Thursday, 25 November 2010

Life as a Single Adult

The words “Single Adults” (SA) were enough to strike fear the instant they were spoken to me.  This is the name given by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to those who are older and single. In my early days as a member you became a SA at the age of 23. When at that age I was still unmarried I dutifully went along to my first SA activity at the Dunedin chapel. The dinner conversation that night still causes me nightmares. A sweet little old lady turned to another sister and said, “Betty, you got your own teeth?”  Lucky for me that within a couple of months the regulations changed and the Young Single Adult (YSA) age was extended to 30yrs old by which time I was a married woman.

After my divorce and then after my arrival in France I realised it was time to put my nightmare to bed and I applied to attend a SA conference in Belgium over the New Year’s period, 2008/2009.  I had heard lots of jokes about people going to SAs to find their spouses and it being a bit of a meat market so I was real nervous when my new friend, Jean-Philippe picked me up at La Défense.  I knew that no way was I ready for any kind of romantic relationship but I did need to get to know more friends in my new country.

The trip to Belgium with the 4 of us was fun and by the time I arrived at the conference I was totally at ease.  Divorce is highly stressful so it had felt like I hadn’t really laughed in years but I made up for it in Belgium! This was a group of people who understood where I was coming from because they were in the same boat as I was. It was the best of weeks and I left with a whole group of new eternal friends.

Although being with my ward family members is always wonderful, since the Belgium conference I looked forward to every chance to be among the SAs. At the Paris based conference in April 2009 I was reunited with many and met more.  With summer coming I naturally registered for the SA conference in Montauban. My feelings had not changed-I was still not ready to be in a romantic relationship but these conferences and the company of SAs was preparing me in all sorts of ways. Emotionally I was beginning to let go of my marriage and look forward to a new future.

I have been spiritually enriched as well. At Montauban the Stake President of Toulouse gave a talk on Sunday on the subject of keeping the Sabbath Day holy. At the very beginning of the talk he gave a scripture, Doctrine and Covenants 84:88,
“...for I will go before your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit  shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up.”
No explanation was given and no apparent connection to his theme. The scripture struck right to my heart: I had heard this before, in a priesthood blessing I received just before I left New Zealand. It was suddenly all I could think about. I wrote the reference down to refer to it later. After the meeting I spoke with the Stake President, asking him why he had used that particular scripture when it had no connection with the rest of his talk. He looked at me blankly: “Scripture? I didn’t give that scripture.” I was taken aback, looked at my paper and there it was written down. I asked others if they had heard it and they looked at me equally blankly.

The spirit just kept hitting me hard repeating the words of that scripture over and again in my heart. All that day and then the next as I travelled home on the train it kept coming-I cried all the way home the feelings were so intense. Never have I felt the spirit that deeply for such an extended period of time-2 solid days! I heard the Lord’s message and it was a personal one for me at a time I needed it.

Demons of SAs now well and truly banished, New Year’s approaches and I am planning my next conference visit to Belgium.  Should be fun!:)

Friday, 12 November 2010

Parlez-Vous Franglais?

Moving to France naturally necessitated learning the French language. I started with some basic knowledge as I had studied French at high school and one year at university but that was some 30yrs earlier and I was shocked at how little of it was left. I had 2 hourly lessons every week on board a yacht moored at Whangarei with a wonderful French woman in preparation for the move. But it is still true that re-learning and perfecting the French language has produced some of my most challenging and also some of my most hilarious moments.
At the airport on arrival I found myself having to use frantic hand signals to buy a phone card and at church on our first Sunday I laughed when someone asked me if I had heard the announcements. “Umm ummm, there were announcements?” There was so much work to be done! I felt totally like a very young child when I wasn’t even able to sing the hymns that I love because I just couldn’t get my mouth around the French words.

The choice to attend the Cergy ward literally threw us in at the deep end as, unlike other wards in the stake, there were no special English speaking meetings and I am so grateful for that.  It was a case of sink or swim.  A few months after arrival I was called into the ward Primary presidency to work with the children and that was just perfect because the children were not frightened to correct my errors in grammar :P. It was fun and games trying to teach the children the Primary songs when I had to completely relearn them myself in my newly adopted language.

Outside of the church I also threw myself at learning the language. Every chance I could get I tried to speak and hear French-in the trains, in the shopping malls, walking around the streets. The poor local population as this woman with a very strange accent would sidle alongside of them and strike up a halting conversation in French. As I travelled in the trains I would take advantage of the newspapers floating in the carriages to read avidly and regularly in French. I set a goal to read the entire Book of Mormon in French which was a very long process, often with my English scriptures at the side. This took me 9 long months!

