A New Start ;)

cow pic

We bid Toulouse adieu after two years and are now living in a small city (pop 45,000) called Tarbes (tarb). The picture was taken up in the mountains a dozen or so kilometers from where we live.

Today, I’m really thankful for our students. For the past month, we’ve been doing English conversation workshops two evenings a week, and we’ve got a healthy, consistent attendance. I feel connected to the people who come, and I feel good that I can provide a place for them to come and improve their relationship with English and get to know others with similar interests.

Our students are really kind and fun, generally positive and some are very outgoing.

It took a leap of faith for us to come to France at all, much less move from the 4th largest city in France to a town 1/10th its size that some people describe as “closed.” To that I say, “I made inroads in Moulins-sur-Allier, Auvergne, so I can get along anywhere!”

This week, people have been asking me if it isn’t really hard being here as a foreigner. If I didn’t have my husband Ivan, it would be very, very difficult. But he keeps me grounded and focused on the big picture, looking at the “bigger fish” that need frying 😉 But I love France.

For all its challenges (and there are plenty), it is such a beautiful place, both in its natural settings and in urban areas; aesthetics have been key to the French for centuries. If I wasn’t here, I’d spend all my time wishing I were here. And though I get pangs of homesickness from time to time, especially when I can’t go to my cousin’s wedding or be there for Thanksgiving, I know that living in the States wouldn’t give me the same satisfaction. It would just be easier.

I’ve known since I was 12 that I wanted to study abroad and since I was 20 that French people needed help with English, and that I could do it. Whenever I leave, she pulls me back in. And I feel proud to be a part of this country, with all her flaws, she’s my favorite. I feel proud of the people who rose up and reclaimed this country from the aristocracy and tore down centuries of disfunction. If the system doesn’t work, they remake it. The French people have a voice, and they like to use it.

Surprisingly, it is here that I feel the most American. In the States, I feel European or French, and when I travel in Europe, I feel very French. This was especially apparent in Italy because they “did the meal all wrong” in restaurants. Ivan and I were laughing at each other for being so critical of something we normally would have marveled at, but France spoils you that way. They have perfected the dining experience as well as cuisine. The Japanese are close contenders and have a wonderful sense of aesthetics.

I feel national pride here and look forward to the day that I become a French citizen. And it is here that I can see the best things about being American. I think I see both sides most clearly here. In the States, I feel really turned off and haughty toward my fellow Americans, and I idealize France to a crazy extent. Here, I see France’s warts along with her beauty marks.

Ivan and I were looking at cars today. It’s a humbling experience starting over and getting around on the bus and by foot. In Toulouse, it didn’t matter: there was the metro system, trams, buses, and city bikes. You could go anywhere easily. Here, there’s lots to do, but it’s spread out in neighboring towns and cities, and things are farther apart, so you really need a car. It’s so weird coming here and basically starting from zero, a reverse pioneer coming from the New World back to the Old.

As we were at the bus stop looking at times, a car stopped next to us. I was alarmed at first and wanted whoever it was to mind their own business, but then I glanced in, and saw one of our students from the night before. He offered us a ride home and listened attentively to what we were looking for in a new car, saying he’d keep an eye out (he has a friend who owns a garage).

Earlier in the week, I went out to join a meetup.com-type group, but the pictures didn’t resemble the people. Ugh, I hate it when people basically photoshop themselves (putting up pictures from 5 years ago or ones with a great haircut or where they look tall). And everyone already know each other, so they didn’t really stick to the designated meeting place, AND the person who arranged it moved the meet time up about 15 minutes not long before the event started… Luckily, I saw one of our students there, and she was with the group. She took me under her wing, and I had a seat mate and good conversation, not to mention a ride home.

I am thankful for the blessing of having these kind, real people in our lives, and I am humbled because I know they have as much or more to offer me as I have to give them.

