De-countrified

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:

decountrification

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!

IMG_4471

De-countrified

19 Days.

My hiatus from blogging has been due to my Intensive TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Course actually being quite intense.

I’m currently in Toulouse, France, where I signed myself up for school again — teacher school! I’m learning methods for teaching English to those who don’t (yet) speak English. We’re in class from 9-7 every day, learning pedagogical methods and grammar in the morning and practicing teaching in the afternoon.

It is SO nice to have a lot of work to do. It’s not just any work, either — I love planning lessons, and I love teaching them. My creative energies feel focused and my workaholism is coming back. I keep kicking myself, thinking about how much more smoothly my year would’ve gone (in my head) if I’d had all of this planning practice and all of these teaching and classroom management tools. I think it went fine as it was, but now that I know what was missing I can’t quash my urge to go back and do it all over again.

Luckily, I’ll get even more teaching experience next year, as an assistant teacher at the French-American School of Puget Sound! I’m so excited that I get to remain in (bilingual) education and use my French… and be back in the Pacific Northwest!! Though it still doesn’t feel entirely real that I’ve got a job…I keep imagining them taking it away from me due to some mistake in the hiring process.

I only have 19 days left in France. When that hit me, I felt…torn. Really, it’s my heart that’s torn. There are a lot of people in Europe who I love and who I’ll miss, and there are a lot of people at home who I can’t wait to come back to. There are a lot of things I love about France, and there are a lot of things I miss about the states.

But above all else, I think I’ve reached my traveling limits. One of my new Toulouse friends said, wisely, that we all have limits. Reaching a limit doesn’t mean that we can’t push ourselves past it: sometimes we want to push ourselves past limits… and sometimes we don’t want to. There’s nothing wrong with not wanting to. I’m a lover of challenging oneself, but if I’m pushing myself in a way that doesn’t feel right, I’m no longer loving myself, or trusting my own gut.

It feels bizarre to admit this, but I’ve reached a limit with Being Abroad — one which, for now, I don’t feel the need to push myself past. I feel more isolated from my fellow expats, I more often feel depleted of energy, and all this makes me less willing to engage deeply with an environment that I know I’m going to leave. They’re all feelings I can compartmentalize, but they aren’t feelings I can ignore.

One of my least favorite things that people do when they’re “travelers” is when they judge people who “aren’t.” Traveling (and living abroad) is something you do, it’s not something you are. Some people don’t travel, and it doesn’t make their life experiences less cool or important. Knowing the judgment that exists makes me afraid to admit:

I don’t want to travel anymore. 

I might get back to the U.S. and decide that next year I want to jet off again. I definitely will be driving all over to see my friends and family in different states when I’m home. Basically, it’s not because I’m incapable of starting over somewhere new, where I know no one and their language is not my first language. I’ve done that, and loved it. Twice. Three times, if I count this move to Toulouse. I would never trade away any of my Being Abroad experiences.

But at the moment, there’s something I love and miss about the familiar.

When it’s as easy as breathing to smile at people in the street, when you have to order food and know exactly what to say, when you’ve got old friends around to remind you of things you forget about yourself. When you walk into a place you’ve been a million times before, and the known-ness of it makes you feel at home….all of these are the things I miss when I say I miss the “States.” I want to swim in the lake and hike mountains and wine taste in Walla Walla with my very best friends. I want to cuddle with my cat, and hear about my mom’s work day, and get ice cream at Mallard’s with my sister, and sail in the Sound with Dad.

I know I’ll miss France. But, I can miss France and appreciate home at the same time. I can miss home and appreciate France at the same time. And I feel beyond lucky to have all of these things to love.

19 Days.

My (Shattered?) French Dream

Once upon a time, I had a grand and beautiful dream. It probably was planted in high school French class as I sat at the back and lovingly caressed the colorful, cartoon-filled pages of my textbook, falling in love with le Français for the first time. I said to myself: Someday, I will be in a café. I will have to order a pain au chocolat and a limonade and I will have to ask for l’addition, s’il vous plaît.

