This September, I am celebrating the 18th anniversary of life in France. Since my arrival with one suitcase, a seven-month teaching contract, and a tiny room in a sort of Parisian YWCA, my life has undergone numerous metamorphoses. These days, there’s a husband, a house, two kids, good friends, a business, citizenship, and a much greater appreciation and understanding of the country I now call home!
In the nearly two decades I have lived here, I have learnt so much. However, contrary to what popular Francophile literature and TV shows would have you believe, the most useful things I have picked up from the French way of life are not the correct way to wear a scarf or which wine to match with a given cheese. The French lifestyle has taught me much, for example, about work-life balance, the importance of enjoying simple pleasures, the benefits of slowing down, and the wisdom of prioritising quality over quantity. Currently on my mind is the particular (peculiar?) manner by which French structure their year and the ways it makes life easier and more satisfying.
The Franco-Gregorian calendar: a hybrid approach
The calendar starts in January in France, but in all other respects, the year really begins in September here – and not just for schools and universities. After the long summer holiday that marks the end of the last ‘year’, the word on everyone’s lips in September is la rentrée, meaning “the re-entry”; as in going back – to school, to work, to activities, to normal life. I struggled against this notion for many years – I wanted to start classes mid-year, join a gym in February and pay pro rata, launch projects in April, and actually achieve – well, anything – in August (sheer madness!). However, once I finally stopped swimming upstream and embraced this way of thinking, I was struck, as I often have been, by the wisdom of the French way.
Taking a French approach to your rentrée can make life easier, more satisfying and more relaxing – wherever you happen to live. Why? And How?
- The rentrée is a propitious time to make resolutions
Our minds tend to turn to self-improvement, changing habits and fresh starts in January, but September is, in my experience, a much more appropriate time to implement some life upgrades. In January, we are often run down by the winter cold and illness*, and exhausted from the Christmas whirlwind. In September, however, we’re fresh and relaxed after the summer break. We’ve recharged our batteries and have the energy to begin new projects and change our ways.
- It’s a natural launch date
Speaking of projects. Even if you don’t have children, you can piggy-back on the momentum created by lots of kids sharpening pencils and going back to school to launch your own projects. That might be taking up a new hobby, signing up for adult education classes, or starting to write your novel. Whatever you choose to do, the fact that the nights are going to start drawing in and the days get colder can also help you prioritise these kinds of projects that require time spent in the home.
- It forces you change pace and stay with the season
The change of pace from summer fun to serious work in the autumn is just one example of the ebb and flow that characterises the French year. As they wave their kids off to school in September, the French immediately start planning their late October mini-break. By scheduling in – even ritualising – their holidays, the French ensure they change pace and take breaks regularly – before they’re on their last legs.
- The French find the joy in what is
In my experience, the French are very good at accepting and reaping the benefits of the season in progress. Take food as an example: the French quite consciously change the way they eat throughout the year. Winter is welcomed because it brings with it a promise of fondu and raclette, mulled wine and seafood; summer is all about rosé, fresh fruit and drinks at pavement cafés. The rentrée reminds us to embrace the seasons mindfully – reassessing eating habits and looking at sleep routines, the quantity of social commitments we take on, cosmetics used, maybe even the books we read.
- The rentrée serves as a great yearly reminder
I use the rentrée as a reminder to do a certain number of chores (the kind that occur yearly or a few times per year). The whole family has their annual appointment with the dentist; I get my eyes checked; the kids have haircuts and new shoes. These preparatory rituals of the rentrée all contribute to my feeling ready in September and raring to go. Which in turn helps me make the most of my time and get moving quickly as opposed to spending a week (more?!) lamenting the end of the holidays and wishing I were somewhere else.
Be here, now
Ultimately, that’s what the French obsession with la rentrée means to me: it’s a way of enjoying the “be here, now”. The summer is coming to a close, the holidays are ending, and that’s natural, normal. Do you know the song “To everything there is a season”? It’s the one with the “Turn, turn, turn” refrain. It’s based on a Bible verse (for the 40-something women like me reading this, it’s the one Kevin Bacon uses to convince the preacher in Footloose to let the kids dance): “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted…”.