It’s so good to finally feel like I’m supposed to be here. It’s not the last step (that would be a house and offices in one of the cities nearby), but I can see our lives here. Exploring different areas, going to different events and activities, taking our kids around. We’re really close to the mountains and not very far from the beach and a big city (Pau and Toulouse). It’s perfect. Well, perfect for me and I think for Ivan, too.

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Help, I’m Alive

This song pretty much sums up how I feel a lot of the time: afraid of life. I feel things intensely, I care too much about what everyone besides me thinks of me, and I’m terrified of doing something out of step with the natives here in France.

Unlike many American expats, I speak fluent French, and I’ve already lived here more than once. But that doesn’t make living in a foreign country much easier sometimes, I’m afraid, because you’re not just in a foreign place. You’re in a different culture all the time.

That means that nearly every single thing that you take for granted about how people think, what they expect, and how they react to various life events does not operate the same way here. They’re working with an entirely different set of rules, and guess what? None of them is written down. So it’s like you’re constantly playing bumper cars with invisible opponents.

Living here successfully would probably have been impossible for me without my husband. As a fellow North American, he encounters the same things as me, and at the end of the day, I can use my native language to express my feelings, so there is a 0% miscommunication owing to language or culture. Thank goodness.

I know that I probably sound pretty whine-y when I talk about the differences, obstacles, and mounds of paperwork that are part of my life here, but at the end of every day, I still don’t want to book a return flight. Even with all the shitty, frustrating, stressful parts of life in a foreign country, France’s strengths far, far outweigh its weaknesses for me. The imperfections are there, just as they are anywhere, but I chose it for a reason. Honestly, marriage is strangely similar. If you think the person you are married to doesn’t have flaws, you’re in for a nasty surprise. But if you did your homework before you got hitched, you know he isn’t perfect, but they are flaws you can live with and all the good things about him are just right for you.

There is something so wonderful and satisfying to look out my window and to know that we consciously chose everything about our life here. We chose this country, we chose this city, and we chose this apartment and every stick of furniture that we own. That makes me proud.

I feel a deep sense of pride to live in a country whose values reflect my own: tradition, art, culture, craftsmanship, beauty, cuisine, language, family, nature, community. Had I been raised in NorCal or Maine instead of Oklahoma City, things may well have turned out otherwise. But I’m really glad that they didn’t.

Thought of the Day

I don’t know much for sure these days as so much is in flux right now, but I know that love is real, that we’re not alone, and that we are cared for. I’m trying to remember to keep my eyes open and look around me because the blessings and opportunities are there.Image

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Little Cares…

There’s nothing that does not grow light
through habit and familiarity.
By putting up with little cares,
I’ll train myself to bear with great adversity.
-Buddha

We’re still here, and some things are wonderful, others very frustrating. I have a lot to say to update our story and our journey, but feel I’ve fallen so far behind that it’s not possible. So, I’m posting this quote as a way to dip my toes back into the pool 😉 This quote didn’t come out of left field, by the way. Life in general but especially our life here in France is full of little cares: Calling utilities companies to straighten out mistakes and misunderstandings, funny looks from people when they think your accent is hard to understand, no big jars of peanut butter or Reese’s buttercups easily accessible. If you take them all at once or make a little thing into a big one, it becomes too much, too overwhelming and frustrating, and living abroad starts to seem like a nightmare. But many of our troubles are little cares, and when we choose to be patient instead of flipping out or to show compassion instead of shutting down, even to hold open the elevator or say “hello” and really looking that person in the eye, we strengthen ourselves for the big things, the game changers, and ready ourselves to bear the most difficult situations with grace and to meet the most trying people with empathy and non-judgment.

Look Up

ImageIt’s almost 3 a.m. France time, so I’ll keep this short lest I get rummy. Getting frustrated with an imperfect (read any) situation is easy and so is complaining. It takes no thought and no real consciousness or character. You just react like a child at a loud noise. Instead, you can choose to look up at the fireworks bursting open before your eyes for the very first time.

