I cried my entire way through airport security. Last September, I left the States to teach English in France for a year, but from Day 1, it has been a wild adventure. When I arrived to check in for my flight one year ago, Brian from United told me he wouldn’t give me my boarding passes because Americans simply weren’t allowed into France due to Covid. False. I showed him my visa, work contract, emails with the embassy — just about everything but my first grade report card. My mom and I argued with him for about 20 or 30 minutes before they finally agreed to give me my boarding passes. But not without a sly remark: “Good luck, and don’t be surprised when they send you back home.”
I wore a brave face throughout our encounter, but the moment I turned around to walk to security, I started bawling. The entire process of applying to TAPIF during a pandemic and flying halfway across the country to get my visa left me bewildered before even stepping foot on French soil. And then to have Brian do all but deny me from boarding my flight? I gave my mom the tightest, most desperate hug before walking through airport security dejected and fearful.
Was I stupid? Was I naive? Perhaps I was an idiot to even attempt to move to a foreign country during a global sanitary crisis. Was I going to fall flat on my face? Was I going to arrive only to crash and burn?
Because here I am in France an entire calendar year later, and I am overwhelmed at the wild adventures I’ve lived, the woman I’ve become in the process and the expat life lessons I’ve reaped. I taught hundreds of elementary-aged students in three different French schools for a year. I traveled all over France: Cannes, Gorges du Verdon, Nice, Annecy, Carcassonne, Paris, Narbonne, Albi, Lyon and Bordeaux. After starting to volunteer with a nonprofit organization, I was invited to go on a service trip with them to Prague, Czech Republic.
Through my blog, I launched a print and digital magazine recounting my adventures abroad and sharing my best expat advice. The founders of Ichtus Magazine invited me to be a regularly contributing writer for their Mediterranean lifestyle and spirituality magazine. Since then, I’ve interviewed fashion designers from Israel, jewelry makers from Monaco and photographers from across the Mediterranean. I’ve been a team player in an international magazine startup, which is something I could never have dreamed of. Once I finished my teaching contract in April, I switched to an au pair visa, spent many hours with a bright, headstrong French toddler and traveled with the family to St. Tropez. I’ve grown my blog and worked with brands from all over the world.
As overwhelming as this year has been, I feel a peace that I’m where I’m supposed to be. I’ve never felt more myself and I’ve never felt so more invested in my passions and dreams. This year has not always been easy, but wow, it’s taught me an awful lot about myself, others and the world. Here are just a few expat life lessons I’ve learned from one year of life abroad in France.
Emotions are temporary.
Intentional reflection is important to me because I am so forgetful. As I’m coming up on one year of life abroad, I pulled out my journal from the months leading up to my move and was reminded of this. I had forgotten the anguish of waiting for the green light to come to France despite Covid and visa restrictions. I had forgotten the deep loneliness I experienced once I arrived and traversed confinement. And I had forgotten the intense self-doubt of my decision to move abroad.
And even my dramatic departure, thanks to Brian from United. All of those uncomfortable, painful moments and emotions have faded. The moments of sadness, homesickness and desperation to belong have not defined my time abroad; they are but a part. My therapist once described emotions as a marble: with different colored streaks of feelings. We can experience elation, sadness, peace and confusion at the same time. These are not mutually exclusive, and we have the right to hold a wide range of emotions at the same time. One of the expat life lessons that I hold tightly is that emotions are temporary. In these moments of fear and anxiety, I remind myself that these emotions too shall pass. Joy and happiness will return, and pain is never the end of the story.
Struggle doesn’t mean failure.
One month after moving to France, the government announced another confinement. We were allowed outside for exercise for one hour per day but within a 1-km radius of our home. We had to fill out an attestation each time we left the house, and it had to be under one of the permitted reasons to leave. There was a 6 p.m. curfew. Restaurants were closed for both indoor and outdoor seating. Museums, churches and non-essential stores closed.
And I was depressed and lonely. I barely had proper time to make friends once arriving in France. And those months of confinement, which were also my first months abroad, were extremely difficult. This time also coincided with the months following my college graduation and the official start to adulthood. I felt lost and so unsure of everything. I even thought about quitting my program and moving back to the States.
But I couldn’t get over the fact that God had opened every last door for me to move to France during a pandemic. It didn’t feel right to throw in the towel so soon. Those first few months of life abroad were a struggle, but the act of struggle or suffering doesn’t mean failure; it means growth. As painful and lonely as it was at times, I reminded myself that Covid touched every corner of the world. I could just as easily be miserable in the States, but at least in Marseille, I had a sea view. One of the biggest expat life lessons I’ve learned is that struggle serves a bigger purpose. Those months grew me in grit and perseverance, the ability to be alone and depend on God. I’m awfully glad I didn’t leave before I had the time to blossom.
I am weak.
And I desperately need other people. The smallest interactions abroad can reduce me to tears: a phone call with a disgruntled employee at la préfecture, sass from a restaurant employee who thinks gluten intolerance is pure ridicule, feelings of being misunderstood and like an outsider. Expat life will expose your rawest, most vunerable self because all familiarity and security has been stripped off your back. And all that’s left is you. Nobody knows who you are, nobody completely understands where you come from.
Unknown and exposed.
And these are tough, painful feelings to wrestle with as you’re thousands of miles from home. I am grateful for supportive family and friends who continue to invest in me via FaceTime calls, postcards, texts and memes. I am grateful for online counseling where I can be fed spiritually and emotionally. One of the expat life lessons I’ve learned is a reminder of my vunerability and weakness and my need and divine design to be in relationship.
Stop pretending to be someone you’re not.