Two months after arrival I registered myself in a small business conference and I sat through workshops and discussions where I was only able to understand 10% of what was being said.  The sheer volume of business jargon in French which was new to me was overwhelming. I can tell you that by the end of each day I arrived back home exhausted! It was in this first business conference that I realised that in no way was I ready to start work yet-not only in relation to the administration to be put into place but how was I going to be able to undertake a detailed analysis of an organisation if my mastery of French was at such a basic level?  I was terrified that I might actually be offered a contract because I knew I was incapable of following through.  I busied myself with doing market research and finding out my responsibilities.

There were some amusing moments to lighten the seriousness of the situation although my sense of humour is perhaps a little wacky.  Early on I went to a union for independent consultants to learn more about social charges. I explained to this very austere man the information I needed. He looked down his nose at me and then suggested that I needed to address myself to the French embassy-in Wellington, New Zealand! For once I let my sense of humour get the better of me in a very serious situation and I mimicked his haughtiness a bit and told him in French, “Monsieur, I have already passed that stage, let’s move onto the next stage, shall we?” He took a step back and then suddenly threw his hands in the air, waved them around in anger and in this simply gorgeous French accent proclaimed, “Impossible Madame!” while walking away. It was like a scene out of an Inspector Clouseau movie and it was all I could do to not laugh out loud.  This example was not isolated but was very reflective of what happened to me many, many times.  

I have created a few laughs as well by making the most classic of errors.  Often, if you don’t know the French word you try the English word with a French accent. This does actually work sometimes but there is one to avoid. I was at a single adult conference when I was discussing French bread. I wanted to say that it didn’t have preservatives in it and I said, “Il n’y a pas du preservatif dans le pain français”. They were almost rolling on the floor with laughter. I found out that what I actually said was that there was no condom in the bread.  
My French is still not fluent but I am pleased to say that I am able to eavesdrop again if I want!  Roll on being fully bi-lingual!


Not sleeping tonight very much so it is a perfect time to update this blog.  It is also a good time to reflect on my time here and to get some perspective. I want you to imagine that you are about to move to a strange country without knowing anyone at all. What would you do and where would you start? At this stage I was so glad to be a Latter-day Saint because I contacted the Paris Mission office elders (thanks guysJ) who gave me a contact with a sister in the Paris stake who was known to help foreigners like me.  After my initial phone call and an email or 2 with my new found friend, Nadja, I came to discover that she was married to a fellow Kiwi from Auckland.  The world suddenly shrank.  

From the outset of this adventure I have developed a heightened awareness of the importance of personal revelation. If I was going to follow the initial revelation to leave my home country I wanted to be sure that I was going to the right ward and to be with the right people when I got there. As I prayed about where was best I was answered in my prayers very clearly that we were to move into the Cergy ward of the Paris stake although I had the impression that it would be temporary. We enrolled my son into the bi-lingual science degree programme (English-French) in the University of Cergy-Pontoise which was the closest. It was well over a year after our arrival that we discovered that this was the ONLY university in the whole of the Ile de France region that offered a bi-lingual science programme. The Lord really does know what He is doing!J

I tried to be very logical about all of this in a very illogical situation and I researched all of the necessary topics beforehand-accommodation, schooling, cultural aspects, establishing a business, tax laws etc. LOL I even prepared a budget in advance of living expenses. All the internet information in the world however cannot prepare you for the culture shock of moving to a new world.

As Nadja’s husband, Hugh drove us to their home on our arrival I had the immediate instinct to run back to the airport as fast as I could and catch the first flight home. Everything was just so different-the houses, the landscape and even though I had tried to practice my French before coming I couldn’t understand a word the French were saying. What was I thinking?! As I knelt in prayer that night I pleaded with my Heavenly Father to help me to not give up so easily as long as I knew this was what He wanted. I remember crying myself to sleep that first night. 

As I mentioned earlier and now hoping not to sound like a broken record, there have been many times since when I have asked for reconfirmation to make sure that He has not changed his mind. I used to worry that I was nagging the Lord with my constant, “Are you sure? Are you really sure?” questions but I have come to love it that the Lord acknowledges my uncertainty and has consistently been there to reassure me along the way.

I also want to add that the Lord is perfectly capable of taking care of us in every way, even if it is not exactly what we we envisaged. I had hoped that we would find our own accommodation really quickly so that we could get settled but I discovered that the French landlords are extremely cautious about who they rent to, that they demand a 3 yr contract and evidence of receiving a salary. My story of starting a business in France and having enough rent for a year ahead just wasn’t enough. It wasn't helped either by the fact that no bank would let me open a bank account without having my formal carte de séjour in my hand and so I could only access my money from NZ via the hole in the wall in very limited amounts each week. (I was able to open a bank account ahead of time but it still took me 4 months!) 

