Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Cultural shock...

Back in dear old Blighty, a great pleasures was listening to Radio 4 with its wonderful variety of programmes. So, image the delight when discovering an equivalent French station - France Culture. This has a similar mix of news and comment, plays, documentaries, humour, panel games, etc. - and with the added advantage of being good for one's French!

In the UK I often had Radio 4 playing for most of the day while working and and did not find it hard to concentrate on work, to the exclusion of the radio, or to allow the brain to tune in to an interesting bit without the work suffering too much.

However, as an expat there are always surprises - and it came as a shock to discover that trying to work here with the radio on in the background is not the same. Why? Well, perhaps it will eventually be a measure of accomplishment with the second language when I can comfortably work, writing in English all day, and simultaneously absorb a radio play in the background, in French - but so far that just is not working...

Sunday, August 26, 2007

It's that time again...

It seems inevitable that we will return regularly to matters of language - a big subject and one of which there are daily reminders for most expats, even if they have got to grips with the local lingo reasonably well. 'Local' is a key point, as even the French from other regions can find accents and dialects in the Languedoc difficult to understand!

Anyway, the summer usually brings its own language jolts, this area being very much a tourist destination - in the local shops, bars and restaurants, extra staff drafted in for the season who do not know us usually speak loudly (in French) on hearing our accents, even though we have used reasonably acceptable French! Some will even break into what we have dubbed Menu English in an effort to give us help that is not really needed - this generally comprises phrases relating to the dishes, cooking, etc. that a non-English speaking waiter has learned and can throw into the pot, so to speak, sometimes at relevant points. Here it is usually in a genuine effort to be helpful, rather than superior, so should be appreciated - but it can become a tad confusing, even wearing, when you are trying to focus on your second language, as well as unwind after a long week and make that key decision about which aperatif...

For those who do not have any English to offer but want to say a few friendly words, there is the ubiquitous "Are you on holiday?". Inevitable perhaps in one of the biggest tourist destinations in the world, but we do tend to look forward to the winter when it is just us and the locals!

The people we know on a day-to-day basis, out-of-season, have at least accepted our strange pronounciation, eating habits, etc., while we have recognised that losing one's accent is almost impossible for most of us - and also accepted that no matter how good our French may become we are probably fated to enjoy those same conversations every summer...

Photo by: Kerry A Adamo

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Keep taking the tablets...

That last post has had me reflecting on the time that we did have a real medical drama here - and of course such events always happen in the middle of the night, especially when you live in a small village up in the hills. So, all the more impressive that the emergency services were here in not much more than 15 minutes - fantastic at 4 o'clock in the morning!

In fact the emergency ambulance service here is provided by the fire brigade, so we first had three pompiers (firemen) arrive on the scene with full paramedic kit. Light relief was actually provided by one of them asking "Have you tried taking your medication?"! Well, you would probably be glad of this guy if you were stuck in a blazing building but perhaps he is not a paramedic team leader... anyway, as everyone - including his colleagues and especially the patient - groaned aloud, the doctor arrived equipped and able to take the drama out of the crisis!

With the superbly fast reaction of the emergency team, followed by some excellent hospital care, this fortunately had a happy ending. So, a tribute to the wonderful French medical system as well as an extra cautionary note about being sure of the availability of medical services when you relocate...

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Your good health...

A comment the other day was that, in rarely visiting the UK, we have probably lost our immunity to the day-to-day cold bugs in circulation there. An interesting thought and perhaps it means that it is necessary to avoid Brits visiting France! It may also mean that we are still developing an immunity to the common infections here. It is hard to say to what extent this may be so but perhaps just by relocating we face more subtle challenges than the very obvious ones (such as moving to an area where particular diseases are prevalent). In any event, all this does raise the subject of one's health and what standard of care can be expected in a new country.

The question often comes up as to what access we have to health care in rural France, sometimes phrased as if we are in the remotest areas of a developing nation rather than an advance European country! In fact France offers one of the best, if not the finest, health systems - even in a village of just 700 people, in the hills of a rural area, we have a clinic with two doctors and district nurses, as well as a visiting dentist, and are also only about twenty minutes from two local hospitals. So here in rural France, with an excellent health service, we are happy to take our chances with any new bugs we may come up against!

However, if you know that you are going to a country where access to good health care is not easy, then how do you address that - it is not a problem while you enjoy good health but what if the worst happens? Communications, transport, health insurance, etc., can all play their part but how do you prepare for the possibility of a real medical emergency? And if you have an existing condition, then you probably need to investigate very thoroughly what access you will have to your normal treatment and medication, as well as possible emergency services. Perhaps, then, health care should actually be one of the major considerations when contemplating the expat life.

