The same but different

In the past few months, I have become very aware of how much I missed by being abroad for almost all of my 20s. I’ve been taking the metro more in Boston lately, and when I look at these young(er) people, I feel like they are living a life I will never know anything about. Then, I was at a conference last week near where my parents live so I saw some of my high school friends. When talking about first jobs or first dates, I realized I have nothing similar to share.
I think some of it is just missing that young single life I didn’t really have. Meeting your husband at 21 makes your 20s look a lot different than if you find him at 30. But it’s also the fact that I was never young in the states. I mean, I’m still young, but not the carefree young. There was a very short window of time, only a few months really, that I was working, single, and old enough to go to bars. And even that was tempered by knowing that I’d be leaving for France.
While I spent my early 20s broke like most, there was the added stress about staying in the country, and that makes you think about money in a very different way. The joys and frustrations of figuring out the complexities of French administration and immigration is not something you can bond with people over if they’ve never left the state.
It’s also a pop culture thing. It’s almost as if I wish I didn’t have this extra experience that makes it hard to connect.  I missed so much in terms of music, movies, televisions… I try to remind myself that traveling around Europe > watching the Bachelor, but it’s hard when trying to make new friends and I realize I have no idea what they’re talking about.
It’s funny because a year ago I felt like I belonged. It felt so right being here. And while I still love my job, and think this move was a great idea, the longer I’m here, the more different I start to feel again… sigh. I guess it’s true that there’s no real “going home” for an expat.

Becoming my American self

If you work in HR, you’ve probably taken at least one personality test at some point in your career. And by “some point” I mean at least once a month, because seriously, we love that stuff.

Everyone has their favorites, and it’s usually the one that gives you the answer you like best. I’m a big fan of the Meyers-Briggs because I think INTJ is exactly me and it sounds awesome.

The other day, an OCEAN vs MBTI discussion led to me retaking a MBTI-ish test (the “real” ones are quite costly) and it gave me ENTJ. E!! As in Extrovert! Me, who has for so long known I am introverted, fully identified as an introvert, and revealed in my introverted status.

So it got me thinking. I took the test in France, where I was, no doubt about it, quite introverted. Has moving back to the states changed me so much that I’ve become an extrovert? Or was I always one and France was just not letting it come out? (As a hilarious side note, this chart has INTJ as Ayn Rand and ENTJ as Napoleon. So in America I’m more like Napoleon, ha)

Bilingual/binational/expats/etc often talk about the effect of language and culture on your personality. Felling like “yourself” in another language is a huge step. I know for my husband, being able to tell jokes in English is a big deal, since he loves making jokes in French.

I was never the funny one in France, and yet here, I am constantly cracking up (and with) my colleagues. I did kind of luck out with a boss that so totally gets me, we’re borderline telepathic. And the atmosphere of a non profit is very different than an audit and tax firm. But I know it wasn’t my French skills that were holding me back, since I spend lots of time laughing with my francophone colleague here.

One thing to note is that the MBTI personality types are not really accurate so I shouldn’t be that surprised that it changed (though anytime I took it while living in France, it was always INTJ or INFJ). And not only are the terms extrovert and introvert generally misunderstood and misapplied, almost everyone falls somewhere towards the middle of the extroversion-introversion spectrum. Very few people are extreme/pure introverts or extroverts.

So really, it’s about balance, and that’s something we’re achieving here. In both work/life and personality, I’m a lot more balanced here. While it was my initial reaction to do so, I don’t want to think of this as a France vs. USA thing, because so much depends on where you are in the countries, and what your work/personal situation is. However, at the same time, I can’t pretend the cultures are the same and that the way I act/feel isn’t influenced by where I’m living. It’s going to be very interesting to see how bébé’s personality develops, and to see if there’s a shift depending on what language/country he’s in.

Anyway, just wondering if this makes sense to anyone else. Or if you’ve taken a personality test and had it change over the course of your life, and had it totally freak you out the way it did to me!

Getting used to Fahrenheit

It’s been two months now since we moved back, and I’m still getting used to Fahrenheit. I didn’t realize how much I’d adapted mentally to Celsius, since I never really totally understood it beyond “over 10 is ok, over 15 is nice, over 20 is warm, over 25 is hot.”

