Blame France

Narrator’s Voice is heard: 

“Does this ever happen to you?”

Queue photos of a woman carrying a grocery bag that breaks, a man having a car splash water on him, a couple having the doors to a theater shut in their face.

“Do you ever feel like you just want to throw in the towel, like the world just isn’t on your side?”

Show image of unattractive depressed person looking out a window on a rainy day.

“What if you could change all that?  What if I told you that there is a way that you could never have a bad day again and nothing will ever be your fault?”

The word “HOPE” flashes across the screen.

“Follow me through this infomercial as we tell you more about this exciting side of living overseas.  We’ll explain how everything that happens to you while in another country is actually just the result of that country and not your personal actions.

Do you remember that cold you got last winter?  That cold was your fault for drunkenly making out with a stranger in January (*The bottom of the screen scrolls “get checked for meningitis”).  But I guarantee that if you come with me on this journey, you will learn that any cold you get overseas is not the fault of your own stupidity, but instead, the fault of your host-country for having weird virus strains.  If your grocery bags breaks; it is because that country has crappy grocery bags and not because you overloaded it.  If a car splashes you with water, it is because the people in your host-country are jerks; it is never just an unfortunate accident.  Don’t stay trapped living in a world where bad luck and bad days just happen at random, instead, live in a world where you have something to blame.

Show sun peeking through clouds as people waving different flags dance together in a field. 

As you join us on this journey, please remember our motto:  There are no bad days, just bad countries!”

Scroll at bottom of screen:  DISCLAIMER: We are not responsible for any individuals assaulted, arrested, or kicked out of their host countries. 

And scene.

Every once in a while, I will go through a phase of blaming everything that is wrong in my life on France.  If I have had a bad day or if someone is mean to me it isn’t just random coincidence; it is the nefarious nature of France.  It’s a sort of expat trick that no one ever really talks about.  Basically, you can glamorize your home country and decide that all misfortunes that befall you are based directly on the culture, government, and personality of your host-country as opposed to just dumb luck or your own poor behavior and choices.  It’s fantastic; really…except for the fact that you are completely ignoring personal responsibility and setting up your home country to disappoint you hugely (no big deal, right?).

Luckily, I only go through these phases occasionally.  More often, I take it the other approach which is that it is all personal.

“WHATEVER!  I just want to go home.  I’m not having fun; I don’t like it here anymore.”

(No, this is not a child crying from home-sickness at summer camp; this is me.)

“What’s more,” I continue.  “I don’t think France likes me being here either.” I say this with the best “conspiracy theory” voice I can muster.  “It’s like it’s trying to kick me out.”

MB sighs.  “France is not trying to kick you out.”

“How would you know?!  You are not France, are you?  Heck, you lived overseas for the past six years; France probably doesn’t even talk to you about its plans anymore!”

This is the tack that I take when I have decided that missing the tram, getting yelled out by a professor, and burning dinner is actually a passive aggressive message from France telling me to get the hell out as opposed to just a series of randomly unfortunate events.  I mean, it must all mean something, right?  It isn’t just coincidence; France is plotting my demise.  …Right.  It’s personal not business.

It is one of the weird things about being an expat – that you can blame bad luck on your host country or that you can decide that your host country is trying to push you out instead of being forced to embrace problems head-on and realistically.  It’s really just an extension of the “grass is always greener” idea, the lie that the “other” is the better.  The reality is that bad days and bad luck can happen anywhere and it doesn’t matter whether it is in the place you were born, a place you’ve visited once, or a place that you have lived for a few years.  Bad luck isn’t a place’s fault at all; it is just coincidence and a consequence of existence in our Universe…so for now we have to deal with it.

Though, I have no doubt that once a new Universe is discovered and people move there they will blame that one for everything and think that this one is perfect.

7 Tips to Make Friends…without being creepy.

A few weeks ago, Cécile, from the always fabulous Trying to be Conscious, passed on the “One Lovely Blog Award” to me (http://tryingtobeconscious.wordpress.com/2012/05/29/a-little-sugar-in-my-bowl/).  Thanks so much Cécile!!  If you haven’t already, you should all check out her blog, always funny and always spot on!