I chased the dream to college French classes, and it evolved with my language proficiency. Someday, I then said, I will not only go to a café, but it will be the one where my authorial and artistic predecessors sat and thought their great thoughts, spoke and wrote their great words. I will live in the birthplace of this fabulous literature, and by osmosis I will become equally as world-wise and articulate as they were.

So, I went to Paris for my studies. I studied literature inside my classes and pilgrimed it up outside my classes. I visited my favorite author’s graves, journaled beneath La Tour Eiffel, and ate plenty of pain au chocolat, although I paired it with café. I got lost, and sought, and found inspiration in the labyrinthian streets and time-worn gothic churches. And when I left it, it left me wanting more.

The dream became: Someday, I will live in France for longer. This time, I’ll insert myself into a community. I’ll start a book club. I’ll make best French friends who I can have 5-hour dinner parties with, and I’ll have French housemates. I will acquire the taste of even the stinkiest of cheeses, and I will finally be able to eschew peanut butter in favor of Nutella. I will speak French with a perfect accent, no trace of twangy vowels and every liaison in its precise place. I’ll find a sexy French boyfriend and seduce him with my linguistic capabilities and intimate knowledge of his country’s artistic canon. Eventually, I’ll figure out the secret to “being French,” and be it.

That was the dream for this year. Instead of a mid-life crisis (I’m hoping to live past my forties, after all), I had a mid-January crisis: I realized that my dream would not come true. I had visited my French friends over break and seen their lives. I’d partied with their friends and eaten traditional meals with their families. I’d seen a new region of France, which reminded me of home in all the best ways and France in all the best ways. And then I came back, and realized that it wasn’t my reality, and maybe it never would be. That type of crash was totally new to me. I haven’t had my dreams collapse around me very often, and if one did I’d been able to see around the obstacle and get it back again. This time, the obstacle was circumstance. I can’t make friends just based on nationality, I realized. I can’t control where I am (aka, not in a place where it’s particularly easy to “make french friends”), I can’t control how much time I have (because work), and, ultimately, I can never be French anyway.

It was then that I realized that my dream was to have grown up here, to have been a native speaker, to have family and friends and roots around me because it was their place too. I wanted both a past and a future in this foreign place. Basically, I had been setting myself up for Personal Disaster. An Identity Crisis. I had also been grossly undervaluing my own origins and upbringing and my own present and future, which was the most shameful of shames.

And then I asked myself as I sat there, raw and naked, stripped of this absurdist dream:

…then what the heck am I doing here?

This is a crisis of the highest order. I realized I just “was” somewhere: completely without purpose. It became a waste of time, I was a waste of space.

What the #$!* is the point of it all?

I figured it out again. I did it right this time: I thought about my experiences, I thought about my feelings, I thought about how much I’d already changed and grown in 4 months (plus the 5 ones in the past), and I thought about the relationships and community I’d cultivated, at home and abroad. I decided, once and for all, that I’ll never give up peanut butter (you literally could not pay me to do so). I laid out all that I had lived.

And I decided:

I may not be living my specific, absurd dream of the past…but I sometimes feel like I’m living “the dream,” even with all the ups and downs of rootless expat life.

So I reshaped my dream to match reality, and I discovered that my reality this year has been mostly a dream come true.

IMG_3902

Valenciennes: where dreams come true. 😉

My (Shattered?) French Dream

What’s an American?

Paradoxically, I have thought more about “being American” in the past few months than I had in my entire life.

It’s what I introduce myself as. As such, it’s become one of my most well-known identities.

“Hi, I’m Anne! I’m American.”

It’s usually replied to with a comment about Americans. I can’t say that everyone I’ve met has had the same opinion on the United States. I can say that everyone I’ve met associates something with the U.S. and its people.

