Its actually kinda crazy to consider that my blog has been about for 2 years now…..wooah!
On top of my blog being in existence for 2 years, in a couple of weeks time I will have been living in France for the same amount of time. Thats even more crazy! Well, not crazy in the ‘I can’t believe this is happening’ sense of the word, but more that life just feels so completely normal now. It’s such an awesome feeling to feel at home in another country. Even if I never went through any real difficulties with integration, it still feels like such an achievement.
Just this week I was bumped up to the intermediate level French classes. I am incredibly proud of myself with respect to this particular achievement. I worked blinking hard to improve my French and I think this milestone deserves to be celebrated 🙂 It means that while I’m not quite fluent, I can understand and express enough to get by in daily life, and then some. I can engage in conversations, I express agreement as well as doubt and counter arguments. I can express my feelings. I can read newspaper articles, novel length books and watch films and documentaries without having subtitles (although they still help, a lot!).
I remember when I first arrived in France, I couldn’t leave the house without both my dictionary and phrase book. Whats more, before any (planned) interaction, like going to the pharmacy or doctor, I would plan in my head exactly what I was going to say, including any possible responses to questions. I think this fooled people into thinking my French was a lot better than it was! But really. It was just me being studious and trying best to avert any awkwardness or frustration. It became an automatic feature of life. I didn’t even realise I was doing it until I went back to New Zealand and found myself accidently planning out my encounters with shop assistants. I had to consciously switch that part of my brain off and re-learn how to enjoy dynamic interactions. It done the trick, because it was around this time that I stopped doing it altogether. Once I returned to France, I somehow felt like I had a real handle on French.
I can honestly say that my confidence has grown two-fold since I dared to recognise these achievements. I use the word ‘dare’ purposely coz I’m super cautious of being overly confident with stuff. So even though others have told me consistently that my ‘french is good’, I didn’t dare believe it until more recently. In fact, I think it was the Charlie Hebdo incident that forced the issue. I remember feeling torn between two parallel universes in the week following the terrorist attacks. France was in a state of mourning for their own version of September 11th, as it was being referred to. While my Kiwi family and friends were enjoying the beginning of the summer holidays. It was a real mindfuck and was actually quite disturbing for me. It was the first time that I felt forced to recognise that my physical, everyday reality was a world away from ‘home’. At the same time that it was disturbing, there was something about these events that helped me realise, “right, I’m here now. I’m interested in politics and intercultural relations. This stuff (issues re- Charlie Hebdo; French culture & identity politics etc) is right up my alley, so I need to start actively engaging with this stuff”. And engage I did 🙂
We now watch Le Grand Journal every weeknight, followed by the nightly news. And I make an effort to keep up to date with the politics and news (which is hard, not so much for the language, but because it is all so bloody complicated). But I’m getting there. And while I don’t always understand everything, I understand the context of most issues.
Now that I can communicate with ease, I am so much more confident, in general, going about my business. So I am on my way to achieving one of the goals I set myself on leaving for France. It’s also one of the reasons that I don’t want to return to New Zealand just yet, because I want to get to a point where I feel completely comfortable with myself and my place in France. It might sound like an obvious goal but it was important for me because prior to leaving NZ, I had finally grown into my own skin and felt extremely confident with my place in the world. I knew all the rules and expectations of the various echelons of society; I finally understood the big deal about university (which even though I loved, I personally believe we place too much value on tertiary qualifications and lack value and respect for other jobs/trades). I finally understood how to communicate effectively, build relationships, socialise or how to tactfully remove myself from situations that made me feel uncomfortable. Basically, I knew where I fit and how to get by in the world.
Only to move to France and have the rug pulled from under my feet.
But I have been able to recognise that finding my place in France has largely weighed on two things: My ability to speak the language; and my ability to navigate the cultural differences and adapt accordingly; OR at least recognise the differences so that I can rationalise/explain my behaviour if challenged by others. Which contrary to what people might believe, is what being interculturally competent is about. It is not about assimilating or adapting without question. It is the ability to recognise the different values that influence our behaviours, and to explain them in relation to one another. Its also the ability to consciously adapt your behaviour according to what is both appropriate for the situation and comfortable enough for you. This is the part of the integration journey that I have found myself at now. Being able to identify the different factors that are at play and deciding what I like or don’t like about Kiwi, Maori and French cultures.
Having said all that, I am not French and the longer I stay here, the more I accept that I will never come close to being French. While there are loads of things I want to adopt from French culture, the one I can’t seem to overcome is their love of conflict. I just don’t have a penchant for taking part in conflict, which unfortunately plays a huge part in French conversation. I love deep discussion, exchanging ideas, considering other ways of being or doing and a healthy debate. If I’m with mes proches (my people), we talk about our lives, our feelings, our intimate thoughts, we laugh and cry over our everyday trials and triumphs – but these are no go areas for a lot of people. So my predicament is that I can’t talk about touchy feely things, but I am not at all interested in fighting for the sake of it. Which is why I haven’t yet mastered the art of French conversation. I feel damned if I do, damned if I don’t.
Someone recently stated that they “can’t stand people who are ambivalent”. I have a lot of respect for this person, someone whom I think posesses a lot of integrity, so it was hard not to take personally. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard a statement of this sort. The French seem to be offended by people who dare to stay neutral. They seem to view indifference or ambivalence with suspicion. The thing is, unless something really matters, I dont see the point in taking sides. And living on the other side of the world provides me with so many new experiences and perspectives that I can’t always form a clear opinion on stuff. Besides, I much prefer to enjoy building relationships based on who people are, rather than based on their opinion of things. I want to discuss stuff ‘with’ them, not spend time arguing ‘against’ them. If something is trivial and inconsequential, I just don’t see the point in picking a fight. At the end of the day there is no point in arguing about who is right and who is wrong when the issue is completely subjective or has no real benefit. But I accept that the ability to do this skillfully is what makes a successful French conversation.
I have often tried to explain that rules around conversation are culturally based and that anglophones, in general, try to have agreeable conversations based on finding common ground. We Kiwis tend to discuss shared experiences with one another, rather than debate a point of difference. If anything we shy away from debating. But it seems pointless trying to explain this to French peeps. I understand. I’m in their territory. Their rules apply. Most people don’t give a second thought to the validity of other cultural paradigms, so why would the rules of conversation for a country that’s too far, and too abstract, matter to anyone else? This is what I find most challenging. That in light of my Kiwiness, I must appear a wee bit indifferent, dumb or wishy-washy, none of which are very respectable attributes in French society.
So while I have found a whole lot of confidence and feel much more like ‘me’, I have found myself becoming avoidant in the face of confrontation, which isn’t me at all. So I realise that I still have a long way to go. Back home in NZ I felt confident enough to calmly explain my ideas to people and to mediate conflicts. In France I feel completely out of my depth. Instead of feeling cool, calm and collected, as I would back home, I often feel reactive and constantly on the back foot. This needs to change. But I have no doubt I will get there.
Anyway, for now, I feel like I’m winning and its a good feeling. So I’m gonna cheers to that 🙂