People laughing

Laughter is the best medicine for an expat

When presented with the possibility of living abroad, there are some who would leap out of their proverbial nests, ready to embrace that opportunity with widely spread wings. For me, it was more a case of being drop-kicked out of that nest with my wings firmly wrapped around myself. Either way, leaving the nest isn’t easy, unless the fledglings (as so aptly put in Horseradish by Lemony Snicket) “are simply going around the corner and will return in a few minutes with ice-cream sandwiches.” In my case, purchasing these ice-cream sandwiches would turn out to be in the unfamiliar language of le français, resulting in a lot of awkward pointing, and they would surely melt on route if I chose to beat a hasty retreat back to South Africa!

When habituating to life in a foreign country, these expeditions to buy ice-cream sandwiches can take on many forms: opening a bank account, making new friends, navigating the bureaucracy or taking out insurance, to name a few. In order to walk away with that wonderful, rich, creamy reward you have to accept the possibility that there may be some awkward and embarrassing moments during the acquisition process. You’re living in a foreign country; language faux pas, social blunders or cultural gaffes are not only possible, but probable. In my case, they’re a weekly occurrence in the form of an uncomfortable nose bump, or worse, an accidental peck on the lips when greeting the various French people in my life. This is because it is customary to give two or more kisses on the cheek as a salutation and I can never seem to remember which side to start on. I end up looking like one of those bobblehead dolls that people have in their cars, bopping from side to side so much, that any onlookers would assume I was spontaneously breaking out into a dance routine!

Not long after arriving in France, a group of my colleagues and I were chatting about Father’s Day and brainstorming gift ideas. There was a moment’s silence followed by the entire staff room erupting into laughter after I had suggested that a friend buy her dad a prawn instead of a tie. In my defence, the French word for prawn (une crevette) is very similar to that for tie (une cravate). An exchange of embarrassing stories ensued, which kept us in stitches for nearly an hour. This seemingly insignificant lunchtime banter had a revelatory effect on me. I realised that I was not alone in my plight and that by maintaining a good sense of humour, one can ease a potentially difficult transition to life in a foreign country, all the while making the experience more enjoyable.

However, sometimes the intensity of a new environment coupled with the almost-daily challenges can become overwhelming. My husband and I experienced this very sentiment one afternoon when we decided to grab a quick lunch at a cafeteria. I will admit to having had a particularly stressful morning trying to sort out an administrative problem with little success – let’s just say that Google Translate is no longer my friend. I will also admit to us being hangry at the time (hangry being the amalgamation of hungry and angry), but I can assure you that this played no role in our assessment of the establishment. And our assessment of this particular establishment was that we could not for the life of us figure out how it worked! Sure, it was operated on a self-service basis like most of its ilk, but other than that it was a maze of confusion. Now, I am by no means intimating that I am the sharpest tool in the shed, but I fancy myself capable of figuring out the inner workings of a cafeteria! However, the layout of the various sections in this one triggered flashbacks of high school algebra: Lee is hungry and in need of a plate and cutlery. Where does she start, in which direction does she move and how does she pay?  At a loss, we approached an employee to ask for help, but his rapid-fire explanation in French and wild hand gestures left us more confused than before. It was at this point that I started humming the famous British rock anthem “Under Pressure” by Queen in my head. It was also at this point that my husband and I shared a look which communicated enough is enough. So under the unflinching gaze of the employee, we slowly drifted towards the door, pretending to peruse the lunch options (if that’s what they were!) before ducking out to make our escape.

Yes, sometimes our senses are bombarded with so much information, stress and awkward moments that it simply becomes overpowering. However, it was later that very same day, over chocolate and wine (because after a day like that, who doesn’t deserve chocolate and wine?) that we had a good giggle about our cafeteria incident. So we had a rough day. So we probably made fools out of ourselves. So we couldn’t figure out how to go about getting our hands on food in a cafeteria (I still maintain that solving a Rubik’s cube would have been easier than figuring out the labyrinth that was that cafeteria!). We were still sitting on our sofa in France (France!!!) having made it through another day. Yes, leaving the nest is hard, but it also fosters courage and learning. So the next time a difficult situation inevitably arises, choose laughter over tears. With this choice comes a certain freedom in the knowledge that even though some days may be filled with embarrassing moments or complications, by facing them with a sense of humour, you can take those situations in your stride. You can then move onto the next challenge with a smile on your face and an ice-cream sandwich in hand 🙂

Photo by marc kjerland

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