Franchir une haie -- I just had to look that up in order to write this post. It means to take or clear a hurdle. Now, I couldn't leap over an actual hurdle -- you know, the track-and-field kind -- if my life depended on it. Not even when I was young and not wincing in pain each day when I get out of bed. But it occurs to me that if jumping metaphorical hurdles was an Olympic sport, then my time living in France has trained me so well at this that I could be a medal contender in the 400 meter "Steps to Adapting and Integrating into a New Language and Culture" event. Because OH MY GOD the hurdling. The non-stop "I love France but it's making me crazy" hurdles that go with deciding to spend one's life here.
I have a job interview tomorrow -- my first ever in France, and my first one anywhere since 1990, which was the last time I applied for a job back in the U.S. It was that "first ever in France" thing that caused me to reflect on just how many different hurdles I have had to leap over before I got to this latest one... and to wonder: "WHERE THE HELL IS THE DAMN FINISH LINE?" Does one ever reach the finish line when it comes to creating a new life in a foreign country? Does it ever really end, the constant need to be the one doing all the adapting?
I came to France, alone, to fulfill a dream. I knew it wouldn't be easy, and oh, how right I was about that. During my first year, my hurdles were many indeed, but primarily revolved around navigating everyday life. Finding a place to live. Opening a bank account. Making friends and creating a social life from scratch. Learning how to deal with the post office, the pharmacy, the supermarket. Learning how to take the bus instead of the metro. Finding a doctor who spoke English. Trying to pick up more French vocabulary despite most of my conversations being with English-speaking new friends. All those little things you take for granted when you're in your native element and language suddenly become so much more challenging when you don't have the communication skills or the "insider" knowledge of how it's all supposed to work.
My second year in France, I met and fell in love with Georges, and suddenly I had a whole new set of hurdles: learning how to create a good relationship whilst simultaneously (on both sides) learning how to communicate more effectively in another language. Learning how to be a wife and a step-mom (and the caretaker of a psychotic cat). Having to speak and understand real-world French, and discovering that all those years of studying I'd done? Were not really all that helpful. Crying in the toilet on a regular basis because I felt so left out of dinner-table talk in my own home that year when we were learning how to become a family. I'm a writer and I'm a talker and when I find myself unable to express myself, that is like DEATH to me. That year was one of the best in my entire life because it brought me closer to Georges, but oh, how hard it was to get over those hurdles -- both the logistical ones, and the emotional ones.
A lot of my hurdles from that year until this past year revolved around immigration requirements. First it was three years of the annual paper chase, and constantly having to prove and re-prove myself and our marriage to the French government, in order to secure/renew my Carte de Séjour. Then, clearing a very big hurdle when I finally qualified for the 10-year Carte de Séjour, which felt great... for all of about 5 minutes, because it wasn't too many months after that, that I/we started preparing my dossier to apply for French nationality. Now, becoming French and having dual citizenship last summer? Absolutely my biggest (and most exciting and rewarding) hurdle to date, I have to say. Especially because, every year I was here since the beginning, the French government seemed to be ADDING hurdles for me to jump over, thereby making it more and more difficult. Thank God, now that I am officially French, the biggest hurdles I will have to leap in terms of my being here on French soil will now be reduced to simply renewing my passport every 10 years, just like all the other Français(es). That alone has freed up hundreds of hours of the rest of my life: BIG win, this.
