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.