Wednesday, August 29, 2012

On expat luck


Are we so lucky, lucky?

There's a conversation over on Mary Kay's blog at the moment on what it means to be a "trailing spouse" following one's partner around the globe. Several comments mentioned that, from the outside, this seems an ideal lifestyle - travel, adventure, and on top of all this, you don't have to do the 9 to 5? Sounds perfect! However, as Mary Kay details, there are also sacrifices, notably of one's own career and other goals.

This isn't a position I've been in myself, but I can relate to the experience of being told by others that I'm "lucky" for living in France. But do I feel lucky, punk?

I think there's two different aspects to the "lucky" comment. One is that, from the outside, expat life can seem impossibly glamorous, like every day there is a wonderful adventure waiting on your doorstep. I can definitely relate to this - who doesn't feel twinges of envy when they see photos of someone living in an incredibly beautiful spot, or read about someone who gets paid to write about their travels?

But, having lived as an expat for years, my nose-pressed-up-against-the-window wistfulness is balanced with an awareness of what life is "really" like. One of my least favourite things about the plethora of A Year in Provence-style expat books is that these people never *do* anything. With the exception of the (fictional) A Year in the Merde (which, by the way, I found grating and a bit sexist, from memory) I don't think I've ever read one of these books where the protagonist is living a "normal" life - getting up every day and going to work or living somewhere where they are just another anonymous face on the street rather than the Anglophone star turn in their insular village. Two things: I realise it makes for better copy if you're always exploring exotic places or dealing with the wacky locals rather than going to the gym and then the supermarket, and I realise that people who don't work typical jobs do exist and are probably more likely to write books, and that's fine. I just wish there was an alternative image out there to show that routine humdrum old life goes on in France (or wherever) too.

Because sometimes you could do with showing that side of things to the "oh, but you're in France!" brigade. It happens less now, but particularly when I first moved here, you could barely say a thing without them popping up. Burnt your dinner? "Oh, but you're in France, there are so many great restaurants you can go to!" Having a quiet weekend in? "Oh, but you're in France, you should be out exploring!" Just feeling a bit down? "Oh, but you're in France, you're so lucky!" Sometimes it can be a good thing to be reminded that, yes, we are lucky to live here - you're unemployed? "Oh, but you're in France and you're getting paid to live there!" - but sometimes you just want to be allowed to have normal emotions and a normal life and catch up on your laundry without being told that you should spend all your time thanking your lucky stars while touring châteaux, eating foie gras and swilling champagne (all good things of course, except the foie gras).

The second aspect to the "lucky" comment is the idea that this just fell into our laps without any effort. I will give credit to one great piece of luck - having an EU passport. But the rest did not happen by luck, I made the decision to come here and I worked for it. I studied French, I came up with a strategy to come over as a language assistant and try to find work from there, and I've put up with a lot along the way. We've all ended up in France by different routes, but whether we schemed for years to make it happen or we ended up here by chance, everyone has made choices and sacrifices along the line to be here. Whether you gave up job opportunities back home, you chose to live far away from friends and family, you decided to brave moving somewhere where you hardly spoke the language, or you traded a comfortable lifestyle for semi-poverty: we've all given up certain things. We gain other things, or we wouldn't make this choice. But that's not a matter of luck.

Those who say "I wish I could live in France, you're so lucky" don't take into account that we may be looking at their lives and thinking, "you're my age, you have a good career, you're married and you own your own home - you're so lucky". And I'm sure all of that took hard work and sacrifice too - there's no career fairy, just as there's not a move to France fairy.

I don't think that we should stop counting our blessings and seeing the good amongst the difficulties we may encounter as expats (god knows I have quite enough of a tendency towards pessimism and moaning as it is), but I think we should also pat ourselves on the backs for having the tenacity, determination and courage to choose this lifestyle and remind ourselves and even others that it's not just dumb luck.

How about you - do you feel lucky?