As with most awards, this one comes with a few rules.  First of all, I need to link back to the blog which awarded me, then pass on the award to up to 15 other blogs, and finally share 7 things about myself.   Per usual, I’m going to change it up slightly and instead of sharing 7 things about me, I’m going to share a bit of advice by listing what I believe to be the 7 best ways to make friends at bars.

Okay, so don’t get the wrong idea.  I’m not talking about creepily trying to hit on people but rather tips on how to approach a group of people or start a conversation with someone who looks like they could be fun.  When you move to a new country, city, etc. it can be difficult to figure out how to meet people to hang out with.  I mean, sure if you are into kickball leagues and book clubs you will be just fine, but what about the slackers like me (and MB…sorry honey: truth gun)?  We don’t “do” organized activities.  We like to talk about them and say how great they sound and say “totally send us the info and we will join up” but yeah…we don’t do that.  Instead, we either sit on the couch and watch TV or we go to bars.  So, how do we find like-minded slackers?  Well, here ya go…

Top 7 ways to meet strangers out at bars:

  • Sit at the bar!  Really, I can’t stress this enough; it should be number 1 on this list.  You are never going to meet anyone sitting at a table; in fact, I would go so far as to say that nothing even remotely interesting is going to happen to you there.  It makes me crazy when I come into a bar and my friends all want to sit in some back corner.  Bar going is like a sport to me, a sport in which I try to see how many interesting people I can talk to in a night.  I feel as though this is the true spirit of the bar and thus cannot understand those who besmirch this spirit by being table dwellers.  It is such an easy way to start a conversation because you are naturally forced into periods of waiting with complete strangers.  You can turn to the person next to you and whine about how long the bartender is taking or talk about how awesome the bartender is or make fun of someone in the bar who has just done something ridiculous.  While in this unique waiting period it is completely acceptable to speak to anyone without it being creepy and it is a great way to make new friends.
  • Offer to take pictures.  First of all, it’s a nice thing to do, but second of all, another great ice-breaker.  You see a group of people who look like they are a lot of fun and have a camera out, just offer!  Once in Bologna, I did this for a table next to us and within about 15 minutes we had pulled our tables together, enjoyed a meal, and ended up hanging out with them for the rest of the evening.  With just a “click” we managed to form our own clique!  “That joke was so lame.  I can’t believe I’m even going to keep reading after that.  I mean, cameras don’t even “click” anymore.  Do you remember those “Le Clic”* cameras from the 80’s.  Those were awesome.” 
  • Talk loudly.  Okay, every American does this anyway so to my American readers you can skip this one; BUT for the rest of you, pay attention.  Granted, talking loudly can be really annoying so you have to gauge it just right, however, if you can figure out the correct balance it can be an excellent way to meet people…especially if you are funny or interesting (boring people should also skip this step).  For instance, basically every single time my best friend and I leave the house we end up having funny exchanges with strangers who have overheard our absurd (and yes, hilarious – high five, friend) chatter.

“Sorry,” says the sales lady to us.  “I’m just laughing because everything you are saying is so true!”

“Right?”  My friend responds.  “Fifity Shades of Grey is so weird and over-rated but it really does make you want to have sex.”

We talked with this sales lady for almost 40 minutes after already purchasing our clothes.

