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?