But really, that’s what you do in Fahrenheit too. “In the 30s and 40s” is cold, 50s ok, 60s nice, 70s warm, 80s hot. It took me awhile to remember this mental shorthand, so I kept all my weather apps in Celsius, and confused my colleagues by saying thing like “oh, 18 tomorrow, great!”

Adapting to pounds has been just as tricky, at least for food purchases. Ordering groceries online means I don’t get to see things first, and I’m always surprised how small 5 pounds of something actually is. Bébé just went to the doctor and he weighs 24 pounds and I’m like… so is that good? Though really, I have no idea what children are supposed to weigh in either pounds or kilos, so I just plugged it into the growth chart and was reassured that he’s following his normal curve. (At least he has managed to avoid bulking up on American food, unlike his parents!)

Centimeters never clicked for me anyway, so talking in feet and inches is at least one thing I’m totally fine with (besides with bébé for the same reason as weight). And I kept baking with American recipes in France, sometimes converting, sometimes using cups and spoons a friend sent over, so that’s been okay. Except milk and juice and things that come in pints and gallons. Bébé’s bottles are in milliliters, so I keep forgetting to do the math before going to the store and either get only enough to last two days, or waaaay too much. And since it isn’t the bricks of everlasting milk like in France, getting too much means we’re wasting quite a bit, which I hate.

Anyway, I just thought it was kind of funny how hard it was 8 years ago to get used to new measurements, and here I am going through the same thing again! An unexpected element of reverse culture shock.

Comparing maternity leave in France and Luxembourg

One difficult thing about going on maternity leave was how little flexibility I had in the dates. However, this would not have been the case if I were working in France. So I thought I’d do a little comparison of maternity leave in France and Luxembourg, to show how different it can be. This is just the basic legal stuff; collective labor agreements, like for banks or childcare workers, can often give even more time. (For example, my husband gets 3 days off for the birth rather than the standard 2.)

[table] , France, Luxembourg
Length of standard leave, 16 weeks, 16 weeks
Length of standard prenatal leave, 6 weeks, 8 weeks
Flexibility in prenatal leave, 3 weeks (added to postnatal leave), none
Length of standard postnatal leave, 10 weeks, 8 weeks
Extra leave for breastfeeding, none, 4 weeks postnatal
Extra leave for multiples, 34 to 46 weeks total, 4 weeks postnatal (not sure if this is in addition to the 4 weeks for breastfeeding or not)
Extra leave when not first child, 26 weeks total if third+ child, none
Full salary paid by government, yes (up to a limit of about 2500 a month), yes (up to a limit of about 9600 a month)
Leave for the father following birth, 11 consecutive days during the first 4 months, 2 days [/table]

So while overall, my leave is a little bit longer because I work in Luxembourg, things are much different in France for multiples, fathers, and people who have more than one child already. I think having the option to use most of the leave after the birth is a very good idea, though I suppose it compensates in a way for the lack of specific “breastfeeding” leave in France.

There is also the choice in France to shorten the leave to 8 weeks (2 before, 6 after), though I have no idea if many women choose this option. And 8 weeks is the minimum if you want to be paid for the leave. So what happens if you just keep working? Does your employer not have to pay you? Can they refuse to let you work? I have a feeling these are not really situations that happen very often, since you’re paid your full salary, but since my issue is with flexibility, these are questions I wonder about.

 

Parental leave is slightly more complicated, and the law in France will change this year starting July 1st. I don’t think it’s to be more like Luxembourg specifically (I have a feeling the rest of the country is not quite as aware of Luxembourg as we are in Lorraine), but they’re trying to encourage more men to take time off. Right now in France about 3% of fathers take parental leave, and they’re hoping it’ll go up to 20% in the next few years. Luxembourg is already at about 24%. Since the laws in France are (always) complex, there are obviously some additional points I don’t cover here, like multiples, single parent families, and crèches. Again, this is just to give an idea of the differences between the two countries.

