12 Things I Have Learned After 12 Months Abroad
Today is the one year anniversary of my arrival in France.
I began in a little town called Saint-Nom-la-Bretèche, where I au paired for a beautiful family with three wonderful children - Arthur, Zoé, and Prune. With a father suffering from ALS/MND, a mother working full-time, nurses and extended family around all the time, it was a unique situation. I loved the time I spent getting to know them (I go back and visit occasionally) and the other girls who au paired for them. I travelled to Vienna for a few days during this time, where I met up with my friend Henrietta from New Zealand, who was au pairing in the Netherlands. After finishing my au pair contract and signing a new one with a new family, I headed off on a big trip: one week in Kenya, one week on a cruise in Spain, France, and Italy, and six weeks back in New Zealand. I came back to France in August, and have been exploring Paris (where I now live) and elsewhere in France ever since. I am currently working for another family of three children - Hermine, Louis, and Domitille. I have grown to love this family, too, after some big challenges at the beginning. I will be working for them until the end of the school year (July 2018), and I don't know what is next at this point. I have a few months to work that out! There are options, but nothing is decided yet. Whatever is coming my way in the future, I have no choice but to trust that it is all part of the plan!
Most of this post is about France, but some of the other places I have been to are mentioned as well!
Here are 12 things I have learned after 12 months (one whole year!) abroad!
1. Administration as a foreigner is a nightmare. French administration is particularly notorious. New Zealand wins many awards on that front; it is so easy, even for foreigners, from what I have heard. Here in France, I had to send in SO many documents to various organisations in order to be an au pair and change families. I'm dreading my appointment for my visa renewal, which comes three months after the actual expiry of my visa. The staff and security at the préfecture de police are often rude and impatient - many, many people end up in tears. I have a piece of paper to prove that I have an appointment and can re-apply, so it isn't a problem that my visa has technically expired. Just annoying and makes me not want to risk travelling outside of France. When it comes to changing visa status, I will probably have to go all the way back to New Zealand just to do that. Ridiculous (and expensive). On the topic of visas, I am glad to be living in the EU! No problems travelling anywhere within the EU countries. Kenya was interesting, though, as their visa service is online and there are scams which are easy to be conned into. I didn't want to risk trying to enter on a scam visa, so paid extra money to get the real one.
2. Immersion is definitely the best way to learn a language. I could write a whole post on language learning. I'm now learning at C1 level - advanced French, which many would consider to be fluent. But what is fluency? I can generally understand and communicate what I need to, but sometimes I forget conjugations or don't know how to explain complex philosophical thoughts. I make grammatical errors ALL. THE. TIME. I still have fear in new situations where I have to speak French, like at the doctor or the post office. I am at the point now, though, where people rarely switch into English with me, and if they do, it isn't because I can't speak the language, but rather because I have an accent and am obviously not a local. It's nice to be able to say that I speak two languages; English speakers usually only know one lanugage, which is such a shame. Amongst foreigners, English is also the lingua franca - the language everyone speaks at least a little of, which makes it very hard to actually learn anything else. It is very easy to just default to English - you really have to make an effort to speak as much as possible in your target language. Learning one language makes it so much easier to learn others: during my short time in countries where Spanish/Catalan, Italian, German, and Swahili were the main languages, I was very quickly able to make use of previous knowlege, and add new words and phrases to my arsenal. Next up on my fluency language list: German!
3. Food: Some food makes you wonder where it has been all your life; other food makes you wonder what is wrong with these people. For someone who has always been a very particular eater with difficulties handling certain textures, food has been an interesting thing! Some of the very traditional French/Mediterranean foods are things that I can't handle. They eat a lot of seafood, soups, and (on special occasions) some bizarre things like foie gras and escargot. In Kenya, too, there were some interesting foods to get used to, like ugali. I have had plenty of great food, too; I have always enjoyed and cooked food from all over the world, and now I have added a few things to my recipe book. As far as French food goes, I am partial to things like the galette bretonne, a good bœuf bourgignon, and the many, many sweet treats that that can be found at the patisserie. And I can't forget the classic baguette - walking down the street with your freshly baked baguette, a morsel of which is already in your mouth, is the most French feeling you can get. Oh, and the cheese...! So. Many. Cheeses. There is something for everyone, to be paired with the appropriate wine!
4. Anglophone news media sources are terrible. It doesn't matter from which country, whether it be in Great Britain, Australasia, or the USA. They rarely report on the important things, and if they do, they find a scandalous angle to it. The stories are biased and subtly push certain opinions and beliefs - often supported financially by certain government agencies, other organisations, and wealthy people to do so. It is glaringly obvious when you become used to other news sources, who actually have laws about their reporting and give facts and figures, that our media is a bit of a sham. Of course, there are issues with media sources in every country to some extent, especially where government corruption is a problem, but in general I find that there is a lot more fact reporting and informed discussion in countries that aren't trying to keep up with the Kardashians.
5. Cultural perspectives. Your perspective on the world, on social issues, etc. isn't necessarily the right one. Neither is the perspective of anyone else you meet, probably. But instead of being intolerant and avoiding people whose opinions differ to yours, we must try to listen more and finding common ground rather than letting differences destroy our relationships. There can be strong differences of opinion on many subjects that are just a matter of culture, and on those issues it isn't necessarily a matter of right and wrong, or is at least more nuanced than that. An example that can cause problems is in the dating arena, particularly on platforms like Tinder. French don't exactly "date". They don't even have a word for it. They get to know a guy/girl, and the relationship develops organically. Many foreign girls have Tinder horror stories; most guys are not using it for dating, but for one night stands. Note that there are plenty of lovely French men, and they certainly know how to woo a woman. Relationship roles are somewhat old-school and traditional - the man initiates, and the woman accepts or rejects (you are unlikely to find a meek housewife in society, though; French women are proud to be strong and independant).
