First thing’s first, let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: my French is très rusty. I tried! I got a tutor and was going to class twice a week and being a good little Francophile, and yet, I am still only able to speak in the present. WTF is with passé composé, huh?
Then, we went on all these trips to English-speaking places and my accent just never got better and Frenchies continue to switch to English almost automatically, or WORSE, they carry on in French while I silently panic and my brain just shuts down.
Excuses, excuses, but I’ve pretty much accepted that my dreams of fluency after a year in the countryside are a bust.
Sigh. I may be struggling with learning French, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t learned a few other lessons as an American expat just south of Paris:
1. Move with someone who is secretly fluent.
The hubs and I both took French in high school, and he was always, by his own account, laughably bad. He picked it back up in college before studying abroad in Nice, and would regularly tell me how little he actually used the language in his English-speaking program. It was tales galore of what a terrible French student he was and is and always will be! Ha ha ha!
He has kept this charade up for years. We’d come to France and he’d stumble through random phrases, looking sheepish as he tried to ask for directions before switching to English. He studied like a madman for his MBA language proficiency exam, and then shrugged when I asked how it went, and feigned total surprise when he passed.
Yeah, well. LIES. Fast forward to the two of us sitting in a French insurance agency, with a woman who laughed in our faces when he “parlez-vous anglais?”-ed in hers. We shot each other am amused look—mine said, “uh oh, this is going to be rough.” I thought his said the same, but then he sat down and was TOTALLY FLUENT. Seriously, he was flying through this conversation about FRENCH CAR INSURANCE like Jacque F-ing Cousteau (…sorry, first Frenchman I could think of).
The secret genius at work (in Morocco, where his French is also useful, might I add.)
This has carried into every aspect of our new French life—from setting up our international bank account to trips to the boulangerie to giving French strangers directions. All of a sudden, the guy who was once an accomplice in making his high school French teacher cry with complete frustration (true story) is now some sort of secret bilingual genius.
Meanwhile, I’m just trying to figure out how to translate the directions on a box of pasta. Nevermind that I already know how to MAKE pasta… living in a place where you don’t know 70% of what people are saying to you makes you do crazy things.
2. Straighten out your banking sitch ASAP.
If it’s at all remotely possible, try your hardest to set up your new account well in advance.
Our process was relatively seamless, but very time-consuming. We were able to get through the preliminary stages via e-mail, but a lot of it, understandably, had to be done in-person. Fortunately, the hubs was able to keep one consistent contact throughout the entire process, which was a godsend. Unfortunately, because this is France, setting our account up in August was extra tough due to everything closing for weeks at a time for the summer holidays. We wished we had done more during our quick visit in July, so if it’s totally impossible to do anything before you re-locate, know your home banks’ fees because they can add up quickly (hence the importance of having an international account in the first place).
This is also where #1 comes in handy, because if you’re with someone who is secretly fluent, they can just handle everything for you before handing over the plastic. And now I get to feel extra fancy for having an offshore savings account.
3. Find your new favorite food.
Do I miss processed cheese and Shake Shack and bagels with cream cheese and proper pickles? Regularly. Have I replaced all of my former favorite foods with almond croissants and café creme? Yes.
Is my waistline also quickly expanding? Don’t wanna talk about it, thanks for asking.
4. Bring a dog—err, un chien.
We brought Parker along for the ride because when you adopt a dog, you’re making a promise and promises must be kept. Yeah, yeah, blah, blah, blah.
Dogs in France make you REALLY popular. Everyone loves a pooch! Apparently, there are more pups in Paris than people! Having a dog in this country is guaranteed to make you super popular, so do it.
Also, the bug is really enjoying French life. Sometimes we even sneak him little bits of baguette. He’s like 100 years old in dog years, the dude has earned it.
(No, but seriously: if you adopt a dog, it’s for life. If I had to fly my pug thousands of miles across an ocean next to a crazy woman that puked on the floor right next to him, you have no excuses.)
5. Do not require surgery when living abroad.
Shortly after we settled in, my finger exploded. I mean, not literally, but basically. I had something called a “pyogenic granuloma” and it was painful and terrible and on the tip of my left finger, which just so happens to be my dominant hand. I’ll spare you all of the medical details, because the social complications of requiring surgery in France are painful enough to recount.
We saw a slew of doctors—one gave me an ointment and just said “c’est ne pas grave,” which means “it is not serious.” A week later, a second told me he’d take the granuloma off himself, but it was 4:30 on a Friday and he had to get home. Finally, a third, told me he could take it off, but his waitlist was six weeks. When we begged for him to push it up, he said, “ok, I will do it on Monday.” About six days later, because waitlist shmaitlist when you beg!
There was a lot of strangeness leading up to this surgery, but the actual day of the operation was, by far, the weirdest. Keep in mind—this was my fingertip. My fingertip is one small area of my body, on a slightly larger part that is pretty much always fully accessible. But somehow, inexplicably, when I arrived at the hospital, I was ordered to take off all of my clothes and put on a paper napkin, giant paper granny panties, a hairnet, and paper slippers.
Self-inflicted punishment for sharing the above photo of the hubs.
I sat in a small room for two hours waiting for my nurse to come get me (see above)—she asked, in French, if I was playing Candy Crush while I waited (nope, taking selfies, biatch). I was then led down to a basement to wait some more. There, a large male nurse, approximately nine feet in height, gave me an aluminum cape to keep me warm… because I was wearing only paper. Once on the operating table — because I had to lay on a table for my fingertip surgery — my surgeon put on strange screaming music. The only lyrics I vaguely remember sounded like this:
“MY COURAGE IS STEEL. MY COURAGE IS NYLON.”
Just… try not to require surgery when living abroad. Along with the stress of not knowing what the hell is going on, things will just be different than you’re used to and, as a result, slightly terrifying. And yes, my finger is 100% ok now. Plus, I got to take this x-ray home with me:
6. Host a Thanksgiving dinner with as few Americans as possible.
Then, when they ask what Thanksgiving traditions you like best, tell them the one where everyone goes around and says what they’re thankful for. Everyone will panic and say, “You! For hosting this dinner!”
And that is how you turn a dinner party into a series of toasts in your honor.
Clearly I’m still learning the ropes, but I will say that I’m adjusting. Everyday is an actual, real-life adventure AND who knows? My French still has some time to improve.