There have been, of course, many language hurdles. Taking that Sorbonne course and feeling like I was in way over my head much of the time (the professor was kind of a jerk at times), but in the end I was glad I'd done it. Then finding out the Sorbonne's certificate wasn't enough to satisfy the authorities for my nationality application and that I would have to take the TCF test to determine my ACTUAL level of French. It was officially tested at level B2 (high-intermediate) as of August 2012; perhaps inching my way toward C1 (the lower of the two "expert" levels) by now, but still a ways off from "completely fluent" especially when it comes to written French and communicating on the phone. Sometimes, it's no big deal that I don't understand everything or communicate flawlessly, but at other times it IS important, and I get so damn frustrated that I can't get it right. Case in point, there has been a little issue with the Garçon and some dental work he had done over a week ago, and something still isn't right about the work that was done so I have to take him back; I have no idea if I misunderstood something the dentist told me, or if he screwed something up, or what? And because my grasp of the finer points of French still eludes me at critical moments, I often feel too dependent on Georges and helpless to handle things myself that I have otherwise been handling my entire life! And I still make so many little errors, every minute of every day when I'm speaking in French, that I sometimes just give up and say "Fuck it! I will NEVER get it right, so why even bother trying". I know that's the wrong attitude, but some days that's exactly how I feel about it. I often wonder if "complete fluency in French" is a hurdle I will always be tripping over.
Reentering the job market after so many years away, and doing so in a new country, is a pretty big hurdle, even though I will be concentrating my job search on situations where I will either be writing or teaching in English. (Plus, I have it on good authority from a friend who works in that industry that there are SO many companies in Paris offering English classes, and they are always on the hunt for native English speakers with teaching experience, that I will absolutely get some kind of EFL job here.) Now, more than ever, I find myself wishing my French skills were much better, as it would give me so many more interesting options in the job market. But there are things I'm well qualified to do, regardless, and I'm confident I will eventually hit upon the right position. At the same time, I'm still working on my own professional hurdles as a writer, because my deciding to get a "real" job is no way a sign that I've thrown in the towel with writing. Don't panic: the books will still be coming.
I think ahead to what other hurdles I will either want or need to vault, sooner or later. The French driver's license is another biggie: a written test AND road test, all in French. Frankly, I'm terrified, but others have survived and passed before me. Another thing: when I eventually secure a book deal, or if I land any freelance magazine work, I'll have to set myself up as a an official freelancer in France for tax purposes, and that will require more unfamiliar hurdles. And I know there will be others that perhaps I can't even visualize right now, because life is like that: always putting up new challenges for us to face... and sometimes jump over, on our way to the next one, and the next one after that.
Sometimes, it's exhausting thinking about how far I've come and how far I sometimes feel I still have to go. It's probably more about my PERCEPTION of there being "so much still to be done", than really having all that many remaining big challenges in adapting and integrating into being French. But real or perceived, it feels endless. Like jumping hurdles on a moving treadmill that stretches out to the horizon and beyond.
Will I ever seem to "fit" in my adopted country? Will I ever really feel French? Will I ever get the inside jokes, feel part of the group at a party or a dinner, and not feel like the odd one out? I truly wonder, and frequently doubt. And that feeling, that frustration, like I still have so much to learn, to adapt to -- when will THAT ever end? The obvious answer is, "never", of course. C'est la vie. It ain't over 'til it's over. We are, all of us, facing change at every moment, and adapting to it, whether we chose the change or not.
Don't get me wrong: I love my French life. There is so much about it that interests me and satisfies me in ways my old New Jersey life never quited seemed to do. And let us not forget the most important and most wonderful part of my French life: GEORGES. But oh, I wonder what it would be like for ma vie en France to feel facile and pas compliquée for a while. To just genuinely feel as though I have everything in good order, running well, under control and that there are no worries. To have the sense that I am well in my new French skin, that I have nothing important to learn, to prove or to become before I can just relax and ENJOY. I enjoy a lot of my life, but I don't relax about it all that much. I always seem to have the sense that I'm behind and need to catch up, somehow. That I'll never be quite... whatever... enough.
Perhaps this is just how it is, and how it might always be. There are worse things, to be sure, than being able to live in Paris even if you don't quite feel as Parisienne as you hoped or dreamed you'd be. Well, I guess a girl can always dream. Hey, we're entitled, n'est-ce pas?
The important point is: when you're done dreaming, just remember to build up enough steam to take that next hurdle... and to do it with style, even if you trip and fall on your face.
That's what a real French girl would do. Bien sûr.