[table] , France (new 2014 law), Luxembourg
Amount of leave first child, 12 months (6 months each parent full- or part-time 50-80%), 12-24 months (6 months full-time or 12 months part-time 50% each parent)
When leave is taken, anytime after end of maternity leave, one parent must take their leave immediately following the maternity leave or the other parent loses their leave
Both parents take leave at the same time, yes (part-time), yes (part-time and only if alternating schedules so child is always with one parent and not daycare/nanny)
Amount of leave more than one child, 3 years maximum IF second parent takes 6 months (otherwise only 2.5 years), same as for 1 child
Leave can be taken until child is . . ., 3 years old, 5 years old
Compensation from government, a few hundred a month (depends on income and if part- or full-time), around 900 part-time and 1800 full-time (fixed amounts independent of income)[/table]

 

We’re definitely happier with the way parental leave is set up in Luxembourg, since for us, that’s more important than the maternity leave. You’re only pregnant 9 months, but then there’s a baby to take care of . . . forever!! (The panic has started as my due date approaches!) We talked about both doing part-time at the same time, but the scheduling was a little too complicated.

While nothing was stopping men from taking the time in France, most don’t because they make more money and there are cultural stereotypes that factor in as well. So I’m not sure that just offering 6 months to the second parent will really change anything, and people aren’t particularly happy with the new limit of 2.5 years if the second parent doesn’t take the 6 months.

While the limits in Luxembourg seem to encourage men to take time, it’s still not a 50/50 split, and it’s definitely a question of money/culture as well. The compensation probably seems quite generous compared to France, but it’s basically the minimum wage in Luxembourg, so financially it’s not always possible for both parents to take the time off. It’s still better than in France though; the system is so complicated for figuring out how much you’d get per month, and once you make over a certain amount you don’t get anything, so after a certain point in your career it would be difficult to take the time without changing your lifestyle (like a baby doesn’t do that already?).

Part-time is generally a better option in both countries, since you’d have half your pay from your employer (or even up to 80% in France) and compensation from the government as well, so financially there might be less of a loss. It’s the same math future parents around the world have to do, even in countries like Denmark that have 52 weeks of paid maternity/parental leave, since individual situations vary and governments do impose limits to compensation. I don’t think any country gives you 100% of your normal salary for months and months of leave. (Nor should they, in my opinion, if part of the purpose is to make sure women have the same career opportunities as men.)

I should mention that for both maternity and parental leave in France and Luxembourg, there are conditions like having worked for a while (in general for maternity leave and at the company specifically for parental leave) and paid into the health care/social security system for a certain amount of time, which makes sense. Parental leave is always optional, so not everyone takes advantage of it, but I personally just love having options. So hopefully these comparisons help show the options parents have when choosing between working in France or Luxembourg!

Bank card limits in France

My nesting instinct hasn’t quite kicked in yet (the freezer remains mostly empty and the closets horribly disorganized) but my shopping definitely seems to have picked up a bit this month. So I’ve been having lots of fun, but in the back of my head, I have to keep in mind the spending limits on my bank card.

Since I moved to France right after college, I’m not sure how different things are here, but I know my dad was upset recently that his free checking accounting was no longer free. I’ve been paying a few euros a month since the very first month for my account here, so I couldn’t really sympathize with him. I do know that what I pay is because I have a debit card; the joint account with my husband only has a checkbook so we don’t pay anything for it.

In addition to the monthly fee, there are limits on how much I can withdraw each week, and how much I can spend in a month using the card (there are no limits to withdrawing at the bank, other than the amount actually in the account!). When I first arrived in France, these limits were pretty low, which wasn’t a big deal, since I didn’t make that much. And it’s nice to know that if my card gets stolen and someone tries to buy or withdraw a lot, they won’t be able to. Recently I asked my banker to increase the limits, since my work situation is stable, but I still need to keep that number in my mind when buying big ticket items over the next few weeks.

Both my husband and I are at Société Générale now, but before he was at Crédit Mutuel, and I’m not sure if he had the same limits. I remember the first time we tried to buy plane tickets with his new card, and we couldn’t, because he was close to the monthly limit, and he swore he’d never had one at his old bank. It could just be that he had never reached his limit before, so never knew what it was.

One nice thing is that there re no fees when withdrawing from an ATM at another bank, with, of course, a weekly limit. This is something I loved when I first got here, since there was nothing more annoying to me in the states than paying an extra 2 dollars when I didn’t use my bank’s ATM. 2 dollars is a lot to a college student on minimum wage! That’s like, enough for an essential studying snack or bus fare to the mall.

