Living outside one’s home country is always a challenge and more so if the language is different. So it was for me, in 1993 when I first took my wife, our young son and two dogs to restore a house in France. Living the dream seemed the natural and obvious thing to do; that it involved considerable risk was part of the thrill.
I wrote extensively about that adventure, which is ongoing, in my books ‘French Onion Soup!’ (http://rodfleming.com/books/french-onion-soup/ ISBN 978-0-9565007-3-1 and ‘Croutons and Cheese.’ (ISBN 9780957261242, release this month)
Moving to France was a life-changing event in many ways, not least because I quickly discovered that my school French was going to need a lot of improvement! Nevertheless, we fitted in well and soon had a new baby in the house.
We lived there from 1993 to 1995 and then again from 2001 to 2004. By the latter, our family had expanded to four children; we still had two dogs, but, alas, not the same ones.
Since 2011 I have lived in France year-round, although I spend increasingly long periods in the Philippines, which I have fallen in love with. Now I am in the process of moving there permanently.
So what would I say to the person who is thinking of living in a foreign country? Well, the first thing is to make sure that you can communicate effectively with the locals.
This will affect not only how you relate to the people who live around you but your exchanges with the authorities. In France, if you live in a rural area, then the Mayor is the representative of the State and almost everything you need to do with regard to that can be done through the Town Hall or Mairie. But be aware, if your Mayor doesn’t have fluent English — and this is rare in the rural areas that many foreigners choose to settle — then things can become complicated very quickly.
For anyone who is a European citizen, including the British, at least for now, it is easy to move and set up in any other European country. But don’t imagine that the locals will change the ways that they do things to accommodate you, or learn fluency in your language to make your life easier. You are the newcomer and you must make the effort. Although there is no substitute for immersion in learning a new tongue, do the best you can in your home country, before you leave, to sharpen up your skills.
Clearly, there is a difference between those who are posted to a foreign country, or who are only there to work, and those who genuinely wish to create a new life there. Often, those posted overseas by their employers are chosen on the strength of their language skills and are, in any case, likely to have tremendous support from their firm. Everyone else must manage without these advantages, and the pitfalls can be great. Can you readily access health services or open a bank account? If you don’t have a good grasp of the local language, minor tasks that would be inconsequential at home become massive, stressful undertakings; and this is doubly the case where the local bureaucratic system differs widely from the one you are used to.
In your daily life, you must assimilate as much as you can and form friendships or at least cordial working relationships with the people around you. In order to do this, you have to be able to hold a modicum of polite conversation, even if it is only about the weather. And just try to ignore the moments when your neighbor’s eyebrows make a desperate grab for his hairline as you commit some atrocity against his fair language.
It is polite, by the way, if you can, to speak the local language whenever you are out in public or, at very least, not to be too loud in speaking your own. Always remember that irrespective of what European rules say, you are still a guest in the locals’ eyes. At very least, address the checkout operator in the local language even if you mess it up royally.
Leaving aside the thorny subject of language for the moment, living in Europe becomes much harder if you are not a European citizen. In part, this is because the official hurdles you must jump are much greater than those that face a European. The French public draw little practical distinction, for example, between Americans, Brits, Irish and Australians; but the Administration views these very differently. Brits and Irish are European and so have legal rights almost equivalent to a native’s; but this is not so for the American or Australian, who will be subject to visa and other immigration restrictions. I think it is partly the combined difficulties of language and bureaucracy that causes there to be so few Americans and Australians living in European countries outside of the UK and Ireland.
These issues should not put you off the idea of living in a European country, but it is always something to bear in mind. With determination and preparedness to work hard, it can be done and the rewards, I can confirm, are rich and numerous; but the effort you will have to make is also great. As the old adage says, ‘you get back what you put in.’
Because of the issues with language and bureaucracy, it’s often the case that foreigners seek out other foreigners, otherwise known as ‘expats’ as friends and advisers. This is a Bad Idea.
I have never, personally, been one of those who seeks out other expats, in a country I intend to spend a lot of time in. It’s different for short visits when the experience of the community of other foreigners in dealing with the local systems can save a lot of time, money and exasperation.
For those who wish to actually live abroad, which I would take to mean spending a year or more there and, more importantly, immersing yourself in the life, then this apparent convenience can quickly become a trap that you may struggle to escape from.
This is because of the insularity of the expat community, and it is the same no matter where you are. I know people who have lived in France for ten years or more and whose ability to have an intelligent conversation with a local is approximately zero.
They are not assimilated into the local culture and people do not talk to them in the street; they remain apart. Their experience of France is something like that of the spectator at a show where none of the participants are comprehensible. This never improves and as a result, the expat cleaves harder to others of the same ilk, becoming a community apart, an enclave. There are whole villages in France where not a soul speaks French now and I wonder: how much of France do these people actually experience?
So, if you wish to really live the life in the country you intend to live in, then you must be prepared to shun the expats and plunge in, boots and all, to the local life.
Make no mistake, as soon as they know you are in the area, they will descend upon you and, very soon after, you will find that you are classed by the locals as — you guessed it, an expat. A person who only resides in the country and experiences none of it.
Breaking out of this circle will be much harder than falling into it, partly because of genuine concern about you by the expats and partly because of hesitation by locals who have already seen which way you tend to turn; but also because, having taken the route of least resistance once, it will be that much easier to take it again.
I find the same is true in the Philippines: while it is true that other expats represent a wealth of knowledge and experience, it comes at the price of being isolated from the local community.
It depends on what you want and everybody’s cookie crumbles differently, but I fail to see the point in traveling 10,000 miles to meet people I could as easily meet at home. I prefer to make relationships with local people and even though this can lead to extreme hilarity as my attempts to express myself in the local language fall off a cliff, I fin8d that people still respect me for making the effort.
In learning a new language, by the way, it is vital not to be afraid of making a complete idiot of yourself.
Remember that people who correct you are actually helping, not criticising. And learning the language is essential if you wish to actually live in your new, adopted home, rather than simply to reside there.
The effort required to learn a new language and understand a culture is huge, there is no doubt, but only through it will you really savor the soul of the country you have moved to. And that experience is worth all the toil.
Rod Fleming (Angeles, Pampanga, 2017)