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Secret Life of an Expat: How to forget that you’re living in France

Nine a.m. Leave the house and walk one block while detangling your white iPhone earbuds. Blast uplifting American music in ears before you hear anyone speaking French around you. Try not to inhale copious cigarette smoke on the sidewalk while wondering when French will realize that smoking is passé.

On the suburban commuter train platform, listen only to the English version of the loudspeaker announcement suggesting that people work together to notify train employees of any unclaimed bags noticed on the trains or platforms. Ignore the French and German versions. Once on train, dig Kindle or Moleskin from purse, and either read or write something, in English, for 18-25 minutes.

Arriving in Paris, transfer to the Métro line 2 at Nation. Remember how it reminds you of the L train in New York because you’re getting on at the terminus. Once you’re on the train, continue reading or frantically writing. Perhaps you never really stopped reading or writing while riding escalators and walking down tunnels from your first train. Note that no one else is trying to read or write and walk, and feel proud of your American multi-tasking skills.

At Métro Colonel Fabian, reinsert earbuds and stuff reading/writing device back in purse. Climb cement stairs to street. Ignore the irony that the headquarters of the French Communist Party is located in your building (or rather your workplace is located in their building, and they don’t seem evil at all), and upon entering, turn loud American music in headphones down just enough to give a volume appropriate “bonjour” to the woman at the front desk. Once on your floor, appreciate the fact that the lcd display on the fingerprint scanner which controls your office door is in English, and silently gloat at how much more important your native tongue is than your coworkers’. Enter office space.

Do not poke your head in every door on the way to your desk to say hello, and certainly do not stop and kiss every single person in the office on both cheeks, because that would be way too French. There are work places that do this, and while it’s warm and slightly charming, be confident in your belief that it’s a massive waste of time.

Go to your desk. Give a cursory “Salut tout le monde” (Hi everybody) to the two or three coworkers who have already arrived. Rue the fact that a “Hi Everybody” delivered in the voice of Dr. Nick from the Simpsons would have no effect, and get a little bit homesick.

A full French cup of joe in a normal sized American mug...

Take off jacket, put lunch in fridge, and make a double cup of coffee with the single serving coffeemaker in the kitchen, as a single serving barely fills a dixie cup. Wonder what the difference in caffeine level is between a French shot of café and an 8 oz American cup of joe. Return to your desk and make small talk that you could have learned in middle school French. Ça va? Ça va. Ça va toi? Oui, je suis un peu fatigué mais ça va.

Tuck into your computer. Fortunately you work in a field which requires very little human contact which generally maxes out at 10 minutes of professional interaction with supervisors a day, so there’s lots of French to avoid there. If anyone besides a superior initiates contact, pretend not to hear them unless they are one of your two English speaking coworkers, in which case, have a long conversation in English and revel in the fact that for this moment, you are the one speaking comfortably, and your coworkers are the ones who have to work to understand. Otherwise, put on headphones that you’re supposed to be wearing for work anyway.

This is where the real fun starts. Listen to BBC radio streamed through KPCC until it’s late enough for Morning Edition to start, then enjoy the interstitials of Los Angeles news and traffic reports even though you haven’t lived there since 2008 and frankly don’t really care about California politics anymore, or stream an old edition of This American Life, wondering how it is that you can’t remember the first time you heard to such a great program, though you do remember the first time you listened to The Smiths, or do like everyone else in the office and go to Deezer is a website where you can live stream music. Lots and lots of music, over 70,000 titles they say. Unfortunately going to Deezer often has the same effect as walking into a video rental store (which unfortunately, people still do here… Netflix anyone!?), where, when faced with 70,000 choices of songs you can’t think of a single band that you ever enjoyed listening to in your entire life. Except, maybe the Smiths. Choosing themes can be helpful, like  “Showtune Wednesdays” or “The Seventies”.

After a few hours you may start to feel guilty that you’re blocking out all the French culture around you. To remedy this, lunch with your coworkers and spend all your energy trying to follow their random banter. Maybe even throw in a comment or two that only half of them understand. After this, you deserve more English. Perhaps a downloaded audiobook on the old iPhone, or one of those New Yorker Writers Read Other Writers’ Short Stories podcasts. Whatever you do, resist the temptation to give into your guilt and listen to the French news. You never last more than 15 minutes anyway, no matter how many resolutions you make to listen to more French.

When 19h (that’s French for seven o’clock) arrives, you can go. You’ve survived another day in your French workplace, all you have to do now is get home. Repeat morning train activities, though you will most likely be reading on this leg, as you’ll probably be standing. Once home you may watch as much American TV as you can get your hands on, and it doesn’t matter if you watch something you never, ever would have watched back in the States. You’re keeping in touch with your roots. With all this French immersion you’re doing, you might just lose your identity.