I’ve been looking into purely online banking for a while, but I’ve been at the same bank since I first got here, and with the same banker for over 4 years. He knows us, knows our goals, and gives good advice. We also manage to get enough “new” services every year that we help him meet his sales quota without him having to call and badger us every few months. So if we called him and asked to up the limit so we can buy a crib, he’d do it, no problem. I don’t feel like I can’t spend my own money how I want to, it just takes a bit more planning. Which, when dealing with budgets, is probably not such a bad thing.

I’ve gotten used to my bank card limits in France just like I’ve gotten used to everything being closed on Sundays and after 7pm. Sure, a part of me feels like this is somehow denying me my freedom of choice, but at the same time, it’s made me more organized and conscious of how I spend my money (and time).

Gender reveal party in France

Throwing a gender reveal party in France is pretty much like throwing any other type of American-style party in France. Rule one is invite people weeks and weeks before, because a last minute text message doesn’t really cut it here. Rule two is always have wine, no matter the occasion. And rule three is put in enough new things they can tell their friends about it, without making it too overwhelmingly American.

Our wedding followed rule three in particular and it worked out pretty well. There was a fingerprint tree instead of a guestbook, and a photo booth instead of games, but lots of champagne. There was a three-tiered wedding cake instead of a croquembouche, but the traditional thousand five courses first.

Part of choosing to do a gender reveal instead of a baby shower was to keep it from being too different from what is done (and what is not done) here. Cake and baby chatter is a perfectly acceptable Sunday afternoon activity. Asking my in-laws and my husband’s friends to give us lots of presents when here it is usually considered bad luck to buy too much before the baby is born seemed like a less acceptable option.

Actually, I was thinking about it, and since there is a fair amount of government support here, you don’t really need baby showers to help you out. I mean, having a baby in any country is expensive, but I am eight million times less stressed than friends in the states, knowing that a large portion of medical and “start-up” costs are taken care of. (Though actually we aren’t eligible for the big “bonus” you get at 7 months, or the monthly benefits after the birth, since our jobs in Luxembourg have higher salaries than the average in France. But there are other advantages from working in Luxembourg that still make things much easier for us than they would have been in the states.)

But of course a baby shower is not just about gifts! There’s the social/fun side too that I really wanted to share with my French friends and family. And that can happen just as easily during a gender reveal, with the extra fun of guessing up until the last minute what color the cake will be!

Another rule I try to stick to when doing things like this is to make it as pretty as possible. Table decorations are important here, there is no way around it. And it involves a lot more than just plunking a bouquet down in the middle. So when I make the effort, I find that whatever I put on that table is appreciated a lot more. Thanks to the magical time vacuum that is Pinterest, I was not short on decoration ideas. And thanks to the wonderful Lili Pixel, I have some Pinterest-worthy photos to share. (She also blogged about it, we’re trying to launch the trend here!)

Gender Reveal 1

Games: I kept things simple. Knowing your crowd is essential in Franco-american party planning, and since most of the guests were my husband’s older relatives, both male and female, games involving diapers or baby food were not really appropriate. (If it had just been our friends, and given the amount of alcohol everyone besides me consumed, some of the weirder shower games I’ve seen would have been just hilarious.)

So guessing games and fabric pens to decorate onesies and bibs kept everyone pretty occupied before and after cake. The name boards were super fun, since we don’t want to share our pick before he’s born (assuming we’ve actually managed to pick one by then!). This way, people could see what names we’ve been considering, and we could hear other people say them out loud.

 

Gender Reveal 2

Food: I got a cake pop kit for my birthday and have been waiting for an occasion to use it. And blue and pink food was an obvious must (though if I’d had more time I would have done the cake pops in blue and pink, since having both cookies and cake pops was a little too much chocolate for everyone I think). Of all the different American snacks I’ve made over the years, rice krispies treats are a favorite. And finally, there was fruit, because I always try to throw in a healthy treat to prove that Americans don’t live on hamburgers and soda.

 

Gender Reveal 3 The reveal: I honestly though my dress was green, but seeing the pictures makes it look like I already knew it’s a boy! But we didn’t know, and it was really so much fun to find out this way. The moments before cutting the cake were so exciting and tense! For over a week, only the midwife and the baker knew what we were having, which they both got a huge kick out of. And I’m glad we got the secret envelope back from the baker, because the note is just too cute (“I’m a baby boy!”).