It meant that we needed to stay with Nadja, Hugh and their 7 incredible children that much longer than intended but this was a huge blessing. In the church we have our family by birth and then we have our other “families”. This family in France are now our family by adoption and we have grown to love them very much. 

We were also grateful as usual for the missionaries who served here. They would visit to see if we were doing OK, they would translate for us in church when we couldn't understand a word of what was being said and they included me in their missionary work. Between our new found friends it was beginning to feel more like home.

Friday, 15 October 2010


I am in LOVE!
Before I give the impression that all is negative about my time in France I need to redress the balance a little.  

We arrived in the month of August 2008 when the joke goes that Paris is closed. It was nigh impossible to progress anything practical like finding work or an apartment. I wasn’t even able to deal with the Prefecture until September so what a wonderful excuse just to relax and have fun!
Aaron, Josh and I made the most of our time to explore our new environment. After all it is very important to familiarise yourself with your surroundings, right? LOL, it was like having a month long pass to Disneyland for me as we saw sights that I only ever dreamed of visiting and I can honestly say that I fell in LOVE with Paris!

As we visited the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Sacré Coeur, Opera Garnier, the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre or when we walked by the Seine I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the architecture, the sense of history and mostly a feeling of romance.   My favourite place? That would be the Musée D’Orsay, an old train station converted into an art museum with Monet, Van Gogh, Rodin, Toulouse Lautrec, Gauguin, Miller, Renoir etc. There is one jaw-dropping room called La Salle des Fêtes which left me speechless-OK, no jokes about that now!

The French are into all that is elaborate and yet tasteful. Although there is gold everywhere you look there is never a sense that it is overdone or garish.  In some places like the Louvre I was even more in awe standing in the outside courtyard of the magnificent buildings than I was of the paintings like the Mona Lisa on the inside.  

I am not sure how they have managed to achieve it but the inner city of Paris has maintained its ancient charm and they have largely managed to keep out the towering skyscrapers that represent so many modern cities. Yes, they do have skyscrapers here but they are kept on the outskirts and especially in the La Defense area which has the stunning Grande Arch de la Défense.  But even the modern architecture that has been designed by the French in Paris is eyecatching in its elegance and beauty.  As I came out into the La Défense courtyard it just took my breath away.

Although I have lived here for more than two years now I still have the same feelings as when I saw everything with fresh eyes and I take every opportunity to explore this magnificent city. I get excited when I know there are friends coming to visit because then I have a legitimate excuse for re-visiting all the sites. When I feel low and wonder what I am doing here I take a train into Paris, I wander around the base of the Eiffel Tower, I take a deep drink of the scene from the Trocadero and then all is well with the world! It is a great feeling to be in love!

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Take a ticket

It is 6am on  rainy day in the Ile de France with time to kill before the 9am opening of the Sous-Prefecture of Palaiseau (A prefecture is a regional administration unit of France.) It’s time already to renew my titre de séjour which will enable me to stay another year in this country. When I arrived in front of the gate I was greeted by the smiling faces of a group of African men, my fellow immigrants. As I take my “ticket”, a simple scrap of paper with a number hand written on it, I note that I am already number 22 in the queue.

I am offered an equally simple exercise book in which I write my name alongside my number. Outside the Prefecture my fellow immigrants are organised, orderly. « La personne qui est la première dans la file d’attente est venue à quelle heure, messieurs ? » I asked. (What time did the first person in the queue arrive ?) They point to a hooded, young man. “Minuit!” he said (Midnight).

After the usual pleasantries and a chorus of shared horror stories of the French Administration system I take my little ticket and head off to a quiet spot. I am hoping like crazy that this process is going to go more smoothly than last year (or the year before) because winter is fast approaching and I don’t fancy waiting in the snow.

So much of my life in France has been swallowed up by the French administration processes in a seemingly never ending cycle.

Yesterday, I made a trip into Paris to visit the organisation responsible for my state health insurance. I need to back track a little here so that this will make sense. The French embassy in New Zealand gave me a visa “in principle” but this is required to be validated by the local authority once you arrive. To obtain the full visa I was required to register my business immediately.  I then had the pleasure of starting to pay the French social charges (cotisations) regardless of whether or not I have earned any money.

