Americans Helping Americans Abroad

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You’ve arrived… Now what?

Arriving is just the start of the adventure of living abroad. It’s normal to spend a year or so “settling in,” before you can say to yourself “I have a life here.” Of course there’s a difference between creating a life in Paris and getting comfortable in India, Kenya, or Bolivia, for example. I’ve lived other places in the world, however, and find that certain tools are useful anywhere: curiosity, resourcefulness, humility, and acceptance.

Preparation: It’s Never Enough

From university studies and travel to France in recent years, I knew a lot about the country before moving to Paris. I had traveled here frequently for about five years before the move, to participate in shape-note singing, an American tradition dating back to the 19th century. Groups in the U.S. and Europe meet regularly to sing. During my singing travels, the possibility of living in France started to grow on me. I was making friends, enjoying the food, and the general atmosphere.

After a three-month stay in Paris to consider the decision, I sold my New York apartment and moved. Once in Paris, certain experiences made it painfully clear that you can’t know all the questions to ask in advance. Had I known of the complications, I might have chickened out, so it was good that I didn’t know.

As I was settling in, American friends would ask, “So, are you visiting a lot of museums?” It’s what people do in Paris, right? Wrong! I was trying to open a bank account, find an apartment, and confront other tasks that tourists are spared. I experimented with unfamiliar cleaning products, so I could keep my apartment reasonably decent. And I needed a good laundry detergent. In fact, laundry detergent has become my metaphor for settling into a new place.

How often did I begin a sentence with, “It never occurred to me that…” An example is baking soda (bicarbonate de soude) to clear a sluggish drain (the charm of old buildings!). Not finding it in baking supplies, I asked a clerk, who pointed to cleaning products. I later learned that there is also food-grade baking soda. I wonder what would have happened had I used the cleaning variety in a recipe.

I had to grapple with logistics. For example, to reach a destination on the metro, I would calculate the minutes needed, then double the time, because I lacked my New York City subway expertise.

I had to accept the fact that settling in costs money, because you don’t always know the most economical way to get resources you need. For example, a year into my move, I found small shops that sell ink cartridges at half the Office Depot price. And I learned about the monthly Navigo card, less expensive than paying for individual trips on the metro and buses.

As a renter, I was required to take out homeowners’ insurance, but I didn’t get to choose the amount of coverage. I told the bank’s insurance company my square footage (here expressed in meters) and they told me what I was going to buy.

I learned that I had to file tax declarations in both France and the U.S., paying tax to the French government for work I do here for my U.S.-based client. And I pay tax to the U.S. government on my Social Security. French tax declarations are not easily completed, and whatever you’ve heard about the horrors of French bureaucracy is true!

But after paying a tax-service firm €1000 for filing my declaration the first year, I learned that I could visit the local tax office for help. So the second year, I took the bull by the horns and stood on line there. I anticipated an uncomfortable, stressful meeting but to my surprise, the tax agents were unbelievably kind, patient, and helpful.

A Good Starting Point

Shortly after arriving in Paris, I found the church that’s right for me. In addition to enjoying worship, I met interesting people, and we share experiences and resources. Something else I couldn’t know before arriving was that French law prohibits landlords from evicting a tenant over 80 years of age. This means that any renter in her mid-70s is suspect, and I was undesirable. But one of my church buddies mentioned that his downstairs neighbor was vacating, and the landlord accepted me. I’m sure that knowing my upstairs neighbor was helpful.

After a year in that church, the chaplain asked me to be their safeguarding officer. This is the person available to anyone who has experienced abuse, including from clergy. My job is to capture the alleged victim’s description of the incident and forward the data to the larger church office for investigation. It’s unfortunate that this possibility exists, but it does. In years past, it wasn’t even acknowledged, so now it is. And many churchgoers are elderly, so it’s not just children who are vulnerable.

France abounds with choruses, and I wanted to find the right one. The choir director at my church invited me to join his community chorus, and I did. I continue to do my shape-note singing, which is its own little community here and in other European countries. The pieces of my new life were coming together.

Language Expertise

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Then there’s French, which I spoke well enough to order in a restaurant, do my shopping, take public transportation, and engage in casual conversation. But the phrase “She speaks French” is meaningless, because it doesn’t indicate level. The fact that you can make small talk with shopkeepers doesn’t mean you can address the French National Assembly. And you don’t learn a language by osmosis. You have to be in places where you can grow what you already know. Sometimes this just happens; other times, you have to put yourself in a place where you don’t understand everything, and accept being uncomfortable.

In Paris this is particularly difficult, because many Parisians are dying to practice their English. But I’ve found sneaky ways to get French lessons. For example, I take a weekly body workshop at a community center, and I enrolled in a public-speaking course (l’art oratoire), where I’m the only American.

In addition to enjoying these activities, I get language exposure at a reasonable rate. And it’s real French, not phrases prepared for a non-native speaker. I did, however, find a private French teacher, whom I see weekly. Unlike other French speakers, she corrects my mistakes and coaches me in good expression.

I’ll soon be hosting a session of Death Café (Café Mortel), which will immerse me in French. This movement originated in Switzerland some 20 years ago. People meet in small groups to talk about death, a subject traditionally taboo in the Western world, but not elsewhere. The groups meet not for purposes of bereavement or therapy, but simply to talk about death, and persons of all ages participate.

The Real Treasure

With all these activities, I meet people, sharing the worries, woes, and wonders of my new life. Commenting on New York, a writer once said that great cities make a deal with us: I’ll give you an experience like none other, but in return, you agree not to complain. I think this holds true for any experience living abroad.

Two plus years now in Paris, I have friends, acquaintances, and opportunities to pursue interests. I continue to do contract work for my U.S. client. So, settling in is complete and I can say, “I have a life” in Paris.

Regrets?

Sometimes people ask whether I’m happy with my move, and I respond that regret is not an option. I made a decision, and my happiness depends on me. I often reassure my disquieted mind by recalling what a character said in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, “It’ll be all right in the end, and if it’s not all right, it’s not the end.” For world citizens, there are always new horizons.


M.J. Wilkie has had multiple careers, and currently works as an independent contractor for an executive recruiter. She posts her views about life on a publishing platform: mj794.substack.com. She has published Music from the Trenches (about music education) and Courageous Job-Hunting, available on amazon.com.