BRAD     |     EMILLIE

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Living Like an American in Paris

We've had a few people ask us about our ex-pat lives; wondering how is it different from just moving around Canada. This likely comes from a place of European dreaming, as there is a part in most of us that secretly ponders spending a year en Provence, or dancing in the lights of London. While I'm pretty sure that living in a suburb of Dublin isn't high on most people's lists, we are able to share our thoughts and experiences on being "abroad".

As well, the lens of our life has narrowed as of late, to focus on our ex-pat lives. Brad has been actively looking for a permanent position, and opportunities in Ireland are as appealing and tenable as those in Vancouver. So the questions and pondering of our living in Ireland have reached a heightened tenor. What would it mean for Nikolai to grow up in Ireland... to become Irish? Is that the end of Hockey and an embracing of Hurley? It is all too ephemeral... and certainly too stressful.  So instead I shall focus on what it means to be an ex-pat.

I cannot imagine how it must feel to live in a culture where the dominant language is not the first language that springs to your lips. Even in the freedom of the English language we find ourselves often stranded, not understanding the socially appropriate way to act. It's obvious how to mind your P's and Q's, but what about the deeper layer of social interactions? Something that everyone else in the culture instinctively understands because they were raised with it. It is not something that anyone can explain to you because they are not actively aware of the social taboos. Likewise no one would outright accuse you of doing the wrong thing because it's just not that obvious.

While I'm sure that I often blunder through this culture, like a social oaf, there is one cultural norm that Brad and I only just recently became aware of. And it involves the social exchange involving food. After a year and a half of consistently refusing the lollipops that Nikolai was offered by various shop keepers... Brad and I realised that the polite thing to do was to accept the candy, and dispose of it later.  This policy of offering and accepting, as a simple social interaction, extends to tea. Tea, (typically black tea) must be offered to every guest that comes to your home.  Likewise, the polite thing to do when offered tea, is to accept it.  If you don't want it, then just use the cup as a hand warmer, and leave the tea behind.

I'm certain that there is a similar social organization around drinking beer in a pub.  As of yet Brad hasn't figured out how avoid drinking more than he wants. The social standard is for everyone to continuously buy rounds of pints for the group. However, the last time he went out, most of his group wasn't into having more than a few pints so they all stopped early.  The only trick was that they kept buying pints for Brad!  He couldn't figure out why they would be buying him pints even when he said he didn't want them, and it was particularly odd since they weren't even drinking themselves!  I have theories, that perhaps an Irish reader could help confirm or deny... if you don't want any more pints should you simply leave some beer in the bottom of your pint glass?

And then there's the fact that we constantly sound like a tourist every time we open our mouths. Perhaps some people are able to change their native accents, but Nikolai's preschool teacher has lived in Ireland for more than twenty years, and she still sounds like she just stepped out of a record store in Ann Arbour.  OK, admittedly there are certain occasions when a well placed accent doesn't hurt... like when you're walking around the exclusive section of the golf course.  However, more often then not strangers will simply treat you like you're just a dumb tourist.

Perhaps the hardest part about being an ex-pat is constantly deciding what is your national identity.  If you were to meet us in London, how should we identify ourselves? As Canadians? But we don't keep up on the national politics or news. And our knowledge of the cultural scene is now outdated. Yeah we rocked to Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade... but who the hell is The Rural Alberta Advantage?  And we understand the European Debt Crisis in a way that no Canadian could ever understand it.  We get X-factor, and River Cottage. Our news is full of Papandreou and Berlusconi. A Canadian may have heard mention of the names, but a European has been listening to constant analysis on their politics for months now. (And a slight political comment... does anyone else find it utterly insane, that the markets seem to be driving "democratic" governments? Most political action in Europe is aimed at "stabilizing the markets" rather than actually serving the people who elected them.)

However, we are definitely NOT Irish. We could live here for twenty years and still be known as "The Canadians". So that is the crux of life as an ex-pat. You are a person who is neither here, nor there. Always lost for lack of belonging, and hoping to bridge the best of both worlds (maple syrup and potato farls).

To counter balance this tirade on our lack of belonging, I've included some pictures of our recent visit to our friend's (and current landlord's) house. Last week was a school holiday, and Nikolai and I spent two nights with Elaine and her brood. It was fun to hold and burp someone else's newborn. (No sleepless nights for us!) The picture above is of Elaine's father hauling a crew of three year olds around the house.  The picture below features Nikolai taking a bath with Elaine's two eldest boys (almost 3, and 18 months).


Sarah said...

Hey Emillie!!

As a white Canadian ex-pat living in Japan I agree completely with much you said. Standing out physically as an outsider has it's plusses and minuses as does having to use another language. Oftentimes I find it works in my favor as I'm not expected to know or understand everything - using that to one's advantage (playing up being a foreigner to get out of something one knows they should do) is often referred to by expats in Japan as "playing the foreigner card."

As for the never quite fitting in thing... No matter how long I live in Japan, even if I marry and raise a family here, I will never be Japanese. Despite my lack of understanding of cultural trends and whatnot, I will always be Canadian. I guess because Canada and Japan are so different and there is the added physical/racial differences the whole situation is different for me, but I do know that I have changed and Canada doesn't always feel like home in some ways...

Have been meaning to comment for a while, so there's my two cents!

Bobbi said...

As an ex-pat American in Canada (36 years), a Canadian citizen (27 years) - you certainly have the experience right. Do you still tell others that your parents are American?
Love you, Mom

Post a Comment