Photo: Chance Agrella

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Shaping up...

As this blog gradually takes shape, it does seem destined to address the big issues facing expats at large. Without wanting to set targets that are too ambitious, this feels like the right direction just now and, in any case, I'm not sure that it is feasible to attempt to provide the solutions for day-to-day needs for anyone, in any situation, in any country. In any case, there are plenty of specialist sources of information, especially for specific countries.

So, the objective here is not really to provide a resource, or directory of services, for finding the best dentist in Timbuktu. However, that dentist is welcome to contribute, and offer those services, and I hope any reader will feel they can ask for specific help or offer such answers, as one hope is that this may develop into a meeting point for those already cast abroad, or prospective expats, for an exchange of information as well as discussion of the bigger questions...

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Give me a break...

Assumption Day - and whilst we will make no assumptions as to how significant this is for most of the population of a secular state (it is a feast day recognising the passing into heaven of the Virgin Mary) this remains a holiday in France. A public holiday during the month when anyone in France who possibly can is away on holiday seems a little odd, but religious and other traditions have their own ways.

It is generally felt in the UK that the French enjoy far more such holidays (bank holidays, as they are known in Britain). Of course, when living in a country you discover the less widely known truths - in the case of public holidays, there are more here but, unlike the UK, if they fall on the weekend, then there is no compensating extra day off work in lieu of this. The holiday is taken on the actual day. So, all shops and businesses can be closed on a Saturday.

That said, the French have mastered a particular art - where possible they will faire le pont (make the bridge). If a holiday falls nicely on a Tuesday or Thursday, then it is common to add the Monday or Friday to the equation to make a nice long weekend! In a good year this can amount to a few long weekends. On reflection, perhaps the Brits are right - the French do have the whole public holiday thing well organised!

Photo: Francesc Cloquell

Monday, August 13, 2007

Getting tough...

If the day-to-day challenges of expat life are to form a part of this discussion, then we must also not shy away from some more demanding considerations. Like David M, I think I can describe my expat experience so far as "enlightening and certainly life enhancing" (ref. Comments in the last post) but what about very fundamental factors that can make or break our peace of mind and security?

OK, you are settled in the new country and getting used to the idea of being surrounded by all those 'foreigners' - one morning the realisation dawns that you are in fact the foreigner here! Oh! Do you wonder if you might be experiencing discrimination without having known - or does that only happen to others? Or are you just paranoid? Perhaps some people are treating you as what you are, not who you are. Does that undermine you or affect how you behave?

Of course there are actually many reasons why someone coming into a community may be treated differently, so you may need to decide what, if anything, is happening to you - perhaps you are in fact 'enjoying' some positive discrimination...

Another big factor is language. It is obvious that being able to communicate with others makes a huge difference to how things go - but for some your willingness to speak their language is their measure of your acceptability. In the UK there are all sorts of moves to make a reasonable use of English an important factor for people seeking citizenship.

So, in your new country, will you take on the language if you do not really speak it already? Or perhaps you can survive perfectly well within a group of compatriots. How important, or acceptable, are expat communities in sheltering us from really learning the language and perhaps even protecting us from discrimination? And can the expat group itself form the relationships with the wider community?

Well, mainly tough questions today - help needed with the answers...

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Getting real...

In reviewing the first few posts, I feel that one could be forgiven for thinking that this is concerning itself purely with the concept, the state of being an expat. For the more pragmatic, it is worth stressing now that I am as aware as any of the realities of life as an expat and expect the practical considerations to become key to this discussion.

Of course some can relocate with the security of a safe income but most have to cope with all the normal challenges of life - work, accommodation, shopping, bills, dealing with bureaucracy, etc. However, they have the added factor of coping with these things somewhere else, where the rules and possibilities are probably quite different - and where they need to use a second language too, this can add another dimension to every activity.

It is surprising what can turn out to be challenging. I remember that the process of obtaining a residency permit in France (no longer needed for Brits) was relatively straightforward in what is known as a bureaucratic country. Of course one is dismayed when the residency permit application demands proof of your subscription to the health system, as the health service had asked for your residency permit as part of your application to them - but there are ways around such things!

In contrast, the difficulty of registering imported cars under French plates was astonishing, with most sources of information, official or otherwise, never quite matching up to the actual requirements which always remained slightly hazy! The ensuing trial-and-error process one had to resort to in gathering and submitting the amazing amount of documentation was expensive, and took months, just to register a couple of cars.

