Every once in a while I like to use my WordPress Reader to browse different categories, and typically I’ll have a look in the TAPIF one to see what new assistants are posting these days.
Typically these blogs remind me of the excitement of arriving, the fun of traveling, and the frustration of improving French skills.
But a post I read recently reminded me of the downside of the assistantship: the loneliness.
I had great assistant friends my assistant year, and even a few French friends in the small town I lived in. I lived in the school’s boarding house where the three other assistants also had rooms, as well as one or two of the school’s surveillants on their nights off.
But still, there were a lot of weeks where I did hardly anything at all. Bar le Duc had very little night life, and just one good bar. The other assistants sometimes kept to themselves other than a weekly movie night at the 6-screen cinema. Doors were typically closed in the boarding house and if we ate together it was by accident. I spent a lot of time reading or on the Internet, and going to Nancy on weekends. I remember one particularly difficult week when I had just been to Spain with les filles, and returned to Bar le Duc to see hardly anyone all week.
In retrospect, if I’d been a little more confident, I would have tried to encourage a more communal culture at the boarding house. Because of the language and cultural barrier, I sometimes didn’t understand invitations from the two professeurs-stagiaires at the school. One of them was from Bretagne and was surely lonely living in Bar le Duc, but as a foreigner I didn’t have the guts to assume she’d want to hang out.
My year as a lectrice in Reims was also difficult at times, in fact, definitely more so than the year in Bar le Duc. Reims has a reputation for being unfriendly. There never seemed to be much going on in spite of it being a relatively large and certainly pretty city. The lecteurs from the fac de langues were a lifesaver that year, but even so, unless you truly hit it off with a couple of new close friends, it’s hard to overcome loneliness with just the help of one or two people. Most of the year I only worked Mondays and Tuesdays, and found myself wishing for more hours. I went to a number of soirées where I didn’t have a lot of fun, but felt good for at least having gotten out of the house.
In the end, if I had to do it all over again, I would:
1) Never say no to any invitation of any sort.
2) Not be afraid to impose myself on people, in a polite way. I think French people appreciate outgoing-ness, and take invitations for coffee or dinner more seriously than Americans, as a real gesture rather than just a courtesy.
I can’t say I really have these same problems today, now that I have a full-time job and a live-in boyfriend. But when he’s gone and I’m off work, it can be a surprise to find myself wondering what to do with myself (besides more work of course). French friends, like young people all over the world, come and go as their studies or jobs end, and that’s the case for me and Ju these days. Many of our good friends are a three-hour drive or more away. Fortunately we have each other, but I should possibly start following my own advice (see #s 1, 2) some time soon.
I wonder sometimes if this phenomenon of expat loneliness is not just from the expat-ness of it all, but also from the difficulty readjusting after college. People used to tell me that it was harder to find friends after Macalester—you’re no longer surrounded by 2000 people of your age with similar interests, looking to make friends.
Any wisdom or similar experiences out there?