Florence Gindre is not only a seasoned expat. She’s an experienced repat. This French woman went ‘back home’ 3 times!
Last year, she published a short recount — in French — about her latest comeback ‘De retour chez soi’ and this is how we met.
Today, she has generously accepted to share her story and and the lessons she learned from her three different repatriation experiences.
When I asked Florence more details, here is what she described.
Florence: ‘As a 7 year-old child, I moved from France to Congo. When I came back to my home country after two years — to the same house and the same school — my friends had moved on. They weren’t paying attention to me anymore. That wasn’t pleasant. Luckily I skipped a grade after three months and the discomfort eased quickly.
After I graduated as a landscape engineer, I held several positions in different French regions. But when my husband got a job in Barcelona, I followed and lived there for two years. That was my second expatriate experience.
Coming back to France the second time was surprisingly smooth.
A few weeks before the effective move back, my husband and I organized a pre-visit to look for housing.
I managed to squeeze in a few interviews which helped me land a job even before I arrived in Toulouse. With a full-time position and a toddler in tow, I was immediately very busy. Having lived in Spain for only two years, I hadn’t made close friends and wasn’t strongly attached to the place.
We kept on moving several times in France before heading to Prague, in the Czech Republic for my husband’s next posting. There I made it my home. I built a strong support network. I created an internet site to feature the local cultural events. I managed a team of 12 journalist volunteers. I wrote two books. But after three years, my husband got an offer back in France and we had to leave again.
This third time I didn’t want to return.
I was heartbroken.’
Leaving was very hard emotionally. So how did the re-entry process take place?
Florence: ‘First, I wanted and needed a paid job. For two reasons.
One, financially, we didn’t have the same level of revenue.
In expatriation, housing and schooling were paid for, as well as health insurance. In France, all those perks disappeared and we needed a second source of income.
Second, I couldn’t see myself unemployed in my home country.
I feel there’s such a negative preconception about the homemaker in France. Moreover, there’s no excuse. I have a recognized degree, I speak the language, I know the culture and I enjoy a proven track record of challenging positions enhanced by my expat experience.
Or so I thought…
I wanted to take advantage of the skills I had developed abroad. I applied for a position as communication manager for a horticulture magazine bearing in mind that my landscape expertise would make the difference. Bad luck: the company chose the other candidate, a graduate in communication, valuing his diploma more than my hands-on experience.
After pursuing other opportunities, a clear picture emerged.
At 34 years old, I realized I was too old.
I was too experienced to accept a salary at the level of a beginner but too expensive compared to the fresh graduates. My volunteering on social media, internet and parents committees made recruiters politely grin. My absence from the field — not having secured a position in a company and grown with it — sealed the deal. Or – more appropriately said – the lack thereof. In short, nobody wanted me. That was a hard blow.’
Beside this professional disappointment, I wondered what other lessons Florence had learned…
Florence: ‘Drawing upon my highly mobile lifestyle both in France and abroad, here is what comes to my mind.
Lesson #1 Local friends don’t always make good long distance friends and vice-versa.
Different sets of qualities are required to fulfill those different roles. Some people with whom you may have had daily contacts simply disappear from your radar when you leave. ‘Out of sight, out of mind’. They don’t answer back your calls or your messages. Others, who may not have been so close to you, remain in touch while you wouldn’t have thought so.
Lesson #2 You (and everybody else) think you go back home but you may very well not feel at home.
After 3 months back in France, returning from spending a week-end at a friends’ place, I was surprised to feel I was going back to a house that felt like a holiday rental not a home.
Lesson #3 There are huge cultural differences even inside your home country
A country is not uniform. There are vast contrasts in mentality and quality of life especially between rural areas and suburbia. The culture shock is real, even in your own country.
Lesson #4 You’re placing more expectations on yourself in your home country
… And so are others too! You feel the pressure from your family and friends to conform and, for example, to go back to work. But while you’re fully qualified and have an extra experience abroad, you may find that the train left without waiting for you.
This led me to change career. I created my own business. As a writing coach, I organize workshops and help people redact their memoirs. I’m the author of several books. The latest composed with Silvia Masin is called ‘Expat’s World View‘ (only available in French in spite of the English title). We collected testimonials from dozens of expats who accepted to share their stories.
Like mine, the beauty is in discovering all those unique experiences and the richness lies in the spin they place on your own perspective.’
Now over to you, dear reader: are you looking forward to repatriating? And if you’re back in your home country already, what is the lesson you’d like to share?
If you feel lonely and disoriented in this transition time, join Expatriate Connection online peer support group starting in October (when the kids are settled at school). You can register your interest here and I’ll remind you when we start.