Not a problem to obtain the right to live in the country but unbelievably difficult to drive one's car legally! Typical of the sort of experiences that make up the wonderful expat experience!

So, yes, the practical will very much form a part of this discussion...

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Second thoughts on second homes...

The thought of overseas holiday homes seems to have lingered since last posting. Perhaps one cannot deny any sort of expat status here as I'm sure that many second home owners are genuinely experiencing, and participating in, the second culture. It is probably a case of looking again at how much our expat definition will flex!

Looking more carefully at the holiday home scenario, we can probably differentiate a type of holiday home and what is known by the French as a maison secondaire. It is easy to confuse these but there is a type of holiday home that cannot be thought of as a true second home, generally where the owner is largely focussed on income from their investment - probably letting the house for a large part of the year and perhaps only using it personally for an annual holiday or so. Even if that may be a half-way house, so to speak, to fund what will become a real second home, at this stage it is hard to say that those in this situation can be described as expats because, whatever their hopes and aspirations may be, they actually spend little time in the country and probably have quite limited contact with the local community, neighbours, etc. who most likely perceive them as sporadic visitors. Our expat definition had no specific time factor but it probably needs a certain certain level of involvement in local life to meet the basic "living in a foreign country" definition!

On the other hand, there are many enjoying true second homes, dividing their time between their homes, probably rarely letting them out, if ever, and just having occasional visiting friends and family use them for holidays; they are living in the second country to a certain extent and probably participating in local life, becoming known in the community, etc. Such fortunate people are probably making the most of two cultures, many with one eye on a fuller commitment to their second country - they must merit an expat status, albeit an honorary or part-time one.

Of course it is possible to live permanently but hardly participate in local life and perhaps many owners of maisons secondaires are more truly committed to their second country than some full-timers!

Village nestling in the Languedoc hills

Monday, August 6, 2007

Stretching the point...

Illness rather than lack of enthusiasm or time caused the abrupt halt just as this was beginning to take shape on the page - even in the country with the world's finest cuisine, it is still quite possible to buy a suspect tuna and mayo sandwich! However, part of the attraction of this very format is that one can come and go, prod the subject around, and generally approach things as informally as one wants. Perhaps some structure will emerge - and already I have wondered if there might be some value in developing some sort of expat mutual support theme - but there is no rush.

Around and about the dubious sandwich incident, there have been a couple of encounters coincidentally relevant to this early stage. Peak summer is the time for outdoor parties and events in the South of France and one not to be missed is our "fête du quartier" (a fête for just our area of the village), a day of dining, playing pétanque, eating again, and then partying into the night - attended by about 120 people. A British couple visiting their holiday home explained that both had experienced childhoods in various countries with parents always living and working overseas. They said that, like their parents, wherever they might live in the world they would always maintain a base in the UK, as their ultimate home. They also added that they are the new British couple living in the village.

So much to consider in the context of the expatriate! First of all we have the element of being a temporary expat, when posted temporarily overseas for work - one will always be returning. Then the idea of choosing to live elsewhere, for any duration, but always maintaining a base "back home". Well, our definition of "a person living in a foreign country" does not put on any time constraint or require roots to be severed.

If one looks at how far an expat can commit to, and integrate into, the host society, perhaps a fixed time limit, such as a contract or posting, does create a quite understandable barrier - it might partly explain the creation of expat communities, maintaining a degree of separation from the local people. Similarly, it would be understandable if the permanent safety net of a home base would naturally hold back one's commitment within another society. However, albeit that our definition requires no specific time limit, can one be said to be an expat when the situation is visiting one's holiday home?

I will have to come back to the whole area of time-limited expats, commitment and, in particular, expat communities!

For the second encounter... at a dinner celebrating the renovation of a public building and attended by several hundred local people, neighbours at table recounted how their working life in government service has seen them posted to a few regions within France as well as various overseas French dominions and rarely staying in one place for more than a couple of years. Again, living overseas with time limits, but now we have postings from France to French overseas territories!

Given probable cultural differences in overseas territories of the same country, this scenario perhaps supports the case for the expat definition to be stretched to include "those who live away from their origins" (refer to the last post). Looking at the etymology, the original words being ex patria - outside of one's native land - then it seems quite justifiable to include those relocating to overseas territories or even to distant parts of their own country.

In any event, this broader definition perhaps will help us see how people behave, and how they are reacted to, when they are living somewhere else...