Monday, 23 May 2011

Arriving In A Foreign Land: A Guide On What To Do (Or Not Do) When You Relocate To A New Country

Step 1: Don't Panic

The Hitchiker's Guide To The Galaxy had this one right...whatever you do, don't panic.

                                                                                Words To Live By

Just recently, when Juls was visiting me in Vichy (where I am currently attending a French immersion course), we were having breakfast when what I assume was a new student to the school, and likely a new arrival to France, had an emotional breakdown on a payphone on the street.  She was Asian, and didn't seem to speak much (if any) French, and was what my wife calls, "ugly girl crying" to someone on the phone.  Luckily a person did stop and seem to calm her down, but it is a common reaction and one I am familiar with.  I have certainly never ugly girl cried, but I have panicked when arriving at new homes, and can honestly say I did a bit when I arrived in France too.

The plain truth is, it is going to be different, it is going to be scary, you are going to be lonely...BUT, you will survive, it will get easier, and you may even enjoy it.  We have had counseling (provided by Total) that prepared us a little for this, but even still it is difficult.  The only real advice I can give is:

1.  Don't mope, pull your socks up and get out
2.  Talk to people, even if it is difficult, meeting just one nice person will give you a sense of comfort
3.  Hold it together, having a breakdown is not going to help your situation, if you need to shed a tear do it, but get it over with, move on and don't look back

Step 2:  See Other People

I am not a philanderer, I mean see other people who are in a similar situation.  For Juls and I, that primarily meant finding other expats in Paris (which was surprisingly easy).  In a city the size of Paris, and in most European cities, there are tons of options to get in touch with people.  In the 2 months Juls has been here (1 month for me) we have become involved with.

1. The Total Canadian Expat Group
2. The Total International Expat Group
3. The Paris Expat Canadian Meetup Group (, the site works for many countries
4. The Paris International Meetup Group

There are tons of others as well, but we have found that just between these four there are enough activities to take up every other night.

I should point out that Step 2 was particularly important to me, as when I arrived Julia hadn't planned anything other than "I thought we would just be together all week", which sounds great in theory, but when you are new to a place, you will likely not want to be alone with someone else new to the place.  You want to talk to people who have been through it and can give you advice...Juls realized this about 1 day after I arrived...

Step 3: Take It Slow

When you are a tourist you need to see everything as fast as possible.  You only have so much time, and there are so many things to see after all.  However, when you are going to be living somewhere, you have time...On my second day in Paris I found myself being led in hand by Julia to: The Louvre, Notre Dame, Saint Michel, The Eiffel Tower, and The Champs De Elysee all in about 10 hours...That is both physically, and when you have just moved to a new country, emotionally taxing.  I recommend against this misguided (although well-meaning) tact.  Instead, realize you have time, go see an event or a monument if you need to feel like a tourist (it's actually relaxing), but don't overwhelm yourself...Make sure you take time to learn your neighborhood, the stores, the roads etc. 

                                                                                       My Hood

After all, that is what you would do if you were moving to a new home in your own country.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Observations From Across The Pond, Episode 1

I have decided that just writing snarky stories may not be enough, so I will be posting regularly about interesting things I discover as well.  Basically, this list is just the top things that I have learned in my experiences and travels.

So without further adieu:

1.  If you learned to speak french in Quebec and plan to travel to France, be prepared for people not to understand alot of the words and phrases you use...Weekend, peanut, bicycle and a ton of other words are all different.

2.  If you ask to use the "salle de bain" in France, you will look like an idiot.  In France (and in most of Europe) the washroom and the toilet are two different rooms.  The washroom has a sink, bathtub, etc. and the toilet guessed it, a toilet.  So, one again, forget your Quebec french and ask for "la toilette", and enjoy the smelly privacy of a enclosed space to poop in.

                                                 Yep, just a room with a toilet

3.  The French don't eat until at least 8pm, after dinner drinks don't start until at least 10pm, and if you are actually going out somewhere...don't show up before midnight.  That means that by the time they are having dessert, Juls is in her jammies and half asleep on the couch.

4.  The french watch a ton of American movies, and they very rarely dub them.  Instead they usually just add subtitles.  They inexplicably almost always change the name of the movie though, and it's usually still in English.  For example, "The Hangover" in France is, "Very Bad Trip" (and not very bad trip in French...the actual English words "Very Bad Trip").  Also, "The Other Guys" is "Very Bad Cops"...sensing a trend here?  Anyway, this is infinitely amusing.

