The Fearful Expat

By: Jenna-Marie Warnecke - Also see author's expat blog listing & expat interview

“Wow. You’re so brave!”
I heard this countless times from friends and family members after I declared I’d be quitting my job and moving to France for an undecided amount of time. Yet I never understood why. Dozens of people, from colleagues to friends of my parents and even a saleslady in an Arizona shopping mall, lauded my bravery, telling me, “I could never do that! I would just be too afraid!” To my callous New Yorker brain, I pitied them – not for cowardice but for their self-imposed belief that they were cowards. If they didn’t think they could do it, of course it would never happen. For me, I’d spent over a year and a half contemplating whether I should take the plunge – so long that I finally got tired of myself and decided to do it because after so long it seemed that I had no other choice.

It’s that kind of mentality that has led to all kinds of adventures in my life, from studying art history in Italy to moving to New York after graduation to pitching my first essays to websites. If I want something, why not go for it? No one else is going to do it for me. Neither bravery nor the slightest doubt in my own ability to achieve what I wanted ever seemed to enter the equation. I just did what I wanted to do. I found a way. So last year, I saved my money, found a place to live just north of Montmartre, and set off for a writing adventure in Paris in January of 2012.

I was surprised, then, to find myself awake at 5am, three weeks into my Paris experience, hunched over my writing desk and scribbling down every single fear that was crowding my brain because I hadn’t been able to sleep in a week, paralyzed by worries I’d never anticipated.

I didn’t understand this sudden ocean of fear crowding my mind. I’d done the thing I wanted to do. I’d reached my goal, I was there, I was living my dream. I’d already achieved something so many people in my life had told me they’d never even let themselves consider doing. So why was I so consumed with anxiety?

While I’d planned nearly every logistical detail and executed it to the hilt, I hadn’t planned on the cloaking feeling of aloneness that comes with living in a foreign country where everyone speaks another language. Not only did I know hardly anyone, I couldn’t be sassy or poetic when I was just trying to put a verb and a subject together. Neither had I planned on the feeling of purposelessness that comes when a workaholic quits her job and has nowhere to go and no one to depend on her each day. Strangest of all, I hadn’t planned on the overwhelming terror of complete freedom that comes with the time to actually write that novel I’d been meaning to write for the past twelve years. I’d heard about writer’s block before; I’d even heard about people who were afraid of success. I never thought it would hit me. But there I was, afraid to even think about beginning.

So, after my first three weeks in Paris, a week of which was spent lying awake at night staring at the ceiling, running through a laundry list of possible failures at my fingertips, I got up just before dawn one late January morning and began writing them down. On a fresh piece of paper I wrote,

- No money
- I won’t meet anyone/make any friends
- I won’t write anything
- What I write will be crap
- I’ll never learn French
- This whole thing will have been pointless/meaningless/a failure

I’m a strong proponent of positive thinking. I don’t know if it actually does anything, but it makes life a hell of a lot easier to focus on the positive. Yet all of my happy, forward-moving thoughts hadn’t made me feel as relieved as just writing down everything I was afraid of.

Next I addressed each issue, one by one. I brainstormed ways to make money, from freelance writing to bartending to cashing in my 401(k) (an emergency-only solution). I began researching ways to connect with people in Paris, looked into conversation exchanges to improve my French and went through old notes for writing inspiration. Behind each possible solution was one common underlying answer: try. I realized the world wasn’t dying to meet my fabulous self and pour money into my pockets. My new life would only work if I sought out ways to make money, if I extended myself beyond my shyness and tried to make friends, if I practiced and failed the French language every single day, if I wrote without fail, no matter the quality. Before I was finally able to go to bed and fall asleep that night, I tucked the list into a drawer in my desk, grabbed a bright pink Post-It note and scrawled “TRY” on it, and stuck it on my door.

Every day before I’d leave the house I’d see that note and it would put me in the right frame of mind – not to succeed, but just to try. I went to Meetup expat nights and contacted every friend of a friend I knew, and even went to a dinner party hosted by Jim Haynes, who has thrown all-welcome dinners for travelers to Paris, strangers every one, each Sunday for the last 40 years. I started speaking to the ladies at the baguette counter and the waiters at cafés, and asked my perfectly fluent roommate to speak only in French. I went to parties with my roommate and made French friends, whom I asked to teach me dirty French phrases (killing two birds with one stone). I started pitching ideas to website editors about my French experience, and even started the first Anglophone blog just about cheap things to do in Paris.

