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Great expectations

-Robert Arnoux

Visiting and settling in France are two very different things, says Shawn Simpson (2nd from left) who is in charge of the Intercultural French Program within Agence Iter-France's Welcome Office. (Click to view larger version...)
Visiting and settling in France are two very different things, says Shawn Simpson (2nd from left) who is in charge of the Intercultural French Program within Agence Iter-France's Welcome Office.
Coming to France can be a very exciting prospect. The country ranks number one in the world's top tourism destinations; it's got rich history, superb architecture, breathtaking scenery, pleasant climate and one thousand different varieties of cheese. Add sidewalk cafés, the 35-hour workweek and an average of five weeks paid vacation — with still one of the highest levels of productivity in the world — and you have a nation whose qualité de vie is universally celebrated. Not even the recent trend in French-bashing literature has eroded the country's reputation: millions have read it and still more millions come to visit every year.

But visiting and settling are two very different things. As many ITER Organization staff and their families experience everyday, France can be very a different place from the one they pictured. "Expectations are very high," says Shawn Simpson who is in charge of the Intercultural French Program within Agence Iter-France's Welcome Office. "And as a consequence, disappointment can be very high too."

The French program Shawn has been in charge of for the past three years provides a unique vantage point for the observation of the adjustment process of the ITER Organization staff and their families. "Whatever the nationality," she says, "there is an enormous desire for knowledge and understanding of French language and culture. But when you're in your 40s or 50s, language learning requires considerable effort." The challenges of integration are familiar to Shawn. The daughter of a war-correspondent-turned-diplomat, she was born in Vietnam and spent her childhood moving from country to country before settling in Aix to study classical archaeology at the University. "I love France," she says, "I've lived here for the past 36 years. I understand how the country works and I share the values it was built upon. But for a newcomer, things are hard to figure out: how do you explain to an Indian mother, for instance, that vegetarian meals do not exist at the school cafeteria for her kids?"

"The French," says Shawn, "are so much into their habits." When asked to slice pork very thin, a staple of Korean cuisine, a local butcher will simply say "Non"— because a jambon slice has a predefined thickness and that's the way it's always been. Same thing with having chopsticks at the canteen — even if one-fourth of the world's population uses them, you just don't eat with chopsticks in France. Then there's the "French individualism," which "many cultures do not understand" and have difficulties coping with. "You don't find a strong feeling of group belonging here..."

So what happens is that many ITER "expats" form communities "on a national basis, with the ones who understand their way of life." This is only natural, and Shawn is not too pessimistic. "They will start feeling more confident...the process takes time." What is needed here is to "reproportion the expectations." And on the French side, un petit effort.


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