Living far from home, in a different country always gives you an opportunity to learn and complain. When we first got to France last March there were a few reasons I didn't go right out and assosiate myself with other English speakers: a) I wanted to learn French and by associated oneself with people of your native language you put yourself up for failure in learning the other language. Really. Think about it. You are around people who are like you. It is easy to talk to them and make friends and it is ever so comfortable. What is going to make you go out and speak French? Not much. b) I was enormous waiting for a baby to arrive. c) The few playgroups I tried to connect with were so far away from the center and few responded to my inquiries about other things. d) I didn't want to start my stay in France listening to the biases of others who were trying to learn or not learn about the culture.
When you get together with ex-patriots (people living in a country that is not their own) the conversation usually tends to end up with each person telling a story about the "strangness" of that country or its people. In other words we all tend to end up complaining about the people of that country. There is so much to complain about: doctors, culture, language, the attitude of the natives towards the invaders (us), etc. From the way they hold their fork to what they eat to how they dress, an expat can find something to complain about and make themselves think that their country is better. Usually.
Not to say that we are all so bitchy. Not all of us. But you have to remember that we are far from home and it is easy to see thing close up and to.....misinterrupret. Come on, we all do it. Whether we are in our home country or not.
I am trying to learn not to do so and it is a reason why I still hesitate to sign up to be a member of these English speaking groups. I hesistate to get together with women who speak my language even though I am a bit desperate for friends because I just don't want to be sucked into complaining all the time or seeing the French in a way I dn't want to see them: through the bias of other peoples' "bad" experiences. It already happens at the park. Just a few days ago I was speaking to a lady who related to me the rude experiences she had had just that morning. And then she went on to reveal some other bad experiences she had throughout her 3 years here. But, I said, I am sure we could find the same experience in our own countries, you kno? I had a terrible experience with a pediatrician here, but that isn't to say that I wouldn't have had that same experience at home. Was it a woman doctor? the woman at the park asked. Yes, I say. Then I am sure it was out of jealousy. French women are jealous. You are tall and blond and young and if she was at all not very pretty I am sure she was acting out of jealousy.
Wow, talk about snap judgement! I personally haven't found that to be true, but okay. Really, I say. you really think so? I haven't really seen that.
Well, another woman pipes in, maybe it isn't jealousy but there is something about foreign women that French women don't like. The other day my sister and I went to the more expensive shops to find a dress for me. I had an important meeting to attend and was willing to spend a little more money. I spoke to the lady in the shop in French but when she heard my sister and I speaking between each other the treatment that we recieved was so cold compared to how she treated the other French women in the store. She practically ignored us!
Perhaps particular to that woman and that shop? I again, haven't had that experience. Even when I enter a more expensive store in my American style clothing (jeans, tennis shoes, t-shirt) compared to the usual French woman wear of dress and high heels (at least downtown) I have only been received with smiles and kindness. Of course I have never entered Hermes or Luis Vuitton, but I have a feeling the people who work there would be snobby no matter where they live! (Oh, the preconcieved notions I have!)
At any rate, now when I speak French to a waiter and get a reply in English I no longer care. Apparently waiters here are rude to everyone, their own compatriots included. When the doctor refuses to explain something to me because he doesn't think I will understand him, I persist in French in asking him questions. When another expat goes on and on and on about the French culture, I just nod and make some comment about how people are pretty much the same everywhere. Becuase in the end, as we expats get our taste of the French culture and get to see what is "wrong" with it, at the same time the French see us expats as representatives of our countries and perceive that which is "wrong" with us must be what is "wrong" with our country. Yes, yes, in the end people are the same: always ready to settle into their preconceived ideas!