It was only a start, but it felt good to make baby steps in the direction of building my life in Paris. I still had bad days – blustery, chilled winter days when I didn’t feel like going outside, and then would realize I didn’t need to go outside; I could stay in the apartment all day. One day I didn’t feel like doing my hair, and as I stood in my bedroom I thought, if I don’t do that I don’t really need to do my makeup either. I could also just wear my old jeans and a t-shirt, that’s comfortable. In fact, I don’t even have to go outside. Why go outside when the weather is frigid and I have no money to spend? I didn’t have to go out the next day either… I had no plans and no one would know the difference… and standing there, perfectly still in my bedroom, I felt myself spiraling into an abyss of complete apathy. No! I thought. If I go down that hole there is really no reason for me to be in this beautiful city. I have to at least try. So I did my hair, put on some bright red lipstick and a sexy outfit went outside to get lost in the Paris rain.

But there was still the novel thing. Oh yeah, that thing. That was the one fear that still overwhelmed me when I thought about it. I was writing every day, working on short stories at cafés during the day and journaling at night, but had not begun something “big.” It felt so wrong and, to me, shameful to be so afraid of this ambition – after all, it was half the reason I’d decided to quit my job and come to Paris (the other half was evenly divided between learning the language and eating the cheese). My lingering fear pissed me off so much that I’d had enough. Once again I had tired of myself and my inner whining and decided to do something about it.

I’d always wanted to participate in NaNoWriMo, the annual writing project that challenges writers of every stripe and level to write an entire novel in the month of November. As the aforementioned workaholic, I’d never had the time to undertake such a thing, but now I had nothing but time. I decided to do it no matter the month. February was coming up. Oh, I thought, that is quite a short month. But the point of the challenge is not to make your novel good; it’s just to write the damn thing.

There are some fears that can only be destroyed by running headlong into them. Fears that will only cease to exist if you dive into them with a gusto that matches the power of the fear you feel. I needed a challenge like this, not to write my great novel but, in fact, to write the crap novel I was afraid I would end up writing. I needed to fail on purpose.

So for the month of February I wrote. I wrote like crazy. Since my brain becomes creative at night, I would spend the days filling myself with the experience of Paris, trying to meet new people and learn the proper usage of words like “chiante” and “putain,” then would head into my room at midnight and write until 4am. I didn’t give myself much time to sit around staring at the computer. I wanted to fail with glory, writing down any sentence that came into my mind. The subject of my “failure novel” was a girl who has to write a novel in one month. Original, I know. But I made her a pathological liar and constant procrastinator who spends the entire story not getting anything done. This way, I knew each night when I sat down to type that any fear, boredom, or procrastination I felt would be given to her. She was the failure. I was the writer.

I spent the month treating everything on my fear list like a job to work on – I wrote every night except when I had plans to hang out with new friends. That was just as important, I reasoned, and when I finished my failure novel I threw myself a party. I invited everyone I knew in Paris, and nearly all of them came – a whole 12 people just for me!

After finishing my novel, bolstered by confidence, I worked on building my website and meeting other expats. One of them threw a party for all the expat blogger ladies in Paris and suddenly I was in the company of a dozen women who knew exactly what I was going through – whether for love or a job or their own dream, each of them had moved to Paris and begun writing about it. As we sat on the couch and several women nodded knowingly while one spoke about the craziness of trying to get anything legal done in Paris, I realized that each of them knew the hard work it took to get there, and its profound benefits – the bread, the wine, the Eiffel Tower at night. That evening devolved into an all-out disco dance party, and I left in the early morning hours with several new friends and a firmer sense of place than I’d had in months.

Over the spring and summer I continued just to try – I wrote a novella (which was not a failure), several short stories and essays. I began contributing to four different Paris websites and had my first articles published on The Huffington Post. My French slowly improved, with the patience of everyone I met, and one night at a party filled with Parisians I had a long conversation with a young woman about politics, religion and American culture. My friend Elsa came up behind me and said, “Jenna, you can’t possibly understand what she’s saying! It’s all French!” I blinked and realized it as I said out loud, in French: “But I can understand!” After months of struggling with the language, it suddenly clicked in my mind and though I was still far from fluent, I could hold and understand real conversations with intelligent people. Wine helped.

I went out every time someone asked, which would have seemed unthinkable in my previous life as a shy homebody. My friendships with both Frenchies and expats alike deepened and strengthened in ways I had never anticipated, and at the end of the summer I was invited by my best Parisienne girlfriend to spend a week with her and her friends at her parents’ home in Corsica. I had gotten some money from freelance writing so I could afford it. I knew and genuinely liked the other five people on the trip. After nine days of intensive French-speaking, my language skills skyrocketed. And spending over a week in a house with five friends, a baby, a dog and several different romantic dynamics gave me plenty to write about indeed.

