Berkeley they ask you if you are a boy, a girl or a transsexual! They don’t have the same approach as the rest of the country. Don’t forget Berkeley is one of the most left wing cities in the country, has a tradition of free speech and is still a bit hippie!
Did anything surprise you in the US?
I arrived filled with prejudices thinking they would be closed-minded and pro guns which is really not who I am nor how I think, I have my limits! When behind the wheel I sometimes swear but here I don’t because if the guy behind me has a gun in his car… It scares me. I might be in Berkeley but you do have shootings from time to time and when you see helicopters flying around you know that’s the reason. You face a kind of danger you have not known before. You pay attention. I didn’t expect to have to be concerned about guns since those are the opposite of the Berkeley hippie cliché: the lady who smokes weed and prepares her own soap in her garden.
Aside from this I was surprised in a good way. I met way more open-minded and cultivated people than I imagined I would. It is very far from the image I had from the US which you can probably find in more rural places. It would probably be more complicated to talk with them as they think Donald Trump is fantastic. Another cliché I had was that in the US I would definitely gain 15 kg and only eat crappy food. Well not at all! If you want to eat well the offer is great! I also dreaded my car would become an extension of my body. In reality it is far from that. There is a movement in the area to get away from the car and it goes to the point that when people sell a house you have a “walkable score”. We are in the right place for us: Berkeley is not far from a big city, surrounded by beautiful nature and people are nice.
Where do you take your visitors and what do you like them to discover?
Berkeley is not your standard suburbia: it has a soul. I like to go up the hills to enjoy the view on the entire San Francisco bay from where you can understand how it is organized. Gazing at the sunset from the top of the hills is something I enjoy and recommend, we have fascinating natural light shows all day long. People are surprised to see the mix of city and nature. We take them to the university campus in the center, its adjacent little streets, my favorite shopping and coffee spots and the restaurant you need to try. In San Francisco we show them Sausalito and its floating houses, we take a stroll up the hills, go to the Coit tower for its amazing view on the city, walk the artsy area between Castro and Mission. We end our tour with Baker beach, a white sand beach with a view on the Golden Gate, and then Muir Woods and its Sequoias.
Do you consider Berkeley to be home?
It’s been 18 months… Sometimes I realize “I live here” and have to pinch myself! It is becoming home, I am in-between at the moment, transitioning there. It is still complicated for me to say Berkeley is my home because I still feel a little bit like a tourist and have trouble making it mine. Your home is also the people you are surrounded with. We are slowly building a circle of friends here and I am starting to move my home. I don’t have my family, I miss it, but my home is moving.
California is often associated with earthquakes. How do you deal with that?
We only had one big earthquake, 2 months after our arrival. Feeling the earth moving was traumatising and scary. I wondered if my husband was having a nightmare and threw the nightstand in his sleep or something but he was sound asleep. When we understood it was the earth shaking under our feet we were petrified and stayed silent for a while. We checked on the kids, they slept through the whole thing. We got scared realizing we were living in a place where everything can crack in no time, we never had to think about it before moving here. I really wondered if I would be able to live with that risk. It took several days and then one day I woke up thinking “yes I can”, I chose to stay. You “just” learn to live with the rumbling earth. Feeling it move under my feet changed me: as a tiny little human being you respect nature differently.
What role do social media play in your life if any and mostly, how do they impact your expatriation?
Social networks are great to communicate; letting you easily give news, inform and share photos and videos. The downside is that your life looks like a cliché and people only see the “living in California” aspect of it. My real life, my daily reality is not what you see on the social networks. Sometimes I get a little sad, I have the impression some people who are close to me think that my life is what I post on social networks. I wish they understood social networks are only a tiny part of what I live and that I can’t put everything on there. The same goes for the blog. I’m not going to complain when I feel a bit down so I end up only sharing positive things or what I know people want to see.
Do you consider yourself an expat?
Being an expat is a process: you don’t wake up one day an expat. To say I am an expat is accepting the fact that my home is here. I feel uprooted from France. I am establishing new roots here that are not yet completely set in the ground. Being an expat is learning to split yourself: your heart, your life, your reason. On paper I am one although that’s not yet how I feel.
Would you recommend living abroad?
Yes! It is a fantastic opportunity that should be part of the program during higher studies! I defy anyone to experience feeling like a stranger once in their life. Expatriation opens your mind. Being confronted with the unknown you discover yourself. Expatriation is like a roller coaster, you have good moments, bad ones, sometimes you doubt, you experience happiness, it is magical. I am surprised I like it so much.
Charlotte, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions and being part of this interview series.