  • Be a smoker.  “Oh my god!  Did she just write that?  So SO inappropriate.”  Yeah, yeah, I know but I’m convinced that somewhere there must be a statistic about smokers making friends more easily than non-smokers.  I mean, let’s think about this for a second, we they are forced outside in small groups often without any music or bar, so no distractions, in which conversations with strangers can be easily induced.  I mean, good grief, all you have to do is ask for a lighter and BAM! CONVERSATION.  But okay, if you don’t want to risk your life and your health than you can always find the people who are left behind by their smoking friends and bond over the fact that they are all idiots.
  • Be polite.  You Mother was right, you will catch more bees with honey; and if you are interested in bee-catching or friend-making then be sweet!  Many times, I have started a conversation by using a simple “excuse me” or by picking up someone’s jacket or catching a purse that is falling off a chair.  People appreciate it and it can easily serve as your “in”.  Talk about how annoying it is that the backs of the chairs are round so things won’t stay on them or show them the hooks underneath the bar (I assume that of course you are AT THE BAR) where they can hang things.  Everyone likes a helping hand and it is a good way to make a great first impression.
  • Find the loners.  Often in my travels I have found myself sitting alone at a bar and I would have been thrilled to have a group of strangers come and ask me to join their party.  “What?  Doesn’t she know about stranger danger?  This is bad advice.”  If you are in the mood to make some new friends this can be a great way to do it.  Since you and your friends are obviously standing at the bar (and if the loner is smart then they are as well) then you can easily ask if this person feels like joining.  Maybe they will think you are crazy, maybe they will turn out to be crazy themselves, or maybe you will end up meeting someone really cool who ends up being a long-term friend…believe me, it happens.
  • Find something in common.  This is the most important of all of these little tips and is really the whole point of the exercise anyway, isn’t it?  To meet someone who you find interesting or shares an interest that you have.  Having something in common is what puts people at ease.  So use any one of these methods or a combination and maybe you will stumble across someone who just moved to your town, who is from a different country, who speaks a different native language, and who also thinks that Back to the Future III was completely under-rated and actually an amazing film.  Hey, it could happen!

Good hunting!  (sorry, just finished Battlestar Galactica)

Now for the fun part – getting to pass this award on!

* In case you have no idea what I am talking about: http://www.ebay.com/itm/Le-Clic-110-Point-and-Shoot-Camera-with-built-in-flash-/221050012094?pt=Film_Cameras&hash=item33779b81be  This is the exact model of the one I had; I am sure that shortly it will be sported by some 20-something hipster as opposed to a rockin’ 8 year old with leggings, a puff-paint t-shirt, and wicked big-bow headband.  That’s right, I was rad.

Expat Entertainment

In her most recent post, Chickster from Up, Up, and Awayz (http://www.upupandawayz.com/2012/05/its-awards-season.html)  awarded me with the Liebster Award.  Thanks so much, Chickster!

The Liebster Award is for blogs with under 200 followers and has no standing rules; but she has asked that I follow the guidelines from the Versatile Blogger Award and post 7 things about myself.  So, I’m going to post the 7 things that I find most entertaining about being an expat.

7.  Bon Voyage!  Over the last four years I’ve spent a lot of time on airplanes and in airports.  While this certainly has its disadvantages (see #4) there are also certain benefits to being a constant international traveler.  For one thing, I do it really well, I know exactly what to expect on long flights and I am always prepared; my on board carry-on bag has been perfected, I know exactly what I will need to be wearing in order to be comfortable on a plane for 12+ hours (don’t wear jeans, NEVER wear jeans),  I am aware of what my entertainment options are on board…sometimes I plan it.  Okay, so I will watch Dirty Dancing and then Pretty Woman.  Second of all, I know airports.  For instance, I know that if I have a really long layover at the Amsterdam airport that they have spas that I can use (seriously, this is one of the best things ever, what better way to spend a five hour layover than getting a massage and facial).  I know that if I am flying internationally out of Los Angeles that I will want to eat ahead of time because the international terminal is tiny – there are like three places to buy food and last time I paid 12 (that’s right, 12) dollars for a turkey sandwich that was totally average.  This may sound silly, but seriously, knowing what lies ahead on long journeys can go a long way in making them more comfortable.

6.  The Timbuktu Clause.  Another thing that entertains me about being an expat is that a lot of your friends and family back home don’t really know where you live.  For instance, when I lived in New Zealand, if any natural disaster happened anywhere in the ring of fire, I would immediately get emails from people asking if I was okay.  There could be a typhoon in Fiji and people would want to make sure we still had electricity.  Here in France, everyone just assumes that I live in Paris.

“So, you live in Paris, that is so cool!”

“What? No, I just told you, I live in Grenoble.”

“So tell me about your life…in Paris.”

It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I explain that I live in Grenoble, people still ask me about my fabulous life in Paris.

