Times that Living in France Was Hard

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?

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10 thoughts on “Times that Living in France Was Hard

  1. I agree with absolutely everything you said! I had great assistant friends, although the year when I was a lectrice was harder, but when you only work 12 hours a week, it takes more than the odd night out to fill all the time. But what you said about this being about the reality of life after college is also true – as an expat I would say that if anything it was easier for me to make friends in my late 20s than for people who stayed at home.

    Nowadays I would love to have a couple of spare hours in the day to laze around on my bed reading books!

    • It definitely is a balancing act, and it was difficult to complain about working so little when friends and family were stressed out about the small amount of free time they had. I don’t think it’s easier yet for me to make friends than it was in college, but maybe that time will come.

  2. When I first arrived in France, in Chauny, I was so so lonely. It wasn’t until us assistants started to click a few months later that things started to get better. The town was so small, so it wasn’t really easy to meet people our age at all.

    Since then, things have been easier, but since moving to Lille, I find myself back in the same predicament. Yes, I have my boyfriend (and our dog). But other than that, local friends are few and far between. He’s not from here, so all he has are his uni friends who still go home every weekend to their parents’. We’re trying to come up with ways to meet new people but it’s not very easy…

  3. Things also really changed for me a few months in, with meeting French friends, and figuring out a rhythm of getting out of town. These days I think new friends are also hard to make because I don’t go out during the week when I have to get up early the next day!

    • Yeah, same here. With my commute and my boyfriend’s long hours, forget about it during the week! Then, on the weekend, we’d rather relax than do anything exciting.

  4. It definitely took time to find friends my own age who I genuinely clicked with rather than hanging out with them out of loneliness… And then I moved! The low point was probably when my two other flatmates in Nice had a party and didn’t invite me. In my own house 😦

    • Moving and changing friends is such a drag! That said, the people who are left behind find it sad as well… in the past year or so almost all of our friends have moved out of town!

  5. Oh, definitely. Friends who read my blog assume I was always gallivanting about Paris, having a smashing time. The truth is that – even with my boyfriend’s companionship – I was hellishly lonely at times. Trying to socialize on an assistant’s stipend is also not easy.

  6. Yes! People back home definitely have a tendency to think of even boring, lonely French village life in an institutional apartment as glamorous. And the budget thing can definitely be a concern for assistants.

  7. profesor1130 says:

    I came upon your fine blog because I am a high school Spanish teacher who is largely of French descent. My ancestors lived in two very small communes — one being Rancourt-sur-Ornain, Meuse, near Revigny. Because I do not speak French, I have never attempted to visit my ancestral communities – both on the Lorraine/Champagne border. At any rate, my students have a blog and are exchanging correspondence with students in various countries who are practicing their English – while my students (in Connecticut, USA) are practicing their Spanish. In view of my keen interest in learning more about my ancestral area of France, I’d like to find an English teacher in a school in that region who might like to have students take part in the blog — perhaps describing life in their part of France. I am assuming that high school students living in or around Rancourt-sur-Ornain or Revigny would attend school in Bar-le-Duc. Please forgive my long-winded message! Merci.
    Jonathan

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