This interview, from Fluency Corp, is part of a series of interviews in which Fluency Corp reaches out to clients, friends or even family, who have relocated to another country for a job, in order to ask about why they moved, how they moved and how they made a new home for themselves in their new country. In these interviews, you will find authenticity, humility, and also tips for how to make international relocation go smoother.
This month, read about France Grenot, Enterprise Architect, Reservations & Funds, at Southwest Airlines.
Where are you from? Where have you moved to? And how long did you spend in each country?
I’m from France, about 20 kilometers (10 miles) from Switzerland. Now I live in Dallas, Texas. I’ve been in the U.S. for seven years, and I also lived a year in Chicago.
What did you do in your home country? What do you do now?
I had a similar position when I was in France. I moved to Dallas with my company, Amadeus, which is actually from Spain. They have sites in London, Germany, southern France, and Madrid — the headquarters. I transferred doing the same job: engineer expert in reservation systems for airlines.
Amazingly, my career grew in the U.S. Now I’ve worked just four years in France and seven years in the U.S. That was the promise of my company when I built a team here.
Where do you work now?
I work for Southwest Airlines. I design systems for reservations, TSA, gift cards, sending air confirmation.
Even though you were doing similar jobs in France and Dallas, what feels different now, both personally and professionally?
After six months in Dallas, it hit me that I was alone personally. For the first six months, you do everything new. And you love the new restaurants and shopping and seeing everything. But after six months, you start to feel empty and you have to start building your new life here.
Professionally, I suddenly had to work with American co-workers all day, and all my clients were Texans. I knew my subject, so it wasn’t such a drastic change. I had to adapt my behavior though. I had to give better customer service compared with when I was in France. But I knew my job very well, so I could handle it.
Working only with Texans, the language was very important. I still have a strong French accent, but when I first arrived, it was way worse, I think. It took them a little while to understand me, but I adapted as much as they adapted to me.
Fun fact: I won a “lost in translation” award for a story that I told in front of other employees. The story was about writing checks to customers. I was saying the word “check” very quickly, and it sounded like the word “sh*t” to all the Texans. I was embarrassed, but it was funny, too. We all laughed about it. And I still have the award!
What were the specific challenges you faced after moving to the U.S.?
Three months after coming to the U.S., I got an apartment. My relocation company set up almost everything, but she had forgotten to set up the gas. I had to call the gas company and give my credit card number, and I had to repeat the numbers again and again. No one on the phone understood me at all.
It was nice to have someone set everything up for me, but it would have been more helpful to have someone for two hours every week, helping me through each challenge as it came at me, over the course of a few months.
Another challenge: I work in a big corporate headquarters. In France, it’s very different. We have to have windows where employees have desks. All day long in the U.S., I don’t take a lot of breaks, and I find myself in these darker places, with no sunlight. So a few of us started having vitamin D deficiencies. It was hard for us, and we started ordering lamps to keep the vitamin D up. I think the standards here are a little different for employees. Of course, you adapt, and I see that this is also changing in the U.S., too, which is great. More people are paying attention to health.
How did you prepare for your move? Any tips for others?
I’m not sure if I prepared well, but I was very lucky, I think. When I found out I was going to move, I came about three or four times. I came with my job, talking to my future colleagues. This was extremely helpful. I was already halfway in the door when I started. I got to experience the culture and the 100% English language challenge before really coming. This was critical.
What did you expect in the U.S. that didn’t turn out to be so?
I expected everything about the U.S. to be modern. It’s the vision that we have. A lot of things are, of course, like the internet. But some things seem old, like having cables that are not underground — you see electric cables everywhere.
What did you NOT expect that did happen?
I didn’t expect people to be so friendly. Even in the restroom. People will say things like, “That’s a nice sweater!” while we are washing our hands. I really like this actually.
What was harder than you thought it would be?
Finding a partner. This was way harder than I thought it would be. Dating cultural habits are so different in the U.S. and in France. The steps to marriage felt very different for me. When I came, it was the beginning of dating apps in France, but it was already going strong in the U.S. So that was different for me to use the app.
Once you got here, what was most challenging personally and most challenging as a family?
My parents and sister were afraid that I would stay here forever, and that’s exactly what happened. I got married to an American. For just two years, it’s OK: They can visit, it’s fun to see another country. But then after the two years, they really want you home.
Do you have a funny expat story? Or another funny language story where something was misunderstood?
I heard someone say “the hood” — meaning “the neighborhood” — but I thought they were saying “the wood.” And so I was in a meeting, feeling very sure of myself, and I said, “I found it in the wood,” and everyone tried not to laugh. Later, we were at lunch, and I said: “I moved to the hood.” So I used my new word in the wrong context, because they told me that I don’t live in “the hood.” I will always remember these, because they are a part of me now, and they make me smile when I think about them.
That first year, from 1 to 10, what would you score it?
Five. The first six months were a 10, and the next sixth months were a 2, so I’ll say 5. At the very beginning, everything is really so awesome, and then you feel so very lonely. But the next year you start feeling at home more.
We actually had a training before in France for culture and moving abroad, so they told me that I would feel this way the second 6 months, but you don’t truly understand what happens. After the euphoria of the move, your feelings get lower.
What helped with that?
I registered for a meetup group for hiking, and there was one other foreigner. Then I did swing dancing. So they were American activities, but I kept meeting foreigners at the activities because it was easier to create a bond if you are both expats.
What score would you give living abroad now?
Nine. Now it is very calm. I have a lot of friends, both international and American. I have my husband now, so I have a family here. I think I’ve fully embraced all of the positive aspects of America: great job opportunities, a family, a big Texas house and yard that I never would have had in France, access to culture and tranquility, which I think can be hard to have in other countries. Dallas gives you a little of the country in the city.
What are the three top characteristics needed to be a successful, long-term expat?
Be open to the culture. Integrate with those who speak the language of the country you’re going to. Be positive about what will come.
What role did language play in the success of your moves?
Everything. Language can be the cause of NOT integrating into some groups. For example, some people don’t want to hang out with me for happy hour because I am different or they will have to make an effort with me. This is the first thing that people see in me that is different when I open my mouth and speak.
I’m not saying I should get rid of my accent. It brings me good things, too. Some people hear me and might not want to go into a deeper conversation because of it, and so I get more open-minded people becoming my friend. You never realize how your language defines you when you’re living in your own country. Getting help to make your accent clear to be understood is definitely helpful.
By: Micah Bellieu, CEO and Founder of Fluency Corp. Micha loves interviewing and learning about expats. She has also been one herself, moving to Spain to study and then Mexico for work. She knows how hard it is to learn a new culture and language and build a new life for yourself abroad. That’s why she and her international team of instructors are committed to language training so that expats can be successful in their new environment.