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Summer 2001

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Embracing culture shock

by Diana Jessop Jahries ’87

     If someone had told me, back at Skidmore, that I’d live in France some day I would have laughed them off the face of the planet. Well, here it is thirteen years later… and I live in France. Because my husband, Steve, works for Michelin Tire, in 1999 we picked up our children, our dog, our life for a three- to five-year crack at the European life. We now live in the Auvergne region about four hours south of Paris.

     “You are so lucky!” everyone told me. “It will be a three-year vacation!”

     Ha! During the first six months here, it was all I could do not to reach through the phone and punch my American friends and family who persisted in telling me how fortunate I was. They knew exactly how to use their American washers and dryers, call for a repairman, or figure out which type of flour was just plain old flour. When they went to buy a car they had to put up with sales talk and take a calculator to doublecheck figures, but when I went to buy a car I had to put up with sales talk in a foreign language and doublecheck figures that I wasn’t always sure I had translated correctly to begin with. Fine-print items? Forget it! I just bought the car and hoped for the best. Every night my husband and I went to bed with monumental headaches due to the mental gymnastics our brains performed in trying to understand everything. Think about how complicated car and home insurance is in English…. Now do it in a foreign language! You see, I tried to explain to everyone, I live here, so all the hassles of daily life have to be conquered in a language I had studied for three years in high school and in a culture I knew little about.

     For a time, I didn’t think I was going to make it. France is an absolutely gorgeous country, and when I looked across the countryside I felt awed and honored to be here, but when I turned my head from the window to try to figure out my children’s school supply list for the thirtieth time, I felt at a loss again. I’m an intelligent woman—I graduated from Skidmore with honors! I’m almost finished with a master’s degree! Why can’t I understand my daughter’s first-grade school supplies?

     A year and a half later, I now know I am lucky. I love it here! Some things will always be difficult—the bank, sorting out bills, etc.—but the Auvergne region is a postcard mix of beautiful mountains and valleys. Each morning I look out my window at a twelfth-century watchtower on the hill across from us. From our almost central location in France we can journey just about anywhere with ease.

     And it’s fascinating to live in another country. I think what I love the best is experiencing people and a culture outside my own. There are some aspects of French culture that could drive a mentally stable American crazy if you let them. For instance, is it really necessary to make an appointment to make an appointment for someone to tell me how to get the Internet up and running? Yes, I wrote “make an appointment” twice. The French are fond of complication. However, they also refuse to open their stores on Sunday, since that is seen strictly as family time. What a provocative concept! On some levels, a two-hour lunch seems like lunacy, but not any more so than the sixteen minutes my children were allotted for lunch in their South Carolina school. Now I enjoy leisurely lunchtimes, strolling through the park with my daughters and feeding baguettes to the ducks. Sometimes I look at American life through French eyes and wonder what we’re really about.

     The people here have been wonderful. Our neighbors welcomed us with open arms and hearts (as well as uncontained amazement at the size of our American refrigerator). I’m fortunate to be able to make friends with not only the French mothers at my children’s international school, but also mothers from England, Scotland, New Zealand, Spain, Australia, Finland, Holland, and Belgium. Guess what? We all have the same hopes, dreams, worries, and problems. We all laugh and we all cry.

     Yes, indeed, I am lucky. I have an opportunity to see more of the world, learn first-hand about a different way of life, be enriched by diverse friends, and listen to my children bicker in two languages! It’s a rough road sometimes, but I wouldn’t turn off it for a minute.

Diana Jessop Jahries ’87 majored in social work at Skidmore. With husband Steve and daughters Allison, 11, and Katie, 8, she expects to live in France for another year or two.


© 2001 Skidmore College