Chez Soi

Adventures of a Year Abroad


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15 years and Far Apart

Curt is in the US for a work trip, and I wonder if it’ll feel weird to go there and then return here as “home”.

Before he left, he and the kiddo got me a present to celebrate our 15-years of being together. Curt remembers the first time we kissed, and all that stuff. I’m always surprised, yet delighted that he remembers. As of this month, The West Wing is 15 years old, too. So, he gave me the entire collection in one big set.

Maison Blanche

Voila!  It’s called La Maison Blanche here, a direct translation (the house white).  And because we got a little tired of watching films in French, this is a nice reprieve of something old, familiar, even comforting.

Here’s a present for you:  a definitive ranking of the characters. If you haven’t seen CJ do the Jackal, I highly recommend it.


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The First Day of School

The highlight of the first day of school was that Kiddo missed lunch.

We had paid for the “canteen” and expected he would find something there he would like. We packed some peanuts in his backpack for that “just in case he’s picky about the food that day” which is rare but .. we just didn’t know if they’d serve foie gras or something. And thank goodness we did. Cause, apparently, the kids are called into the canteen by certain classes. And in French. Which is all lovely if you understand the language well and perhaps how this thing works. But kiddo has never attended French school and is still learning. He was promised a “buddy” on his first day which so far hasn’t materialized. Not a great start.

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We can only hope Day 2 goes better than Day 1.


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2 Months In

If I knew then what I know now, maybe the last few months would have been easier…here’s the note I would have written.

Dear Paris Newbie Self:

You are about to go and move countries to have an adventure. And, by definition, adventures have highs and lows, twists and turns. So, you sometimes (mosttimes?) don’t know how it’s going to turn out. That is both good and bad. But you wanted an adventure. Remember that in the times ahead.

New cities (even ones as notable as Paris) are both wonderful and perplexing at the same time. You will go to the movies and that theater will be closed because of some unknown reason. You will go to an open market and it will turn out that summer construction is in full force for a metro line and the market you were hoping to enjoy is now gone for the summer. The city you have moved to goes into massive construction mode in August as they expect all citizens / residents to be gone. No one will tell you that. There will only be the noise to keep you company. Remember that being a new resident is different than being a tourist in any city.

You won’t believe it, but you will spend most of first few months here just trying to figure out basics like where to find nails to hang a picture, or batteries since they aren’t at the local grocer. You’ll be amazed at how hard it is to get dry cleaning done, how to get places efficiently, how to get groceries home with out a car, etc. You wonder why it feels like you are slogging through molasses with little to show for it. Let me tell you why. When you are here for vacation none of this matters. And when you are home, you know everything already. It never occurs to you how much ambient information you have in your native place to do the simple things. Until you don’t have it. Suddenly simple things aren’t simple. And all your mental and emotional energy is tapped by doing something as simple getting something mailed. What was once a 10-minute chore in your native land will exhaust you for the whole day. And you wonder why. But this is just an overhead tax for setting up a residence in a new spot. Add the new language is surely a part of this. But the totality of exhaustion is because all your brain power is being used up to do things you once could do with your eyes closed and brain synapses otherwise unused.

And the money worries that keep you up at night are a red herring. Yes, it’s true that things cost a lot in Paris. In Europe in general, about twice as much as US prices. Even basic underwear. And, socks. And… well, everything. Accept it. Just accept it. Stop looking at the prices on Amazon US and then Amazon France. It will only upset you. You are lucky enough to have enough money even as you dip into savings. It’s only a moment in your life. Remember the reason you wanted a year abroad to be with your family and to experience the broader world to become more global. Well, the extravagant prices is just a piece of that “broader world”.

And you must decide your attitude for this. On September 1 (what is called rentrėe) the whole city is shining and cleaning and (mostly) open for business. Shops that were barricaded during July and August will suddenly pop to life and you will think they are new, but really they are renewed. The fact that you don’t know anything makes you feel stupid, but really you ought to view it as a big game. Act like Gomer Pyle would have acted on the Andy Griffith show. Be surprised. Be astonished. Say to yourself, Golly Gee. Try to find some joy in it.

Along this way, you will think you’ll have lost your mind for wanting to go on this adventure. You will be tired of finding everything exhausting. You will be sickly tired of fighting with your family because all of you are collectively exhausted.

But please, don’t blame each other, blame the situation. And, remember this is NORMAL. (Things will inevitably settle down.) You came to this because you wanted to learn together, to be together, and to be closer. You are asking a lot of yourselves to learn a new language and keep both careers going WHILE doing this other thing. So keep the main thing that drove you here in mind. And that main thing is Love. Keep your love central. Keep your heart open. Forgive each other for the stress behaviors that keep showing up. Love is what got you to make this big leap, and it is love that will help you through it.

And all this will seem funny one day. I promise. Or I hope, anyways.

Signed,

Your paris rentrée self


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Mastering Language…

Matthew, who is originally from Manchester, England, is what some call language chameleon: Germans think he’s German, Spaniards think he’s Spanish, Brazilians think he’s Portuguese (he proudly speaks the good-old European variety). By his own account, Matthew has mastered a staggering number of languages by utilizing abilities that we all possess: persistence, enthusiasm and open-mindedness.

I can attest that we’re all learning best when it’s (a) fun enough to keep our enthusiasm up, and (b) when we keep at it, and (c) when we just pause the self-judgment button to be open enough to learn.

It’s a real gift to be learning. Haaaard. But a real gift.


