Hello blogosphere! I know it’s been a nice long while since I’ve posted anything. Not because I haven’t wanted to, but mostly because I’ve been dealing with what I like to think of as a little bit of the blues. Long story short, living in France isn’t as easy as I thought it would be.
After getting ambushed by an emotional breakdown on the first Monday of November (which resulted in an embarrassing moment of ugly crying in the staff room at school), followed by the torpedo of Trump’s presidential win two days later, I was beginning to question my mental stamina and quickly losing inspiration to write.
Why did I think moving abroad after graduation was a good idea again? With the novelty and romance of freshly baked baguettes and gold-leaf architecture wearing off, reality was catching up with me. I felt myself slowly descending into a dangerous hole by way of tiny threadlike reminders.
I have no networks here.
I don’t feel professionally challenged.
I feel socially limited because of my linguistic capabilities.
I don’t know how to gain access my typical communities (creative, social, philanthropical etc.).
Actually, now that I think about it, I don’t feel engaged in any type of community.
My French isn’t progressing as quickly as I would like.
Does my work here even matter to my students and school?
I’m having a hard time reconciling my current experiences with my past and future life plans.
But wait, what am I even doing with my life in general?
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been trying to dissect all of these thoughts and more. It has not been an easy process and I didn’t think it would be something that most people would be interested in reading about. I got about 550 words into a longwinded entry of complaints before realizing that ranting my feelings out on the internet is only a selfish short-term solution. I quickly scrapped it.
I just kept thinking, “If only I could just define the root of my problems, I’ll be able to solve them.”
Spoiler alert: After several weeks of frustration, reflection, and attempts to find distractions, I never really did get to the root. Instead, I found myself tangled in the web I’ve recounted above. Slowly but surely, I’m beginning to realize that life is never really going to be as cut and dry as I would like it to be. Each time I successfully identify and solve one problem, I undoubtedly discover some other issue along the way. I just have to keep on trucking.
I do think that a good portion of my malaise comes from setting too high of expectations for myself before coming to France. There is nothing inherently wrong with expectations, but I do feel slightly naïve in admitting that I thought this experience was going be one of many epiphanies. I thought I would move to France, eat baguettes, teach English, travel the world, become fluent in French, magically realize my life calling and be ready to strike when I got back to the US.
Granted these things could still happen, but after three months I’ve decided not to hold my breath. I’m starting to realize that there is no magic pill that will give me these things. Only a series of experiences that slowly nudge me one way or the other. No giant leaps or bounds. Perhaps at the end of the year I will have collected enough of these experiences to take one small step. But as of this moment, I’m not quite sure where these experiences are pushing me and it freaks me out. I have to accept that and be OK.
Anyway, other than one’s personal expectations, there might be a multitude of other reasons why someone could feel a bit down while living in another country. Perhaps it’s a bit of homesickness and loneliness. Adjusting to the food, the language, the culture, and the ways of life can be difficult. Or maybe it’s a combination of all of those things and more. If you’re anything like me, all of these things could leave you feeling a bit stuck in a rut.
But if there is anything that I know about myself it is that, for better or for worse, I have always been stubbornly committed to following through. So, here’s what I’ve been doing to keep my chin up, brain occupied, and heart moving forward in the face of a little bit of the TAPIF blues.
Start a Project
This tip has helped me calm some of my uneasiness related to not knowing my exact life goals. I’ve always liked taking on a good project. And as much as I dreaded deadlines in college, they always gave me the pressure that I needed to do my best work. In a post-graduate life where there are no maps, syllabi, or directions I find that creating my own mini-goals are really helpful in developing a sense of structure. These projects aren’t necessarily life callings, but rather reminders to myself that I am a capable human being. I can decide to start something and I can see it through.
My projects have included creating reading lists, audiobooks, knitting, working on pieces for the flute, and self-studying French. I could consider my blog a project as well, but due to my lack of internet for the last 6 weeks I found it challenging to research, write, and curate. But we press on!
In any case, if crafting and music aren’t your things maybe you can pick a fitness related goal. Join a gym. Learn to bake. At one point, I considered joining a bike collective to learn how to make bike repairs. I figure now is as good as a time as any to nurture those neglected skills from my university days.
Be a Yes Person
During my time at school, I developed a professional and personal network that filled my days with events and commitments. In fact, before I left for France I felt like I was on a professional cusp. I was finally getting to a point in my life where I could afford to be slightly more selective about opportunities, but then I decided to up and move my life to France, not fully realizing what that meant. I have no regrets about moving to France. Because I realize, now more than ever, that it only would have been harder if I waited and experiencing life abroad is something that I would never trade for the world.
With that being said, starting from square one socially and professionally in a foreign language is not exactly what I would call a good time. It’s challenging, frustrating, and lonely. I’ve quickly adopted a yes person mentality. Getting to be selective is a luxury. When a stranger on a Facebook group suggests getting a drink, I say yes. When a teacher invites me for dinner, I say yes. When I hear it through the grapevine that someone in my town wants English lessons, I say yes. When I see a random public event on Facebook, I say yes. This usually means I end up doing a lot of things on my own and not all of them are great successes, but throwing myself into the deep end is my current mantra.
