In January, I passed the 5-year-mark of living in France. At once a shocking, amazing, and comforting fact, the date passed with little fanfare… except for my overwhelming sense of gratitude and relief.
Gratitude for all of the people who have supported me through my move to another country, and relief for the sense of peace that I now feel living in my adopted home. Because now I really do feel that France is my home and that I actually have a life here outside of the French lessons, job searches, and paperwork-chasing that made up those early first days, and months, of my expat experience. Because, truth be told, it’s taken about 5 years to build a life here.
Moving to another country is not for the faint of heart. I started my journey to France via a move to Italy that was based more on one-too-many showings of Under the Tuscan Sun, than anything practical… even though I’d always fancied myself a very practical kinda gal. I’d done all of the “right” things during my life in the US… attended a good college, landed a great job, and started a steady climb up the career ladder. But when all of those boxes were checked, I couldn’t stop myself from asking, What’s next? Marriage, kids, more school? Throughout college, I’d been too financially strapped to travel, then came the career and as I saw most of my friends starting to settle down, I couldn’t stop a nagging feeling that I’d missed out on something. At 31, I wasn’t quite ready to set-up my picket fence, and I definitely wasn’t ready to put more letters behind my name, so I hatched a plan to move to Italy.
It wasn’t totally out of the blue, although it seems a bit that way now… During my search for “what was next”, I booked my first trip to Europe, with a tour group, and fell completely in love with the city of Rome. I decided on that trip that I would make Rome my new home, even if only temporarily.
And I felt it was a very solid plan. I spent two years preparing for my move… language lessons, job searching, Italian guidebook-devouring, and TEFL-course preparing. I also signed-up for a degree program at an American university in case I couldn’t find a job. Somehow or other, I was going to make this work.
But moving abroad, I soon discovered, is a lot more complicated than getting your passport up-to-date or renting an apartment. You can plan your little heart out, but it’s really the intangible things in your life that take the most work… and unlike finishing language classes or completing a degree, they really have no time limit.
And in the beginning you’ll feel lonely, really lonely.
Like, how do you make friends, real friends? Are they expats or locals? Are they here for a few short months and then off to the next adventure or will they somehow manage to stick it out for a couple of years? And what about when they eventually leave, because they do almost always leave, will you have to start all over again? Because, as I discovered those first few years in Italy, surviving abroad isn’t so much about learning the language or adopting the customs, it’s about having a support network you can rely on.
And so to sum up three years of living in Rome in one short paragraph…. I made a lot of friends and I “lost” a lot of friends who moved back to their home countries. It goes without saying that I had an amazing time, perhaps the “adventure” of my life, but in the end, Rome never felt like home to me. The expat life is truly a transitory one, and with so many people coming and going, it’s hard to catch your breath… or form a long-term support network. Often it seemed like were held together by a love of wine bars and pasta carbonara and not much else. Again, a very fun time indeed, but not much to build a life on.
And then there was the move to France. It’s exhausting even to think about. Far from years to plan, I had about three months before we made the leap. No language classes, zero job searches, and no idea at all about how to make friends. I thought that having someone take the lead, ie. the French guy I was moving with, would make things easier all around. Yes, paper-work and apartment-finding was certainly much easier, but then we came back those intangibles… finding a friend network, building a support system, and creating a foundation for a new life.
Well, no surprise there, but those three things take a whole, whole lot of time. The good news is, although it was a lot harder to find friends in our small-ish town in France than cosmopolitan Rome, the expats who have settled here in the “deep south” are usually in it for the long haul. A lot are married, many are retired, and some just love the French lifestyle so much they couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. And I’ve made some French friends, which I never thought would happen when I arrived. It takes an even longer time to get “in” with the French, but once you do, you’ll have friends for life.
So after 5 years in France, 8 years living abroad, I would say that the most important lesson I’ve learned is, beyond taking care of all of the “housekeeping” details of uprooting your life, it’s the process of getting connected to others that makes any place home.
Needless to say, I’m excited to see what these next 5 years will bring…
And I’d love to hear if you have any memorable moments about connecting with others while living / traveling abroad (?)