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Happy Half Hour

If I had stopped to take picture of our happy hour drinks, there would be an image with this post. But, instead Curt and I were too busy enjoying our (incredibly quiet, almost romantic) moment together that we just .. ya know, drank our drinks and chatted without capturing the moment in digital form.

The thing is we’ve been with kiddo nearly non-stop all summer. Today, he got his first private lessons in French by two different and wonderful folks, and we used the time to (start-to) catch up with things we adults need to do. In addition to our individual work and email (not so exciting but very necessary), we managed to do some errands. Curt went with me since his french is better and we got to a pharmacy to get some resupplies, the post office to mail off some post cards we got in Sancerre, fix my bank card which finally let me has cash by myselft, and so on. Amazing how exciting getting caught up can be. But really it was the final moment of stopping by a little local bar and taking 30 minutes to talk together that made today Ah-MAY-ZING.

It was happy half-hour. But a much needed half-hour of happy.


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rendezvous-de-jouer (play date)

We returned from Sancerre on Friday and one if the first emails we saw was from Amy Wilson. She and I has agreed to do a play date together when she and her family returned from a trip to the states. 

Kiddo, curt and I went to church this morning and the sermon was on how to see god everywhere. In the burning bush of Moses but also in the park bench. Then we went to Parc Floral, in the Bois de Vincennes …

Paul and Malcolm and Amy were just wonderful to meet. We had a fantastic picnic of cheese, rose wine, breads, saucissons, and so on. It was a veritable feast. Kiddo got a chance to play. He had his first game of miniature golf, and came back beaming, all while we enjoyed music playing in the background and great conversation. It was supposedly a play date for the kids but I think the parents got a play date, too. I believe we are all god’s presence to one another, and it was a warm and lovely time. A welcoming moment. 

The reason this all matters so much is we’ve been having a terrible time in general. There are sparks of fun but most of our time is a combination of stress and drudgery. More on that some other time. In the meantime, just a note if appreciation for the people who have made connections for us as it has been life affirming….

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Define “Home”

Home

What do you define “Home” to be? I found this poster, which defines it as “Home is wherever I am with you”, inferring that because I’m with the family, I am “home”.  That’s one definition. But if that were the entirety, it denies how much all the cultural ways in which home is also all the people around you.

Home to me of course includes my immediate family but also my extended family. It also includes the friends I might see every few weeks. It even includes how certain meetings run, or how my favorite cafe has a particular drink that I love and they know I want it even before I get to the front of the line.

How would you define home for yourself?


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How to Feel Stupid (intentionally)

Moving to a new country without speaking the language is probably the boldest and most courageous thing one can do. I now admire everyone who has ever done it.

You know why?

Not knowing a language complicates everything. For example, week 1 here, I bought a face product that I thought I had “figured out”, and … basically burned part of my face in using it. First degree burns. Scars will be with me for the next six months, at least.

Another thing: It makes it super hard to navigate ordinary life. We asked our concierge to take some clothes to the dry cleaner, since I was sure I would be overcharged if I did it in English. I couldn’t figure out how to ask her the pricing and why I was asking her (it wasn’t for the convenience) and then nearly died of shock when… 50Euros later, we got the three items back. I die. Similarly, it took Curt about 5 phone calls and 10 emails to try and get the electricity in our name. Finally (and thank goodness), someone he works with bailed us out. Otherwise, we would have had the electricity in our name juuuuust about the time we left the country.

And the fundamental thing is how vulnerable you feel. Not that vulnerability is a terrible thing. There is a great deal of power in vulnerability as Brene Brown has taught us. But no one said vulnerability feels good.

Kiddo and I have been taking French lessons every day. While we know many people come here and only learn the basics (Bonjour, L’Addition, etc), that’s not what we want for our experience here. (It’s the same reason we chose not to enroll the kiddo to the many good American schools in Paris. We don’t want to live outside the culture, we want to embrace the French culture.)

We chose a language school that has an emphasis in smaller classes. Kiddo had 6 other kids learning with. The first week, I was with 8 folks, this week was 14 so the level of understanding was a little broader – thus harder to learn. We are also studying using Duolingo, which is actually quite good for teaching you.

Week 1, I was so hopeful and then created index cards and am a learning fiend. Kiddo was drilling me on the index cards and in the process, I was really noticing how much he knew. But after week 2, I was mostly tired of not knowing anything. I know, I know, it’s a hard language and it takes time. But it gets tiring to pay attention for 4-5 hours every day, and still realizing that words I had “learned” over the last two weeks still can’t pop to mind.

Over the weekend, kiddo couldn’t even introduce himself to our landlady with a simple “Bonjour”. Funny thing, he knew that before the two weeks of expensive language lessons… but now, nothing. We couldn’t do anything in French from ordering a simple meal to well, anything. When we were ordering today, I heard my husband simply saying “thanks” in full on American-English, and I just wanted to throw my hands up in the air.

I’m super-sad at the idea of sitting in class again this week.

But, at the same time, I know that the path of learning is to live with discomfort. Feeling stupid is part of the path to knowing. It seems you cannot know something later without the “not knowing”… now. You have to leave enough space in terms of time and perhaps suspend self-judgment to allow new information to come in. At least, that’s the idea I’ve seen be relevant in other domains.

I keep imagining that kiddo and I will look back at these days of learning French together with great memories. But, this imagining could easily be a mirage. Time will tell. Off in the distance, it could be a mirage. Or it could be our future.

Taken Thursday, July 24th at the playdate we had with other folks from l'ecole Accord.

Taken Thursday, July 24th at the playdate we had with other folks from l’ecole Accord.

Okay, off to go see the Tour de France which is going by down the block from us.