There are blessings all around us at every moment. Life is full of truly good things, and even the most difficult day has something good to offer. Like the day the tornado tore through Moore, Oklahoma: May 20, 2013. That was the day I finally worked up the courage to tell my students that I wouldn’t be coming back the following year, and I was able to be there for them as we hoped the school wouldn’t be hit, and our loved ones would survive. We made it, and so did my husband and those at his school as did my father in law with our home 100% intact.

Even now, it’s easy for me to feel traumatized by that day when I see any photos. But when I look more closely, I see the love and compassion and the blessings of life and the fact that we were at school or work and not at home, the areas of Moore that were hardest hit.

I’m in the country I have chosen to call home, but it’s such a struggle. I tell myself “I’ll be happy when,” but the list is never fully checked off. We moved here to get away from the future-oriented mindset we disliked and the “more is better” mentality, but I’ve got to leave it from the inside, too.

Perfect moments are rare because our attention is on the things we don’t like instead of the ones we do most of the time. In this life, we are surrounded by perfection masquerading as imperfection.

I challenge myself and anyone reading this to change your focus and look for the blessings, the things/ moments/ people that you are grateful for each day for three weeks. Write them down, tell a friend, but record them in some way. And even if it’s just one blessing you see, start there. Otherwise you might think you’re in hell while you’re actually living your dream.

A Breakthrough

My husband and I went to the Prefecture today, which is where you do all kinds of super-official and scary French paperwork, and…

we have an appointment to turn in paperwork for my carte de sejour on January 8!!! We will have to get a lot of various papers together and get my birth certificate translated, etc. My husband is considered “actif” now that he has auto-entrepreneur status, but he’ll have to show his revenue in France. He’s going to do French to English translation and various other services. I’ll probably do some tutoring, etc, to help with the revenue.

But this means that I’m on my way (officially) to getting my carte de sejour (rough equivalent to a residency card or a green card) and being able to qualify for French work contracts. The woman confirmed that I can’t leave the country before I have my carte or some other visa, but I’m good with that. And she was all “sorry, that’s the earliest we have” about the January appointment, but I didn’t mind at all! I’m happy to have anything, and to have a few more steps toward official resident status and exiting the state of limbo that I’ve been in for three months.

I made a ballsy move yesterday: I made reservations for a hotel for four nights and for train tickets to Strasbourg for Christmas! 😀 It is supposed to have the best Christmas markets in France (which makes sense as they once belonged to Germany, who basically invented widely-practiced Christmas traditions). We will be there from December 22-26, heading down to Auvergne to stay with my friend Sonja until a day or two before New Year’s Eve.

We really wanted to do something special for Christmas since we are far away from our families right now. Originally, we were hoping for Germany, but thankfully, France has many great places to visit (it ain’t #1 in the world for tourism for nothin’!)  It won’t be cheap, but I have faith that we will earn more than enough money to cover the cost of the trip (and then some).

I was feeling quite frustrated, stuck, and down recently. It’s so hard for me to get out of our apartment sometimes, and I feel isolated and reclusive. I feel like things should be moving a lot faster and that I should be able to go out and be social, etc, etc. I’ve blamed the situation with the carte de sejour and not being able to look for “real” work, but I know that I could still go out and get small jobs for cash like baby sitting or English tutoring, or just go out and pursue my hobbies. I feel a lot of pressure about money right now, though. I feel like everything I want to do costs money, and so I shouldn’t do it. I should only do things that are free. I’m working on letting go of my fear that there isn’t or won’t be enough and instead being thankful for all that I have. We have more than we need, and we have enough to support ourselves and to live here. My husband and I will find jobs.

And honestly, we’re starting over, not completely from scratch since we are not venturing into new fields for which we would need another X number of years of training, or a different degree. But our social lives, jobs, church community, etc have all dissolved or have been radically altered by our move here.

The challenge is worth it, and so are the sacrifices we’ve made. Many people who recreate their lives do so in response to some great tragedy or upheaval. My husband and I have been blessed with a passion for France and sensitivities that are more in alignment with the European way of life. We get to shed our skin and begin anew. We’re toddlers again, and we’ve got to master walking before we can run. And sometimes, we don’t go anywhere, but we still strengthen our muscles.

