Where are you from?

Most of the time when you meet someone new, they ask, “Where are you from?” It seems like a fair question. We’re all from somewhere, right?

The place someone is from acts as an identifier, a stereotype, a way to figure who’s who and what they’re like. 

Live outside your own culture for a few years, and where you’re from doesn’t seem so simple. When someone asks me, “Where are you from?” I find myself hemming and hawing as I look for the answer to the question they’re really asking— ”How can I relate to you?”

For expats, the question of where you’re from seems limiting. Saying the name of the city, region, or country isn’t enough to explain who you are because you’re no longer just from where you were born or live, you’re more than that.

I think part of the expat identity crisis comes from speaking another language. 

I once had an American friend tell me the only way she could speak Dutch without feeling like a fool was to create another persona. When she spoke Dutch, she became a tall blonde woman named Hanna, who rode a bike, had a perfect accent, and wasn’t afraid to speak her mind.

Speaking a different language makes you feel different. My children and I often joke about how our voices sound different when we speak French. We become alternate versions of ourselves. I imagine this is part of the where-are-you-from confusion.

But it’s not just us. It’s the people around us who get confused as well because we don’t fit their “picture.”

Once while visiting the U.S. during summer vacation, I stopped at a local bookshop to peruse the shelves for English books—a rarity in our neck of the woods. As I looked through the clearance section, I discovered a package of thank you notes with an artistic rendering of the Eiffel Tower next to a petit “Merci.” I was delighted. 

After looking over the rest of the store’s merchandise, I took my items to the cashier, an overly cheerful 20-year-old who asked me for my zip code.

I told her that I didn’t live in the U.S., so my zip code probably wouldn’t work in her system.

“Really?” she exclaimed. “Where do you live?”

“I live in France,” I answered.

“Wow, your English is so good.”

I smiled wryly and said, “Thanks. I’ve been working on it for a long time.”

Another time I was sitting in the airport waiting to board a flight when a man tentatively approached me. He scrunched up his face and slowly said, “Fffffrrrraaamcais?” (You speak French?)

“Pardon ?” I replied. (Pardon me?)

“Vous-etes française, madame ?” (Are you French?)

“Non monsieur, je-suis Americaine.” (No, I’m American)

“You’re American? I couldn’t tell by looking at you.”

This made me laugh. As a six-foot-tall Amazon goddess, I don’t run into many French women who look like me. But, I was sitting down. Maybe that made me look different.

These stories are just the tip of the no-one-can-really-tell-where-you’re-from-anyway iceberg. 

Whether you’ve lived in the same city your whole life, or you’re a world traveler, humans are a culmination of life’s experiences and cannot be defined only by the town we started in. We are complex, not stereotypical.

So, the next time you meet someone new, don’t put them in a box based on where they’ve been. Instead, ask a better question about where someone is going or, better yet, where they hope to go. Maybe that will tell you who they really are.

The real expat life

Oh POUX!—You’ve Got Cooties

I hope you’re in the mood to scratch your head because what I’m about to say will make you itch.

That’s right people…I’m talking about lice. Cooties. The minuscule pests that feast on your scalp and reproduce in your hair. Too much information?

Funnily enough, the French word for lice is “les poux,” which is pronounced “poo.” That’s right, POO! As in…well, you get the idea.

Over the last five years, we have become very familiar with these French creepy crawlies which infiltrate the unsuspecting heads of French children over and over and over again. It’s a common problem here in the land of cheese and wine, and it never seems to end.

In fact, it’s so common that French hairdressers routinely check their clients for lice before they cut their hair.

Once, while I was enjoying a relaxing day at the salon, a wedding party dressed to the nines arrived for a set of updos worthy of the occasion. I watched as the elegant-looking sister-of-the-bride sat down in the chair and prepared to be pampered. But, first things first…before the coiffing could continue, the cooties must be chased.

The stylist began rifling through the woman’s curly locks. The bride’s sister raised her eyebrows in surprise and said with a smile, “I haven’t had lice since I was a child many years ago.”

The unapologetically unfazed stylist shrugged her shoulders and began to tease her client’s tresses into a ‘do fit for the noteworthy nuptials.

But we’ve had many experiences much closer to home. Once my daughter, Elle, had a friend sleeping over. While they were playing, the friend mentioned that her mother had found some eggs in her hair earlier that day. Elle discreetly came to tell me the bad news.

Luckily, I always have supplies on hand. That evening’s activities included the girls watching a movie while I coated the friend’s hair with an overnight treatment. While I worked, I overheard the following conversation:

“You know,” Elle observed, “In the US you can’t go to school until your lice are gone. They have a nurse who checks and everything.”

