In a recent email exchange, a friend of mine said that “change is never easy” in response to comment I made about the experience of moving to Paris being filled, thus far, with extreme highs, extreme lows and struggling to find stability. I knew that the process of moving to a foreign country was going to be emotional roller coaster. I mean, moving generally is difficult and always presents unforeseen obstacles, why would moving across the ocean be any easier? However, I have to admit that I was completely unprepared for just how wild of a ride this would end up being.
I’m a pretty analytical person. I am also a pretty dramatic person. There is a constant battle between my mind and heart, each constantly tugging at me and telling me they know the best way for me to approach the world in front of me. [Note: I am sure those of you reading this who know got more than a little snicker out of these comments.] Given my psychological disposition, the best way for me to face tough situations – be they professional or personal – is to break them down and “work the problem,” to really understand what is going on and absolutely every possible scenario so that I am not caught so off guard or breathless by the situation. As I was preparing for the move, I thought I had done this. I talked to attorneys, tax accountants, clients, former expats, friends, and family. For a number of different reasons, I chose to stage my move over a period of months. As confident as I was in the potential of the man for whom I was moving across an ocean, I do not do anything without a safety net. So, I planned a return trip to Washington, DC (coming up in just a couple of weeks) to finalize my visa. Since I was moving myself (as opposed to an employer moving me), I decided to hold off making decisions about renting my home until I had a better sense of where (and if) I would land professionally. I knew I would hit points throughout the year where “tough decisions” would be made and I marked them on my physical and psychological calendar to tackle as they came.
The one thing that I wasn’t prepared for when I hit the ground was the very thing for which I should have been the most prepared, given my wiring and full understanding of it. Namely, all of the emotional safety nets and professional trip wires that I set up wouldn’t keep my heart and head from continuing to wage their war once “in country.” In other words, when moving to a foreign country, no matter how much logistical planning you do, you are still going to hit a number of mental brick walls which you have no other choice but to break through, climb over, or figure your way around when adapting to your new life. Rather than call them brick walls (though that’s exactly how they feel at times), I have begun to think of each of these as “stages of embracing a new life.”
While I am sure there will be more to come, I have hit three stages to date and thought it was worth sharing my experiences with them.
First, there was the “OMG, what did I just do to my life?” phase.
Ok, it needs to be said that this has been the absolute hardest one for me to handle and it’s only looking at it in hindsight that I understand why it was so painful. My decision to move to Paris was a relatively simple one. I was at a crossroads both personally and professionally. Despite my best efforts, I wasn’t advancing and needed to do something to create my own opportunities. The Parisian presented a path to these opportunities, to become more global in my perspective. So, I said yes to the move and then started one of the the most exhausting sprints of my life (well, with the possible exception of studying – and, I might add, passing – the Virginia Bar). I spent 3 months packing up a life I spent over a decade creating. I barely slept. If I was lucky, I slept maybe 3 hours a night. I filled my days and nights with all manner of professional and personal tasks. Professionally, I was tracking projects of clients to hand back over to the firm I worked for, filing business documents to create my own firm to house initial projects presented to me, and monitoring job sites of all manner of employers (from NGOs to VCs). Personally, I was saying goodbye to old and dear friends, studying french, tracking bills to ensure that none would be missed, and scheduling maintenance appointments for my house over a year in advance so that I wouldn’t forget them when on the Continent.
By the time I landed in Paris, I was emotionally drained, physically worn out, but exhilarated to see the love of my life (whom I hadn’t seen in over 3 months) and just get this party started. I would like to say that our first weekend together was just as romantic as our relationship had been up to that point. I would like to say it was but that would be a lie. Our first few days together was a crash course in just how difficult communicating in two different language can be and just how quickly things can escalate when neither party involved has the energy to find a common ground of understanding. [Note: I would learn through my first expat friends – who were my first glimmers of hope in this move – that a friend of theirs actually wrote a book about this. Laura Collins’ When in French: Love in a Second Language is a good read and I highly recommend it if you are dating a Frenchman or generally interested in learning about the linguistic obstacles presented when you fall in love with someone whose native tongue is not your own.] When the Parisian left for work on Monday, I did not say “je t’aime” as we promised each other we always would. Rather, they were two more choice and, well, far less romantic words in English. I’ll let you figure out what they were. It’s not that hard. I closed the door behind him – almost on him, really – and promptly broke down in tears.