 

I set up a live streaming on youtube, so my family and friends in the states got to watch too. Following their comments was fun, and because there was a few minutes delay on the video, we got to watch ourselves cut the cake.

So that was our gender reveal party in France! It went really well, and everyone had a good time discovering a very American way to celebrate the arrival of a baby. Not all of my Franco-american events have gone quite as smoothly in the past, but after 6 years, the rules have taken shape. I can’t wait to see what other fun, multicultural parties we’ll throw for our baby garçon in the future!

Calculating due date in France

The first question everyone asks when they find out you’re pregnant is “When is the due date?” or “How far along are you?” You would think these would be easy questions to answer. However, like so many things that seem to be different for no other reason than to drive foreigners crazy, dates relating to pregnancy are not talked about in the same way in France as in the states.

To start off, people/books/websites refer to both “semaines de grossesse” (SG) and “semaines d’ d’aménorrhée” (SA). SG is calculated starting with conception so it’s the age of the fetus, and the SA is calculated starting on the first day of your last period.

For months now, I have been wondering, why does this difference even exist?? If all the doctors and the administration talk about SA, why even have SG to begin with? It’s the “real” age of the baby, which is nice to know I guess . . . but still, very confusing. So when I read forums and books in French, I have to pay attention to if they’re talking about SG or SA, or worry about having done/not done something too late before realizing it’s okay, I still have two more weeks to do/undo it.

For various reasons, I actually have a pretty good idea of when we managed to make this happen, and I told my doctor this, but he stuck with the “conception is two weeks after first day of last period” rule (the one rule that does seem to be standard in different countries). So he calculated my due date as July 18th. When calculating using my date, with American tools, my due date July 14th.

Also, in France they calculate a due date based on 41 SA weeks, rather than 40 in the states. And I just read an article (from 2006 ) that the average in the states has gone down to 39. I work in Luxembourg and they use 40 weeks, so I’m actually going on maternity leave a week later than I would if I had a Luxembourgish doctor.

Despite doing my best to read about (and now write about) due dates and stuff, none of this really makes any sense to me. I still have no idea when this baby is “supposed” to get here, besides sometime in mid-July. Which is why I like to tell people July 14th, because 1) as an American, my body will obviously follow American rules; 2) that’s a super fun due date to have in France; and 3) it probably won’t be that day anyway, so why bother telling people what the doctor put on a paper.

There is a full moon on July 12th, and while the belief that more babies are born during the full moon hasn’t really been proven, the final of the World Cup is July 13th, and everybody knows that babies like to be born when there are other things to be done (I was born on Christmas, and my husband’s mom went into labor while the car was being washed. Yeah, I totally win that one.)

One thing I know for sure is that it will not happen any later than July 18th, because my doctor apparently does not put up with any of this “let’s wait a week or two past your due date” nonsense to induce. He said if I’m not in the hospital on the 18th, he will put me there. So sharing a birthday with Prince George is out, unless I want four days of labor. (I’ve never had a baby before, but I’m gonna bet that no, I will not want that).

As for the how far along I am question, I usually say something like “four and a half months” but this seems to confuse people here, and my MIL said “ok, so you’re in your fifth month” just like after celebrating your 25th birthday, you’re in your 26th year. Sigh. More confusion.

Even the months don’t seem to correspond to the same number of weeks on both sides of the Atlantic. Does month three end at 13 or 14 weeks? Month six at week 26 or 27? When the F does my third trimester start??

Anyway, by now, in both countries, everyone seems to agree that I am most definitely in my second trimester, whether at the end of my 4th month or beginning of my 5th is up for debate. I’m at 18 SA (and American weeks) whether +1 days or +4 depends on whether you want to listen to my doctor or to me, the person who was actually there when the baby was made. I personally only listen to him when he tells me I can still eat whatever I want as long as it’s in reasonable portions and that I should cook my meat all the way through.

I realize this was probably pretty boring for people who are not and/or do not want to be pregnant, in France or any country. So to thank you for reading this far, here’s a picture from the Carnival costume party we went to this weekend, featuring my little bump, who, let’s face it, doesn’t really care how old it is, as long as I am feeding it delicious French pastries.

pregnant egg costume