Welcome to the second post in “Meet the Expats,” my series promoting other undaunted foreigners who have chosen to call France home, and brave expat life. Author Samantha Vérant (Seven Letters from Paris), has a new book out called How to Make a French Family: A Memoir of Love, Food, and Faux Pas, where she shares the ups and downs and ups of her new life as the new wife of a Frenchman. I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advance copy, and what struck me most was, though our personal experiences are different, our emotional journeys are nearly identical. It was the ultimate validation. I interviewed Samantha, and got the story behind the story of her new memoir.
Lisa: I was surprised how many things we had in common as a read your new book, How to Make a French Family. One of those things is how you forced the hand of fate (when you decided to face past mistakes in order to change your life). I also did this when I left the security of the steady job to move to Paris. What was the impetus for you to take that risk? Was it the hope of love, or was it something else, something more?
Samantha: The hope of love was the catalyst. When I first contacted Jean-Luc, the Frenchman who wrote me seven beautiful love letters in 1989. To move forward in life, I wanted to rid myself of past regrets, so I decided to send him a twenty-years-delayed apology. I didn’t have anything to lose. I thought I was only looking for forgiveness; but when Jean-Luc responded, I got a hell of lot more than that. For the first time in my life I opened up my heart, and once I did that, there was no turning back. I found the courage to change everything in my life—and that is the something more.
Lisa: In Chapter 2, “Leaping into L’Amour,” you talk about divesting of your possessions in order to move to France. I admit, that part made me queasy. I have a chapter in my memoir, My (Part-Time) Paris Life (Ch. 4), about holding onto to the stuff of life. I’ve never really made the plunge 100%, and keep a house and two storage rooms full of stuff in the States. I’m not saying it’s a good thing, but I couldn’t do what you did, and the way you did it: fast!
How hard was it to leave your things behind, and what was that process like for you? Was there an unexpected outcome from letting go like that?
Samantha: Before I packed up my belongings, I did get estimates for shipping my belongings to France, but the cost wasn’t worth it. I hadn’t read the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, but evidently, I’d adhered to the principals within its pages. Did this item give me joy? Would I wear this sweater again? Had I ever worn it? Were those shoes with the worn out heels worth getting repaired? It wasn’t hard to leave things behind (or donate them); getting rid of the clutter was cathartic. It’s amazing what we hang on to. Sometimes to move forward in life it’s important to let go of the past. I only kept things that were important to me—and things I needed, like clothes.
L: People back home who watch us expats from the sidelines think we’re living the dream, that we’re blissfully happy ever after. But the theme of isolation comes up a lot in your book, as it did in mine; that moment when “real life” smacked the bloom off the rose, and you realized you’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. You described a scene in Chapter 5, (“Winging It”), standing awkwardly on the sidelines of your stepson’s soccer game, unable to make chitchat to fit in. You write: “I left at halftime and walked the three blocks home, loneliness creeping into my heart.” I jotted “Ugh for me!” in the margin beside this paragraph.
What is it like for you now? Was there a moment when you turned the corner, or do you still feel like “an American fly buzzing around” as you said in your book?
S: Expats go through stages similar to grief. The first one is the honeymoon period, where everything is perfect. We’re able to discover a new culture, explore new locales, meet new people, and tasting new foods and wines. It’s fabulous for the first month. But then, one day, it hits you. Those feelings of isolation just creep up and you wonder: “what did I get myself into?” It took me about six months to turn the corner. My biggest issue was that I hadn’t made friends of my own. I was depending on Jean-Luc and my family. I hadn’t carved out my own life here. So I put up a post on an expat blog and, eventually, I met three women from similar backgrounds: two Canadians and one American. It’s like internet dating, but for friends. Once I was able to share my frustrations with people who understood the problems I faced, like not speaking the language 100% fluently, I was able to find my feet in France. Like you, my neighbors call me “The American” and today, I know this isn’t an insult. I had to embrace my American roots, which includes a French accent embellished with a hint Chicago and California Valley Girl, as an expat living in France. I still buzz around, but I just let nature—human nature—take its course. That, and I say hello to everybody—even dogs. It’s amazing what a smile and a bonjour can do.
L: You write, “Nobody warned me that starting over would be so hard.” Again, I wrote nearly the exact line in my memoir. I felt like a failure every day, until an expat friend asked me why I thought it would be easy. Why did you think it would be easy?
