A couple Fridays a month I will be featuring another blogger or up-and-coming writer on my site. Stories range from expat life to travel/adventure. If you are interested in possibly being featured, please read the info hereand get in touch! You may notice differences in terminology, vocabulary and spellings here but I think keeping it authentic to the author’s voice and background makes for a richer reading.
An American Journey into the French “Tough Love” Mentality
By: Heather Javault
After finishing university in 1998, I arrived in France young and eager to travel. While my friends were off getting their first “real” jobs, I was riding the Metro to meet up with new friends from all over the world. I was keen to learn and to see new things and I didn’t worry much about my ability to fit in or start a career a bit later. My goal was just to see the world and be happy.
Happy is such a simple goal, though. During my first year, I didn’t realize that little things were eating away at the person I was. I found it difficult working for the French school system as an English teacher but thought it was normal as it was not my culture. I reminded myself of this, asking ‘why should they adapt to me?’ but it began to affect my confidence. Maybe I just wasn’t good at being a teacher. The other teachers were always correcting everything that I did just as other people constantly corrected my French. When asked about it, they all said that they are trying to help me; that’s how they do things here. All these good intentions weren’t helping me though. They were not pushing me to do better. I felt stupid. I kept wondering ‘why I am still here?’ It didn’t matter that I eventually learned to speak near-native French. The success I achieved was never good enough. When I got a job as an office assistant later, I constantly had someone behind me correcting me or asking if I was sure of myself. My confidence was gone. The bubbly person I once was was gone. I saw my friends overseas move forward with their careers while I just stood still, doubting myself in another culture.
Shortly thereafter I convinced my new husband to move back to the United States. He was eager to try out the “American Dream” and I was just as eager to get back to family and friends. I found a job pretty quickly through a friend and it didn’t matter that I had absolutely no prior experience in Payroll and Human Resources because they said would train me! I was not stuck in an office assistant job just because I had to pay the bills, I could change and be whomever I wanted. My confidence slowly started creeping back and I felt like a whole new person. I was able to go out with friends and even attend their weddings without spending money on plane tickets. I had everything to be happy, but there was still something missing. There was no denying that I had two homes now and more importantly, two cultures. I realized quickly that my having two cultures had changed me and my friends did not want to hear me say things such as “Back in France, they do things this way…” I could almost feel their eyes rolling. I was going out and doing things as I had before I moved to France, but I always felt like I didn’t fit in anymore. I had new opinions and I didn’t agree with everyone as I might have done easily before. Some friendships stayed the same and embraced my new quirkiness, but other relationships grew more superficial. A large part of that friendship shift was a direct result of that fact that I had changed while others stayed the same. I didn’t share anything other than a past with those old friends. My outsider experience saw me increasingly annoyed with U.S. political elections. (Don’t even get me started on that topic!)
After 3 years of being back home but not entirely feeling ‘home’, my husband’s career choice brought us back to France. I had an 18-month-old son and I knew that I didn’t want to move back into our tiny apartment in the city of Paris, so we decided to settle down in the suburbs. I didn’t have a car right away and as I didn’t know anyone in my area so loneliness quickly settled in. My husband worked extremely hard at his job, which left us feeling like he didn’t even notice us most of the time. I had a hard time finding a job. The Payroll experience that I had in the US did not apply to French regulations and I was starting over. Again. I tried teaching English, but I always felt like I wasn’t very good at it. When I tried getting jobs, I never had enough experience in the field or I was too young or too old. There was always something that I didn’t have enough of. I went back to feeling like a big fat loser and in this time I gained lots of weight and I drank lots of wine.
I eventually had two more babies. It is true; the French health care system is great. Yet for me, I didn’t feel like a client to the hospital or to the doctor. Once again, I felt like everything I did was wrong. I gained too much weight according to the doctor. My veins were too small for the lab technician. I didn’t get up and walk around enough after childbirth. My baby was too big, too yellow, and too ‘baby’.
Going back to work after children was awful. The job I had was unnecessarily stressful due to a difficult manager and further aggravated by a very long commute. I spent nearly 4 hours a day on the train. Although I did my job well, it was never good enough.
At this point, I tried to get myself into shape. Years of abusing my own body were showing and it was clear I wasn’t taking care of myself. I always saw people running and I wished I had the running power as well. So, one day I got myself out and started. I ran a little bit more every day. I signed up for races. I earned finisher medals. I had one thing in my life that made me proud and that gave me back some of the confidence that I had lost after years of negative thoughts. A friend challenged me to sign up for the Paris half marathon. I thought she was crazy, but I said yes. She totally flaked on me, but I kept training. I ran a 10k in December in 1 hour. That is not fast but record time for me. I could totally pull off 21k! And I did! I walked some of it, prayed to every god I could think of for it to be over, but I did it. It took me three hours. My feet were burning, I had chafing in spots that I don’t want to mention, but I did it. My kids greeted me at the end and cheered for me. They were proud of me and I was too. But, when I got to the medal stand, I got a medal that looked like it came out of a cereal box. Other runners had these glorious, gorgeous medals. Mine was practically plastic and half the size. They explained that they had “run out” of the other medals and because I was too slow, there weren’t any left. The email that I received from organizer after questioning what happened confirmed this. He said that I should be happy that they “let” me finish at all. Once again, I wasn’t good enough. Over the year that I trained for those races, I met incredible people that told me that it didn’t matter how slow I run. I was still a runner. This guy’s email brought me down a whole lot of pegs. I felt sick. I wasn’t a runner; I was just some fatty that wanted some shiny bling. During the race, I had people pass me and give me “high fives” and “thumbs up” I thought they were cheering me on, but maybe they were just laughing at me. That sounds extreme and dark, but that is what I started to feel. In the year since the race, I might have started to run about 5 times. I just can’t seem to get back out there. The running shoes only recently came out again when my 11 year old tried to steal them from me.
Why do I let so much get to me? Everything I have just written makes France sound like an awful place. The thing is that while all of these experiences were happening, I never realized that it wasn’t because of me. I have spent most of my adult life doubting myself.
I am recently (and happily) unemployed. I have an idea for a new project and it is going to be really hard to pull off in France. A career coach at the unemployment office even suggested that I move back to the U.S. to fulfill my dream. It is actually this same career coach that brought on this whole enlightenment. She said that the French from a very young age are taught negativity. In school they are not taught that they could do better but that they are not doing good enough. I didn’t understand before she said this why my kids hated school so much. I loved primary school but my kids say they feel stupid. They don’t think they will do good enough. They are always anxious about how the day will go. With my North American upbringing of positive encouragement, I can see why the opposite would have such heavy effects on me.
The French mean well. They see correcting as way to help. They think that negative remarks will push people to try harder. They are the Jillian Michaels of the education system. Tough love encourages good results. I mean, it worked for them, right? They are immune to feeling bad about themselves because they have built themselves armor against it. When I think about the administrator that emailed me from the half marathon, maybe he was just trying to push me to train harder for next year. My kids’ teachers are just trying to push them to strive to do better. Not everyone can come in first place. The North American way of giving everyone an award just for participating isn’t building fighters.
Look at me. I cried over a medal.
Heather Javault came to Paris from Massachusetts nearly 19 years ago with a dream to travel. She fell for a cheesy pickup line for a “real French kiss” and never really left. She now putters around the suburbs of Paris with her husband and 3 children and constantly plans new projects and vacations. You can follow her latest project on her blog So Full of Crêpe or catch up with her on her facebook page.