The Five Stages of the Expat Experience

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.


6 responses to “The Five Stages of the Expat Experience

  1. Shelly Wood Ziegelman

    Thank you Anne! My husband and I laughed out loud. I have to redo the paperwork for my carte de sejour because I can’t seem to sign within the box…

  2. This is a *perfect* post to describe the stages of culture stress in France and what happens to a person when relocating. But I laughed out loud, ruefully, when I read this: “For some it’s three months, for others, it takes a full year.”

    I’m going on over two years and only *just* feeling the hints of adjustment. And I thought I was hardcore — I have lived overseas before, and in the People’s Republic of China to boot. I thought France would be a piece of cake, but turns out it is not (whether that is due in part to the fact that I am 20 years older now than I was when I was in China, I don’t know; it could be). I just wanted readers of this post to know that they should not beat themselves up if they are barely feeling the adjustment phase and have been here longer than a year, however. It takes people different amounts of time to “get there.” My fiancé has been here 20 years, and there are *still* things he struggles with.

    What I do know, though, is if people persevere through those other stages, they will get to the point of feeling success build upon success, and that sense of adjustment. Not necessarily in a linear fashion, though — just as with the grief cycle, too.

    Thanks so much for this. It’s wise, insightful, and funny.

  3. Bingo. Perfect. Nailed it. Brilliant.

  4. 25 years ‘on the road’ – 8 countries, 5 schools, 7 moves – and it is so true every time. thanks Anne!

  5. You couldn’t have said it better. I love this, really wonderful post.

  6. I’ve been here for over a year and I’m just starting to get my footing. I think the first year is the hardest. My step-dad told me that things would come in the shape of a W. Super high happy (top of the W) then down to frustration (bottom of the W), Okay day (middle of the W). It helps me remember that things will get better (and worse) and I try to just go with the flow.

    And you can’t compare yourself to other people. Some people speak French and have integrated much faster than me, and if I waste time putting myself down because of it, it just makes things worse. Don’t forget to pat yourself on the back sometimes! It’s not an easy process and you are probably doing much better than you give yourself credit for.

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