S: I thought it would be easy because I had Jean-Luc, the love of my life, his children, Max and Elvire, and his family and friends. I thought I had it made. But then the issues popped up—all my language mishaps, homesickness, not being able to find a job in an area home to aerospace (a rocket scientist I am not), adjusting to new rules of etiquette, and more. Failure comes when you think everything is supposed to click into place right away. I finally learned my big lesson: I needed to be patient. And I had to work towards success.
L: Your story echoed that of my dear friend, writer, Lisa Taylor Huff (The Bold Soul). As a new stepmom in Paris with teenagers, she used to call me crying often in the beginning. Being a stepmom is hard enough, but in a foreign country? I admire you so much. I’m not sure I could hack it. Do you have any advice for someone going through something similar, who are at the crying-every-day stage?
S: As mentioned above, it’s all about patience. Building a bond with kids, like becoming fluent in French, does not happen overnight. The problem with teens and tweens, no matter what country they are from, is the fact they are teens and tweens. Teens are savvy; they know how to go in for the kill. When you couple this fact with feeling like a child yourself, you have to take a step back and put your big girl pants on, to be the adult even if you don’t feel like one. For sure, I was overly sensitive at times. But then I realized, when they’d mouth off, they’d do the same thing to Jean-Luc. I needed to be firm, but not too firm—that was Jean-Luc’s job. I’m not the disciplinarian, but I needed to set boundaries. The kids had gone through a lot. Cancer took the life of their mom, Frédérique, in 2006. A few years later, Jean-Luc had remarried a crazy, young Russian physicist who competed with the kids for his love. He divorced her. And now he was married to me. Of course, the kids were testing me every chance they got. Well, I didn’t need a cheat sheet to pass the test. I just had to be me—warm, giving, and loving—not an overly sensitive twit. Long story short: love can’t be forced; it just has to evolve and grow.
Failure comes when you think everything is supposed to click into place right away. I finally learned my big lesson: I needed to be patient. And I had to work towards success.
L: You talk about yourself as an immigrant, with all the same immigrant experiences you’d expect. Being an immigrant in France hit me, also, when I had to go to l’OFII (immigration services) for the medical. I had such anxiety; I could barely understand them. You feel like you’re on an assembly line and you have to strip for the chest X-rays. I suddenly thought of my grandmother at Ellis Island, a young girl of just 13, who had pink eye and was isolated, treated like a leper. Because Paris always felt like home, I found the immigrant experience jarring to the core. I have a deeper respect and compassion for immigrants now. What did the experience teach you?
S: It doesn’t matter what country you’re from, L’OFII treats everyone the same way: a bit like a lamb being led to a slaughterhouse. My experience at l’OFII left me feeling stripped of my dignity, mostly because I had to take my shirt off for those damned chest X-rays and stand half naked in front of a random doctor. As an immigrant, you want to feel welcome in your new home, your new country, but at l’OFII, or the prefecture, where you have to pick up your carte de sejour (a.k.a green card), there is no welcome wagon and the experience is very impersonal. I learned that an immigrant has to do whatever an immigrant has to do if they want to stay in France.
L: One of the topics in the book that made me laugh out loud was your struggle with the language. I dedicated a chapter to this, too (Ch. 6), so I really felt your pain! How’s your French now, and what are some of your favorite faux amis? (For the reader: faux amis are French words that sound like their English counterparts, but in fact have a very different meaning.) And dare I ask: favorite curse words?
S: According to Jean-Luc, the hubs, my French should be much better. He still corrects me. According to everybody else I meet, they are impressed with my linguistic skills. Strangers love my ‘cute American accent’ and find it charming. Oh, c’est trop mignon!
I don’t think I’ll ever speak French with a perfect accent. I tried speaking with a higher Minnie Mouse and slightly lower voice (not loud) with my sister-in-law, Isabelle, and I asked her if I sounded more French; she laughed at me. In fact, we were both dying of laughter.
As for faux amis, never ask a woman in the lingerie store for un bra. You are asking for an arm. And, oh, putain! You want to know my favorite curse word? Check out this video:
I couldn’t agree, more, Samantha! Once again, we are soul sisters—even in the way we swear in French!