5.  This is not real.  You remember that night five years ago when you got completely wasted with all your friends and your boss and you decided to streak through the neighborhood?  Great if you do, but no one else will because they weren’t there.  One of the great things about being an expat is that embarrassing stories from your past don’t haunt you in your current life.  This also means that you can convince yourself that your new embarrassing stories won’t haunt you in your future life (this is particularly helpful if you do not know how long you will be staying in the country).  Did you embarrass yourself in front of someone you were interested in?  Did you mess up and get a horrible reprimand at work?  Did you split your pants open at a restaurant?  None of this matters because as an expat you can just shrug and tell yourself that it isn’t real life, this isn’t really where you live, right?  It is one of the most brilliant (and untrue) expat rationalizations.

4. Travel Traumas.  Now you may be wondering why I would find traumatic traveling situations entertaining, and while they are happening they are not.  However, afterwards, they usually make for hilarious stories and you get to wear your survival like a badge of honor.  When MB had to bribe a security officer to be allowed to leave Chad it was scary but afterwards it made for a great story and totally upped his street cred (that’s right, my fiancé how to bribe corrupt government officials, what can your fiancé do?).   When I left my passport on a bus bench and missed my flight to the Philippines it was decidedly un-funny, as crying at the airport usually is (https://breadispain.wordpress.com/2011/06/21/jamais-deux-sans-trois/).  How does someone forget their passport on a bus bench, you ask?  A valid question.  I was using it to fan myself because it was hot outside and I didn’t want my makeup to melt off.  That’s right, I ended up losing the single most important travel document that any person in the world has for the sake of my vanity.  Proud moment?  Not really…but damn funny story later.

3.  Party favor.  Another great thing about living the expat life is that you always have plenty of interesting small talk.  An expat never has to have that awkward conversation at dinner parties when you get stuck talking to someone with whom you have nothing in common.

“So, you work in HR?  That’s cool.  I actually know someone who…um…also works in HR.”

“Oh really, what are the chances?”

“Right?”

“Right.”

“So um, how do you know Tom and Sally?”

“Tom works with me…you know, in HR.”

DEAR GOD.  We have all been there and it is awful.  As an expat, you never have to endure this.  If you are at a party overseas, people will be curious to know how your experience has been in their country and how you are liking it; and if you are back in your home country people will be curious to know what it was like living overseas.  Never again will you have to feign interest in a golfing story.

2.  Sweet Little Lies.  Because I am evil, I also think one of the funniest things about living the expat life is that you can make up all sorts of stuff and no one will ever be able to call you on it (unless they have lived in the country that you are spreading lies about – awkward).  For example, just last night two Scottish expats spent ten minutes trying to convince me that haggis was an animal with three legs.  Anyone from Scotland would think this was hilarious but there are probably a few foreigners out there who would totally believe it.  This is, without a doubt, one of the things that amuses me most about being an expat because…well, because it is fun to mess with people (there, I said it).  By the way, have I told you about Drop Bears? (http://australianmuseum.net.au/Drop-Bear)

1. Cool looking passport.  There is really not much else to say.  It is a vain, self-congratulatory sort of thing but it is true.  I LOVE having a full passport, I love flipping through it and seeing all the stamps of the places I’ve been to; it drums up a lot of great memories and stories but it also makes me feel unbelievably cool, I shamefacedly admit it.

And there you have it, the top 7 things that I find entertaining about being an expat!

You Speakin’ in English?

On an afternoon out with a one of our recent visitors, we were walking down the street speaking in English.  At one point, we wandered by a group of young men, all speaking in French, as we got close, one of them said, quite loudly, “Hello!  How are you?”  We smiled back but kept walking.  Later, we walked by an elderly gentlemen who was looking out his window, he was speaking to someone in the back of the house in French, but just as we passed, I heard a distinct “Hello!”  I said “Hello” back and smiled; he seemed satisfied.

This is a scenario that happens often.  If I am wandering the market with an English-speaking friend, the vendor might give me the price in English or say “thank you” instead of “merci”, even though I will speak to him in French.  Once, when I was standing in the line for the fromagerie with another Anglo, the young man in front of us turned around and explained every cheese that we should try and why…in perfect English.