“Wow,” the friend replied, “If that happened here, I wouldn’t be able to go to school for like 3 months.”

While the friend’s mother had the pleasure of combing out the nits the following day, I washed all our linens to try to stem the spread of the voracious vermin. It was a losing battle. Elle was already infected.

We’ve had moments like this time and time again. Every female living in our house has been a victim at least once–that includes two exchange students. Even I, who managed to escape the persistent parasites during my childhood, have been exposed.

I realize that in the grand scheme of things this really isn’t that serious, it’s just inconvenient. But, when we decided to move to Europe, I never imagined this would be an issue.

However, I will say one good thing has come out of this… I am now an expert at permanent lice removal. I have a surefire method for permanent delousing.

I developed this method during our last vacation when we ended up with unexpected guests just before departing for a week-long walking tour in the German countryside. We treated before leaving, but it’s nearly impossible to get all the nits in one go, so you either have to come daily or treat again a week later.

That being said, I provided everyone with their own, personalized nit comb to use on the journey so we could continue the treatment. However, the girls didn’t realize the importance of the accessories and left them home. When the itching reappeared, I was desperate for a remedy that wouldn’t require me to go to a pharmacy in the German countryside and try to explain my problem, so I went to Google instead.

After digging around for a while, I discovered a study about the efficacy of killing lice with a hairdryer. It looked pretty easy, so I tried it. We were cured!

So here’s my final treatment recommendation: Use the lice treatment of your choice, just to kill existing critters. Then, use a nit comb to remove as many nits as possible. Finally, using a round brush and a blow dryer, fry the suckers. You’ll be lice free…until the next exposure.

The real expat life.

Photo by Karina Carvalho

The Delivery Man…You’ve Got a Package

The weather had turned cold and so had my feet. Our things had arrived at the port in Marseille, but as we didn’t have a permanent home yet, there was nowhere for things to be delivered. As a result, we were making do with the things we brought with us on the plane.

We arrived in August, so my supplies included a light jacket or two (for brisk summer evenings), short-sleeved shirts and various summer-type shoes. But this was October—frosty-window-scraping season.

Lest you have forgotten, I am 6-foot-tall, Amazon goddess with feet sized to match. Shopping at my local department store wasn’t exactly an option…unless I wanted to look like I was wearing my children’s clothing. So, I got online and shopped in the UK where I was able to procure a pair of perfectly impeccable knee-high boots to cover my exposed toes. Delivery would take a week. So, I battened down the hatches, put on an extra pair of socks and waited for D-livery day.

French streets are less about order and more like a way to wind around existing landmarks while potentially passing through practical places. As a result, even if your street is only a little bit off the beaten path, delivery drivers (those champions of freight distribution) armed with the latest GPS technology will still need directions. It’s very common place to get a phone call asking for advice on how to navigate your village in order to get to you.

I knew this call was coming. I was prepared. After consulting Google translate and a few French-proficient friends, I had written out what I thought was a simple explanation of how to get to my house from several directions…just in case.

When the phone rang from an “Unknown caller” my heart started to pound and my palms to sweat.

Just breathe. You got this. Just tell him where you are and it will be fine.

The conversation started off normally with him explaining he was with such and such delivery company, and he would be arriving momentarily. Next came the moment I had been waiting for: “How do I get to your house?”

As I stumbled through my explanation, the conversation took an unexpected turn…

“Wait,” he demanded. “You’re not French. Where are you from?”

“I’m American,” I replied.

He reacted by launching into a quick string of words I didn’t understand. However, through the gobbledegook, I managed to get the gist of his energetic monologue…come have coffee with me and I’ll give you your package.

I was a little shocked and told him, no thank you.

He was not to be put off so easily and asked again.

Again I said, no. Honestly, I couldn’t say much more.

He continued his impractical petition. In the end, I just hung up and called a friend.

I explained the situation to her and asked if she could intervene on my behalf with this half-witted Romeo holding my boots for ransom. She agreed, took his phone number, and hung up.

I paced the floor, hoping that this boot delivery debacle could somehow be settled.

It wasn’t long until she called back, but the news was not what I expected.

She told me that the guy just wanted to meet an American, and that he thinks it’s not a big deal and that he won’t give me my package unless I do it. She suggested we call her husband and have him negotiate the release of my ransomed goods.

He agreed and, posing as my disgruntled husband, demanded Romeo meet him at the village square and hand over the cargo. Romeo agreed but never showed.

At this point, we were a little skeptical about this existence of the purloined packaged. Perhaps we had been the victim of some elaborate expat scam. It wouldn’t be the first time someone had tried to pull a fast one on a poor sap unfamiliar with the local culture and language.

