Frazzled and frustrated? Been there, done that. There’s something about being a newcomer to Paris (or perhaps any new place) that turns the most competent of us upside down. One day, you’re working at a high-powered job, juggling career and family responsibilities, doing the volunteer thing and even whipping up cupcakes for your kid’s birthday party at school. Then you find yourself in Paris and it seems like it all goes to hell. The end of the day arrives and your list of things to get done is longer than when it was when you got up.
You have heard of the stages of grief, right? Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross, world renowned expert on death and dying, neatly defined the emotional stages that everyone goes through when confronted with the worst news possible: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and then finally acceptance. It occurs to me that there is a similar progression for expats and it goes something like this:
Elation: After months of waiting and wishing, you’ve finally gotten the confirmation. You are moving to Paris! How exciting. What a great adventure. Your friends are jealous and you can’t stop dreaming about what life will be like in the City of Light: the sunsets, the bridges, the champagne, the pastries, the art, the style. The city is beautiful, charming, and elegant. The food is divine.
Panic: You can’t find an apartment or your kids haven’t been accepted into school. Your household goods are sitting on the dock somewhere waiting to clear customs despite the fact that they were supposed to have arrived two weeks ago. You desperately need those items and don’t want to go shopping for replacements while you wait. Your French, which you thought was pretty good, turns out to be inadequate. Or you don’t speak any French and you feel like an idiot trying to accomplish the most basic tasks. Routines at work make no sense. You can’t figure out what to cook for dinner and the checker in the market is making faces at you as you struggle to differentiate among the coins in your wallet. You need curtains, light fixtures, school supplies, a dentist, a vet, a haircut, and a stiff drink.
Frustration: You’ve been waiting four weeks and you still don’t have phone service. You’ve gone to the prefecture with all the forms for your carte de sejour and you were missing two critical documents; only no one told you that you would need them. The relocation company your firm hired to help your family adjust is worthless. The clerk in the supermarket is still making faces at you because you can’t always figure out which coin is 10 centimes, which is 20, and which is 50. Your boss is breathing down your neck but no one is responding to your e-mails. Everything, even the smallest task, takes forever to get done. It’s raining (again) and you just stepped in a pile of dog poop.
Realignment. Every day still has its struggles but things are starting to fall into place. You have successful interactions with shopkeepers, neighbors, and professional colleagues. Your apartment, while maybe not a showpiece, is becoming a home. Your kids start making friends and they’re no longer constantly whining about missing home. You discover neighborhood gems: parks, restaurants, shops. You know how to get from point A to point B by metro, bus, or car. You act like you’ve got it down but there’s still a long list of tasks you’re too chicken to take on. You’ve managed to get a haircut but the results weren’t pretty.
Adjustment. It has taken a long time to get to here, probably a lot longer than you would have expected. For some it’s three months, for others, it takes a full year. You may not feel integrated into French society but you better understand how things work. Your level of French has improved. You have created a network of relationships with locals and other expats. Your kids never want to leave. You have gained 10 pounds. And you have to start the process of renewing your carte de sejour.