6. Cultural behaviours. Coming from the British version of politeness, the French politesse has been a bit of a shock. Here you are allowed to be angry, to yell, to share your feelings, to be honest about what you think. On the other hand, you must always say bonjour, s'il vous plait, pardon, and excusez-moi. Calling people "monsieur" and "madame" gets you bonus points. Speaking at an acceptable volume (looking at you, Americans!) and moving at the appropriate speed (looking at you, Chinese!) is imperative. If you don't do what is expected, someone is likely to tell you off for it, or be quite short with you. It isn't rudeness, it's just the culture. You were the rude one if you didn't behave appropriately their country. Most of us expect the same courtesy in our countries, so we should follow the rules elsewhere to the best of our ability. N.B. some people are legitimately rude, but the majority are good people who are just going about their lives.
7. Making friends can really be difficult. I have some people now who I would consider to be friends, but as many of us are only here temporarily, it is not easy to get close to people. I'm also not really keen on going out at night to go dancing and drinking, which is what many foreigners (and French) my age enjoy doing. French people also tend to want to DO something, whereas I'm used to just meeting up at a café to chat. However, I have met some wonderful people and have had great experiences in the time spent with them! Many people who come to Paris (compared to everywhere else in the world) are at a similar point in their lives: they are often creative people and deep thinkers who need to figure out who they are, where they belong, and what they want to do with their lives. On that note...
8. Homesickness, sickness, and life purpose. I haven't really struggled with homesickness - Christmas week was the only time. The mother in my host family noticed that I wasn't really in a good way that week, and was really good about it. She gets homesick for her hometown in France, so she understands a little. Luckily, I spent the fête season with good people, so I got over it quickly. Though I wasn't homesick for the most part, I had many times when I felt completely lost and vulnerable, like when I was alone at the airport in Nairobi for 14 hours. I'm a planner, so not knowing what to do in a situation is something I don't deal well with. As a result, there were plenty of tears throughout the year! Something I struggled with in a big way was health: I had a lot of problems with sickness. My old singing teacher told me that I probably would, and she was right. Between general new-country-germs and kid-germs, I came down with everything under the sun, and more. I even lost my voice for about four months, which is not ideal for a singer. Hopefully this year will be better health-wise! As for life purpose...well, that one I'm still figuring out. What I know for certain is that I have an innate need to sing and to share my soul.
9. Art, history, and culture. Europe is so full of these things, and I absolutely love it! I have seen so many beautiful works of art and architecture, been to so many places full of so much history and heritage, and lived in one of world's most incredible cities, where I can look out the window after work and see the Eiffel Tower sparkling in all her glory. Art in all its forms is so valued here, and there are so many opportunities to experience it. Each museum, concert hall, and even apartment is so different and beautifully crafted and curated. It makes my heart happy! In Kenya all of these things are valued, too, but in a different way. The Kenyans (and Africans in general) make so many beautiful things, and a history stretching back farther than I can even imagine. Each tribe has its own special cultural contribution, making a beautiful, unique cultural tapestry.
10. Public transport and public services. One thing I love about France is that the government has done a good job of providing public services (through taxpayer money, of course) over the years. Not a perfect job, mind you, but better than in many other countries on many levels. Though I don't yet have my social security number (thanks to the previously mentioned French administration), I can easily catch the metro/bus/train to go to the doctor, get a prescription, go to one of the many pharmacies, and pay barely anything for it. And that isn't only in Paris. However, there are quite big problems with homelessness and unemployment generally in France. Things are changing, though, so hopefully this will improve over the next few years. Public transport in most developed countries is far better than in New Zealand, and is something I would definitely miss if I came back. Kenya was another story; people crammed into and hanging out of tiny, old buses, people walking out in the middle of absolutely nowhere, and very little government help. It was another world.
11. Family relationships. We know that family is generally valued very highly in tribal communities like in Kenya, but I have noticed that the French tend to place a high level of importance and family relationships, too. French families value the time spent with those they love, and their employers tend to respect that. I'm not sure of the exact statistics, but I notice that solo parents seem to be fewer - possibly this is influenced by the fact that the trend is to wait until at least their 30s to get married and have children. I have heard, though, that the rate of family violence can be quite high, and, of course, extra-marital affairs are not unheard of. As a general trend, however, family is important to the French people. As a side note, I will never understand French parenting. Kids here have a lot of power and often things are negotiable. Au pairing is a balancing act as it is, and adding very different "parenting" styles to the mix makes it all the more complicated!
12. People are all just people. While I already knew this to some extent (having grown up around people from many different cultures and backgrounds), living in and visiting other countries really makes it hit home. While we are all shaped by our countries and our experiences, we all just want to be connected and to be happy - from the bored guy working at the museum, to the kind lady in the station on her way to work, to the humble monk in the monastery outside Vienna, to the brave HIV-positive woman in rural Kenya, to the elderly Casanova in small-town Italy, to the hipster barista in Barcelona, to the lost tourist asking for directions, and so on. My friends and acquaintances are a beautiful collage of all different colours, beliefs, worldviews, etc., and I wouldn't change that for the world.