It’s like being alone in a long hallway
While I was doing my Master’s in Germany, a friend of mine had an analogy for life in your twenties that stuck with me, that is that it is like a hallway. Imagine yourself alone in a long hallway with different rooms. As you make your way down the hallway, you go into these rooms, you meet different people there, and you undergo a variety of feelings; but in the end you always have to leave the room and go back into the hallway to continue on your journey. I like this analogy very much because it became a way for me to deal with the changes that I underwent living abroad in my twenties.
When you first leave your home, you are leaving a lot of people behind and the further you make your way down that hallway, the less you can hear those people from the place in which you began. This is the same for when you move around while you are abroad. When I found the love of my life and left my student life in Germany to live in France, I left a room of familiar people, feelings, sights, sounds and tastes for something new. I find that it is very comforting while living abroad to accept that things can change quickly.
I’ve constantly had to remind myself that the very act of moving abroad is selfish and subsequently, I cannot dwell when the friends I left behind slowly lose touch because every decision that I have taken was mine. Whether you are moving from Virginia to Texas or from New York to Germany, it is best to remember that the journey is your own. You’re going to meet horrible people that you can’t wait to rid yourself of and simultaneously wonderful people that will bring you joy on a daily basis. As you undergo big life changes, as many do in their twenties, it is important to accept the flow of people moving in and out of your life because that is just you on your journey and your journey cannot be compared to anyone else’s. Subsequently, we should have confidence that no matter how far we grow apart from familiar places and memorable people, they all served a purpose to our journey and thus will never be forgotten.
Stereotypes will prove themselves right than wrong over and over again
In France you will meet French people who will tell you France is the best country in the world and who will roll their eyes at you for not speaking French or for speaking French and making a few mistakes. Similarly, you will meet people who will rudely tell you to go learn French because this is France and in France ‘we speak French’. Every time I meet a French person who reassures all of my negative stereotypes about the French, I then meet the most wonderful people who make France look like the most superior country in the world. French who love to speak English, French who compliment your French and French who reassure you that French is hard to learn and that it is so wonderful that you try. Similarly, you will meet French who openly say that France’s pride has given it too many problems, French people that want to leave France and even French who seem to be embarrassed by the fact that they are in fact French.
The point is go easy on stereotyping people, stereotypes are just as much right as they are wrong. Don’t assume someone is rude until they give you an actual reason to think so and if they do, don’t think that it is because of their nationality, think it is just because that is a part of who they are or, and even more likely, you just caught them on a bad day. We shouldn’t steer away from stereotypes entirely, we should just be light hearted enough to not take them too seriously and have the courage to laugh and smile when they are in fact true.
To be grateful
After I moved to France to live with my now fiancé, we made a pacte civil de solidarité (pacs), or what it is otherwise known as a civil union in France. We did it as a prestep to marriage, like many young French people do, and with the intent of me being able to live and work in France. We were advised by many civil servants that this was the easiest way to assure us a life together in France. So we submitted my visa application with the faith that, in a short number of months, I would have my carté de sejour (visa), speak some French, have the legal right to work in France, and be on my way to a full-time job in France.
Now flash forward to a year later: parts of my file were lost, then my file was transferred, and ultimately, my visa was still being processed. I had gone from wanting nothing more than to learn French and become French to feeling discouraged, depressed, and unintentionally and forcefully unemployed for a year and a half with a master’s degree. My fiancé and I never would’ve thought that my experience with French bureaucracy would have been so difficult. Our experience subsequently led us to the inevitable decision that our future was not in France but in the U.S.
From the moment we got engaged and decided that we would wed in and move to Florida living in France became harder, we both had little motivation to speak French or do anything relating to French culture and instead, spent months talking about and planning our future life together in the states. As much as I would like to say how the time waiting for a visa that was never approved, nor disapproved, and then the time waiting for the approval of the petition for my fiancé and I to be able to be wed in the states taught me patience; ultimately it taught me something more important, and that is to be grateful.
While I waited for not so much my carté de sejour anymore, we had about given up on that, but the approval of my fiancé’s visa petition, I realized how fortunate I was to be able to live in France in the first place. It is a privilege to be able to take French classes, to be able to experience French culture and more importantly to be able to come home to a nice apartment with a full fridge. Admittedly, there was a large part of me that wanted to blame my experience on all of the economic migrants that want to live and work in France too, in my mind, if they didn’t have immediate family in France or weren’t fleeing a war, they were just people throwing a wrench into an already slow moving system. But every time I allowed myself to think this way, I quickly reminded myself that I have never and would probably never feel like I needed to leave my country for economic reasons, or really any reason. Ultimately, I left the U.S. because I thought it would be cool to say I did an international master’s in Germany, not because I couldn’t do it in the states, and I was in France because I wanted to be, not because I thought my quality of life depended on it.
I have found that the vast majority of Americans that I have met in Europe are to an extent guilty of openly criticizing the U.S. – myself included. Across Europe, there appears to be a number of American expats who are convinced that we are one of the worst countries in the world for having the right to buy an automatic weapon, for having expensive healthcare and tuition costs, and for having the amount of race and socioeconomic issues that we do. Although these issues are rightfully raised concerns, it took me this experience with French bureaucracy to realize how ungrateful I was for criticizing my country so much in the first place. That is because when I think of my childhood, I think of a nice and safe home, a big yard to play in, a constant abundance of food, a good education and how happy my mother was the day she became an American citizen and how proud she still is.
Yes, college was expensive, like many American parents, mine had to plan ahead of time and save but there was never a real struggle. No one ever thought their quality of life or well being would be better somewhere else. Meeting and speaking with refugees from many developing and war torn countries is something that I have experienced in France and Germany; it has reminded me on a daily basis how lucky I was to have been born in the United States, to have led the life that I have. The most important lesson that I learned living abroad was being fortunate enough to have the ability and the choice to live abroad in the first place, and to do so comfortably. It is for having the opportunity to learn and to have the life experiences in the first place that I am entirely grateful.