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Secret Life of an Expat: Homesick and Grumpy


a blogumn by Gudrun Cram-Drach

Just to warn you, I’m in a very bad mood. I’m in one of those places where life sucks and I don’t have the energy to do anything about it. I’m also quite sure that it’s a geography thing. Being in France, that is. Sure, it’s great to live in (near) Paris, the city of lights, it’s so beautiful and the way of life is so evolved, but yeah, no, not all the time. I binged on American television all afternoon, in hopes that seeing Don Draper and Restaurant Wars might ease my homesickness, but it didn’t work. Part of the problem is, it’s August.

August in France, means everything comes screaming to a halt and people leave. Offices, restaurants, and bakeries close down. If you’re looking for a job, or waiting for an overdue check in the mail, forget it. Our neighbor’s house has been shuttered up for weeks.

Parisians go to the coasts and the countryside, to their summer homes and the homes of their friends. Their void is filled with American picture-snapping tourists, and no it does not comfort me to go to the Champs-Elysee and listen to their accents. This year, our family is unable to take an August vacation, in fact, M has been working twice as hard for all of August, which leaves me feeling quite isolated. When I was invited to spend a few days in Deauville, a little beach town on the coast of Normandy, I jumped at the chance. The only problem is, now that I’m back, I’m even more bummed out than when I left.

The friend I went to see is a fellow American-married-to-a-Frenchman. She’s been here for eight years, as opposed to my one, and we met through our writing. It was a lovely visit, and whenever North American expats get together, they spend a considerable amount of time commiserating on the difficulties of life in France.

How ridiculous is it that the French tend to wait until a small problem becomes a catastrophe before they do anything about it. Like my friend Jennifer who can’t get her landlord to care about a leak that is filling up four buckets of water a day.

How dumb is it that their drug stores actually sell “magic” products like anti-cellulite cream and powdered shark fin, while at the same time they tell us that Americans over-medicate and whatever we take is too strong.

We expats remark to each other when French people are friendly with us, even though we tend to believe that the “mean French waiter” phenomenon is a myth.

We twist our hair and try to one up each other with annoying yet amusing anecdotes about the bizarreness of our in-laws, our French neighbors, the paperwork we had to do to stay (and continue to stay) here, our incompetent yet affordable doctors, job interviews, language teachers, and how, even when you have friends in a new place it’s hard to feel at home there. I know this would be true in the U.S. as well: it takes a long time to place roots, but it’s especially challenging if you’re a foreign plant.

It’s the little, and I mean little things that make me feel better. For example, I learned that I’m not the only one who brings tubes of Neosporin over in my suitcase, or keeps a copy of the Toll House Cookie recipe handy, or whose husband puts butter on his cheese. And you know? There’s nothing wrong with missing 24 hour drug stores, four-way stop signs and cable on demand.

In between these long conversations we visited Deauville, a coastal, touristy town with two casinos, two racetracks and a multitude of hotels and villas. I hadn’t heard of it, and while I was there we only came across other Americans one time. It made me feel like I was on the inside of something, on the down-low.

When someone comes to visit me from the States, be it family or friends, I almost always suffer an emotional dip after they leave. I thought it was because I knew I would miss them, but now I think it’s more. Now I realize that what I will miss more is being able to act like myself, like an American in her comfort zone (communicating effortlessly, sharing cultural references) for a few days, and then losing it again, is what really brings me down.