Expat Living in France: What To Expect When Visiting Family Back HomeReading Time: 7 minutes
Last Updated on April 28, 2021
What No One Tells You About
There are a few collective experiences that expats go through but don’t necessarily talk or write about. One of the themes I want to highlight is the dynamic of visiting family in your motherland (for me that’s the US) as an expat living in France.
Never in a million years did I think I would be l’étrangère living in France all by myself. I had never even heard of the word expat before reading Hemingway, and I never thought I would ever be defined as one in my lifetime. (Expat is short for expatriate, or a person who chooses to live in a different land than the one they come from. Read more about it in this post: Paris Expat Series: Americans in Paris.)
However, the first time I came to Paris, I experienced the coup de foudre, or love at first sight, for the city. And I knew I was somehow called to live in Paris because I experienced, what many travelers and expats describe as “feeling at home in Paris”. At the time, I was still in college, but the moment I graduated, I packed a carry-on suitcase and booked a flight to Paris with no plans other than to arrive in the City of Light and figure it all out.
7 years later, I’m still here and I’ve made Paris my chez moi. I’ve adopted the language, the culture, built a business and have even fallen in love with a Frenchman who promises he’ll marry me one day. Living as an expat in France is part survival, pleasure, learning, evolving, and thriving. When you get to the thriving part, you’re in a sweet spot and you want to stay there. That’s when things get comfortable and you can do less surviving and more enjoying.
In my personal experience, I go through 3 phases when it comes to the family dynamic: homesickness, culture clash and misunderstanding, and the feeling of living a double life. These are my experiences of family that no one tells you about in life as an expat living in Paris.
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Homesickness is something every expat living in France has experienced at some point or another. Whether it’s homesickness for their family or something as basic as food staples, or as complex as missing the way of doing things in their home country, most expats experience periods or moments of homesickness.
When I first moved to Paris in 2013, the homesickness didn’t kick in for several years, but the more often I went back to the States to visit family, I would experience long periods of depression and homesickness primarily around the holidays and if I was planning to visit family these periods would happen months before my trip. I describe it as your heart calling and longing for the motherland. There is an unexplainable physiological or even spiritual thing that happens to humans when we are away from the places we grew up in, our origins.
Personally, I don’t miss the place as much as I miss the people – my friends and family. Don’t get me wrong, I love the US and I love France, I just wish I could be a foreigner with more contact with my loved ones. That’s one of the downsides of the distance, different time zones and continents. The time and space complicates things and video or phone calls, although I’m grateful for these technological advances, just aren’t the same.
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Culture Clash and Misunderstanding
Secondly, when you do see your family, the younger ones are all grown up. If you last saw them before they hit puberty, they are definitely in the midst of that now. Their physical appearances are changing, their style is too. You start to see more wrinkles on your grandparents faces and more greys sprouting on your parents’ scalp. Things back home never stopped while you were away, life continues with or without you and people live their lives.
The first few days are sweet as you talk about all the work and life updates. After a few days pass you start to get annoyed at your father’s tendency to yell or your mother’s habit of complaining. Then you start to question if you’re as much like your parents abroad or not? I mean you are half parts of each of them, right? Then you may hark on your brothers for how naive or careless they seem to be about their life choices, but that’s ok, cause they are grown adult men now. It’s hard to see them as such because you still remember them as two little awkward boys getting into trouble.
You become “the foreigner” living abroad. I remember the first time I came back home, my brothers dubbed me “the French girl”. It’s also strange to come back home and pretend that you’re like everyone else, you’re from that place, but when people introduce you, your friends and family introduce you as the cousin, the friend, or the daughter who lives in Paris. Then you get people’s reaction of “Oh, that’s so cool!” and “I love Paris!”, or “I’ve always wanted to visit Paris – it’s on my bucket list.”. You then wonder if that’s the coolest thing about you – living abroad – and if your family forgot that you’re also a business owner, a painter, a photographer, a good cook, etc… But that’s ok, cause you just have to embrace that you are different now – you have a unique experience. You also have to tell yourself that as much as they try, they will never fully understand.
Your unique experience lends itself to seeing the world differently now. You live abroad on a different continent than your compatriots and you speak a different language, too. Heck, your accent may even have changed a little and you pronounce some words differently than you used to. You may be more open-minded than you once were and be a champion for universal health care because you know how wonderful it is to pay 24 € for an emergency hospital visit versus $2400. Sure, taxes are higher in France, but more people receive help.
Living a double life
Finally, it’s time to say bye to your beloved friends and family. After you’ve seen your family and have returned to the foreign land, you realize that everyone has their own life. You become that much less a part of theirs and it’s hard to say goodbye because you don’t know what kind of news or life events you’ll miss while away.
You get an aching in your heart that is deeper than FOMO, it’s this longing to be in two places at once and you realize that you’re living a double life. One abroad, with your own friends, work, and home. The second one is left behind in your home town where it’s like closing a good book that you pick up only on special occasions. You don’t know the next time you’re going to clear the dust off the cover and crack open to the chapter you left off on to participate in that part of your life again. You put those people on pause but in reality they don’t put you on pause – these faraway friends and family are busy living their lives. That’s when you get this regrettable feeling in the pit of your stomach when you realize that you’re living two lives. And you’re only a part of one or the other as much as you participate in it…
Being an expat has its rewards like it has its challenges. And there are plenty of things you can be told or taught, but the true experience of an expat living in France is one that you take part in first-hand. It isn’t always easy to live abroad away from your family as a sojourner, but this life is unique, so don’t give that up for anything.
If you’re planning on moving to France – whether short-term or long-term, I would really love to hear from you and even answer your questions if you have them. I help expats and travelers like you to adjust to life in France so they can thrive, not just survive. That help can vary from personal assistance for administration, visa prep, etc, to relocation and moving services – finding housing and a moving company. Contact me today to get the support and resources you need to settle in France stress-free!
Cover Photo by: Aaron Burden
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