|It is Spring and in readying myself for a new season I have been tossing, restoring and organising. The closets, the book shelves, the digital storage. On the physical side, this has been a fairly quick and easy process – we live in an apartment, so the closets and bookshelves were done within days. On the bookshelves it has been about finally letting go of those books I have hung on to for years, but which I am now fairly certain I will never read.|
The organisation of the digital storage is what had me thinking about what putting down roots as an expat means. Our memories of the past seven years are all carefully curated in digital form. If we leave tomorrow, our worldly possessions in France can fit into a few boxes.
Our friendships are forged on the longevity of the work assignment that brought us here. Some endure even after you have moved countries, and others not. For my children, the end of the school year often spells a combination of anxiety and worry over whether their friends are staying or leaving, and excitement and wonder as to what the new school year could bring with regards to new friendships.
With this constant state of flux, putting down roots can be a challenge, but you find your own way. We don’t have pets. Well, my children have a hamster – they had two but we woke up one day to find that the other had slipped through the frames of the cage, never to be seen again.
The ladies at the boulangèrie around the corner recognise us immediately and know exactly what we want before we even order. My daughter was short some money a few weeks ago and all she had to do was come back with the money owed the following day – with a “Dites bonjour à ta Maman!” (Say hello to your Mom) tossed nonchalantly at her on her way out. That elicited a ‘small victory for the rootless expat’ feeling when she told me.
At the market the gentleman we buy our fruit and vegetables from always takes the time to ask about the kids. I would like to believe there is a genuine “I am really glad to see” glint in his eye when he sees us.
We have no horror stories to tell about ghastly neighbours – sorry to be the outlier here Anglophone expats. We have formed various ‘relationships’ in our neighbourhood – from the cobbler, to the the dry cleaner, to the tailor – until you know where to find a good cobbler, dry cleaner, or tailor you have not quite put down roots.
We have our regular go-to restaurants in Neuilly and in Paris, where we always get the table we want, where the staff kiss my daughter on the cheek and fist-bump my son. I see my children’s paediatrician at the gym once in a while, and he always gives me a thumbs up – his way of confirming that the kids are well I suppose.
What we don’t have are the “I-am-at-your-front-door-buzz-me-in” kind of friends. The ones that drop in unannounced just because they are in the neighbourhood. I have become used to the arm’s length variety of friendships of expat living. It takes time to get used to, but you do get used to it. In the same breath, because we are all expats and with no family support systems in France, we also depend on one another to pick up each other’s children from school on the odd day; to be the source of information on the best paediatrician, dentist, GP etc, and to be the ‘Emergency contact person in France’ on those school forms. As friends come and go this is constantly updated, and for a term or two, the ‘Emergency contact person’ becomes the Executive Assistant of the company that employs your spouse, or maybe if you’re lucky that relative that lives in London – not quite France, but close enough.
Unless you are one of those long-term expats, the ones who actually choose to live in a foreign country indefinitely, putting down roots becomes a fluid, subjectively-understood notion, that can be determined by something as trivial as the number of times you have renewed you local library membership card, or the strength of the relationships you form with the service providers in your neighbourhood. Sometimes just having a definition for what counts as roots can dispel that rootless feeling, and that can be quite comforting to an expat.