It was a fast and frenzied two weeks at home, but now that I am on the other side of my visit, I can frame up our experience in the context of the book, Touchpoints, by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton (who just happened to be Soren's pediatrician when he lived in Boston briefly as a child). Touchpoints- Birth to Three is a manual about expected childhood developmental milestones that I poured over as an expectant parent more than eleven years ago.
It occurred to me that expatriats experience a relatively standard set of developmental milestones too. The developmental expatriat milestones that my family (individually and collectively) has moved through in our first six months as expats in Paris started to reveal themselves on our journey back home. The girls and I had just arrived at our crowded gate area in the Washington Dulles airport and found seats while waiting to board our San Francisco-bound flight. Within a few minutes Nola turned to me and exclaimed, "Mom, people are so loud here!" Yep, she's right about that one, Americans are much noisier than the French in public spaces. The next day, while out and about in Walnut Creek, Raelyn complained, "Mom, we're too dressed up!" In actuality, the girls were not wearing anything fancy, they were simply wearing their Parisian clothes which does not include the California wardrobe staples of baggy jeans or sweatpants, t-shirts with logos and/or screen prints, white sneakers, crocs, or flip-flops, basketball shorts, and baggy sweatshirts. I love that they are able to notice these cultural relativities with such apparent ease.
One of our Walnut Creek outings was a trip to Nordstrom to purchase a pair of shoes for Nola. While I appreciated being in a department store without feeling like I was going to die of heat stroke, what I appreciated even more, was Nola's lack of shyness and her refined behavior. Upon concluding the purchase, Nola, unprompted by me, turned to the saleswoman and politely said, "Thank you, goodbye," as if doing so was as second-nature as breathing. It dawned on me in that moment that the past six months of forcing Nola to live outside of her comfort zone has produced an unexpected gain in her confidence and politeness. Training the girls to take initiative and say bonjour, au revoir, and merci when in a Parisian place of business as is the 'French way', has paid off in that they unconsciously applied these skills at home too. I love that they have two sets of cultural norms to now draw upon moving forward in life. Social studies are really so much richer when experienced rather than taught. Too bad high school social studies programs can't afford international field trips.
Another thing that I found especially endearing was Raelyn's continued use of French with her immediate family even after the plane touched down in San Francisco; her simple comments and questions about what she saw, ate, or needed- in French. I got the sense that she wanted to remain tied to her life in Paris; speaking French was her way of accomplishing this. Raelyn and Nola are straddling two worlds now, it's fun to see them navigate this fact.
One of the ways this straddling of two worlds shows itself is by the polarities of appreciation and disgust we feel for attributes of both cultures. For example, the first thought that popped into my head while walking to baggage claim at SFO was, "There are so many overweight people here." This reality is a no-brainer, however, having been removed from this milieu for a period of time brought the contrast into sharp focus for me along with feelings of disgust for America's gluttonous ways. (Cheesecake Factory anyone?)
To contrast this issue further, I must mention the dichotomy between a group of American women ordering dessert versus a group of French women doing the same. As is almost always the case when I dine with American friends, when the time comes to order dessert, we banter back and forth about whether or not anyone wants dessert in the first place. Then, when we finally (and predictably) decide to share one, none of us wants to be the one to choose it. Meanwhile, our patient waiter is surely trying his or her best not to eyeroll us while probably thinking, "Great, another calorie-counting group of 40-somethings. Just pick something dammit!" When our one dessert finally arrives, we take turns having bites, sometimes leaving a last little bit in the dish, other times urging the others to take the last bite as if doing so ourselves would put us over the top. Honestly, one fourth of one dessert is not going to make any of us look like those overly large people I noticed at SFO (Cheesecake Factory desserts excluded).
In Paris retaurants, dessert is the rule, not the exception. One dessert per person is the norm in fact. Even at lunchtime. I have nothing against my American friends who shy away from desserts, but it has been really refreshing to be with my French friends and experience them not dithering over the matter. They order, they eat, and, more importantly, they enjoy without guilt or worry. It's liberating to live in a culture where the mindset seems to be 'indulge in all things pleasurable with moderation'.
Smoking apparently, is not on the moderation list. During our visit to Walnut Creek, I was able to enjoy running outdoors without inhaling any second-hand smoke. When I run to and on the Promenade Plantée in Paris, I pass by many a cigarette smoker, all of whom just happen to be exhaling at that moment. Yuck. I think the health benefits of my running may actually be counteracted by the quantity of second-hand smoke that I have inhaled in the past six months. And that's not even counting the amount I inhale if we choose to dine al fresco at a cafe. Parisian smokers have been banned from the interior of restaurants, but this means we non-smoking diners have a tough choice to make when the weather is beautiful. I really appreciate California's stricter smoking regulations and the increased freedom of choice I have there because of them.
The next appreciation is simple: Mexican food. I greatly appreciate tasty, authentic Mexican food. I miss it terribly. I gorged on it as much as I could while at home. Parisians don't know what they are missing.
Driving- like riding a bike, you never forget. Six months of not sitting behind a wheel and I picked it right back up again. I could tell my car missed me. I can't say I feel the same about my car though. Paris's Metro can't beat driving (or Bart, obviously) in my opinion. I'd much rather people-watch while commuting somewhere than have to pay attention to stop signs and traffic lights. As I was telling many friends back home, I now have the intent to park my car at Whole Foods or Target, rolling cart in hand, and circle Walnut Creek in pursuit of my errands. Walking the length of downtown Walnut Creek does not seem unreasonable at all. City living has completely changed my perspective on distances. I vow to become recognizable to Walnut Creek strangers as, "That 'walking woman'".