This rarely happens when I am alone, even though it will be obvious that I am definitely an English speaker (maybe it’s a kind of tough love?); but when I am with other Anglos, it happens all the time.  I can imagine the conversations with their friends after we walk by…

“What?  You didn’t know I speak English.  I mean, doesn’t everyone speak English?  Mon dieu, the English can speak English so you know it cannot be hard.”

We walk by again.

“Hello,” waving wildly at us.  “I am fine, yes friends, good day!”

We smile awkwardly and keep walking.

”See?”  He will say this to his friends.  “I told you!”

Another visitor in from out of town was at the market on her first day in France.  She was standing in a crowded stall and at some point another patron gave her a gentle nudge so as to pass by on the aisle.

“Oh – sorry! ‘Scuze! Uh crap, pardon,” she said, alarmed.  She couldn’t quite remember the exact phrase and I could tell she was a bit unnerved by it.

The elderly man who had nudged past smiled kindly and professed, quite loudly, “you’re welcome!”  And then went on to choose his vegetables, looking extremely pleased with himself.  I could practically hear his internal thoughts, “nailed it!”

This exchange made me laugh and my friend looked utterly confused.  The man had no idea what he had actually said but he knew it was English and that was enough for him.

I know the reasons for these little tidbits of English being thrown around.  Mainly it is people excited to have the opportunity to practice speaking or in the case of the young men, excited to try to chat some girls up (…that’s right, ego, I said it) but it doesn’t really matter what the reason is; it always feels good and it always makes me smile.  When you are in a foreign country, hearing a bit of your mother tongue is sort of like someone winking at you or saying “cheers” without actually saying it.  It’s an unsolicited “you’re welcome” when you haven’t yet said “thank you”.

Versatility?

Laura at “The Everyday Life of a Young American Girl in France” (http://laurasviequotidienne.blogspot.com/) has kindly bestowed me with the Versatile Blogger Award:  (tah-dah!)

Thank you so much, Laura!!

Upon receiving this award I am to list 7 things about myself and then pass the award along to other blogs.  Instead of listing 7 things about myself, I think I will, instead, list 7 things to remember when moving to a foreign country.

7.  Be versatile!!  (wink, wink, nudge, nudge – I slay me)  But in all seriousness, this is a good thing to keep in mind upon arrival in your new country.  Perhaps, in your mind’s eye, you have a vision of how it is all going to go:  you will arrive and get the perfect job, maybe marketing for a wine company, then you will meet a good looking foreign person who will make you laugh with their accent and charming way of saying things.  Needless to say, you and said foreigner will fall madly in love while you simultaneously get a promotion at work.  Money is therefore not an issue and you don’t even have to search for housing because you are, obviously, living at your new lover’s villa (oh, and magically your body will be better).  Voila!

In reality, you may do a series of temp jobs that make you hate yourself while living in a share house with ten strangers, all the while staring at the good looking foreigners who won’t give you the time of day.  Deal with it – make it work (Tim Gunn)!  Be open to whatever situation falls in your lap – who knows?  One day, one of those strangers might end up being in your wedding…really.

6.  All consulates are created equally…horrible.  Make sure that you are thrice prepared for any visa appointments/changes that need to be made…and then be prepared for something to go wrong, something like the clerk just deciding to close the counter for 2 hours while you wait, or the entire ‘tourist visa’ office going on a three day retreat one day before you need to get your passport back, or the list of what you needed for the visa changing the day you arrive with your information.  It doesn’t matter whether you are in France or Timbuktu; this stuff will happen.  My only advice, keep your cool, the people behind the counter really do hold your fate in their hand – don’t piss them off.

5.  Don’t be the guy who spends the whole time eating peanut butter and jelly, listening to Kanye, and drinking Budweiser (insert: whatever cultural references work for your home country).  Basically, try not to spend too much time re-creating home.  Sharing your culture is one of the most fun things about travel; it’s a pleasure to make one of your favorite dishes for someone from another country or show them your favorite film.  It is also crucial to abating any bouts of home-sickness.  Just don’t let it take over.  If you create a mini-version of your own country while you are away then what will you have to talk about when you go home?

4.  “Everything is better in my country!”  (to be said in a 1930’s Philadelphia “society” accent)  Look, we are all guilty of it, I know I do it regularly, but try to keep the comparison game in check; it is not charming.