Whatever your religious conviction, the notion that there’s a time for everything is helpful. To me, the rentrée is a yearly reminder not to try to do everything at once, to pace myself and undertake activities mindfully and at a time that is appropriate. I find that way of thinking takes the pressure off and offers me useful perspective – which is needed all year round!
*Apologies to readers in the southern hemisphere – some of what I am going to say will not apply directly but can be adapted to apply to your own post-summer rentrée in March…
If you’re seeking perspective and structure for your life, perhaps looking to make some changes this rentrée, supportive coaching that focuses on finding your pace and what’s right for you can help you create a life you love. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session to find out how working together can help you build a life lived with purpose and on purpose.
Are you in a rut? Do you feel slightly stuck, or maybe a bit lost? Perhaps you’re actually doing fine, but you have that feeling that you could be doing better. Maybe there projects you want to start, but you’re finding it hard to gain momentum, or you just don’t know where to begin. Whatever your situation, there is one thing you can do that pretty much guarantees some kind of progress, especially here in Paris where, in my experience at least, la bouche à l’oreille is essential: le networking.
Networking is not a four-letter word
Many people feel shy about networking, feeling there’s something self-serving and shameful about it. And I must agree that the expressions “working the room” and “schmoozing” send shivers down my spine. Who wants to be that woman who leaps across the top table at her cousin’s wedding, spilling champagne on the bride, in order to press a crumpled business card into the unwilling palm of the best man as he’s half-way through his speech just because he happens to mention he works in HR? Not me. I’m guessing not you either.
Genuine, honest networking is about meeting new people and developing existing relationships. It’s about being sincerely interested in learning about another person’s projects and seeing if there’s any way in which the two of you can help each other out. It’s a two-way street. To be effective and avoid falling into schmoozing territory, it needs to be totally shameless in the positive sense of the word (yes, there is one). Consider the difference between:
“Wow, you’re studying shiatsu! I’ve always wanted to try it. Maybe I could come by for a session some time. I guess it’s really expensive, though? Yeah, money’s a little tight at the moment. So I reckon I’ll have to wait for a while before calling. Do you offer discounted rates for friends of friends? Haha, no just kidding…” Cue awkward silence.
“Hi, Jane told me you’re studying shiatsu. Listen, I’ve always fancied trying it, but I can’t afford it at the moment. No pressure, but I wonder if you’d be interested in discussing a service I could offer you in exchange for a session? I’m pretty good at setting up websites, for example, and have often babysat for friends. If either of those interests you, here’s my number, let me know. And of course, I’ll totally understand if you’re not into it.”
Which exchange would you prefer to have?
Effective networking should also always begin with the (unspoken) question “what can I do for you?” Go into it with the goal of meeting people and seeing if any of your knowledge or contacts can be useful to them. It takes the pressure of you and puts people at ease knowing that you’re there to offer as well as to accept a coup de main.
When done openly and in the right spirit, good networking can really make a difference – obviously, it can boost your career, but it can also help you achieve personal goals and up your chances of creating a fulfilling life for yourself, particularly if you’re new to Paris and still trying to find your groove. Here are four reasons to put yourself out there and attend a networking event near you!
You will widen your support network
Developing a wide circle of friends and acquaintances is crucial to feeling rooted and connected. Maybe you won’t meet your next employer at a networking event but you might make a new friend (already an excellent achievement) who, three months down the line, hears about a job opening and passes it on to you. That same friend might then share the name of her babysitter with you, giving you and your partner a much-needed night out. She might also become the person you call at 3am when you just need to talk. She might invite you to join her book group. The more people you know, the more people you know…
You will find new sources of information
Simply talking about your stalled project with someone new can give you ideas you may never have come to otherwise. You’re telling someone how you wish you could get back into rollerblading like you used to, and someone in the little group you’re with, someone you don’t even know, asks if you know about the big roller-outings organised on Sunday evenings in Paris. You haven’t asked for help, no flesh has been pressed, but you walk away knowing more than you did before.