Some people assume I own a gun. Some people ask me if we only ever eat hamburgers. Other people think I spent my college days partying away in a dirty frat house, like the ones in the movies. Some people revere our pop culture, expecting that I meet celebrities in the street on a regular basis. Some people might assume I’m arrogant and entitled, overenthusiastic, naive, or that I didn’t learn French before coming here because “everybody speaks English.”

I have been met with all of these reactions, communicated to me in various forms. What this tells me is nothing conclusive about the views of Europeans on America, other than everyone I’ve met seems to have a view on it. What that tells me is that we have a privileged (or maybe not) position on the world stage, in that many people are watching us (but many others aren’t, let’s not get too assumptive).

There are, in my mind, two extreme approaches to process an incident through which one discovers a stereotype of the U.S., neither of which are all good or all bad:

A) Reject the USA, or its role in the world, and send everyone back home the message, “we need to improve our reputation abroad.” I have adopted this stance once in a while. It’s tempting for critical thinkers who enjoy reflecting on identities and the issues facing our nation/how we can eliminate them to work toward a better society (aka, liberal arts future grassroots movement champion kids). This position leads to becoming an expatriate and/or extreme political activist and/or considering oneself “basically French” at heart.

B) Reject everyone else and decide that life in America is better, compare everything to it and become immensely dissatisfied, count down the days until home. Argue that nobody sees the true diversity in America and that therefore their conclusions are untrue. This person moves back and criticizes the “other countries” that don’t have it as good as we do in the US of A. There is value to this viewpoint as well, in that the person recognizes what our privileges are as US citizens. (However, just so y’all don’t get me wrong, I do find this 2nd view pretty problematic.)

Here’s the approach I’ve eventually settled on:

There is truth in stereotypes. Question it, without rejecting or accepting it. Where is the truth? What does it say about US culture? What does it say about French culture? How can one inform the other?

I find myself staunchly between the two camps, trying constantly to see both sides. Maybe Americans think French people are rude because they try to give a French person a hug (like we do back home), not realizing that French people reserve hugs for intimate and familial relationships. Maybe French people think Americans don’t speak French because they’ve only met Americans who don’t speak French. Even if a stereotype has become generalized and extreme, it must have arisen from some primordial stereotypical act that someone witnessed at some point, and that analysis by an external source could be a window for us, as we travel, into what it means to be “American.”

We are all our own kinds of American. Sometimes my particular kind might confirm a stereotype, and sometimes it will disconfirm it for some unsuspecting Frenchman. But I’m not worried anymore about being or not being American, I am using how people analyze me to figure out my kind of American.

I do think that, back in America, we think that French people eat baguettes and cheese all the time, drink copious amounts of wine, and that rudeness and snobbery are somehow more common in France (but so are romance and sexiness). In short, all of France is reduced to Paris. There’s truth in that too, and falsity. They do eat a lot of cheese and baguettes, but most of the French people I’ve met have been just as warm and friendly as we’re used to, maybe even more authentically so sometimes. It’s all complicated.

The most important thing, to me, in coming here, was not to confirm or disconfirm these assumptions, but to gain a richer understanding of how and why we’re different. Sometimes I encounter the illusion (in Americans) that Western Europe is culturally the same as us, and that in going there we will not encounter as much difference as we might in a more exotic place. This is true in that our lifestyle was at some point based on theirs, and a lot of us have ethnic roots in Western Europe so we look similar. This is false in that even countries within “Western Europe” are, culturally and linguistically, vastly different from one another. Different languages bring different cultures with them. Different aristocracies, histories, roles in world wars, political and economic systems, culinary traditions…all of these make “Western Europe” vastly diverse, and totally different from the United States of America.

It is so fun to think about why those differences exist. Being here is about encountering difference, for me, for one reason: it makes us reflect on “the other,” reflect on ourselves, and come to new understanding of both. We can be more informed people about both sides. Being here is precisely about “thinking more about being American than I ever have in my life.”

