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Paris Close-ups | Paris adult education
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“Print this letter if you dare...”
by Jill Bourdais

Q: When my husband decided to accept his law firm’s offer of a three-year Paris assignment, I was totally on board for a new experience, even though it meant leaving my interesting job in urban development and also my home town (near Philadelphia). Now, one year later, I’ve had it with this place, and especially with hearing people on both sides of the Atlantic tell me what a great opportunity this is, how wonderful France is, and how lucky I am. These people don’t seem bothered by the long, gray winters, the lack of air-conditioning during heat waves, the ridiculous strikes, the smoking even where it’s not allowed, the unfriendliness of the French, the men peeing in public, the dog poop on the sidewalks, the petty sexual harassment of women, the blatant “sexploitation” in advertising, the legal obstacles to getting even part-time grunt work — to mention only a few of the annoyances of living here. Good restaurants? Fabulous art treasures? Sure, but let’s get real! Those things help at first, but their shelf life is definitely limited. Print this letter if you dare. Your online readers considering a move to Paris may want to think twice after reading it!!

A: Behind your obvious irritation at what are, in truth, accurate observations about certain negative aspects of life in Paris, I sense massive disappointment and even desperation about the way things seem to be turning out for you here. Many readers, myself included, will recognize in your words attitudes they, also, probably once held. At the risk of seeming simplistic, I would venture to say that, even after a year here, you’re still experiencing culture shock — the worst phase of it.
The anticipation of moving here, and the excitement of those early discoveries — incidentally the first phase of that process — obviously can’t compensate long for your loss of the friends, family, job and culture you left behind. Inside that sad, empty space from which so much is missing, one’s negative feelings and perceptions — directed against the new environment mainly because it isn’t the old one — find plenty to feed on. Annoyance and distaste for obvious differences invade our psyches, while confusion, frustration and perplexity related to the more intangible rules governing the behavior of the foreign cultural group keep us destabilized, fearful and often isolated.
This stage of culture shock is indeed painful, and its duration is variable, depending on what else is going on in our lives, including the possible emergence of past emotional turmoil which might have been easier to slough off when our environment was more “user-friendly.” Longing for home, avoidance of social contacts, fatigue, physical or sleeping problems, lack of interest in activities you used to enjoy, putting things and people down — these are other signs which can be present in what I call the “pack up” phase, because clearing out is often the only solution at that time which we think will help.
You’ll have to take it on faith from me that this too will pass and that you’ll evolve. Time plays a role here — culture shock has a life span generally considered to be about 18 months. But also important is the speed with which you get sick of yourself like that, and begin to use your considerable energy (which comes through in your letter) toward re-building a life with which to fill the empty space. Attend the “Bloom Where You’re Planted” orientation program at the American Church in October, even if you’ve already been once. Ideas for filling time pleasantly and constructively abound, as do people who have been in your present tunnel and come out the other end. Eventually you, too, will find that phenomena which now loom large on your screen become mere blips to be laughed off, that you are lucky to have this opportunity, and maybe even that Paris is wonderful. You will then have reached the integration phase: culture shock is over. Write me back then, okay?

Jill Bourdais is a psychotherapist practicing in Paris both privately and in a hospital setting. A specialist in couple/family problems, she also teaches PAIRS, a skills-building course in intimate relationships. Tel: 01 43 54 79 25. Questions for the Personal column may be mailed to the Voice, 7 rue Papillon, 9e, or emailed to her directly at JABourdais@compuserve.com