I don’t know about anyone else, but saying yes to everything does not come naturally to me. It’s hard for me because while I would like to think that I have an adventurous spirit, I know that deep down inside I am a worrier. I can easily get stuck in what-ifs.
What if I don’t like it? What if I feel awkward? What if it’s boring? What if people judge me? Really, I just want to stay home and watch Netflix and Youtube.
All I can say is that maybe it was a good thing that my internet was out for the last 6 weeks. Netflix and Youtube were not an option and I was not about to let myself die of boredom in my bedroom. The one thing I’ve learned is that the more I say yes, the less scary it seems. And because life is funny in this way, the more I say yes, the more opportunities seem to materialize.
Create Your Own Opportunities
Ok, so maybe opportunities are hard to come by. Even though I live in a small city with a decent number of cultural offerings, there are times when I still feel limited because of linguistic reasons. This is when I try to create my own opportunities. When I say opportunities, I’m not talking about planning a large-scale event. I’m talking about little things. Like asking around for people who are interested in taking English lessons from you. Or being the one to ask people out, repeatedly. Cold emailing the flute teacher at the conservatory to try to find opportunities to play music. (Right, so this one is an opportunity in progress that I’ve been working on for roughly a month now with lukewarm reception, but I’m not ready to drop it quite yet.)
Facebook, Eventbrite, Couchsurfing.com, internet sites, posters, radio, newspapers, leaflets etc. Consume them all. I’m not talking about a cursory glance, I’m talking about combing through them word for word and picking out your top choices, putting them in your calendar, and actually going to them. If you’re starting from square one and you don’t already have a network of friends inviting you to things, then you’ve got to do it yourself.
If you find that none of those things seem to be working, plan a big event for yourself. Plan a trip, buy a ticket to a show you’ve been dying to see, do some retail therapy, treat yourself. Give yourself a reason to get out and to look forward to something.
Go to the Library/Be a Regular
Going to the library has always been a reprieve for me. I find that no matter where I go, libraries are always a great source of comfort for me. Being surrounded by books and endless knowledge brings me great joy and peace. Libraries have always been a place where I can people watch or work or read or feel at ease in general. Also, as a fringe benefit, public libraries tend to be a place filled with event postings (see tip above).
In short, my advice is to find that happy place. Whether it’s a mall, a gym, a park, a bookstore, a bakery, we each have our things. Who knows, maybe being a regular at some place will make you feel more grounded in a foreign place. After visiting the library several times, I’ve found my favorite reading corner. I see the same old man reading Le Monde with his magnifying glass. And even though I’ve never talked to him, seeing him gives me hope that I could be part of his library-going experience as well.
Reach Out to People
In some ways, I find this one especially difficult. Not because I’m a closed person, on the contrary, I love having conversations with people. My biggest problem is that I find that my personality doesn’t translate from English to French. My grasp of the French language does not allow me to talk with the same ease as I do in English and because of that, I feel like a huge part of my personality is missing. This makes it difficult for me to reach out to people. I never feel like myself when I’m speaking in French.
Earlier in the blog, I mentioned my emotional outburst in November. This was a turning point for me. Not because teachers were giving me very concerned looks in the staff room, but because I finally realized that I need to get over myself. So what? I can’t speak perfect French. Yes, I feel limited. No, I can’t understand every word being said. But what did I expect?
Just because I don’t have perfect grammar doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be allowed to live my life. I doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be allowed to socialize. If people are judging me, if they’re annoyed that they have to repeat what they just said, too bad. There are other people out there who don’t feel that way. There are people who are patient and kind and interested in helping me improve my French. There are people out there who will try to see beyond the barrier and try to get to know me even if they are a bit harder to find.
The day that I talked to my mentor here about what I was feeling was a big step. Sure, the conversation was in English, but I felt like sharing some of my worries with someone who is tied to France connected me a little bit more to France as well. It felt as if I had laid one stone in a bridge.
And of course, if all else fails, call your friends and family. Talk to the people who know you, the ones who knew you before. Be careful not to get too dependent on talking to your loved ones though! You know that bridge is solid and only needs to be maintained, not constructed.
Building relationships, creating memories, developing emotional ties to and in a place in which you don’t know anyone, turns out that is a difficult task. Turns out it’s an even more difficult task in a foreign language, but I’m glad that I decided to do this. I’m glad that I am doing this. Each day I am reminded that I am strong enough to do this. And each day I am reminded by little things that the world is kind even in the face of hardship.
P.S. In the miracles of all miracles—after 6 weeks—the internet is back on at my school! This means I don’t have to travel to public wifi spots for internet anymore and/or try to make do with my tiny cellphone screen. Let me tell you, planning travel on your cellphone is no fun. To be honest, as a millennial who’s grown up with access to wifi nearly 24/7, the last six weeks have been rough. But at least now I know that I can survive for that long without a computer screen. With that unfortunate period behind us, hopefully, I’ll be back on my weekly schedule again. Fingers crossed the internet never goes out for that long again!