26 comments:

  1. Stop whining, you're in France!

    :)

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  2. A lot of people think I'm living the glamorous life over here in France. Umm... have you googled Valenciennes? Not exactly Paris. For me, my life is normal. It's just everyday things but in French. I do like my life here, and I am lucky (especially as an American), but I wouldn't say I'm exactly living the dream... It's just... my life.

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    1. Valenciennes *sounds* very pretty though! But exactly - after a point, most of the time it's just a normal life.

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    2. Valenciennes can be very pretty on a sunny day! Unfortunately, most days are grey and rainy and that makes it look rather ugly. But I do live in the cutest neighborhood (in my opinion)!

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    3. I actually did google and it looks like there are some pretty buildings. Plus I was impressed that Jean Froissart was born there cos I'm a total medieval geek!

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  3. I agree whole heartedly about what you said about the 'oh you're so lucky' people who think that you somehow won the expat lottery and got whisked off to live the dream life, not realizing all of the hard work, and red tape it can take to get here, and if they really wanted to live in France, they could too.
    I'm a 'trailing spouse' and while on paper, my life seems fantastic, I've made a lot of sacrifices (my friends, family, career, personal comforts... i.e, the language) to be here. Sure I live in Provence, and thanks to Peter Mayle and his cohorts, everyone thinks my life is sprinkled with Champagne fairydust, but it's far from reality.
    The grass is always greener...
    Loved this post :)

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    1. Thank you! I was a bit worried it would come across as ungrateful or something, so I'm glad you get it :)

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  4. Another comment from Ella - I have turned off the recaptcha thing for the moment, so hopefully you'll be able to comment in future. Anyway, here's what Ella had to say:

    "Great post Gwan and I'm glad you're bringing this to the table. I was literally having a conversation about this late last night on the phone with my former landlady in LA. Something that I have never mentioned on the blog is that after I moved to France, I had to let go of a handful of friends. Small-minded people that first off didn't want to know anything about life in Paris, they didn't want to be happy for me for taking such a huge emotional and financial risk, and also didn't want to know anything about the many challenges of living in such a beautiful place and they took pleasure in unjustly telling people that I think I'm so French now, which by the way, we all know is so not true. It was total mean girls shite. It has taken me three years now to understand that living here does seem glamourous from afar and only a fellow expat (of any country) could truly get that we all aren't spending our days frolicking under the Eiffel Tower, smoking cigarettes while French men feed us croissant (ugh, unfortunately).

    It doesn't take luck to live here, that comes later, it takes balls and anyone who wants to question that, well they need to be dropped off at a prefecture (preferably in Paris) for a day. : )"

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    1. Ugh, sorry you had dick friends, although I now I have an awesome mental image of you frolicking :)

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  5. Gwan, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this post....and I would have commented earlier if I had seen it. Unfortunately, I've been busy with piles of laundry, grocery shopping and all of the other non-glamorous stuff that needs to be done on a day-to-day basis in Paris. Gasp! It's so true that there isn't a "move to France (or anywhere else) fairy". As you so correctly said, there's a lot of soul-searching, angst and hard work that goes into making any move abroad successful.

    I'm off now to swill champagne and eat foie gras....which I can't believe that you don't like! Isn't that a prerequisite for moving to France?! ;) I'm also going to put a link for this post on my blog and on facebook. Thanks for writing from the heart about what it's really like to be an expat!

    P.S. For anyone who's interested, Stephen Clarke, the author of "A Year in the Merde", is going to talk about his new novel at WHSmith on September 25.

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    1. Thank you, my muse! :) No, I've tried to like foie gras but it's not for me (although I've never had it cooked, so one day I'll give that a go). Even worse, I think the last time I was persuaded to have it, it was accompanied by sweet wine, blech!

      Have you read the Merde books? What did you think? It's been about 5 years since I read them so I can't actually remember exactly what I objected to in them, but I seem to remember thinking they were shallow and laddish but everyone else seems to love them!

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    2. Pan seared foie gras on a bed of fresh greens is bliss. Add a glass of champagne and it's heaven!

      I haven't read the Merde books but I won (woohoo!) a copy of Clarke's "Paris Revealed" that has some good suggestions for things to do in Paris.