                                                  I can't wait to see Very Bad Trip 2

5.  The French are only interested in/want to talk about 3 things: food, sex and politics (in that order).  Be least know who the president is, what you are eating, and your favorite position.

That's it for now, but I will continue this series in the weeks and months to come.

Off To See The Wizard, The Wonderful Wizard Of Switzerland

First class...sweeter words have never been spoken, especially to someone staring 14 hours worth of travel in the face.  Not only will I never be able to afford this luxury on my own, but also, I truly believe that even if I could, I would not be able to convince myself the luxury is worth 4x as expensive tickets.  That being said, when it's offered to you for would do just as I did.

Total has this brilliant stipulation that flights at the beginning and end of Expat terms are first class, and so I found myself on a rainy April evening, settling into a padded first class seat with a flute of champagne, watching the plebes board (I have to get my jabs in during this, the one and only chance I will ever have to do so).  And the flight to Montreal was just the start, from there I would be able to enjoy the comfort of the Maple Leaf Lounge and its free food and booze until I boarded the second leg.  An overnight flight to Geneva.  And let me say, Air Canada international business class does not fail to impress...

Fully reclining seat - check
Free 4-course meal - check
Noise canceling headphones, blanket, pillow, sleep mask and a partridge in a pear tree - check

                                                               Yeah, Awesome

Oh, and once again, all the booze you can drink...

I've gotten sidetracked here, but needless to say, it was a nice break from the potential hours of sweaty snoring in coach...It did not come without limitations for me though, as I will explain later.

Eventually, we arrived in Geneva (Bwaaah you say, that's not in France you say...).  As we were landing, I had a moment to ponder the countryside.  The Swiss really hit the jackpot when they wandered into that patch of land and decided it looked good enough to live in.  Huge mountains give way to green pastures and hills that cascade right into the blue waters of Lac Leman...breathtaking.  And the city of Geneva itself is surprisingly small and quaint, only 400,000 people, which is nearly a hamlet by European standards.  Also, I feel the need to point this out...there were lots of swans...I'm not a bird guy, but they were everywhere, hanging out like they owned the place...curious.

The other thing that I found amazing was that pretty much everyone I talked to in Geneva spoke multiple languages.  In fact, my cab driver welcomed me in French, then switched to English when my reply was, "duhhh, Je ne parle pas Francaise".  Then he talked to his dispatcher in Swiss (which I have since discovered is a slightly different form of German) and finally he took a call and was talking what I believe to be Afrikaans.  In Canada, this guy could run for Prime Minister, or at least Minister of Finance.

Once we landed and I had arrived at my hotel (Royal Manotel for anyone who is interested), I found that I was actually about 5 hours too early to check in.  So, being the good tourist, I stowed my bags at the hotel and decided to peruse the town.  I should point out that at this point, despite my having had the luxuries of first class I pointed out earlier, I had not slept a wink on the flight over...a curse I deal with when in transit anywhere.  What this meant now was that the last time I had slept was 2 days ago in Nova Scotia...I was tired.

Willing myself to go on anyway, I did manage to walk around the lake and see the "sites of Geneva" (I will post the photos I have to my photo blog soon...promise) as prescribed by the hotel concierge.  I even randomly encountered a huge bike race (that's man-powered not motor), which by-the-way, is infinitely more popular and fun to watch in Europe than it is in North America. 

Returning to my hotel about 6 hours later tired and weary, I was ready to pass out.  Surprise, surprise that I should find that they had actually lost my camera bag...amazing.  Fast forward to about 3 hours later, and now I am basically a standing zombie, but they have found my bag (and the camera) after systematically searching every room in the hotel.  It seems it was delivered mistakenly to another room and I can only surmise that the fine upstanding tenants of that room decided that the hotel had ran out of mints for the pillows and had given the next best thing.

Anyway, I then proceeded to stumble off and pass out cold in my room...for 5 hours...

Day two started like I can only assume a heart attack would, as my alarm went off at 7am waking me for my meeting with the French Consulate (The reason I am in Geneva instead of Paris...Did I not explain that?  Oops).

Cab ride...wait in line...45 minute meeting...pit stop at the toilet later and wham bam thank you ma'am you have yourself a temporary "Carte De-Sejour".  Unfortunately, temporary isn't permanent and "Carte De-Sejour" doesn't necessarily mean Worky Worky in France, so I will point out that I am still waiting for the more permanent, actually useful documents to process...that's a story for another day though.

After this, it was back to the hotel to pass out for a few more hours, another quick walk around the lake, an awesome French hotdog (A hollowed out baguette with a wiener in joke), and I was off to the airport for the last leg of my first class trek.