We needed backup, so we contacted the security department of the company he worked for. They did some digging and discovered the delivery company was legitimate, and that the package, although real, had been sent back as undeliverable.

I felt incredulous, shocked, stunned. Did that really just happen. And what about my shoes?

However, as there was nothing I could do about it, I put on another pair of socks. A few days later I sat, trying to come up with Plan C.

Delivery might be a problem. I mean, what if the same guy has to deliver the package on round two. Will we be back to square one?

While thus pontificating, the doorbell rang.

I cautiously opened the door. I wasn’t expecting anyone.

Standing there was a young man holding a brown box that looked like it could contain a pair of size 44, knee-high boots.

I eyed him skeptically–one eyebrow lifted as if to say, “Are you the guy?”

If he was, he did an excellent job of playing dumb. Not an anxious glance or embarrassed blush.

Whatever, I was just happy to have my shoes!

The real expat life.

Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel

Playing With Fire

“For heating, there’s a proper English stove,” our new landlord proclaimed proudly. “We had to order it special from the UK.”

This ought to be interesting.

“It takes a little bit of planning, but if you figure things out right you can close the flue when you go bed and still have hot coals in the morning,” he continued.

“I’m sure we’ll manage,” my husband, Mike, observed. “I’ve done a lot of camping.”

With those words of confidence, we were on our own.

Welcome to the 1800s.

We moved in at the end of November, Thanksgiving Day to be precise. We were just grateful to have a house. As it was warm on moving day, we didn’t really think much about heating until the sun went down.

However, by that time, it would have taken too much effort to clear a path to the fireplace, so we bundled up in scarves and coats, ate a Thanksgiving Dinner of breakfast cereal and headed to bed.

The next morning was brisk, but we were hard at work so it wasn’t until that evening that we decided to try our hand at making fire. Cavemen did it. How hard could it be?

In addition to the logs in the woodpile, we had procured kindling, fire-starter cubes and a lighter with a long neck–all the tools needed to start a hearth-warming blaze. Unfortunately, instead of a blazing inferno, we started with a house full of smoke. Once the fire got going, it still took an hour to heat the house.

I had always associated a fireplace with leisure. The crackling of a fire creating an ambiance of comfort and coziness. It was the sound of the holidays, snow days, and romantic getaways. Now all I wanted was a source of continuous heat that didn’t make my hair smell like a campfire or the smoke alarm go off.

We didn’t get the hang of things until the spring. When the next fall arrived, we started regularly smoking-out the house again…until Mike discovered the right combination of flue levers and firestarter. (For those interested, he found that he had to start a small fire first to warm the chimney so the smoke would rise up instead of into the house.) Now we had a warmer house and fewer smokey evenings. During the day, I just always wore a coat.

You may wonder why we didn’t install some kind of electric-heating system. The fact of the matter is, we had two wall-mounted electric radiators near the fireplace. However, the cost of electricity is so high, we had been warned not to use them unless we wanted to pay through the nose.

Good thing Provencal winters are mild.

The real expat life.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao

Growing Pains

My family has outgrown France.

Not to say that we’re beyond the culture, the food, the landscape, or the history–we’re not. We love it. BUT, we have literally outgrown France.

Let me explain…

I am six feet tall. An Amazon goddess with a size 12 shoe.

My height is a challenge in almost every part of the world (especially where jeans and high heels are concerned). Here in France, most of the women and half of the men look at me, not face-to-face, but face-to-cleavage; I am–at the very least–above average, and as such I do my shopping elsewhere. Many everyday items must be imported. This doesn’t bother me. It’s my life and I made peace with it long ago. The miracle of online shopping has helped tremendously.

My husband, a strapping six foot four inches, has fewer issues, but still definitely encounters short doorways that require limbo-like maneuvers on a daily basis.  

When we arrived five years ago, our family was smaller–meaning shorter. While we have not grown in number over the years, the majority of us have grown up. With five out of six of us now being adult sized, and our gene pool being what it is, you can imagine people like to stare when we walk together down the streets of our village. We are a sight not often seen in the south of France.

Here’s the issue…

A few months ago, while returning from a Venetian road trip, our car began slipping out of 5th gear. Upon returning home, we took the car to a mechanic who told us it would cost the value of the car to repair the transmission. We decided to look for a new-bigger-more comfortable-road trip mobile.

Our new-car wish list included three simple items:

-enough leg room for daily use

-a small frame that easily fits typical French parking spaces

-seven comfortable seats

By this point we had totally given up on finding anything that’s nice to look at. We were sticking to the basics plus it had to be able to make the tight turn into our driveway.

