This post has been sitting at the back of my mind for ages now. It's a culmination of all the advice I've ever given to someone new to this city and all the hard work I've done establishing myself here and creating a life for my family. Because it is HARD work. Until now I've not really had the words or the platform to express all of this, but finally here we are. As mums we're told over and over that "It takes a village..." but what does that mean for those of us who are far from home? How can that be true for us?
The funny thing about France is that, for a Brit, it doesn't seem that foreign. We've nearly all been here on childhood holidays and school trips, booze runs to Calais (what, that's only my family?) and having grown up in Kent and Sussex it really seemed just a skip and a hop away. Honestly, Paris is closer to my hometown than the North of England and so it didn't seem like a massive leap to move here. Lots of people I've spoken to have said the same, for Brits it just doesn't feel like a big deal, for Americans it tends to be the romantic Paris vision but sure enough, for pretty much everyone, the romance evaporates fairly quickly when faced with daily life here.
This is understandable. Quite honestly, when I do my quarterly battle with the French administration system (or ANYTHING that involves dealing with a government agency: National insurance, taxes, family benefits, school applications, creche applications...) I am ready to pack my bags and swim back over the channel if that's what it takes to not to ever have to deal with them again. However, the French administration system is just a system and once you've made your peace with it, you're halfway to beating it. It's not the excessive paperwork that renders so many new-comers so depressed and isolated, it's loneliness.
As in any big city, loneliness is a huge problem and particularly so among young mothers. Paris attracts a great number of expats, who when they come to work in France bring with them "trailing spouses", who have no family or friends nearby to help out and even those of us foreigners who are married to locals are not immune to the loneliness of the first months and years of motherhood. As foreigners here, most of us don't have the option of popping over to mum's for a cup of tea, we mostly don't have an established friend group who are all having children at the same time as us, we don't have a village! Many women have remarked to me that French people are very difficult to make friends with, as they tend to have friendship groups that they've had since they were children and have very little interest in making new friends. While this is true (not always, but mostly!), the good news is that it all changes when you have a child in creche or school - a real bonding experience with other mothers! But up until then, what is a mum to do?
How can I feel at home here? How can I make friends? How can I feel like I'm not swimming upstream just trying to survive in this country? How can I find my village?
- Shop in your local market street & say Bonjour! Even if it makes you feel like an extra in Beauty and the Beast... getting to know my local shop and market vendors made a huge difference for me in the loneliness cloud. Just being able to walk down my street and have nearly every person I came across greet me, ask some small talk questions and wave me on my way brightened my days considerably. It will also help your language skills! One fruit and veg vendor used to refuse to give me my order until I had given her the correct masculine or feminine for them (its une orange...) At first I was horrified and embarrassed and now we greet each other with bises and she knows all about my life! Take a deep breath and Bonjour!
- Find your local mum group. Even if it's online. Online is actually often the best option as people organise meet-ups, play groups, baby massage classes, mum's nights out, Halloween and Christmas parties etc. France has an excellent France-wide Facebook group for English Speaking mums: Mum's Space France. A community of over 2500 mums of all ages - every question I've ever had about life in France with kids can be answered by these ladies. As many of them struggle with the same things I struggle with, or have beaten those things - it's a great tool for realising that you're not alone. Most cities now have Facebook groups for mums - Get involved, even if you don't use Facebook for anything else!
Feeling at home in a place takes time. We're here to stay, but I don't envy the people who have to move every couple of years for work (although they are some of the most sociable, generous, organisational party people I know!) If you're feeling lonely, the most important thing is to reach out, approach that mum at the park, call that acquaintance, make it to the mum group or even just get outside. I have a friend who follows English speakers in her local park and invites them to parties. I got approached by a lady in a shop just the other day and I have a good friend who first approached me at the assisted boarding gate at Eurostar - be brave. It really is worth it.
In this modern world "The Village" doesn't look like it used to, but that doesn't mean that it's gone. We've redefined it, remade it and now that we're far from home, we need it more than ever.