This list, of French words that English doesn’t have, crossed my path today. Among them is dépaysement: “the sense of being a fish out of water.” If you break down the word, de- is a negative prefix, pays is the French word for country, and the suffix –ment is a little bit like “-fication.” AKA, the real best translation is:
Last September, I decountrified myself, leaving the U.S., and re-countrified myself, settling down in France.
The first few weeks were a whirlwind of paperwork, house hunting, people meeting, and settling in. I had to re-learn how to exist in this new country– without attracting too much attention for being different, but also without “losing myself.”
Slowly, I adjusted to French life. I bised my friends. I ate meals slowly, in three courses. I shopped only at normal hours of the day (things close around 8 PM), and only for a few meals at a time. I walked everywhere, or used the train and bus systems. I didn’t smile at people I didn’t know. I dressed up, bought black heeled boots, and developed a city strut. I (kind of) learned how to deal with the bureaucracy, saving copies of my water bills to send in with everything I applied for. I learned to love strong cheeses and pair them with good wines.
I never became French, but I did blend in a little better, in the end. I achieved the balance: I was a version of myself that I liked, and that fit into the world around me. I could walk down the street without earning stares for being “the American.” I was able to learn from people’s new perspectives on me and my country, and to open my mind to the ways of other people, in other countries. It was a successful recountrification experiment.
And then I decountrified myself again, and came right back, Stateside. Dépaysement is the French synonym for “culture shock,” which I expected to encounter on my trip to France. But, coming back, there is another sort of dépaysement, when you take a slightly different version of Anne and place her back in her old environment.
Suddenly, I drive again. I wear shorts. I greet everyone in English, make small talk with strangers, shop at all hours of the day or night, and I’m surrounded by family and old friends. There are mountains and lakes and people in sweatpants and coffee shops everywhere. All of this was totally normal… before my “normal” changed. And now I’m having to figure out another more complicated and emotionally charged recountrification process.
I do feel like a fish out of water. It’s hard to explain why, because it doesn’t make sense. The USA is where I grew up, its rules and norms should be obvious to me. And they are, but I sort of have to relearn them. I have to figure out where I fit in again, IF I fit in again, and who my new friends are going to be. It’s a little like starting over, which I also did when I first arrived in France, but it’s starting over in a place I didn’t expect to have to start over.
It’s because I’ve done it before that I feel like I can do it again. Despite all of this hard stuff I’m encountering, emotionally, psychologically, socially, and culturally…I feel like I’m encountering it as someone who is good at feeling uncomfortable.
When I first got back, I dealt by traveling all over the place to reconnect with people. The reason for that is obvious to me — traveling was my culture, my normal, so I sought it out again. Now I’m back in one place for a while, and the realities of my new normal hit me. I don’t start work until the end of August, so I’m left drifting around, re-familiarizing myself with where I grew up and how it’s changed. And how I’ve changed.
I never really figure out how I’ve changed until I’m back in a place I was in before, as a new version of me. I keep comparing the me of now to the me of last summer, last time I was here. I think I’m fundamentally the same, but I behave differently. I’m living more in accordance with my values. I missed having a place to work out, dance classes, hiking trails, and beautiful waterfronts when I was gone — so now, every day, I seek those out. I missed my family and friends, so now I focus more energy on them. I felt really financially unstable in France, so I’m taking this opportunity to examine my financial habits and try to live more independently. I missed peanut butter, so I eat it every morning…
Going away was one of the most empowering things I’ve ever done. So much of the fear and anxiety that used to rule me has become manageable. Whenever I’m afraid of all the changes — meeting new people, starting a new job, moving, etc. — I say to myself: Anne, you did all of this and more…in a different country, in a different language. That’s sometimes all I need to get me through a tricky spot.
My way of embracing being home and dealing with reverse culture shock and missing France at the same time is to remember and re-remember all of the gifts it gave me. All of the friends I made, all of the new experiences, all of the personal strength– all were made possible by going away, and all are still present at home, in the ways they shaped the “me” of the moment.
And of course, I also say to myself that I’ll keep going back. There, and back again. Probably forever!