All I could think was, “What did I just do? What did I just do? What did I just do?” I had left a stable, lucrative, albeit increasingly stale, job in Washington, DC. I had left a core group of friends with whom I had grown into my adult life and were established touchstones. I had left family that were no further than a 2 hours travel, if needed. I had left all of this for a man and a future that now looked like an impossibility. I sank into a puddle and promptly called two of my dearest friends. I can’t even remember what I said to them and have no idea if anything that I said was coherent or understandable. I hesitated to tell my mother. After a heart wrenching 24 hours, though, I finally told her. The three of them saw me through this incredibly dark time. They reminded me that Washington, DC would always be home, that I could come back, that no one would judge me for it. [Note: As much as I appreciated the sentiment, the last comment is absolutely false. Washington, DC is a tough town and I would have faced a shower of judgment for giving up so quickly.]
So, how did I get through this period? Well, slowly. It all started with a run. A long one. Along the Seine. This has become my best form of therapy. It’s hard to sink into an abyss of sadness when you are running along the Seine, passing Ile Saint Louis on the left, the Tuileries on the right, and the Eiffel Tower in front. I then started to reach out to friends of friends in Paris. I needed to talk to someone who had done this before. To someone who understood. It was during one of these coffees / initial meetings that I was told, “Paris is like a new girlfriend. When you first meet her, she is amazing and fills you with all these amazing ideas. When you decide to make her a permanent part of your life, she can prove to be quite difficult, irritable, and sometimes presents parts of her personality that makes you seriously question your decision. Just stick with her, though, because I promise you it is a friendship that will change your life.” He then added, “Any time you think you can’t handle anything thrown at you here, just go outside, wander around, and remind yourself that the problems you are facing are because you are IN PARIS and many people would kill to have a chance to be in your shoes.” These words proved to be the most transformative to how I mentally wrapped my head around, well what I ACTUALLY HAD JUST DONE to my life and work through this phase.
Each run was a conversation with myself. At first I thought, “I’ll just do this for 3 months. I’ll approach this like a life sabbatical. I’ll take French lessons, cooking classes, and walk the streets, and then go back to ‘real life.’ Three months is a decent effort.” I then said, “Well, if I am going to do 3 months, I might as well do 6 months. That’s enough time to see what I can make of this experiment.” I was constantly anxious, though. I was unable to sleep, eat (which is a real shame in a town known for croissants and nutella crepes) and prone to tears. I couldn’t even drink red wine (I KNOW) as it tasted like battery acid to me. Trying to sort these feelings out, I reached out to a former client who had become a confidante in the transition process due to her experience with risky life changes and asked, “Does the anxiety ever end? I don’t know if I can do this longer than 6 months.” Her simple response was, “I wish I could say it does but it doesn’t. You need to give yourself more than 6 months. You really need to give yourself a year to see what you can do. There are more than a few of us here who are cheering you on and believe you can do this.” Shortly after that, my (perhaps interim, perhaps long term, but that is an entry for later) apartment came through for a year. Being a believer in signs, I promptly completed all the documents I needed to pull together for my year long French visitor visa and said to myself, “Ok, I am going to give this for a year. I will do what I need to do to build a life – both personally and professionally. If things aren’t working by then, at least I will have given it a serious try.” And like that, the “OMG, what I did just do to my life” phase came to a close.
Oh, I realize that some of you may be asking, “Well, what happened to the Parisian?” Things also began to normalize there too and he is still very much in the picture. But that’s “not the point,” as he is prone to saying. But it has certainly helped.
I had maybe 2 days of good rest, though, before the “OMG, I need to get a job ASAP” phase set in.
For most people, this phase may present the most anxiety. For me, though, it has been the easiest one to handle. Don’t get me wrong, this was and has been an incredibly daunting and blood pressure driving phase. But, I have been through this before and have seen it work out. Well, not in this exact same situation but a comparable one. Let me back up a bit.
