Living in foreign country is a fabulous and enriching experience.
As a Brit who’s been living in Paris for the last 5 years, I can safely say that you learn a lot about yourself, another culture and also (more surprisingly) about your own country. As I toppled off the train at Gare du Nord with two heavy suitcases and a woolly hat one cold, rainy February evening all those years ago, I never imagined that I would make this city my home.
And, yet home it is.
I feel very comfortable in my little flat nestled in the winding street of the 20th arrondissement.
Yet, something happened recently to make me question all this. Question just how well I fit in and exactly what I’ve given up by leaving my mother country.
I’d been contacted by a new client who was looking for an English copywriter from the UK (I seemed to fit the bill). However on returning the test text I’d been asked to complete, I received an email asking me, pretty much point blank, if I was really genuinely English.
I was taken aback. I started to ask myself questions. Had I begun to write a strange version of Franglais? Was I losing my grip on the language I’d grown up speaking?
Apparently my tendency to invent words and create hyphenated sentences hadn’t gone down too well. I’d perhaps gone a little too far this time…
Yet, the very fact of having my Englishness questioned, forced to confront some of the doubts that had been niggling in the background for some time.
What had I gained by moving to a different country?
There are, without doubt, lots advantages including seeing new sights, learning a new language and discovering words or expressions that don’t exist in English like dépaysement (the sensation of being in another country), espirit d’escalier (thinking of a witty comeback too late) or flâner (deliberate, aimless wandering whilst savouring the flavours of the city). I also benefit from an exotic foreigner status that makes me automatically interesting and creates instant conversations.
I’d successfully taken myself out of my comfort zone to test my limits and create a new life out of a few phrases of university French and a love of writing and red wine.
But, on the other hand, what had I lost?
When speaking a foreign language you change. Unless you’re truly bilingual, you often become a less nuanced and complex person. Even with a very high level in your adopted language, it will never be your mother tongue.
In addition to the linguistic challenges, I also sometimes feel disadvantaged by my very different cultural baggage. References to French films, cult TV shows and 1960s singers usually whizz over my head and are accompanied by a vague smile. Needless to say, everyone avoids being on my team for Trivial Pursuits and Times Up!
Although I go back to England regularly, each time I feel a little less at home. I’m not in on all the latest jokes, gossip and concepts. It’s my home, yet I’ve chosen not to live there. I rejected the cosy feeling of belonging to embark on a more complex (and very enriching) adventure.
I’ve chosen to live in lingustic limbo.