Normally, I would end there, however, the Geneva airport is an oddity that I feel begs a little extra description.  Geneva being right on the France border means that they can take liberty with certain things.  One of which is the airport, which is actually half on Swiss soil and half on French soil.  An interesting fact that I found out when I attempted to check in on the Swiss side and was told that I had to go to France first...This was a bit confusing...Luckily, once again, the Swiss attendant spoke perfect English and explained what I had to do.

So, it was then that I found myself finally crossing the border into what will be my home for the foreseeable future, France. 

Farewell To Nova Scotia...AKA, My Life As A Nomad

OK, so for those of you who are just joining in, I have packed up, sold, and otherwise abandoned everything I had in Alberta.  Julia has left for the grand adventure already...but...I am on my way to Nova Scotia for a month of vacation and catch-up before the big move.

It's an interesting development in my life at this point that I should find myself at 30, sleeping in my childhood home (actually in my childhood bedroom for that matter).  It's hard not to feel at least a little like that nerdy Jewish guy from The Big Bang Theory (Great show by the way).

                                                                       This Guy

But onward and upward I always say...well actually, I don't believe I have ever said that...never mind.

Now, some of you may be thinking, "how can he let Julia go off to Paris on her own while he stays in Nova Scotia?"  Well let me tell you, it was actually not easy on either end.  I found myself asking why I had made that decision on numerous occasions during the month.  Don't get me wrong, I definitely enjoyed myself (check out my photo blogs for the soon to be posted pics from the trip), but there was a distinctive pang of guilt that accompanied my enjoyment...curious.

                                      Just A Taste...One of the pics from my month at home

The funny thing is, it was Julia's idea for me to do this in the first place...Well, I guess we'll just have to chalk it up to an interesting dilemma and focus on the other interesting observations I had during the month.

You can never really return home...I know, shocker right?

Obviously, that is something that everyone who has spent time away (and I mean real time, not 2 weeks in Cancun) has faced at some point.  Let me be clear first that this is not the first time I realized this, I have been coming home from various levels of afar for over 10 years now.  However, being probably the largest single period of time I had spent at home since I moved to Halifax in 2001, this was the most evident occasion of that.

Also, I find that I have entered that strange moment in life when friends are pretty much all done with marrying off, and are now beginning that, "let's make a family" stage of life.  It's an interesting progression, and my observation has been that it is the moment when friendships become the most strained and even fail.  You can almost see the rift form between those who are ready for this stage and those who are not.  Of which I am the latter.

What all of these factors led to is an interesting regrouping of friendships along new parameters.  Some very close friends, although still just as close, become harder to access because of their family situations, while like minded non-family types stick together and continue life as it was.

I also noticed that I don't really know my hometown anymore (Chester, NS).  The streets, homes and businesses are largely the same, (change doesn't occur fast/ever in rural NS) but the people (mostly me) have all changed.

When I was growing up there, we literally wasted weekends just walking around the handful of streets that made up the town center.  Now, not only does that only entertain me for about 15 minutes, but I also would be doing it completely alone, as not a single close friend of mine from high school remains in the town.  I've known for a very long time that I could never move back to Chester, but it's a definitely a different level of weird to learn that I am just a tourist there now.

Finally, the other aspect of my visit that frustrated me was that I have changed to the point where certain Maritimey ways of life have started to annoy me.  I want to defend this by saying that I love the Maritimes and it's way of life...but at the same time, it frustrates me.  It seems I have managed to stay away just long enough to allow me to incorporate different ways into the Maratime paradigm (hey that rhymes)...creating a mutant Maritimey-Calgarian (A Malgarian if you will).

The biggest one is the simple rampant negativity the province seems to have.  I guess I never noticed it before being in a province that was so focused on the positive, but I do now and it makes me see most "negative" Maritimers (who are the majority by my observation) as curmudgeons.  I am poking a sleeping bear with this one I know, as the majority of my scarce reader base are Maritimers, but I think it needs to be said.

Understandably, the province has been in economic turmoil for as long as I have been alive, but does being negative about every potential opportunity help end that?  That was rhetorical, no it doesn't.

All the petty observations aside, I should say that I truly enjoyed my time home with both family and friends and I felt I reconnected with some people that I had long neglected (I tend to do that).  Ultimately, the trip was a good send off to my next adventure and I am glad it was possible.

Well there, I truly believe I haven't educated or enlightened anyone with this entry, and I have probably angered my follower (I left out the "s" on purpose...if you like my blog follow it!).  But hey, if you have a problem with what I wrote, write and complain.