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  6. I feel lucky about my life because I have met some wonderful people, I love my job and have a great man, but it has nothing to do with France besides it's where I live. I'm pretty darn sure I would feel this same way even if I still lived in the US, because like you said, I have worked very hard for everything I have (and in fact, living in France has made it all even more challenging if nothing else, so screw you France lol).

    When people say to me "Oh, it's so awesome you live in Paris, it must be so amazing!", I usually reply "Well, sure the scenery is great, but I still have to get up every morning and go to work and pay bills and buy groceries. And I have to do it all in French". The mundane day-to-day stuff doesn't go away just because you live in a different country!

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    1. Glad you're happy! And yes, screw France ;)

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  7. Just discovered your blog via Mary Kay (merci MK!!) and add me to those who love love love this post! I'm in England now, via Australia, and still spend as much time as possible (never enough) in Paris ... and despite years of practice, it's still all I can do to not jump out of my skin and scream in response to 'you're so lucky' aaacckkk!! Right, we've all been handed these ex-pat lives on a silver platter with no sacrifice, no planning, no endless bureaucracies, no patience, no determination, no judgment from family and loved ones and people we thought would support us, no getting-up-and-going-to-work for years on end (or being the supportive spouse), no energy, no effort, no stress, no tears, no regrets. Aahhhhhh.

    Look forward to exploring your blog further, and waving to France across the Pond! Cheers and here's to all expats, whevever they (we) may be.

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    1. Thanks so much (and MK), look forward to reading your blog more too - are you still updating?

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  8. Wow, what a strong post and very interesting comments. Of course as I said in Mary Kays blog I have no idea what it is like to be a "trailing spouse" (what a horrible term), but I have every admiration for you people who leave all behind and go on an adventure. The longest I spent in Paris was a month and that was enough to be away from home and family. I know then I could never move a way for any length of time.

    As to Stephen Clarkes book. I got bored and didn't finish it. I agree with you.

    Love Denise

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    1. Thank you, although nothing wrong with knowing that home is where the heart is (I know you're counting down for your next trip though!) Yay, glad to find someone else that agrees with me on that :)

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  9. I completely agree with this, and with all the comments as well! I do consider myself "lucky" to be living in France in the sense that I was fortunate enough to have the opportunities (education, for example)that made coming here seem like a possibility, and also because I can think of far worse places to be an expat. But many people who have these same opportunities never take them because deep down they know that there are sacrifices to be made too, not to mention the fact that even those of us who live in glamorous Paris spend a lot more time squashed in the stinky metro than gazing up at the Eiffel tower!

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    1. Yep, for sure in the broader picture there is a lot to be thankful for!

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  10. I totally get what you're talking about Gwan. Living in a foreign country takes a lot of determination and skill! A lot of people wouldn't dare do it. Maybe what some of them mean is that you're lucky to have the guts to do it. To be honest, I do feel lucky to get to live in France, but I also count it as a major accomplishment for me. It's not luck in the way people think it is.

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    1. I admire your becoming a teacher here, that cannot have been easy!

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  11. I enjoyed reading your post. I'm back in SF for a week now and it's funny to be here and see my sister married with a baby, house, cars etc. I'm 28 and will be returning to my 17 square meter apartment with no washing machine in the 11th. My mom is American and my Dad is french, but I started out in Paris as an assistant. I second you that living in France is not easy and it's not at all the dream many Americans think it is. It involves a lot of sacrifices, but in the end, it's a choice and only we know where we feel happiest.

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    1. Thank you! I find it weird when anyone has a "grown up" life, ha ha!

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  12. I don't feel "lucky". I guess I'm not really fond of the word either.. For me "fortunate" is even a bit much... I'd say I'm grateful and opportunistic, and made some smart choices.

    I'm not in Paris so people pretty much still ask if I live in Paris after I tell them where I live 10 times or just have no clue where I am and therefore don't bring it up anymore.

    And of course my fam has new words to call me, added to their infamous verbal abuse list: "Snob", "Lazy", "French frog", etc.. Awesome.

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