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.