I presented myself at the l’Urssaf offices in September 2008 to register the business to be told by a rather stern receptionist that I couldn’t do this without a social security number. Politely I asked where I did this and I was directed to the building across the road. Bear with me now, OK! In this building, the receptionist informed me that I was in the wrong place and drew me a map to my next building, some distance away. As I arrived at this new building I noticed a large crowd spilling onto the path outside. “Oh oh” I thought. Once again, I took the obligatory ticket and read in consternation, “Il y a 88 personnes devant vous” (there are 88 people ahead of you.) In my head I kept repeating to myself for the 4 hours I waited for my turn, “Please, please let this be the right place!” Once again, I nervously asked the receptionist about my social security number.”Ce n’est pas ici Madame” (It is not here, Madame). Aargh!! Smiling between gritted teeth I asked where to next for which the reply was a shoulder shrug and “Sais pas!” (I don’t know). Dead end!

By this time my politeness was definitely wearing thin and I realised my precarious situation: no social security number, no business; no business, no visa; no visa and end of journey. No Way!!!
I made my way back to the l’Urssaf at the beginning of the cycle and while maintaining composure I used my best authoritarian voice in my faltering French to say to the stern receptionist, “You WILL register my business NOW, WITHOUT my social security number.”  LOL, she looked startled, didn’t say a word and registered me. I felt a litte exultant to be able to leave with the precious piece of paper in my hand evidencing my business.

After 22 months in France I was finally granted my own social security number after having paid quarterly cotisations (LOL the bills for the cotisations always came on time to the right address ;)), after they had lost 5 copies of my birth certificate and after numerous trips to their offices. I still have not received the final product-the carte vitale-after 2 years.

Why am I writing all this? It is a long-winded way of saying I have learned a whole new lesson in this journey. During my first 29 yrs in the church whenever the Lord wanted me to move cities the doors were speedily opened to enable me to do this, often in miraculous ways. This request from the Lord to come to France seemed so immense that I just expected the doors to be wide open. But that has just not been the case. At every turn I have been confronted with barriers and seemingly insurmountable obstacles. At times this has made me, and certainly some of those close to me, question my decision to come here.

I have constantly been on my knees in prayer, my question always the same, “Am I am in the right place, at the right time doing the right things?” and although I don’t get  it right every day the big picture is clear-I am where I am supposed to be.

I will eventually share some of my experiences which have confirmed this but I wanted to share just one here (LOL if you are still reading). About 9 months after I arrived, my Bishop here had an interview with me. Throughout our time he suggested that perhaps I had been mistaken in coming and perhaps I should go home to New Zealand.  At the end of our time he suggested giving me a priesthood blessing in which he said things that he could not possibly have known, things said to me before many times over the years by different means. I knew then that he may have been the mouthpiece but that the Lord was speaking. He went on to say that I had been sent to this part of the world for a reason but that He was NOT going to give me the reason just yet. He promised to take care of me financially and that I was not to worry about that aspect.

Although it is not necessarily getting any easier I believe that this journey is my proving ground. How much was I willing to give? How much faith do I really have? How much trust do I have in the Lord’s plan for me even when logic and I go our separate ways?

 I can only tell you that I am still sitting outside the Sous-Prefecture at Palaiseau this morning, waiting for the doors to open.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Reducing my Life to a 20kg Suitcase

As I allowed myself to accept the idea of moving to France the impressions came more freely and I liked some of the Lord's requests more than others. I had taken pride in the fact that after 20yrs of trying, I was really close to amassing my year's emergency supply. I looked at my 168 rolls of toilet paper which stretched to the ceiling on both sides of the toilet and wept a little when I realised there was no way I was going to be able to take it all to Paris! (I found out later that some of my children's friends had been frightened to use the toilet at my place for fear that this mountain of toilet paper would fall on them while they were in there:))

The impressions came that I was to sell or give away all that I owned except for what I could take with me on the plane journey. Now, the last move that I had made required a large furniture truck of belongings to decorate my 160sq mtr modest home. Surely the Lord was joking when I was to reduce this to a single large suitcase and carry on luggage! Yet the feelings persisted and I began to look for ways to seriously get on with the preparations.

In the end, the emergency supply was the easy bit. What we didn't use in those 10months of preparation ourselves I gave away and that proved to be a sheer and utter joy! My ex-husband agreed to move into my home with my 2 girls until I could come back and pick them up so that also took care of the furniture and the house temporarily. But then there was deciding what I was going to take with me and my boys. We flew via Asia which allowed only one 20kg suitcase in the hold and our carry on luggage.

My heart hurt when I looked at all the pictures that my children had drawn that I had saved, the little nick nacks that they had given me for my birthdays and all of the other memory making items that were in my life to that point. My camera suddenly became my prize possession as I took photographs of each precious object which I then loaded onto my laptop. My children were just incredible as we held garage sales to sell what we could and I watched the little nick nacks literally disappear out of my garage into the arms of some child, usually, who wanted to buy them for their Mum.