And my identity conclusion? I’ll keep my “American” enthusiasm. But I could do with being more choosy about my cheese. 😉

What’s an American?

Epic Cliffs, Stinky Cheese, and Mont-St-Michel

What do you get when you put four Americans in a car heading west with a flag tied to the roof, eating Jif To Go with Ritz Crackers and drinking A&W rootbeer?

A good old US Road Trip, of course! But in France.

We rented a car and headed out on a sunny Friday morning, blasting pop tunes and full of energy. Our first stop was Etrétat, a city known for its stunning falaises (cliffs) which attract painters from all over.

IMG_4581

IMG_4610

IMG_4595

As a bonus, it was full of Normande charm, with the characteristic architecture and signs for cidre and calvados in every restaurant.

IMG_4569

We spent two hours clambering up onto the cliffs and taking epic photos. It was a sunny day (a rarity in the North at the moment) and a combination of that and the fresh sea breeze put us in a stellar mood. Hikes and laughter are my jam.

Back in the car, we had an afternoon snack as we headed for Caen, to my friend Dana’s host family’s house from her study abroad in Normandy. Her host family welcomed us weary travelers with an apéro of champagne and snacks and a beautiful 2-room setup to sleep in (which can also be rented via Air BnB, if anyone is interested). After drinks, we dashed out to meet Dana’s expat friend for dinner at a cow-themed fondue restaurant and ate and talked until we had to sleep.

Day two was dedicated to Mont-St-Michel, one of the most famous sites in France. My mom had been telling me to go for ages, and this was the perfect time. We arrived the weekend after the grandes marées, the highest tides in ten years, which means that we beat the crowds; there had been roughly 30,000 people descending on the Mont the weekend before. Our day was spent wandering the quaint winding streets and the hidden corners of the Abbey, complete with a picnic lunch in the garden.

IMG_4763

IMG_4643

IMG_4648

IMG_4699

On the way home, we stopped in St Malo. I am always stoked to return to Brittany, my regional true love, and this town didn’t dampen (despite the rain…hehe) my feelings for Western France. It is a walled city, with some of the most intact walls I’ve seen. We entered through a stone gate and climbed up to the top of the ramparts (N.B. Cities in America do not have ramparts). We were able to walk halfway around the city and were rewarded with stunning views of the west coast on one side and the Breton city on the other. It was a great stop despite the adverse weather change, although the misty rain reminded me of home.

IMG_4821

IMG_4789

IMG_4817

Saturday night was spent with Dana’s family, eating and chatting. There was a spirit of warmth and hospitality, even though we were nearly complete strangers, which reminded me of the Nord-Pas-de-Calais community where I’ve made my home this year. The only downside was the cheese choice — Camembert and Livarot, two varieties whose tastes I have yet to acquire. I can’t handle the stench…

On Sunday we made our way home, tired and discouraged by the weather, but we all agreed that it was a great trip. What surprised me most was how it felt to be among Americans again, and on the road. It’s gotten to the point where I feel like a natural version of myself in Europe, which is a huge accomplishment. And yet, something felt especially nice about being able to joke and laugh and be outrageously patriotic in “American.” It’s our cultural language that is lacking here, as is everyone else’s cultural language if they aren’t from France.

But I was also more than happy to return home to my lovely house in Val and my international friends. As a group, we have created our own subculture, with an international smorgasbord of influences. I know that when I’m back in America, I will miss that subculture more than I can express in any language. I’ll have to go on plenty of road trips (and eat jars and jars of peanut butter) to cope 😉

Epic Cliffs, Stinky Cheese, and Mont-St-Michel

Saving the Best for Last

Although experiences abroad are emotional roller coasters the whole way through, each of my experiences has had this overall trajectory:

cos-graph

It’s always super exciting when you first arrive (also the peak point of stress), then there’s an adjustment period followed by a period of down-ness and stagnation, and after you’ve hit rock bottom there’s nothing but an uphill slope!

