We moved to Paris four months ago, and we are still in survival mode. With non-existent French on my part and an ongoing refresher for John Hugh, we are navigating everything in French. Every day has challenges that can easily drill down into defeat, depression, or despondency.
We are outsiders in France so we are coming into a brand new world with different cues. I learned today that the French never ask anyone if they are full after a meal – only if they have enjoyed the meal – because feeling full is not the point of a French meal. The flavors, the ambiance, the array of dishes titillating your palette are the highlights, just as they were in the 6 course French meal we enjoyed on Christmas Day. How opposite of American culture where big portions ensure that satiety and feeling stuffed is the point of the meal!
Christmas is a season of lights. As an outsider here, I can easily scurry to the dark corners of the room. I am learning French, but it’s still hard to begin a conversation when my limited vocabulary engenders the imagination of a 3 year old. I am forcing myself outside my comfort zone all day long.
Our schedules are so full with daily living struggles. Simple things like one of our sons still sleeps on the floor because we haven’t had time to buy bunk beds or our laundry dryer died and because of delivery delays, we had to get creative without a dryer for nearly 1 month. I can’t call or text friends as easily as I have in the past. The 7 hour time difference doesn’t help: my US friends are just finishing up their day at 5pm when it’s past midnight Paris time.
In the past, Christmas has always been the hardest season for me. It’s been a reminder of family I no longer have with me: my father passed at the tender age of 60 nearly 20 years ago. Living outside the US all of my childhood, I struggled with the idea of returning home for Christmas because my homes growing up were transient and impossible to return to. I felt a loneliness and darkness in the Christmas season – a lingering mourning.
So this year, it’s been an incredible surprise to find joy in surviving. We have the smallest Christmas tree ever as a couple. It’s a standard size for a small French home, but as Americans, I think John Hugh is still in mourning. We didn’t engage in many of our family Christmas traditions like a nightly Advent devotion or decorating the tree together because we had to scrounge around to find our ornaments in boxes still packed. My kids had to manage with gifts ordered last minute, and John Hugh and I ran out of time to do a proper gift exchange as a couple.
If you can’t manufacture joy with a resplendent Christmas tree or a gathering of close friends at your fingertips, you have to find joy in the unexpected. One of the best gifts of moving abroad with our children is expectations are shattered. Everything is different, so instead of being upset when you don’t get what you expect, you expect the unexpected.
The joy I feel is joy in the midst of uncertainty. I am a stranger in this foreign land, and I can’t fix everything around me like I could in my native country. The only way to navigate a foreign territory is with hope. Christmas always reminds me God put His hope to amidst us, in our everyday struggles – Jesus as Emmanuel – and not much is to be envied being born in a cave or a stable or the very least, outside the splendor deserving of a king.
I don’t have to be upset when things don’t go my way because this is not my final home. As foreigners in a new terrain, I already have a glimmer of not putting all my joy in my earthly home. But that does not mean I am passive with the challenges in front of me. When a fellow church member informs me on Christmas Eve about a local Paris program where I can practice my French by being matched with the refugee community in a French-English exchange, I know the unexpected is my friend.
How do you define joy? I define it as something that can never be taken from me. Another Christian pastor defines joy with this quote as a contrast to other world-views (secular or other religions):
“While other world-views lead us to sit in the midst of life’s joys, foreseeing the coming sorrows, Christianity empowers its people to sit in the midst of this world’s sorrows, tasting the coming joy.”
– Tim Keller
Because joy is not meant to be felt fully in this life, I can see everything as a welcome challenge. I even challenge my children in the same way, making my oldest give his demanding French coach a big hug at the end of a grueling swim meet, and she surprisingly hugging him back! He didn’t want to give her the hug because he was taking a risk sharing his joy and we were told this swim coach would give a thumbs up once in 3 years of swimming with her, but joy can be infectious! In my mid-40s, it’s life-changing to willingly leave a very comfortable and safe and predictable old life in the United States and start over in France. The best gift is finding joy in surviving and hopefully never losing this perspective.
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