I began to get a taste of the life ahead as I journeyed to our capital city, Wellington to visit with the French embassy there. It was clear very early on that getting a salaried position in France was not very feasible and would take far too long when the impression was that I needed to be there as soon as I could. My business specialty in New Zealand had been to audit the systems of NGO (non-government organisations) under contract to government departments and to help these organisations become more transparent, accountable and efficient. (Haha I think that just sounded like an advertising blurb!). The internet revealed that France had more NGO than I could dream of and so the idea came to apply to set up business here just as I had done in New Zealand.

Sounds straight forward right? The French authorities just did not know what to do with me:) They pretty much asked me, "What on earth was a 49 yr old single mother of 4 children THINKING if she thought she was going to build a business in France!" They admitted that they had never dealt with a similar case in the embassy and kept having to consult Paris authorities who were none the wiser.

With persistence and providing them over the months with every piece of evidence they asked for, sometimes more than once, they finally granted me a long stay visa for one year on the basis only of setting up business and which would be renewable each year. My eldest son was successful in obtaining a student visa to study in a university here and as minors, my other children were entitled to come with me, with the permission granted by my ex-husband. It was made very clear to me however, that I was not to apply for salaried jobs once I arrived there.

As day zero came and it was departure time I began to learn a valuable lesson. Yes, I could reduce my life to a 20kg suitcase and that physical possessions were not really all that important in the scheme of things. More than anything else I just wanted to know that the Lord was happy with me and that I was following His instructions as closely as I could. Yes, it would have been nice to have had some overseas carrier pack up my things and take them over to my new home but the inspiration was very, very clear. These things would become obstacles to me in my new life and I was to rid myself of them. I had no idea then how true that revelation was until now.

You are off to another country

I am experiencing probably the most significant adventure of my entire life (so far:)). Not long after my divorce a little more than 3 years ago I began to get impressions that I was to move overseas. Having no idea of what "overseas" meant and being in a rather comfortable situation living with my 4 beautiful children in my own home and with my own flourishing business in New Zealand, I was naturally keen to have these impressions clarified!

I applied lessons I had learned on my mission and I wrote all the possible places to go on a piece of paper, starting with all the English speaking places so that I could pray about them. The paper looked a little empty so I added some others like Italy, Germany, Netherlands and France. And then as I knelt and prayed with my children about where the Lord wanted us to be I was astonished as I saw the name, "France" stand out on the page. I said nothing to my children at this stage because it was all too far fetched-I knew no-one in France and although I had learned French in high school the language was long gone. In my head I felt that it was wiser to speak to no-one about what I was feeling, not even my business partner who was also my Bishop.

Over the next few weeks, the Lord and I battled it out over this impression and I kept putting the response to one side. I just wanted something a little more logical, a little more doable. Our temple week approached and I told the Lord that I would like to have an answer of where I was to go by the end of my time there (please) but please-no more outlandish ideas like going to France. At the end of the week, I was almost desperate as I knew the Lord wanted me to act soon. In between sessions on the last day, a good friend approached me with a puzzled look. "Marianne, you are going to think that I am very odd but I feel impressed to tell you that you need to get a European passport." At that point I felt a surge of the spirit, a warmth that connected my soul to hers and I could no longer deny what I had received before-I was to move to France and, once I accepted this, I discovered that I was to move to the Paris region specifically.

Many of my other good friends thought that I had lost it-that the divorce must have done something to my brain. My poor non-member parents were horrified! They said, "What was I thinking! I was doing so well, was so settled and I was threatening to lose everything over a whim, an impression?" They echoed what many of my friends thought. One good friend, a former Temple President felt that my decision was not a wise one but then he laid his hands on my head and gave me a priesthood blessing in which the Lord confirmed once again that He did indeed want me to do this and I was to move to Paris. Oh, how much I love the priesthood and the Lord being able to speak through his faithful servants, faithful servants who are humble enough to listen to the voice of the spirit, even in the face of a lack of logic!

After 9 months of preparation with the French authorities and organising my affairs in New Zealand, I landed in the Charles de Gaulle airport with my 2 sons in August 2008. I left my 2 girls behind in New Zealand with their father so that they could finish off their important school year with the intention of picking them up in the beginning of 2009.

So much has happened since then and I am not going to share everything :) but I would like to share some key aspects of this special journey on this blog. I finish this blog by saying that never in my life has the Lord asked so much of me, never in my life have I been so challenged and never in my life have I been so very much in the palm of the Lord's hand.