Stretching yourself: doing things the ex-pat way

Stretching yourself: doing things the ex-pat way

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:

  1. What have I learnt since my arrival in Paris and how has that expanded my horizons?
  2. What personal growth is my life here allowing me (and my family) that wouldn’t be available back home?
  3. Who/what/how am I in Paris that I couldn’t have been at home?
  4. What would I miss about my life here if I were to leave it tomorrow?
  5. 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.

Baby weight: finding the positive in the pressure to gain little and lose quickly

Baby weight: finding the positive in the pressure to gain little and lose quickly

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.