This past Tuesday I participated in a panel discussion at the British Ambassador's home in Paris called Writers at the Residence to help raise money for the SOS Help Line. For those of you unfamiliar with SOS Help, it's a confidential English-language listening line in France founded in 1974 by a group of American and British health professionals. It is a non-profit organisation, non-denominational, non-political, and non-interventionist. The volunteer listeners answer calls 365 days a year from 3-11pm.
Trained by professional therapists/psychologists, they provide empathetic, supportive, and non-judgmental listening to anyone going through a difficult or painful life experience, including loneliness, depression, health concerns, bereavement, money problems, unemployment, difficulties with friends or family, or substance abuse.
The topic of the panel discussion, hosted by Bryce Corbett and including Alec Lobrano, Stephen Clarke, Michael Sandler, Charles Timoney and myself, was a light-hearted (and, we hoped, entertaining) look at the stereotypes of the French as seen by those of us who write about our adopted country. After our talk, we mingled in a reception with the 200 attendees. It was a great chance to talk about the SOS Help Line, both with the relative newcomers to Paris as well as those who have lived here much longer than myself.
It would be easy to think that the help line is for "other people". Those who are depressed, desperate to speak to someone, people with no friends or no one to turn to. Not "us". Not the successful expats surrounded by people who care about us. But of course that's not true at all. The reality of expat life in Paris is not always the pretty picture we (particularly guidebook writers like myself) try and paint for the outside world.
When I first came to Paris as a student in 1995, it was, as I mentioned in the panel, "ten minutes after the metro bombings and ten minutes before the worst metro strikes since 1968. I don't know why I ended up staying." I was joking when I said it, but that was actually the truth. Paris was gorgeous, the food was amazing, the culture was fascinating...everything was as beautiful and intriguing as everyone says it is. But I grew up in the suburbs, and living in a big city in a foreign country was a big shock.
The worst part was that I didn't understand that at the time. Everyone kept telling me how lucky I was, how happy I must be, how perfect Paris was in every way. So of course I thought all of the stress and difficulty I had adjusting to life here was my own fault, that my French wasn't good enough, that I was generally screwed up. It was a huge blow to my "honor student" ego.
But I was used to taking care of myself, an independent young woman who didn't think she needed anyone's help. I struggled along quietly, keeping most of my angst to myself or taking it out on my roommate, who was having the time of her life (and perfectly fluent, that b****!). I did end up staying in Paris, of course, but in those early years (I was only 23 years old) I coped in the least productive way possible. I became a France-hater.
Yep, there it is. Now you all know. I became one of those cranky cynical expats constantly complaining about the Frogs and their backwards country. I pretended I didn't care what they thought of me, immaturely refusing to integrate while also refusing to leave. At the time I was working in an Irish bar, so I had a sympathetic audience for my bitter complaints about our adopted country.
So why didn't I just go home? Maybe because deep down inside I really DID always love France, but I didn't know how to fit in. My language skills were pathetic despite nine years of French classes, I resisted the cultural differences that I didn't "agree with", and I generally felt that I would never be one of "them". I think I stayed out of sheer stubbornness. I had to make France like me! I was a born over-achiever who hadn't yet "figured out" France.
A year later I was married to a British man who used to joke that we were "united against a common enemy". That enemy being the French, of course. His job was firmly based in Paris, so for the first time in four years, I realized I no longer had an easy escape plan. Paris, and France, were my home for better or worse. I got a shiny ten-year residence card, a drivers' license, and a social security number. I even got a real job with cool things like RTT (forced vacation time) and discount cinema tickets.
And I was miserable. So one day I called the SOS Help Line.
I can't remember exactly why I called that day, or even what I talked about. I think I just needed to let off some steam to someone who didn't know me. To be able to voice my angst about living in Paris without the cynical posturing that had become my default attitude. I needed to be able to admit that, deep down, I still felt as lost as I did those first few months in Paris.
I'm not going to pretend that one phone call changed my life. I stumbled along as best as I could for a few more years before I finally adapted to -- and even embraced -- my life in France. I continued making many mistakes along the way, of course, but I can finally say without any hint of blasé worldliness that I do indeed love France and my life here.
Some people adapt right away, making the most of everything that Paris has to offer with enthusiasm and that elusive joie de vivre that we all hear so much about. But I think the reality is that most of us feel every little bump and dip along the way, struggling to keep our heads above water while going through that often painful adjustment period that can last from a few weeks to (in my case) a few years.
If you've just arrived in France to live, you may have left your entire support network back home. And often that support network doesn't want to hear that Paris isn't perfect. They might believe that afternoon teas at Ladurée and Sunday walks in Luxembourg Gardens cancel out any of the stresses of living in a foreign city. They might make you feel guilty for being ungrateful for your charmed life. They may beg you to return home if you seem even a little bit unhappy. In short, you may need someone else to talk to.
And that's why the SOS Help Line is so important.
I don't normally write about my personal life on this website. I only do so now because I hope it might help someone else realize that it's okay to be unhappy in France once in awhile, and that needing to talk to someone doesn't mean you've "failed".
Whether or not you ever think you'll need it yourself, a confidential listening line in English is an essential resource for our expat community here in France. Consider becoming a volunteer listener, donating your time or financial support, or attending one of the many fundraising events hosted throughout the year. Tomorrow, Saturday the 24th, is the SOS Help Line autumn book sale at St Joseph's Church (50 ave Hoche, 8th) from noon-4pm. Drop off your own books in the morning or stop by to purchase paperbacks for €1 or hardbacks for €2.
For more information about the SOS Help Line, visit their website or call 01 46 21 46 46 (open 3pm-11pm).