It happened in Paris and it happened again here, though over a longer period of time: September – December were crazy but great, January and February were rough and bluesy. My rock bottom hit after my trip to Paris, when I was struggling with what to do next year and then got sick for two weeks.

Last week, I think, was the commencement of the uphill climb. I spent the weekend with friends in Lille and hosted a Monday night party for another friend’s birthday. This weekend, I went to Paris again for a concert with two of my best friends here. Next weekend, it’s an “Americans on Tour” road trip with three friends (all American, duh) to see Mont St. Michel and Normandy, and the weekend after that I’ll be in Aix-en-Provence celebrating Easter with two of my friends from home (who are also assistants) and their assistant crew. And in the in-between times, I’ve gotten more accustomed to getting up and going to work, and more settled in to the daily dinner parties, teatimes with friends, walks, chats, etc.

When you’re in a foreign country and have certainly jumped through the hoops and hurdles of the first half/two thirds of it, it brings on a natural high. All I want to do is adventure and experience things and do all the “one last times” and spend time with people that I soon won’t see for who knows how long. The entire month of May was like this in Paris: all we did was picnic. At some point this weekend, I thought the sad thought: “I’m saving the best for last.” But as I write about it, I think that there were “bests” all over the place, all throughout the experience. I think it will take finishing the experience to realize which memories stuck. But I think what changes most is the mentality, which becomes very suddenly: “oh, I have hardly any time left here, better not waste it!” and I’m grateful for that kick in the pants.

And as the end approaches, It’s hitting me how sad I’ll be to leave. My house, my friends, my school community here — all of these will never be in my life in the same way again, and it will be sad to move on. But really, I’m lucky to be sad, because it means that my time here with all the people I’ve met was meaningful, worthwhile, and incredibly fun.

In the meantime, it’s not the end yet!! Here’s to more than a month of adventures to come 🙂

Saving the Best for Last

A Mathematical Analysis of Experience

I’ve come up with a simple formula for life.

life = choices + circumstances

People disagree on what kind of ratio of choices to circumstances there should be in this equation. I think it’s all about balance, and that the difference comes out of people’s attitudes about agency.

Some people think it’s all about circumstance: nothing is ultimately under our control, all things are circumstantial, life happens to us and there’s zip to do about it.

Other people would argue that it’s all a matter of choice. I tend to be this way more than the other, because I think we all have agency in our lives. However, I’m learning that sometimes it’s equally dangerous to take too much responsibility as it is to take too little. Some circumstances, in fact, are insurmountable.

This first few months, I’ve encountered many an insurmountable circumstance. That’s arguably one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from living abroad — shit happens, sometimes all you can do is make the best of it.

Some other times, there isn’t even a “best” of it. There was nothing positive about my ex-neighbor waking up and waking me up every morning at 3:30 AM. There’s nothing positive about having long, drawn out gaps in my teaching schedule during which I can’t go home. There isn’t anything good about confronting innumerable bureaucratic hurdles every time I want to do anything “official” here.

In light of this, it’s time for me to revisit one of my favorite quotes/ideas:

IMG_2972

The most consistently positive times of my life have been characterized not by extreme highs or unparalleled excitement, but by a constant feeling of profound contentment. Peace. Feeling stable and secure.

What I’m reminding myself of now, as I’m feeling unsettled and upset and uprooted, is that I can’t always control WHAT I experience, but I can control HOW I experience it. I can’t control what I feel, but I can control my response to my feelings. In short, I can control how well I take care of my internal sanctuary so that I can better weather the entirely circumstantial woes.

inner peace = self-care + perspective

Why do I need an internal sanctuary? Because my internal world is the only consistent world there is. How I see the world is how the world is for me. A lot of times I think we cling so hard to objective “reality” that we forget how much power our subjective view of the world has to shape our reality.

If I think life is always going to be fun, or always going to be hard, it will be. If I have “peace in my heart,” there will be peace in my life.

A Mathematical Analysis of Experience