Sounds reasonable right?

Over the course of the next month, we sat in everything. Used cars, new cars, sports cars, trucks, vans, minivans, sedans.

Nothing fit us.

In the end, we just couldn’t justify paying for a new car we didn’t really like.

So, we’ll repair our Toyota, Verso. We don’t love it, but with a few creative seat configurations we can make it work–even on long roadtrips.

The real expat life.



Photo by: Jace Grandinetti

A Little Louder Please

The phone rings. I glance at the screen.

Unknown. Great.

I take a deep breath and put my mind into French mode.

“Oui? Allo.” So far so good.

I’ve been expecting this call.

The conversation follows a predictable script with the receptionist explaining why she is calling and asking if I still want to make an appointment.

Yes, please.

It’s going well.

“L’ordinance que vous avez incluse avec votre demande de rendez-vous en ligne concernait XYZ maladie?” she inquires. (The x-ray prescription you included with your online request was for such-and-such condition?)

Again, yes.

I’m beginning to congratulate myself on my excellent phone-conversation skills, when I’m distracted by an English conversation going on between two friends next to me.

I tune back in just in time to hear the voice inflection rise on the other end. She has just asked me a question. I pause, hoping for a flash of genius.


“Comment ?” I ask.

The receptionist, thinking she can overcome my French ineptitude with volume, shouts into the phone, “QUELLE EST SA DATE DE NAISSANCE ?” (What is her date of birth?)

Ok. Ok.

I give her the relevant information and the call continues smoothly until she asks me a question I actually don’t understand.

I hesitate for a few seconds, hoping again for enlightenment and dreading her reaction when it doesn’t come.

I’ve got nothing. So I respond timidly, “Pardon ?”

She audibly inhales. Here it comes.

“QUI EST LE MEDICINE PRESCRIPTEUR ?” she shrieks. (Who is the prescribing doctor?)

Instant clarity.

I smile to myself as I finish our conversation. Maybe louder does help.

The real expat life.

Photo by Jason Rosewell

The Breathalyser Test

Flash. The brights of an oncoming car briefly shine into my eyes. Something’s coming.

I warily reach the summit of a small hill and can see the reflection of police vests in the roundabout ahead.

Even though I know I haven’t done anything wrong, my heart starts to pounds and my palms start to sweat. Please not me! Please not me!

The weak streetlight in the center of the roundabout doesn’t do much more than attract moths so I can’t see much. Was that a signal? Should I pull over? Where should I go, there’s no shoulder in the middle of a roundabout?!

Naturally, I decide to err on the side of caution and panic. Instead of pulling over, I take the exit and drive away in the direction away from home.

Maybe if I just keep driving, he won’t realize I was supposed to pull over and he’ll let me go.

Half a breath later, I realize turning off is madness as there is only one way home and it’s through that roundabout. I make a u-turn. I really look guilty now.

My mind is frantically buzzing with possible French vocabulary words.

Should I use vous? I should probably use vous. This is useless! I don’t even know the word for headlights or trunk. 

French class has not adequately prepared me for this moment.

The two children in my car are silent as I we advance toward the checkpoint.

The officer watches my approach with confusion. He lifts his eyebrows skeptically as I roll down my window and say, “Hello.” English, only speak English if you get pulled over they always said.

He responds with a question I can’t understand, but based on his body language is, “Why did you turn around? I thought you were heading the other way.”

I smile weakly and ask if he needs to see my driver’s license. I begin frantically digging through my purse to find it. He furrows his brow and examines the other occupants of my car. They don’t move.

“Non, non,” he motions for me to put my card back.

I’m confused. If he doesn’t want to see my license, what does he want?

He walks around my car then looks at my windshield and verifies that my insurance and safety inspection stickers are up to date. Satisfied that the car is legal, he heads back to me.

Calm, remain calm. Breathe. Smile. 

He takes a loud breath and begins to rummage through his pockets. Soon, he pulls out a clear plastic bag containing a white, plastic straw. He attaches it to a machine and points it at me.

“Souffle,” he orders. He demonstrates by blowing.  

I look up at him doubtfully and try not to laugh. He thinks I’ve been drinking?!

Instantly, I feel calm. This is a test I know I can pass. I don’t drink. Ever.

I place my lips over the straw and look at him for instructions.

“Souffle, souffle,” he orders. “Continue, continue. C’est bon.”

He suspiciously eyes the machine and waits for the results.

Ping. He looks at me, shrugs he shoulders and shows me the results–0.0.

I could’ve told him…if I had only known how.

The real expat life.


–Special thanks to Nabeel Syed for the photo