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Isolated or Elated? The Highs and Lows of Expat Life

At some point in our lives, many of us will consider a move abroad, often for work, love or adventure, but making the jump and having a fulfilling experience is a whole other challenge. But there's a fine line between being independent and cutting yourself off from reality. Here's my story and my tips for those of you who are looking to start a life abroad. 

It's all Parisian architecture and cream cakes until you realise that you're neither a tourist nor a local...

At the tender age of 18, I moved to Paris to study French and little did I know that 10 years on, I would still be here. Life as a foreigner in the city was at first a clichéd spectrum of touristic walks, daily croissants and tiny cups of steaming tar-coloured espresso on sun drenched terrasses. I had made it and I couldn't have been happier. My family life back in Northamptonshire, England continued too with regular trips back to my parents' house on heavily discounted off-peak Eurostars. I was living the dream. That was until the rose-tinted glasses came off and I realised that I didn't fit in at all.

So, what changed? For a start, my friends started flatshares with French students, which massively changed my social circle. Parties were no longer English-only affairs as the French flatmates invited their friends too and I saw my friendship circles grow organically, albeit slowly. Things were starting to look up! My heavily accented French drew huffs and puffs from impatient waiters as I struggled to order a sandwich. People switched quickly to English when my attempts to communicate were unfruitful. All of my friends were British because my university was a British one. I wasn't integrated into French society and after two years of burying my head in the sand, I was feeling desperate to be accepted. 

My third and final year of studies was where big change came: I was finally able to more or less string a conversation together in French without coming out in a nervous sweat, and people were starting to understand my dodgy English accent too (which let's face it, I still have today!). French bureaucracy became the norm (let's face it, you need a paper for everything here) and I was starting to grow up too. I fell out of love with my gaudy coloured tights and faux fur coats, which I paired all too often with my beloved Doc Martens. France had changed me and I didn't even realise it at the time. I began to wear a sombre palette of black on black and I purchased a The Kooples blazer with my summer internship money in my final year of studies. What was going on with me? The truth is, I was becoming French and I didn't realise it yet. I was becoming more honest and opinionated. Being on the receiving end of a matter of fact comeback no longer felt like an open wound.

Ten years later, I am actually now a French citizen. So what are the take aways from my expat life so far? 

Rule No. 1: Talk the Talk

    If you don't speak the language, at least learn the basics for every day tasks such as buying bread. I'll never forget my panic as the cashier in a bakery replied to my sandwich order with 'avec ceci?'. I immediately turned scarlet and froze, until the kind soul behind me mumbled in my ear 'with what?'. This question is asked as a follow up to any bakery order, yet I was totally ignorant. This sort of thing is not covered in your standard phrase book, you really need to drill down and look for essential vocabulary on the Internet first (and also have confidence that a lovely human being will also help you out when you are flustered!).

    Rule No. 2: Walk the Walk

    Yes, it sounds logical, but shunning public transport and walking really does allow you to discover random corners of your new environment. If you don't want to be trailing around with your smartphone out as a map, invest in an old-school city planner. Or if you have a bit of time to spare, take any old street and hope for the best. Ten years on, I know Paris better than many of my friends that have lived here their whole life. You also have the added benefit of observing people. How else would you see things such as 90 year-olds clad in head to toe Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld being dropped off by his driver?

    Go To Them

    This is by far the biggest lesson to be learned by any eager new expat. Making friends with is no mean feat in any context: failed attempts to make conversation, sarcastic smiles and awkward coffee dates are enough to make anyone cringe and stay home, but go abroad and denial can kick in. Who needs friends anyway? Well, the answer is you definitely do and no amount of delicious bakery-bought chocolate fondant and evenings in can compete with getting to know those around you. When I first arrived in France, I was extremely lucky to be surrounded by British compatriots at university. I had a ready-made circle of friends that I loved and it was great! That is, until most of these friends left Paris after our studies. I had not ventured out of my comfort zone while I was at university and the result was that I knew very few people. I was lucky enough to have a friend that did a flat share in our third year with a charasmatic French girl and in the end, it was this coming together of cultures that got me where I am today. Friends of her friends and friends of friends of her friends were cool and supportive, and when I moved to a new small town just outside of Paris, one of them piped up: "that's where I went to secondary school, I'll introduce you to all of my friends there!" What I'm trying to say is that if I hadn't forced myself out of my postage stamp-sized student flat to go and socialise "with some French people", as we would say at the time, I just wouldn't be where I am now. That is, surrounded by wonderful friends who I met at different points in my life, under different circumstances, and who I love (there is of course a beloved English speaking contingent in there too). Who cares if it's a bit uncomfortable to put yourself out there at first? The truth is, after a few cringeworthy bad jokes, feeling a little lost in a couple of parties, with a healthy lashing of muddled-together conversation, calling someone your friend is well worth the effort.

    It may be difficult at first, but the adventure daring to make a life for yourself miles from your safe home space is worth the extra effort and hey, nowhere is really that far away anymore, right? And a few evenings in with bakery-bought chocolate fondant in a rickety old student room can honestly be pretty good too (depending on the fondant...)!

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