February 29, 2012
When you move abroad from the United States—and even when you move to an equally developed country—the adjustments you need to make in daily life are huge. That’s not to say that they’re BAD; they’re not. They’re just different. You might not find the same cough drop brands at the local pharmacist; out in the villages, you’re not likely to find a walk-ins-are-welcome manicure salon. But obviously, you’ve decided small changes like these are worth making in order to live the life you have now.
As I go about my daily routine, I’m finding that many of the experiences I have here in the lovely village of Samois-sur-Seine, in the surrounding towns, and 40 minutes away in Paris are nearly identical to ones I faced in Florence, Italy, when I lived there back in 2004 and 2005. Thank goodness this time around, I feel much more prepared to tackle the inevitable challenges that crop up on a daily basis. As anyone living abroad can attest, it’s during your first experience that you learn to juggle the truly unfamiliar until it becomes comfortable.
Both France and Italy are enormously popular with visitors around the world, in no small part thanks to the often slower, more tranquil—and dare I say “human”—quality of life you’ll find in both countries. Living in both countries has helped me realize that it’s neither necessary—nor at all healthy—to live a frantic, running-in-circles existence. That it really is possible to savor a meal without simultaneously reading, paying bills and taking notes for the next interview. And that it’s as important to accept a neighbor’s impromptu invitation to drop by for dinner or drinks as it is to crank out the next deadline assignment.
But tranquility comes at a price—especially for those of us used to 24-hour supermarkets, the-customer-is-always-right service, and same-day everything. When you’re an urban girl living in downtown Chicago, somewhere in Manhattan or perhaps in über-modern Montreal condos, the world is on-call, waiting to meet your every need. In cities and towns throughout France and Italy, not so much—but that’s OK. Here are several ways that my first expatriate stint readied me for the second time around in France:
- Making the most of that midday break. It’s often tough for Americans to get used to the concept of stores, restaurants, and businesses shutting down in the middle of the day—or not being open at ALL on Sundays, which often is the only day many of us have to run errands. But you know, I kinda like this close-mid-afternoon-and-on-Sunday thing. For one, it helps you remember that the people working at the dry cleaners, serving your food at a brasserie or bistro, and baking your bread at the nearby boulangerie are real people with real lives. They like to eat lunch, just like you do. And on Sundays, they’d rather be spending time with their families than dealing with you and your fellow customers. That’s civilizing—and fair.
- Patience, please. As long as you remember that EVERYTHING takes longer to do than you think, you save yourself much frustration and stress. That quick trip to the post office? Not likely. Either the person ahead of you is handling some complicated transaction—or more likely in MY case—I’m lost halfway through mine because my French comprehension isn’t quite there. (This is why before I leave home, I consult my trusty French dictionary and/or grammar books for key terms that I’ll need to use at La Poste, at the mobile phone store, or at the shoe repair shop. Unfortunately, these aren’t the words you generally learn in once-a-week French classes back in the States.) You’re better off doubling the amount of time you expect an errand will take—and while you wait, pull out that French grammar book and take advantage of the free time.
- Better plan ahead. Let’s face it, folks—the United States is a procrastinator’s dream. So you forgot to take that dress for tonight’s cocktail party to the dry cleaners’ last week? No worries—drop it off before 9 a.m.; get it back by 4. Need new heels put on those fierce stilettos? Sure thing—you’ll get them back in 10 minutes AND while you wait. Going to a networking event but forgot to take enough business cards? Just e-mail the file to a print shop and they’ll have them printed up the same day. Life does NOT work like that here. If you get lucky, you might get your goods back by the end of the week IF you show up Monday morning. But it’s hardly the end of the world. If nothing else, it just forces you to get organized and take care of business Monday through Saturday if you really need something done.
- Be engaged—and be seductive. That doesn’t mean you go around throwing yourself at the postman or the guy at the butcher shop. But even in 2012 in both Italy and France, customers still actively engage with the people serving them. I’ve always found that a genuine smile goes a long way—especially when you don’t yet speak the language well. In Florence, if I walked past the corner café, phone shop or the cleaners, I’d wave and briefly chat or exchange pleasantries (in broken Italian, mind you), because it’s simply uncivilized not to do it. And once I’m out and about more in France and get to know business owners, I’ll do the same. What a nice habit to develop, especially when you live and work alone as I do. It’s all about making a human connection. No one’s explained this better than Elaine Sciolino, the Paris correspondent and long-time Paris bureau chief of The New York Times, in her provocative book La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life, believing that seduction is “the ever-present subtext for how the French relate to one another.” As she writes in a chapter called “Make Friends with Your Butcher,” “… there should be pleasure in the process of getting something done, whether it is being served a steak frites or buying a cell phone.” Indeed.
- Learning the language. In my younger days, I was a much quicker study when it came to figuring out foreign languages like Spanish, which I studied in elementary and high school and at university. I took several language courses before moving to Italy, but none of it seemed very helpful once I landed on the ground in Florence (a city where you can easily speak English much of the time because of ever-present tourists). Still, I struggled through it. Found kind-hearted Italians who’d let me practice with them. And s-l-o-w-l-y, eventually, the impasse broke and it all started to make sense. It still does—so much so that I’d feel comfortable traveling solo through Italian regions where I’d be unlikely to run into English speakers. With much more study and actual TALKING, I know I’ll someday get a grasp of le français and will no longer have to plan out conversations minutes before speaking. Still, you should have seen my glee when discovering yesterday that the shoe repair man at a nearby cordonnerie was actually Italian! We instantly switched from French to italiano, allowing me to comfortably chat and build instant camaraderie with this friendly signore.
If these Italian-French experiences can remind me to slow down, savor life and not just speed through on auto-pilot—regardless of where I decide to call home—they’re lessons worth learning.
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