The Hard Truth

When my husband and I were talking about moving to France, it never occurred to me how much our lives would change. There is a huge difference between thinking about something, imagining it and what it’s actually like once you’re doing it.

Though I don’t regret moving here and on average I am much happier in France than I ever was in the States, there are certain rough truths that no one explained to me. Maybe they couldn’t have even if they had tried. The biggest one is that none of my relationships with my family, my childhood friends, or my adult friends will ever be the same. In fact, several of my friendships have dissolved or are currently dissolving. Since any friendships I had in the States are now long-distance, none of those people can be here, experiencing daily life with me or near me anymore. Even though some of them were already in other states, we were still living in the same country, which made me feel significantly closer and more connected to them.

I imagine that some of my friends let our relationship drop because of the extra work of keeping up contact, and maybe others are resentful that I left them, and still others have even seemed confused by my efforts to keep up with them.

I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I will only be able to visit my parents every two to five YEARS unless they come and visit me in between. And with most of my husband’s family up in British Columbia, which is not close to Oklahoma, there is that added complication of how to split up the visits. So I will never be able to see my whole family in one place ever again.

Also, with the exception of the time I spent at college and one gap-year, I attended the same home church from the age of seven to twenty-eight. And now I no longer have those ties. I can send people cards or emails, but I’m no longer a part of that community.

My husband and I are starting over from scratch. We had to find an apartment, and now we’re working on breaking into the system as far as jobs, residential status, healthcare, etc. We have to find social opportunities and networks as well as cultivate them. And there’s also the question of a spiritual community or support system.

If our lives where a car, and we moved to another state, it might have been like we needed to replace a part or that we ran out of gas and had to go get more, but we could have put it in neutral and pushed it where we needed to go or called a toeing service, and then the car would be fixed and good as new.

People who transfer jobs to a new place and have housing either provided, subsidized, etc by their company or the foreign government are like people renting a car: It’s a little unfamiliar, awkward and belongs to someone else, but you get used to it and can function quickly since you’ve got your wheels.

Us? We sold our old car when we left. We came over with a picture of our dream car in our pockets. That’s what other people are looking at when they think of our lives. The reality is that we have a list of all the parts and some local maps and the names of a few stores but no car. Every day, we go out and hunt for a few more pieces. By now, my husband and I have the undercarriage completed and a seat stuck on top so that our “car” can roll around. And it’s moving a little faster sometimes and a little slower at others, but believe me when I say that it is far from complete, it is challenging, and picking up momentum takes a lot of energy.

Yes, we get to make a new beginning, but to use another metaphor, we’re drawing up the plans, getting the permits, breaking the ground, laying all the bricks, and putting in the plumbing and electricity with no pre-made parts and no work crew.

Luckily, I married another only child who is just as stubborn as I am (only he has a British passport), and we are not giving up. Not even close.

A New Home

It’s strange to say that I already feel more at home in Toulouse than I ever did in the States. However, it’s true. At least, it’s the truth that I’m living at this moment. This city is full of people: French people, Arabic-speaking people, Spanish ex-pats looking to earn a living, British and Irish ex-pats opening pubs and playing for the Stade Toulousain rugby team, young families and students. Toulouse owes a lot of its relaxed character from its balmy climate and Spanish and Italian neighbors, but it’s also got plenty of the rules, regulations, and bureaucratic structures that are a hallmark of French life.

My neighborhood is young, multiethnic and multicultural, safe, and cheaper than the “hyper-centre” but right by the action. There are more activities, classes, and cultural offerings than you can shake a stick at. But most of all, I love the view of the river Garonne and the surrounding brick buildings at sunset: all vivid blue and warm coral glowing in the golden light.

