I’ve been an expat since 2002 when armed with a year of self-taught Italian, I moved from New York to Rome, Italy – alone – two days after breaking up with my boyfriend of seven years. When I arrived I knew exactly one person: an Italian guy named Marco who ran the Internet café I had decided to work from. And when I say “knew,” I mean I had met him while on a trip there the previous year, asked about a monthly rate, and written him a letter in broken Italian to say I’d be returning soon as a regular customer.
For whatever reason, Marco decided to become my friend and in the easy, generous way it seems Italians have honed to an art form, so did all of his friends. Within a year of living in Rome, I was dreaming in Italian and spent days on end never speaking, or hearing, a word of English. But more importantly, 4,000 miles from “home,” I had found a real sense of belonging – not only to my group of friends but to the Italian culture as a whole. In short, when in Rome I most certainly do what the Romans do.
Understandably, this assimilation defined my experience. On a personal level, let me just say this – if you ever break up with someone, immediately move to a foreign country alone. The sheer effort it took for me to get through each day left me with little time or energy to think about the breakup. What I remember most from those initial months was not heartache or sorrow, but figuring out how the washing machine worked and winning over the cheese lady at the weekly market and hundreds of other small victories that made me feel like a combination of MacGyver and Rosie the Riveter.
On a cultural level, nothing is better for assimilation than being surrounded by really cool people you’re dying to get to know better. I could have reached out to the expat community in Rome, but the thrill of understanding, and being understood by, my amazing friends was addictive. I gladly let them teach me not only their language but their culture, customs, and cooking tips as well.
Then in 2005, I moved from Rome to Montpellier, France. This time I had three years of high school French kicking around in the back of my brain somewhere, and again I knew only one person: my boyfriend of one year, Cal, an American expat who’d lived in Montpellier for five years.
In theory, I would hardly consider Cal to be an exotic character; we’re both freelance writers, we both grew up in New Jersey, and we both possess the expat gene that made us move away from the comforts of home. And, my life in France is largely the same as it was in Italy – I work on my laptop, I spend my spare time with a small group of wonderful, generous friends, and I travel as much as my schedule and budget allow.
Cal’s friends even took me under their wing in much the same way Marco’s did – but the personal community I’ve created here has produced a rare kind of culture shock that has turned Montpellier into a funhouse mirror version of Rome for me.
That’s because not a single one of my friends is French – and Cal and I are the only full-time American expats (i.e., not nomads or students) in our circle of friends. They hail from England, Lebanon, Reunion, Australia, the Netherlands. Our common language is English; our meeting place is an English-run pub that serves burgers and jalapeno poppers; we trade books bought at an English bookshop; we keep each other informed on what movies are playing in English at the movie theater.
Just as assimilation defined my time in Rome, so has isolation defined my life in Montpellier – in some ways for the better, and some for the worse.
On the negative side, even after all these years, I’m still not fluent in French – for a variety of reasons, but mostly because I don’t have to be when I can always turn to someone who can help me get through a conversational tough spot. Unlike in Rome, I’ve never been the only English speaker in the room. Not by a long shot. And, by insulating myself with a wall of familiarity, I haven’t gotten to know the intricacies of the culture the way I was able to in Italy, relying instead on others’ observations of a given situation.
Interestingly, I have become quite well versed in British slang, culture and comfort foods. Go figure.
What I’ve found to be a positive, though, is something that has actually affected me more deeply, and which I did not realize was missing from an otherwise idyllic period of my life. It’s the ability to take a breather from the culture when, sometimes, it all gets to be too much. Whether it’s a night in with Cal eating Domino’s pizza and watching old American movies or meeting my girlfriends at our favorite wine bar, I have to admit it’s relaxing after so many years of trying to blend in to embrace my outsider status, even flaunt it sometimes, and share this otherness with people who are in the same boat.
Even simply being able to turn to someone and say, “Jesus, how French was that!” and have them understand and agree is uniquely satisfying. It validates the experience in a way that emails to my mom or a blog post cannot.
Finally, I believe the real reason I’ve not assimilated here is that I’m fortunate enough to return to Rome several times a year for several weeks at a time. So, in a way, I feel like I have retained an assimilated expat life. That may seem like a flimsy rationale to some, particularly those who dream of living in France; but for me, it’s the best of both expat worlds.