Our very satitsfying and full life in Walnut Creek was so nice to delve back into. Friends and family galore, including our two new nephews who were born during our stay, were soaked up as much as possible. I miss this life. However, it was evident that the trappings of such a full life can often include an overall lack of balance, or at least the challenge of creating balance, and we felt that tug-of-war almost immediately upon our return. So many friends, family, and things to do and not enough time compared with life in Paris where we feel like time is on our side. Granted, our Paris social and family life is less full, but if it weren't, Sundays, at a minimum, would be set aside for family and friends as is the cultural norm here. Not soccer games, errands, and paying bills. Imagine if American retail stores closed their doors on Sundays. I told you I love a good fantasy.
I have grown accustomed (kind of) to frequent feelings of helplessness and inadequacy in my Paris life. So, it was with great relief that for two weeks I had no difficulty communicating with anyone (husband and children excluded) or getting my daily needs met in and around Walnut Creek. Life is so much easier when people speak my language (again, husband and children excluded).
In contrast, just yesterday, I had three experiences of helplessness in fairly rapid succession. That morning, I had to call the girls' school to inform them of their absence due to illness. Their previous absences had been called in by Soren so, because of my novice status, I wrote out my French script, practiced it out loud with Raelyn, and made the call. I read my script beautifully. But then the secretary spoke. What she said, I have no idea- she spoke so darned fast! So I repeated my script, unable to mask the nervousness in my voice this time. By now, Raelyn had come over to listen in and help translate. This helped a bit, but finally, the secretary said something neither of us understood. While Raelyn and I were staring at each other wide-eyed and paralyzed, the secretary could be heard over the speaker, "Allo, allo?" Finally, as I started to stammer a response, she hung up on me. Can't say that I blame her. The saving grace is that Raelyn did hear the secretaty say that she would inform their teacher. That's all that really mattered anyway.
Next up, I needed to find out from our Parisian doctor if I had to schedule an office visit for what I suspected was a case of conjunctivitis. That meant I needed to track down Soren at his hotel in Atlanta so that he could phone the doctor's office in case the French-speaking receptionist answered. After the secretary fiasco, I was not up for another attempt at phone communication. "No visit needed," reported Soren, after he called, "Go to the pharmacy and buy these medications instead," he directed me.
Off to the pharmacy I went disguising my three-day old outfit of sweats with tall boots and a long coat. Due to the girls' illnesses, I had not left the apartment since my immediate grocery run upon returning from the airport last Friday. Why hadn't I thought of this shortcut to getting dressed for errands in Paris before? Heck, I could even venture out in pajamas, at least in the winter time, and nobody would be the wiser. I entered the pharmacy with my trusty piece of paper in hand listing the required medications. Soren assured me that the Asian pharmacist that works at our local pharmacy speaks English. The only problem was that he was helping another customer so I got the help of the French pharmacist. I spoke about the problem and my needs in French, including my standard apology for my terrible French and that I really only speak English. She proceeded to tell me how to administer these medications and I pantomimed the request that she write it down. I understood her to ask me how I was going to understand her writing. Hasn't she ever heard of Google Translate? When it came time to pay, I handed her my credit card. No go. Cash only. But why? She repeated the amount and I heard her say fifty- something euros. My wallet contained a fifty euro bill and a twenty euro bill. I handed both bills to her. She looked shocked and handed the bills back to me. She repeated the amount, more slowly this time, and I realized that the causes of my mistake were twofold: I have the obvious language barrier working against me, and, I also have the cultural relativity of health care warping my ability to understand too. She did not say, "Cinquante (50)," rather, she said, "Cinq (5)," and some odd euros. This explained her not accepting my credit card; the transaction amount was not great enough. This also explained why I thought I heard 'fifty' since back home, medications are quite expensive and I was conditioned to fork over a large amount of dough for them. As the pharmacist gave back my fifty euro bill she said, in English no less, "You are much too generous!". Okay lady, here's the thing- you know that I am struggling my ass off trying to communicate and understand here and, all along, you could have chosen to speak at least some English and make it easier and less stressful for me. If you know those particular English words, not to mention your ability to infuse sarcasm with that statement, then clearly, your English is way better than my French. Come on, throw me a bone! This is not the first, and certainly won't be the last time I interface with a French person who clearly delights in the pleasure of seeing us foreigners struggle with their beautiful language only, at the last moment, to drop us a hint of their English skills. To top it off, upon my turning around to exit the pharmacy, I crashed into the lip balm display proving, without a doubt, that speaking French is not the only way to demonstrate how lame I can be sometimes. I don't believe clumsiness is a developmental milestone for expats, but if it were, I'd probably make a great case study.
Touchpoints for Expats- 0 to 6 months
Holli Rae Kaplan
All over the U.S. and in over twenty countries around the world, Touchpoints has become required reading for anxious expatriates. Holli Kaplan's great empathy for the universal concerns of expats, and honesty about the complex feelings the experience engenders, as well as her uncanny insight into the predictable leaps and regressions of the expat experience, have comforted and supported expats since its original publication.
Kaplan introduces information on physical, emotional, and behavioral implications of the expat experience. She also addresses the new stresses on families and fears of children, with a fresh focus on the role of language barriers, cultural misunderstandings, and homesickness. Kaplan brings an expat's insights into the many perennial issues covered in this comprehensive book. No expat should be without the reassurance and wisdom Touchpoints provides.
Read about these issues and more:
- language barriers
- lonliness, isolation, and homesickness
- cultural relativity
- straddling two worlds
- new and unusual foods
- expat children