You’ll open your horizons and gain new perspectives
When actively networking, you will talk to people you never would have approached, say, at a party. Perhaps people you wouldn’t be friends with. The beauty of talking to people from all walks of life is that it’s often the people who aren’t like you – people that have different values and beliefs and who move in different circles – who will say something that gives you that “light bulb” moment. Those are the people who will think outside of your box. And vice versa…
You’ll get the feel-good boost that comes from helping others
Putting aside all the things networking can do for you, isn’t it delightful to find yourself in a position to help someone else? Especially when you’re feeling below par yourself. It is so gratifying to be able to say “Really? You’re looking for a private English teacher? I actually know someone who might be able to help”, or “I actually have a friend leaving Paris soon and her apartment will be up for grabs – shall I put the two of you in touch?” Personally, I am known among my friends for my willingness to “matchmake” in this way. I love lending a hand like that. The bonus is that because of this, lots of my friends are now friends with each other (which incidentally made my wedding extra fun), plus friends are always willing to return the favour.
Because that’s the basis of all non-schmoozy (yep, I’m making up words now) networking. There’s a positive karma to it when done with the right intention. You help, advise or inform someone just because you can. Then they either help you back or they pay it forward. Whatever happens, you have added something good to the world and that will always do you good.
Originally published in Message Paris magazine.
In any Paris exercise class – be it Pilates, Gym Suedoise or the unappealingly named “Body Attack” – there is always a moment when can you spot the other ex-pat(s) in the room. It’s at that point when the instructor says something like (here I take an example from my own yoga class): “Now, if this isn’t enough of a stretch, you can make the posture more challenging by extending your left arm, raising your foot and taking hold of your big toe”. It’s then that you see a gleam in the eye of the ex-pat: “Oh goody”, she’s thinking, “I can make it harder for myself!”
The road less travelled
Because let’s admit it, folks, ex-pats, and even more so, ex-pat parents, are not people who have chosen the path of least resistance in life. We’re people who choose – either by looking to move or by deciding to “follow” a spouse – to build a life in a foreign country, perhaps in a foreign language, usually with few friends to start off, often with little knowledge of how the system works… I’m that kind of gal myself. I arrived in Paris with two suitcases, a part-time job as a language assistant, and a metre-squared room in a foyer de jeunes filles. I knew nobody. Friends starting well-paid jobs in London, moving into flat-shares with good mates from university, and taking their washing home at the weekends thought I was mad. But you – yes, you the masochistic ex-pat like me who’s chosen the road less travelled – you know that I just had to do life the hard way. It’s in our nature. When choosing a book for my holiday, not for me a nice Marion Keyes page-turner that looks really fun; no, this is the perfect opportunity to attack Les Misérables! And I don’t just have the easy chocolate Advent calendar. We’ll get one, sure, but I think I’ll also hand-sew a perpetual calendar with little motivational quotations in the pockets that I’ll write out in coloured inks. The school bake sale asks for parents to bring in a cake per family? I’ll make 30 frosted cupcakes instead, plus a Victoria sponge for the teachers!
Raising a child as an ex-pat is a whole other world of self-inflicted “hard way”, isn’t it? It raises questions about giving birth in a foreign language, sometimes learning vocabulary you weren’t even sure of in English, making choices about bi/trilingualism, learning about the school system, perhaps facing differences in approaches to bringing up children – with a foreign spouse, foreign in-laws, and society as a whole. It’s a minefield.
A life lived on purpose
I’ve always found that intrinsic to life as an ex-pat is the fact that everything is slightly more intense, or rather that you live everything more intensely. The highs are higher, and, boy, the lows are lower. So, on days when we’re feeling strong and life is going well, we are aware that what we’re doing is difficult, we get a kick out of it, and indeed, we respect for ourselves for choosing to be challenged. But on days when there are comprehension problems at school, the bank screws up an international transfer, and you have to do battle with the La Poste to find the parcel your aunt in Australia sent you, you can wind up shaking your fist at the sky and wondering why you’re inflicting this life upon yourself.
It’s in those moments that you take a breath, have a cup of tea (the British panacea!), and ask yourself the following powerful coaching questions:
- What have I learnt since my arrival in Paris and how has that expanded my horizons?