In October I was to go to New York for my best friend’s wedding. I packed my suitcase and in a fit of cleanliness I also cleared out my desk, throwing away old receipts and business cards and notes-to-self. I reached into the very back of the drawer and pulled out my list of fears, which I had forgotten about once the spring sunshine made its first appearance. I read over the list with a mixture of amusement and tender sympathy for this former version of myself, the insomniac fretter who thought she’d never make friends or learn the language or write anything interesting. I wished I could hug her and say, “Girl, don’t even worry about it. You’re just getting started. In a few months this will all seem both understandable and silly.” I folded the list and tucked it into my journal, a breath of lightness and contentment in my lungs. After only a few short months, I was no longer afraid of one thing on that list. And all I had to do was try.

About the author:

Jenna-Marie Warnecke left New York after seven years to become a writer in Paris. She runs Paris Cheapskate, a blog about cheap and free things to do, see, eat and drink in the City of Light.
Blog address: Twitter: @parischeapskate
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Contest Comments » There are 17 comments

Ella Coquine wrote 11 years ago:

Jenna is one of my favorite expat writers. She's sharp, extremely resourceful, and relatable. Without a doubt, she will inspire others to follow their dreams and to just go for it. She's truly a treasure in the sea of writers that flock to Paris!

RBrown wrote 11 years ago:

This is BRILLIANT! I found myself nodding along to every word, every sentence, every pargraph. You describe the expat experience to a tee: you think getting to the place of your dreams is the biggest, hardest hurdle until you get there ... then you realize the doing is the hardest (and obviously, also the best) part. You just have to figure it all out and do it every single glorious (but often insanely hard and lonely) day. You did it. I hope you're proud of you - I am!

Nancy Vance wrote 11 years ago:

Yeah for Jenna! I have done similiar things alone and have had people ask...aren't you scared, you are all alone etc and believe me, wouldn't trade a second of any of my adventures! My heart and soul are soaring with you...wonderful article. You love and live life!!

Linda Abbott wrote 11 years ago:

Loved getting to know Jenna through her writing and adventures. She demonstrates what we all know but most do not brave- "If you think you can or can not you are correct." Congratulations on your willingness to dare to dream large, and then make it happen. I look forward to continuing follow Jenna's journey.

Stephanie Land wrote 11 years ago:

Absolutely love this!! Of course I relate in so many ways, even though I don't have the language issue in London, my experiences here have been exciting and scary all at the same time. Wonderfully written as always!! So proud of you.

Jacki wrote 11 years ago:

It's always a bit weird (and enlightening) to read someone else's perspective about the same thing. Fear and the in ability to try.... yes yes yes. Still haven't put my heart into French and I wonder why it won't come to me. Thank you for your honesty and am proud to call you one of my blogger friends!

NICO wrote 11 years ago:

I would be your roomate, maybe for a long time. Your progress is my gift, everybody is sick but nobody realise it. "Girl, don’t even worry about it. You’re just getting started". Bisous

Valerie Foster wrote 11 years ago:

This is exactly why I read Expats. Jenna speaks for all of us, putting words to the fears we all feel. She also inspires me to push my life further. Great piece, Jenna! Thanks.

KWBarker wrote 11 years ago:

Devoured every word, fear, and try. Such a truth from the gut and the gal living it instead of someone talking about it and only talking. It always boils down to try and do. I love her self reflection near her departure.

Laura Stevens wrote 11 years ago:

Loved it! A friend said to me yesterday: "Whether you think you can or you think you can't: You're right." You showed that perfectly in your essay. I loved reading about how you tackled your fears and are now embracing your journey. I can't wait to read more! L.

Kristen wrote 11 years ago:

As always Jenna completely hits home with her beautiful writing. She has completely captured the feeling of feeling completely helpless and scared when you're someone that normally is not like that. I too had the same reaction towards other people's reactions about moving to Paris. "I live in NYC, of course I can do it." If only I was more brave with my French language immersion as she! I'm so proud of her for working her way through the list of things that were hard - she is proof that just trying can lead to amazing results.

Shannon wrote 11 years ago:

You are such an inspiration! Wonderful essay. Never stop "trying" darling. Your adventures have only just begun.

Willie Mosley wrote 11 years ago:

Thank you for writing this inspirational piece! I have several friends to forward this to. You never know who or what limits can be reach unless you......TRY! Again, I thank you! I have a young lady friend who needs a "Do Over", and she could use this kind of story to get her to take the first step!

Kendall wrote 11 years ago:

If any of my friends were to move to France in the future, i would certainly make them read this essay before leaving.

Bill Margerum wrote 11 years ago:

Wow! Your words on your writing have inspired me to get writing as well .

L Walters wrote 11 years ago:

inspiring... interesting... and wonderfully well written. can't wait to read in the future about what you "TRY" next!!!!

Mspeck wrote 11 years ago:

You are a wonderful writer, made me feel like I was right beside you in an adventure. Be proud of yourself Jen, just try!

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