Being the social butterfly that I am, I thrived during my years at the University of Missouri. I joined a sorority, served as a leader in my campus ministry, worked for the campus newspaper and magazine, and always had a coffee date planned. Sure, I had a lot of friends, but I never felt like I perfectly fit into one social group. I had lots of friends from many social circles: the journalism school, my sorority, my church and campus ministry, French club and classes. And I have sweet friendships from each of these circles, but I always felt like a floater.
And although it may not have seemed like it from the outside, I struggled deeply with loneliness and insecurity throughout my college years. When I was in one of these social circles, I felt like a part of me was missing. After clocking late hours in the magazine office one night, I headed to work the midnight to 2 a.m. shift of my sorority’s late night philanthropy dinner. On Saturday night, I’d explore art exhibits with my French class friends after babysitting for a church family. I had a wide range of niches, but I never felt like I totally belonged.
I felt homeless, socially speaking. Although I could find a connection with just about anyone and foster some type of friendship, I felt five years older than I was. I teeter-tottered in between being confident in my interests and preferences and then wanting to be someone I wasn’t. I liked going out to the bars every so often with friends, but I just didn’t see the pull to constantly stay out till 1 a.m., to drop hundreds on alcohol and Ubers and to go out multiple times per week. If that’s your thing, cool. It just wasn’t mine, but I felt weird because it didn’t even tempt me.
Instead, I wanted to spend hours working on my blog at a cafe. I wanted to take a hike or kayak with friends. And I wanted to plan the most elaborate Halloween party or Jonas Brothers Reunion party — both true stories. I wanted to sip on a French 75 at a European pub. For me, having deep conversation over Mexican food with gal pals sounded like the perfect Friday night. I wanted to watch films from the French New Wave era, and I wanted to practice speaking French and to prepare the most exquisite charcuterie board.
I didn’t feel like a normal college girl, and I felt lonely. But here’s the ironic thing: when I moved thousands of miles from home and was 10/10 the odd one out in every category, I felt at home in my skin. In southern France, my blonde hair sticks out, my gluten intolerance is virtually an alien characteristic, my accent announces to the world that I’m a foreigner. On paper, I do not fit in whatsoever, but once I could no longer avoid my differences, I learned to accept them. I’ve found people who appreciate me and my quirks as is, and no matter what continent you’re on, that’s what it’s about. I’m disappointed for the self-shaming and trying to be someone I wasn’t. But one year later, I cherish these expat life lessons of celebrating my differences and being myself.
Don’t wait for other people or the “right” circumstances to live your dreams.
If there’s ever been an ideal time to move abroad, it certainly was not when I did it. In the middle of a pandemic when the borders blocked Americans. Directly after college graduation without a well-stocked bank account. Without knowing a single soul where I’d be moving and also never having traveled to Marseille.
Moving abroad when I did just didn’t make sense. I asked myself many times if I was making the right decision. Was it even wise to take this leap of faith during a global sanitary crisis? I had already poured too much time, energy and tears into the process that I didn’t jump ship, even though the fear and anxiety were on full blast in my head. But there’s always going to be an excuse for things not being perfectly ready or what not.
And the same goes for waiting for the right people. One of the reasons I moved to France was to travel more. But I knew virtually no one when I moved abroad. However, one of the girls in my program had been messaging with me for several months and proposed a week-long trip through the French Riviera during one of our school vacations. But I’d never met her in real life and felt hesitant to take an 8-day vacation with someone I’d never met. However, the opportunity presented itself, and I decided to take a leap of faith and step outside my comfort zone.
And you know what? We had a wonderful time. By the end of the trip, we agreed that it totally could’ve been a trainwreck, but fortunately, we got along well and enjoyed our vacation. Of course, we want everything to fall into place to have our best friend, significant other or family member be a part of our travels — or really any important moment in our life. But sometimes we need to dare to follow our passions even if it means taking big steps on our own.
Toss out your 5-year plan.
I wanted to be a big-time magazine editor in Manhattan. I graduated magna cum laude from one of the top journalism schools in the country and walked out with two degrees: one in magazine editing, another in French. I’d interned at a handful of publications, including Southwest Airlines’ in-flight magazine. Craft, connections, bylines — I had it all. But by the end of my four years of undergrad, I felt like a piece of burnt toast. Instead, I applied to take a gap year to be an English teaching assistant for 12 hours per week where I made a very small salary.
My 5-year plan of rising the ranks of the magazine world in the Big Apple or honestly any metropolis evaporated; instead, I took a job that had nothing to do with my studies to take a risk. Oh, but it’ll just be one year, and during that time, I’ll get more clarity on what to do next.
*Cue the laughter soundtrack.
Alas, I finished my gap year, became a nanny and renewed my teaching contract. The bottom line is life doesn’t go as you planned. And sometimes that’s the best thing because the adventures I’m living now are entirely better than I could have asked or imagined. On paper, what I’m doing doesn’t make sense. But I’m growing exponentially and taking it a day at a time. Right now, I’m supposed to be in France, but this time next year? I’m not sure what that will look like or mean yet. And that’s okay. I agonized over having a plan for far too long only for the plan to vanish into thin air. Stop planning and start living in today.
So, about expat life lessons
When I told my grandmother that I was moving to France, I might as well have said I was booking a one-way ticket to Mars. Are you crazy? she said. And perhaps I am. But expat life is simultaneously the hardest and most rewarding experience I’ve ever tasted. I’ve become stronger, braver and more resilient. My time in France has imparted many expat life lessons, and I dare you to take this leap, too.
Are you an expat, too? I created a Facebook group for expats all over the world who want to harness all that life abroad has to offer while also being authentic about the complex difficulties we face. In this group, we share our best tips, blog posts, stories and connections. Join the Authentic + Aspiring Expat Network group on Facebook.
For more expat advice, take a peek at my favorite tools to succeed in expat life.