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Words & Le Mot Juste: Dépaysement

Paris shop window
Paris black and white
Paris Montmartre

Dépaysement [day pay eez manh]: disorientation or the unsteady feeling of being displaced,
in unfamiliar surroundings, away from your origin (or simply a change of scenery)

Looking back at my recent posts, I appear to be a hopeless tourist in love. And admittedly I am… Paris is Paris, and by her very nature she draws you in even when you’re too busy looking down or away.

Behind the scenes, however, I have experienced moments of extreme dépaysement - that feeling of tumult after moving from your home country to forge a new home in another. It's the mental and emotional exercises I've been going through during this time of change and adaptation, to feel understood and comfortable and connected. It's the twinge of dislocation I feel when my boys talk about missing friends and family and asking why there wasn't a real Halloween. It's all the why's and other big and small things that make up settling in and settling down somewhere new where the society thinks, acts and talks differently. It's being forced to bend your brain, adjust your perceptions and figure out who you truly are, what really matters and what you believe about the world, for real.

My husband and I joke that living in France makes us feel at times like we're muddling through during the Middle Ages and made to believe we're the ones who need to evolve. As if the country's long and arresting history is weighing down on us. Believe it when you hear that the greatest assets you can have here are patience and a sense of humor. Lots of it, easy to access and then some stocked away for when you get depleted.

But we realize this is all because we now live in another context, another culture, another world. The differences are more pronounced some days, but at some point we'll hardly notice them... that's when the differences will cease being good or bad, they'll simply be differences. And we'll discover that in what makes us dissimilar from our new neighbors lies our similarities - the preservation of customs and need for certain freedoms for example.

My feelings of dépaysement or homesickness are not of the I-miss-home-so much-I-want-to-go-back kind. Not at all. I'm grateful for every second I'm here and get wistful at the thought of leaving. It's just sometimes when everything feels like a foggy reality that I long for no more guessing or confusion, where things are familiar and easy… this is when whispers of wisdom echo in my head "but life is not meant to be familiar and easy." Ah yes, yes of course.

I know there’s not much to complain about living in Paris. Transitions take time and I accept that...with a glass of wine in one each hand  ;)



  1. I loved this post, Catherine! I've always wondered how it would feel to be an ex-pat, I've wondered about you and your family in particular as you experience your Paris adventure. And I think I can understand what you're feeling even though I've never experienced it. But, yes! It is Paris! And in years to come you will look back on this as one of the greatest adventures and joys of your life. And following your blog makes me ever so impatient for my own Paris visit this summer! Merci!

  2. The truly interesting thing is...we were in Paris so long (almost 12 years) that I believe my adjustment to being back in the states was longer and more difficult! The stretch - the back bend tripple flip off a high dive stretch - of finding your place in that wonderful land is such a life and character shaping experience....I've no desire at all to imagine who I'd be without it! I'm so grateful that my children were exposed to years of life in another culture - absolutely shaped so many things about them....most especially an open and compassionate heart for people that aren't just exactly like they are. Hugs!

  3. You're giving your boys and yourselves valuable life lessons - ones that couldn't be learned while staying in the comfort zone. We moved our children to a different state for a one year "sabbatical" when they were in middle and high school. It was an experience that changed all our lives. We didn't have to adjust to a different language, but just making all new friends and learning about a new place was such a learning experience for all of us. At the end of the year, we moved back home - but our kids were never as insular and were much more adaptive than they had been. Happy Thanksgiving in France, Catherine!

  4. I've been there and I know exactly what you mean. Behind the picture postcard views of Paris, it's nice to get an insight into your thoughts about living away from home.

  5. Beautifully written! I've found that after living "elsewhere," the transition in reverse creates the same feelings. And it feels even stranger, because after all, this is "home" we are talking about. We are changed by travel, not an easy thing but I think a really, really good thing!

  6. I am Venezuelan, as a child we went to live in the USA with our parents while they were doing their graduate degrees, we came back to when I was about to turn 13 and my sister were 9 and 4, at that moment my mom thought that if we stayed any longer we would loose our Venezuelan identity.... The truth is that those few years aside from being the most treasured years of our childhood, made us truly bi-cultural and have always helped us in our personal and professional lives. Later on in life I went to U of I for my MBA and worked with American companies for years. My point, I guess, is that you are giving your children the time of their lives, and I am sure they will be benefit the world from this experience. Amazing pictures by the way!

  7. Your words sound familiar and remind me of our 10 years spent just 550 km or so away from Paris... Not so far away, and yet a WORLD apart. But that's the beauty of it: having to leave one's comfort zone, exploring, fighting, winning and knowing that there's a different world - there are different worlds, around the corner. And that with patience, resilience and the right support, you can conquer those too. Or part of them. That will be enough ;-) Traditions and history are part of France's uniqueness and what make it so special - and extremely difficult to come to terms with. Hang on, Catherine, and think that you are not alone and have your family with you to support you and give you strength to keep exploring. Let's not forget that glorious wine and cheese platter too. Have a gorgeous new week :-)

  8. Your photos always look très Parisienne and beautiful, but I would get completely lost in Paris ... a beautiful city, but I always feel very small there. Good that you are not alone and have your family with you.

  9. Smiled with your joke that it's muddling through the Middle Ages - maybe that's why my kids (then teens) didn't like Paris that much (except my son did like the Eiffel, because he could climb, lol). Love your black and white pic!

  10. Beautifully expressed thiughts about how it feels to you to be living away from your native country, Catherine. We have never lived abroad, but have lived in a few different areas of the U.S. though not as many as some people. In doing so, I have seen differences as well and adapting and accepting changes has always worked out for me, pkus wines does help.

  11. I really enjoyed reading your post today. Thank you so much for this insight into your world in Paris - how it really is - not just through the eyes of a tourist. Of course I love the tourist photos, and I love coming by to visit, because I LOVE Paris even though I have only been there once. But your post today comes from the heart, and I thank you for it. I have only moved once, from the city, to a port town. It took a while in those days to fit in because "we were from the city and likely to go back there". But near 40 years later here we are still! What an amazing opportunity for you and your boys to be living in a different country. My friend has moved many many times across many countries. I am not sure I could be that brave.
    Enjoy Paris! I am certainly enjoying your posts. Thank you

  12. I would love to move elsewhere but the tought of the adaptation process scare me. :) Beautiful photos! <3


  13. Beautifully expressed thoughts on adapting to life in a different culture, Catherine!
    I love the word dépaysement, it expresses beautifully the feeling I am very familiar with (it's the same in Italian, spaesamento or feeling spaesato).

  14. You might have the same feelings and emotions when you will return one day to your home country. In Paris you are the foreigner, the ex-pat, the tourist, someone a little exotic. Finding a way back in might be the same experience in reverse.people moved on and don't share your experiences of living abroad.
    But ....there is always wine!

  15. Love this! Foggy reality is a perfect summation of how I feel things are sometimes. Basically your whole post beautifully articulates what's been in my head. I laughed at the Middle Ages comment. I just had to renew my carte to sejour and I'll spare you the crazy story but basically the prefecture where I have to go is open 3 hours/day just 3 days a week, and the lady (i guess just one person can handle this sort of thing) who had my dossier went out on sick leave, blah blah and it was like a comedy sketch. Long story short, it's processing now but I really thought I was on candid camera. It's 2014, you'd think something simple like a renewal would be streamlined at this point. Anyway, cool post and happy holidays to you!


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