No local wants to hear a foreign visitor constantly charting the ways in which their own country is better:

“Here (sidebar: in this country I have chosen to live in) you are too fast, too slow, too disorganized, too organized, obnoxious over-achievers, lazy under-achievers, (have) not enough stuff at the grocery store, TOO MUCH STUFF AT THE GROCERY STORE!  In my country we have perfected all these things; over the course of our acquaintance I will list to you all the ways in which we have done so in order for you to learn.  You can thank me later.”

Here’s the deal, there are going to be things in your new country that will drive you bananas and you will miss the way that your own country does stuff; everyone does.  Just try to be careful how you bring it up – you don’t want to be obnoxious – if you catch yourself talking about how much “awesomer” your country is at something, maybe finish the statement with a mention of another thing that you think your host country does better.  No one likes an ungracious guest…and when you can’t take it anymore, unload to your expat friends – they’ll get it.

3.  “I hate it here.  I have no friends, the food sucks, their tv shows are stupid, I’m sick of public transportation, I don’t have any of my stuff, I’m missing out on all the crazy, unusually awesome stuff that my friends at home are CLEARLY doing without me, I’m so lonely!”

The “three month slump” exists and while it does occur generally around the three-month time frame, rest assured that it can rear it’s ugly head at any time during your overseas existence.  Eight-month slump?  Five and one-half month slump?  Why not?  Living in another country can be really exciting, and challenging, and incredibly fun but it is also really hard.  You can’t expect to pluck yourself out of your comfort zone, away from those you love and all things familiar, and have a seamless transition.  Sometimes, it is going to suck and you are going to feel depressed and alone; and that is normal!  Don’t throw in the towel; instead, when three of your ten strange roommates organize a trip to go and do a zip-line over a volcano, do it!  When the daughter of a distant friend of your Father’s emails you to say “hi, I’ve just moved here”, invite her to a party.  Don’t let “slumpness” suck away the possibility of new experiences…I mean, wasn’t that the whole point anyway?

2.  Never move to a new country during their winter.  This might seem stupid to list as #2 but if you have ever done it then you know it is not.  Unless you are an avid skier moving to someplace like the Swiss Alps or Queenstown, NZ, moving to a new country in winter will be horrible.  I mean, think about it, nothing says welcome like barren trees and gray skies.  And forget about meeting new people and making friends, people stay at home in winter, they go to cozy house parties; they do not hang out on patios or stand in groups that are convenient to interrupt with an awkward fake question.

Nothing is more depressing then sitting in your new room, freezing, while it is drizzling outside, with no friends.  Really, if you can avoid it then just don’t do it.  That is all I can say.

1.  Okay, so now, basically forget everything I just wrote and remember this one thing:  it is the same everywhere.  Sure the scenery may be different and the people might have funny accents or don’t smile as much (that’s for you, Frenchies) but your life will pretty much be the same in your new country as in your old one.  From a distance it might seem like in France your bathroom will clean itself, obviously, because living in France is far too glamorous for such things.  In Australia, every work day will be wonderful because they will all be good-looking and say things like “good on ya, mate”  (that last part might be accurate).  But here is the truth, I clean my bathroom once a week and some Australians are ugly.

So have reasonable expectations, remember that mundane days exist everywhere, you can’t run away from them.  No matter where you live you are going to have good days and bad days.  Even at home, you will get a case of “slumpness” or want to pull your hair out because the people in front of you on the sidewalk are walking too slowly – you just won’t have the convenience of being able to blame it on a country.  Travel and living abroad is an amazing, eye-opening, and exciting experience; but altering your coordinates won’t change your life, that is up to you.

And…that is my two cents on living abroad.

Now for the fun part, here are a few blogs that I would like to pass on the Versatile Blogger Award to:

Tanya In Transition (http://tanyaintransition.wordpress.com/)

Existimatio (http://existimatio.wordpress.com/)

Crystal Goes to Europe (http://www.crystalgoestoeurope.blogspot.com/)

Grenobloise (http://grenobloise.wordpress.com/)

Enjoy!