Even though I don’t yet have local French friends a job, or any regular, driving force to get me out of the apartment, I’m starting to feel like I belong here. Maybe that’s because I took my first city bike ride yesterday. My previous experiences were exclusively in suburban neighborhoods, mostly with my parents and before the age of 13, so yeah… This new city-cycling business had me sweating with fear and holding onto my handlebars with a deathgrip (my arms are sore today!). I went over curbs, steered between cars, strove to stay in my little bike lane with cars whooshing past, and avoided pedestrians on sidewalks when I couldn’t find a lane for me and was headed in the direction of oncoming cars. Whew! But getting to ride past the Canal du Midi, feel the cool air, and walk inside the Jardin Japonais balanced out the terror I felt in getting my “sea legs.”

I am beginning to take personal pride in the French education system, of the nation’s rich literary heritage; it’s appreciation of beauty in nature, art, architecture (and of course, great food!). It’s a strange to feel that I am drifting away from my Americanness. This was partly brought on by the move, but it is also related to some unpleasant truths I have recently learned about the United States (I will share these another time). However, there are many American traits I want to keep: adventurousness, open-mindedness, a positive and solution-finding attitude in the face of obstacles, a spirit that embraces risk and significant change.

Right now, I feel both excited and daunted by the singular opportunity I have to recreate my life with my husband. Together, he and I chose France, chose this city, chose to leave behind everything we had established and to start anew in a foreign country. Little by little, I’m doing new things, such as embroidery, which I am hoping will be a gateway drug to sewing by hand and, fingers crossed, making my own clothes, curtains, etc by sewing machine. As I take greater control of my life and my happiness, I am also rediscovering pursuits of which I had let go, such as language learning, travel, and reading. My husband and I have begun a choose-your-own-adventure story here in Toulouse, and each day presents us with a new set of choices.

I’m back, baby!

Admittedly, it’s been a ridiculously long time since my last post. Here are the major details to catch you up to speed: I got through my first (and hopefully only) year as a high school French teacher, survived the May 20 tornado that hit Moore, OK, said many good-byes and tied up a good number of loose ends, packed until 3:00 a.m., toured a bunch of high school students around Picardy, Normandy, and Paris, and then traveled from French city to French city in search of a new home.

After visiting Dijon, Tours, Nantes, Bordeaux, and Toulouse, we have chosen Toulouse. My husband loves the climate. I hate the heat, but I know I’ll enjoy how temperate it is during the other 11 months of the year. People here are generally more relaxed, friendly, which seems to often be the case in southern France (outside of the ultra-chic Cote d’Azur or “French Riviera”) of which Toulouse is not part. Toulouse is the second city in France for education/universities (after Paris, of course), and it is fourth in terms of size.

Aside from its young population and good overall stats, my husband and I felt a connection here upon our initial visit, which has only continued to develop. And that’s good because it’s not easy right now. We’re up to a full week in our 58.50 euro/night aparthotel, which, lovely as it is, does not feel like home. Though we’ve spend quite a few hours scanning the internet for apartments (with quite a lot of success), our main task has been developing our “faith muscles” that we will find what we want and not have to settle for a crappy and expensive living situation. In addition, we’re figuring out how to crack the French system to access its more inviting and homey center where we will soon make a nest. It reminds me of breaking the hard crust on the outside for French bread to enjoy the soft and flavorful “inner-bread.”

We’ve left quite a few messages with a number of agencies, and we’ve got our lines ready to satisfy the French desire for the financial stability/backing of its tenants. I’m hopeful, and I’ve got my eye on the prize. Thank God for my husband; without him, I’d be living in a sub-par suburb and paying about $175-215 per month over fair-market value (and rarely going out).

One last tidbit to mull over: Culture shock makes you do funny things like go into ecstasy over finding a KFC and devouring a bucket of chicken, a bag of fries, and soft drinks. Just to clarify, it has literally been YEARS since I’ve eaten at a KFC in the States, and I typically drink water with no ice. Today, I gobbled my food, silently composing and ode to barbecue and sweet and sour sauce, and I got three refills on my soda. Three! I was so excited to have the free refills and LARGE, unlimited ice cubes, that I simply couldn’t help myself. It was amazing, and I regret nothing… well, almost 😉