Updated: Jan 9, 2020
As an adult, I’ve never lived in one place for very long. By the time I was 29, we had lived in nine different apartments and I had experienced four different teaching positions in the public, private, and international environments. My husband, the stable job holder, has had the opportunity to move around which was no big deal because as a teacher, there is always a job opportunity wherever we go. Through frequent moves and a lot of trial and error, I have learned to adapt my skills to fit into what is needed. A jack of all trades or a chameleon may be a fitting description.
When we moved to Paris in 2000, I was only 24 years old and was under the naive impression that I would have a work permit. Feeling relieved because I had just left an extremely stressful job which left me in a sobbing mess multiple times a week, I thought this would be the time to find myself. I had visions of reading books I had procured from the famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore and snacking on a pain au chocolat while gazing at the Eiffel Tower.
In reality, all that alone time turned me into more of a sobbing mess, just at a different longitude. Between tissues, I sought out other ‘trailing spouses’ (I loathe that word), but found them just as morose. Although complaining about their horrible expat situation occurred during fancy French truffle making or flower arranging classes, it was still unbridled unhappiness. No amount of money spent on Parisian fanciness was going to smooth over the sharp edges of woe.
After a few months of this self-pity, I dug myself out of my hole and realized that being a victim of my circumstances was not something with which I was comfortable. I am a doer, so I hit the want ads. First, I tried to be a nanny. I thought this would be the perfect combination of lower responsibility while still working with children. After a few weeks of being met at the door by my employer in her underwear and asking me to pick up her laundry, I decided my teaching degree could be put to better use.
I headed for the most Anglophone location I could imagine: The American Church in Paris. Although technically a church, the ACP is the center of all things Engish speaking in Paris. The church holds an annual “Bloom Where You Are Planted” workshop, which still occurs to this day. During an informational meeting about the workshop, I spontaneously decided to volunteer to run the childcare offered during the workshop. I enjoyed the experience of helping out during the workshop, but it was a short term engagement. I needed to find something I could keep my occupied and happy.
On the last afternoon of the workshop, I overheard one mother lamenting that her daughter was not going to learn the traditional American Mother Goose rhymes and songs while attending school in Paris. This inspiration was all it took! I was soon pinning up homemade flyers to advertise music groups for young children! It didn’t take long before I was bouncing around my apartment a few times a week with groups of kiddos while dancing, singing and playing kazoos.
Through these groups, I was introduced to a speech therapist who was looking for someone to work with students with Autism who were being homeschooled. One thing led to another and in no time I was traveling to student’s homes around the city and providing many hours of Floortime and ABA therapy each week. These roles even took me into the Australian Embassy and working for NATO! My days quickly became very busy and fulfilling.
Through my first difficult expat experience, I learned a lot about myself, but I also learned a few tricks.
Join an organization or volunteer for something you enjoy.
Even though I had just left an overwhelming and tiring teaching job, I still enjoyed being around children. Volunteering to run the childcare for a three-day conference was the perfect opportunity to be around children while getting my foot in the door to meet many others in my shoes.
Get creative with your skills.
When trying to decide what to do in university, I turned down a scholarship to become a music teacher. I was convinced I was not going to do the same thing as my parents, however, the apple does not fall far from the tree. Teaching some informal music classes was not a stretch for me, but it did take thinking outside the box.
Listen to the needs of the community and Network, Network, Network!
In order to hear the needs of the community with which you want to interact, you need to put yourself into their conversation. Find out where your tribe hangs out both physically and through social media. Ask people out for coffee. Ask for help. People that have been in your position want to help and give you advice. You never know where those conversations will lead.
Be willing to try something new. Did I have a life long goal to run a childcare center or teach music classes to toddlers? No, but it gave me something to do, within the community of people I wanted to interact, and it led to some great ideas and opportunities.
If I could go back and give my 24-year-old self this advice, it would have saved a lot of money on tissues! Transition time is vital when moving to a new location, but having a few tricks up your sleeve will help you find your place.
April Remfrey is an American special needs consultant living and loving life in Switzerland. Please feel free to share this blog post by giving credit to the author and the website link: www.remfreyeducationalconsulting.com