To recap the story so far: In my youth, I spent far too many months in a situation straight out of Dickens (only with much better food and slightly better hygiene.) My experience as an au pair in France was pretty much a disaster from start to finish, and nearly soured me on expat life for good. But I survived; in fact, I emerged stronger than ever. So what did I learn?
Lesson #1: Preparation never hurts. Glancing through an outdated copy of Europe on $10 a Day the day before moving to a new country, as I did, is not particularly helpful. Two years after my French sojourn, older and wiser, I moved to Australia. By the time my plane touched down in Sydney, I’d memorized every detail I could find about the history, climate, major exports, political system, demographics, and popular culture of Australia. I knew who Ned Kelly, Captain Cook, and Midnight Oil were. I could tell the difference between wallabies and kangaroos. I knew where to find opals, Uluru, and the Great Barrier Reef. I’d learned a few phrases in Strine, absorbed the intricacies of Aussie Rules Football, and committed the map of downtown Sydney to memory. I looked forward to throwing another shrimp on the barbie. You see where I’m going with this? I was ready.
Lesson #2: You’re never as ready as you think. In fact, I made the classic newbie mistake: assuming that knowing about a country means knowing what to expect. Don’t get me wrong; that kind of preparation is invaluable. But had I read up on the internal processes of expatriation, and learned a little about the symptoms of culture shock and the steps of adjusting to a new culture, I might not have been so hard on myself when I continued to feel like an outsider even though the Aussies and I spoke – more or less – the same language. Understanding what’s normal means you’ll be less likely to lie awake at night convinced you’re going crazy.
Lesson #3: An emergency plan is essential. Sure, it’s great to be spontaneous. But stuff happens, and it’s usually expensive. If I’d had some money socked away, I would have been able to afford bus fare even when Maman didn’t feel like paying me, and I wouldn’t have had to jump off the bus every time someone who looked faintly like a transit inspector got on. (You’d be surprised how often that happened.) Better yet, with a little stash of mad money, I could’ve bailed on the whole sorry situation and partied in Nice instead.
Lesson #4: A sense of humour can get you through a lot of crap. It’s like a muscle that needs to be exercised, though – don’t neglect it. I did, and look where it got me.
Lesson #5: Remember that one bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch, girl. Maman wasn’t mean because she was French; she was mean because she was a sadist. When I moved back to France twenty-plus years later, I discovered how delightful and welcoming the French can be.
Lesson #6: You can study grammar until you’re conjugating in your sleep, but you’ll never truly know a language until you’re speaking it with the locals, day in and day out. As much as it hurts, making mistakes is part of the deal. Get over it.
Lesson #7: Friends make life worth living. Making friends as an expatriate is a little like [shudder] dating: you’ve got to sound each other out and get to know each other gradually before taking your relationship to the next level. First, though, you’ve got to put yourself out there. The same way that Prince Charming is never going to ride up to your front door on his trusty steed, potential friends won’t materialize out of the blue. Nobody ever met that special someone while holed up in their room gorging on excellent dark chocolate. I’m just saying.
Lesson #8: If you find yourself holed up in your room gorging on excellent dark chocolate on a regular basis – and especially if the simple act of getting out of bed feels like too much effort – you need help, of the professional variety. Depression is a common affliction in expat communities around the globe. Recognize the signs, and take whatever steps necessary to get yourself well.
Lesson #9: Know yourself, and be mindful of your limitations. There are certain personality traits that lend themselves to success in a foreign environment: extraversion, openness to experience, and comfort with ambiguity spring to mind. I happen to possess none of these traits. That doesn’t mean that adjustment is impossible, just that it’s a damn sight harder. Had I taken the time to honestly consider my suitability for expat life at the tender age of 19, I might never have left home. Which brings me to my final point:
Lesson #10: Sometimes you’ve just got to say “what the hell, that sounds like fun,” and go for it.