Nine years ago, I had just turned 30 and settled into an awesome pace of life. I was the Chief Intellectual Property Counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee and negotiating a bill that would prove formative in shaping my career. I thought I knew exactly where I was going and how I would get there. Just over 6 months later, though, the ground underneath me seemed to be constantly quaking. The Republicans had lost the Senate. [Note: I understand that if you are reading this and don’t work in politics, this might not seem like a huge thing but it can be a very big deal if you work for a Committee.]. The Senator I worked for switched political parties quite unexpectedly, leaving those of us who worked for him on the Committee unsure of whether or for how long we had a job. And, most importantly, my father was diagnosed with glioblastoma and passed away less than a month later. I was reeling from everything life was throwing at me and trying to figure out where solid ground could be found.
Rather than sit back and wait for everything to happen to me, I decided to be proactive. I flew out to California and met with everyone I had worked with during my years with the Committee. I spent two weeks there, having only nine meetings when I first got on the plane to San Francisco. Over thirty meetings later, I had lined up what would become my next job at the Intel Corporation. Now, I understand that these situations aren’t totally analogous. What it taught me, though, is that if you stare into an abyss of the professional unknown, sooner or later things will work out if you talk to enough people. And that is exactly what I decided to do when confronted with the overwhelming sense of – well, for lack of a better phrase – “holy shit”ness that waves over you in this phase.
It’s been 6 weeks and two days since I landed in Paris and I have had over 100 meetings with policy and political peers here in Paris, Brussels, and London. Now, 100 meetings was basically a standard work week in Washington, DC. However, considering I knew maybe 5 people in UK / Europe when I got on the plane to Paris – none of whom work in my professional world – I am quite proud of myself (as evidenced by my writing about this) for really pushing myself “to get out there” in a way that I haven’t been forced to do in quite sometime. Oh, and it goes without saying that I am eternally grateful to all of the friends, colleagues, and clients who have reached out to their network on this side “of the pond.”
Now, I am far from being done with this phase and who knows when I will be. I am a square peg of a Washington hack in the round hole of a European world. I’m hardly the first Washingtonian to make this transition. Most who have come before me, though, have a lot stronger backgrounds in the trade world. This is where my deep background in issues impacting the world of technology and experience with the companies comes in handy. It seems everyone – on both sides of the Atlantic – is trying to get a handle on the growth and importance of the technology industry. It just happens to be that I have a unique set of experiences and perspective into this world. I won’t go further into this but will note that I am working on a series of writings on Medium devoted to applying this perspective to issues and debates here in Europe.
All of this is to say that as I increasingly gain confidence in the fact that something will work out professionally, I have begun to experience the “OMG, why am I not embracing this more” phase.
There is one piece of advice that people keep telling me over and over again: “Everything professionally will work out so just relax and take everything you can in right now.” I have given these words a lot of weight because, honestly, even if the professional situation doesn’t work out, I will forever kick myself if I don’t make the most of the situation I have created for myself. That’s why I feel the need to share this phase. I recently realized how much of my life I live in the future – constantly listing the things I need to do, thinking through all the possible scenarios that could go right or wrong and how to react to any one of them. While this tendency helps make me good at what I do professionally, it also means I have a tendency to look past the beauty, joy, hilarity and exhilaration of where I currently sit and only focus on what is lacking. Who knows how long this adventure in Paris or Europe will last. I may only spend a year or, hopefully, I will find a new lifetime home to parallel the one I created in Washington, DC. [Note: Washington, DC will always be a home in my heart, no matter how long I am gone. I am hoping to figure out how to split time but here and there, but am already struggling with where to call “home.” It occurred to me that this is something that all expats must struggle with at some point and will be the subject of a future post. So consider this a preview of things to come.] The only opportunity that is lost in my being here, though, is not absorbing every moment of it – every ray of pink light soaked in, every French word stumbled over and then learned, every sip of espresso enjoyed over both laughters and tears at the un-understably small tables that only make sense in Europe, and more.
Even as I currently embrace this phase, I am constantly having to tell myself not to feel anxious about enjoying the experience more….Lord, what is wrong with me.