If you are considering moving to another country and want to know what it would be like, you can go on the internet and find dozens of sites with useful information and resources that can ease your transition.
But no matter how well planned your move, you can be sure that some aspects of the transition will be frustrating and emotionally difficult. Other facets—hopefully, more numerous than the negative ones—will make the decision to move abroad worthwhile.
In my case, my son and his wife invited me to join them in France after my husband died. Rather than live by myself, vulnerable and lonely, I sold my home, disposed of most of my belongings, and started over in France.
Both my son and I find it remarkable that whenever we tell French friends about my move from the US to France at age eighty, they consider it truly extraordinary. Heroic. Amazing. Unimaginable. But perhaps we Americans are more adventuresome. Who knows?
Thank goodness I had family here to guide me through the maze of adjustments in my new country. As hosts, my son, daughter-in-law, and grandsons are the best. And I am immensely grateful for their initial and ongoing assistance in my effort to integrate into life in the South of France.
In an earlier blog, I wrote about the specific things I missed about my former life in the US and the specific pleasures I enjoyed in my new life in France. In this blog post, I take a more general overview of the transition.
The Hardest Aspects
Mastering Language: When I came, I fully intended to become skilled in speaking, reading, and understanding basic French. Although I’ve made some progress, I’m still probably somewhere around kindergarten or first grade in terms of my language ability.
You’d think being in France would speed up my learning curve, but many of my friends either speak English or want to learn it. Consequently, they make few demands on me to speak French.
Fortunately for me, my daughter-in-law’s parents have offered to put me up and give me a week-long French language cours intensif. Since I will be forced to speak French during the visit, my language skills should improve.
Making New Friends: One of the hardest aspects of expat life is being away from friends and loved ones back home. I had lived in Nevada County for thirty years and had dipped into various networks of friends from all walks of life.
And because I’d written regular articles for years for the local newspaper, I was a familiar face to many. In addition, I left siblings, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and cousins behind. Leaving that extensive network was hard.
On top of that, it’s more difficult to make friends as you get older, but it’s especially hard when you’ve dropped into a new social setting with language barriers.
Getting Set Up: I underestimated how much work it takes to get normal life organized in a new setting. Having left most of my belongings in the US, I needed almost everything for my new home—pots, pans, sheets, bedding, office furniture, laptop, and the like. Of course, many items need assembly so that task is added to the complexity of finding and buying the right item. Turning a house into a home is time consuming at any age even without a language barrier.
Paying bills is challenging as is managing my bank account. And getting organized to pay taxes was especially difficult. I spent hours searching online to find a tax firm that could file both US and French taxes on my behalf.
Fortunately for me, my son and his family set up my utilities, including phone, gas, and heating. They also helped me find a primary care doctor and showed me how to get a prescription filled at the pharmacy or get a lab test at the local lab.
Loss of the Familiar: When I’m tired, the amount of effort it takes to accomplish the smallest task—such as finding the right light bulb in a hardware store—makes me long for the familiar stores I shopped in back home. Shopping for groceries also takes extra time since I have to figure out what I am looking for in French. I keep my cell phone translator handy. For instance, cinnamon that I needed for a cake I found in the spice section under its French name, cannelle.
I am grateful that my son occasionally takes me to a grocery store, Five Continents, where I can buy familiar food, like Skippy crunchy peanut butter or Heinz pork and beans.
These are truly next-level comfort foods given the context. Some people have emotional support pets. I have emotional support foods. But despite searching high and low here in France, I can’t find chili powder, a real loss for a person like me who craves a big pot of chili in the winter. Don’t get me started on cheddar.
The Best Aspects
But now I can flip those same negatives and magically turn them into the more satisfying aspects of moving to a foreign country.
Steep Learning Curve: While it’s true that I’ve been forced to step out of my comfort zone, I’ve also been learning a lot. Fortunately, I enjoy the challenge. I’m proud of myself that I’ve learned how to shop independently in the grocery store and boulangerie, how to take the tram or bus on my own, and how to cook on an induction stove top instead of a gas one like I had before. I have even come to appreciate the fact that though my language skills are limited, I somehow manage to get by in my daily life with my pidgin French, whether it’s talking to the FedEx delivery person or the clerk at the pharmacy.
New Friends: Although I don’t have the huge circle of friends I had back in the US, I do have a few new friends whose companionship I value greatly. What I lack in quantity, I make up in quality. And as soon as I get some free time, I’m going to go to some expat events and meet my counterparts. Until now, I’ve been too busy getting organized, writing, and enjoying family.
Exploration of a New Culture: The loss of the familiar is replaced with the joy of seeing new and different ways of living. Buildings are designed differently. Services are provided differently. Artwork appears everywhere. Cassoulet has replaced my chili.
French values, such as placing a premium on family ties and leisure, have begun to influence me and are slowly replacing the workaholism I absorbed while living in the US.
A big hunk of leisure time is devoted to family gatherings. Whether it’s a birthday, anniversary, official holiday, or simply Sunday, every week deserves its own celebration.
As an added plus, I’ve done far more traveling since arriving here than I did back home. And I have plans for more.
Lastly, for pluses in France, I cannot fail to mention how fabulous the food is and how creatively it is presented.
Reinvention of Self: The best part of moving into a different culture, however, is that the new environment forces you to reinvent yourself. After eighteen months in France, I eat differently and wear different clothes. My hair is styled differently, and meal times are much later. My day starts later and in a more leisurely way. I was a wife in the US. Here I’m single. I’m more social and believe that I’ve made improvements in my manners.
The biggest aspect, though, of my reinvention is that I have finally committed to being a writer. In my former life, I struggled to find enough time to write. Here, because I’m spared the maintenance of a house or the obligations of being a wife or caretaker, I finally have time to write.
Besides this blog, I also write a monthly article for The Union, and my first novel, Blackbird, was just released. Blackbird is the first in a quartet of novels covering the lifetime of the heroine, Jane Bertram. The second, My Mother’s Daughter, and the third, The Perfect Mother, are finished, and I’m now writing the fourth, The First and Last Lesson.
I’ve joked with one friend and said the only thing that’s the same about my life here in France compared to my life in the US is that I still floss my teeth at night. Pretty much everything else has changed.
Several of my US friends have mentioned that they are planning on moving to Europe upon retirement. One is moving to Spain, another to Italy. One of my closest new friends is an American who moved here from the East Coast.
Like me, they will discover the pluses and the minuses, the frustrations and the joys, the losses and the gains. And hopefully, like me, they will balance both and they’ll come out on the positive side.