- What personal growth is my life here allowing me (and my family) that wouldn’t be available back home?
- Who/what/how am I in Paris that I couldn’t have been at home?
- What would I miss about my life here if I were to leave it tomorrow?
- If I had never moved here, which people would I have missed out on meeting and/or befriending?
No matter how hard you might be finding life in Paris right now, you have without a doubt learnt and grown since your arrival. When it all seems just a bit too hard and not worth it, take a step back, ask yourself these questions and give yourself a break. Even us “push-yourself” ex-pats sometimes need to do just the minimum – the simple yoga pose, the gaudy-cover beach book, a Kinder calendar – and, yes, God bless Marks & Spencer for that pre-iced sponge cake that will sometimes just have to do.
Originally published in Message Paris magazine.
Stop drinking. Take folic acid. Buy maternity clothes with clownish but addictively comfortable stretch panel. Put gynaecologist on speed dial. Watch your weight.
What now? Watch your weight? Of all the annoyances and indignities one suffers when pregnant, being told to keep an eye on my weight was one that I really didn’t expect. Surely, I thought, surely pregnancy is the one time when you can put aside thoughts of diets, waistlines and BMI. Apparently not in Paris.
French women don’t get fat?
Before living in France and, indeed, having a baby myself, it never crossed my mind that there would be an ideal weight gain during pregnancy, nor that any expecting woman would ever be told to faire attention. British friends who’d had kids spoke of ultrasounds and prenatal classes, never of monthly weigh-ins. But that is indeed the reality of having a baby here – a surprising number of Parisian doctors do warn women to put on just one kilo per month and will admonish women who overshoot.
When I went to confirm my own pregnancy, my doctor offered advice on vitamins then leant over and whispered to me conspiratorially that not putting on much weight was the best way to avoid stretch marks and ensure easy recovery of your pre-baby body. Seriously? I had been pregnant for all of five minutes and I was already supposed to be concerned with fitting into my bikini after giving birth!
Weighing it up
Now, let’s not fall into cliché here. This and other harsher anecdotes are absolutely not representative of all Parisian doctors. Most are much more measured and sensible. Not to mention sensitive: weight is a very delicate issue for a large number of women at the best of times, and pregnancy can exacerbate disordered eating and feelings of dissatisfaction with one’s body. But while draconian doctors are by no means the norm in Paris, there does seem to be a definite cult of thinness here among an extreme few that just isn’t noticeable in English-speaking countries.
Skinny jeans and Petit Bateau
Of course, this goes hand-in-hand with the truth universally acknowledged that Parisian women are thin in general. Or, more precisely, thinner than us. I’ve not done a scientific study but every ex-pat I know perceives a difference between morphology here and at home. So it’s easy to understand why so many ex-pat women feel generally “big” compared to the natives here, and they also feel under incredible pressure to have “neat” pregnancies then shed the weight pronto.
However, short of leaving the country, the only thing we can do to counter this trend and protect ourselves from its influence is control is how we react to this pressure, be it insidious or overtly stated.
The example I set
Since I had my daughter I have lived with a profound sense of responsibility, the knowledge that my behaviour and attitudes will shape her experience of the world and her understanding of her place within it. I’m sure I am not the only parent to feel acutely aware of this. It’s a heavy weight to bear, but it can also offer a kind of protection. When I start to feel bad about the baby weight yet to be shed, I ask myself whether I would want my little girl to feel like that. When I’m tempted to engage with pressure to lose weight in ways that are speedy but perhaps unhealthy or extreme, I ask myself whether that’s the example I want to set for my daughter. And when I’m drawn into comparing my weight, shape or looks to others, I remember that for my mother, I am beautiful, just as my daughter is perfection in my eyes.
What I want for my daughter, I must claim for myself. And I want her to see her unique beauty – not to compare her thighs to the next girl’s. I want her to enjoy all that her body can do – running, jumping, swimming, playing – not to waste time lamenting a number on a scale. Most of all, I want her to be healthy, both physically and mentally and that, more than anything, starts with me.
Originally published in Message Paris magazine.