episode 1: beginnings
When I put out the call to the twitterverse asking what brought future and past expats to France, my Finnish friend Jaana and I got to chatting. As the tweeting got more and more involved, we quickly took the conversation to email, and she was excited to share her story with me.
I asked her, “so why did you decide to move to France? What was it that drew you here?”
Jaana: I’ve always wanted to live in France. My best friend from childhood lived in France when she was a kid so I guess that sparked my interest. Then I visited Paris (and Disney) in 1998 while on a language course in England and instantly fell in love. Since I already studied French at that point I thought it would be an amazing experience to work for Disney!
She explained how she found herself living in France, and how all her adventures unfolded:
Jaana: I applied for a job at Disneyland Paris through the government-based employment site in November 2002. They were asking for fluent English and knowledge of French. The motivation letter needed to be written in either of those languages. I decided to do it in French and took a good amount of time to make it as perfect as possible.
At that point I had studied French for 5 years in elementary and upper secondary school and had always got good grades, so of course I thought I was nearly fluent in French.
To my big surprise I was invited to the interview and I was SO excited! A dream was about to come true and I was one step closer to living in France.
The day of interview came, and I was so nervous – I had been reading French magazines and my old school books in order to prepare. The day consisted of two parts: an introduction hour and the actual interviews. The introduction was in English and they showed us a video about Disneyland Resort Paris (DLRP) and then asked a few questions. It was fun, we got small prizes for correct answers and everyone SO excited. After that it was time for the real stuff.
The interview was in French and the first question was: “What job would you like to have?” Then it happened – my mind just went blank. All I could say was “Je veux…”, then nothing. My mind was racing! “Should I wait if the French would come back or would it be better to continue in English?” Being silent for too long didn’t seem smart so I switched to English.
The following questions were in English, and I do remember the interviewer asking if I had written the motivation letter myself, which I had. He said he sees I clearly know French but I was perhaps too nervous. I must have nodded frantically, and he said that based on the interview he couldn’t offer me a job in a shop or on an attraction as both jobs required an extremely good level of French. My heart sank and I felt my dream slipping away.
“However,” he said, “I would have a job as a employee restauration for breakfast in one of our hotels. Would you be interested in that?” Was I?! Of course!! I signed the papers and there I was: a Disney cast member with a permanent contract. And the funny part. The only thing I said in French was “je veux”.
Less than month and a half later I was in France with all my belongings with me. I was full of excitement and energy and I felt like I could do anything! I went to the desk at the casting centre and introduced myself, naturally in French. The lady asked me something and for all I know she could’ve been speaking Yiddish. I didn’t understand a word. It was like I’d never even studied French or heard it in my entire life. She repeated the same thing for few times before changing into English.
In the residence I met an English girl, Anna, who’d spend a year studying in Dijon and was nearly fluent in French. She helped me SO much, and without her, I’d have been lost as they explained all the rules. As we had the same starting date, all our introduction days and trainings were together, and in those first days I made some more friends in addition to the couple of Finnish girls I had met in the interview in Finland.
Work was hard. I had to get up every morning at 5am. I was exhausted from having to concentrate all day to even understand what I was asked to do. I didn’t know kitchen/restaurant vocabulary and was learning new words each day. My collagues tried to involve me into conversations but it took me ages to figure out how to say what I thought. Often by the time I knew what to say, the conversation had already carried on.
In Finland I was an opinionated and outspoken person, in France people thought I was shy and quiet. In 2003 I didn’t have a computer with me and any kind of internet access was fairly hard to find. So the only way I could contact home was by using the telephones in our residence.
It was so, so hard. For the first 2.5 months I cried for the first 15-20 mins every single time I spoke with my family. I missed them but I also missed life being easy. I had a few friends but they had different jobs than I did and most of the time they were working when I wasn’t. It took me 3 months to even gather the courage to take the RER to Paris because I didn’t want to feel even more alone and “stranded”. Most of my downtime consisted of taking naps, making dinner, doing grocery shopping, reading a book or calling home.
On top of that for the first months I had the roommate from hell. I know it sounds funny but at the time it was anything but. She’d been working in DLRP for about a year and she’d been living in the same studio for that entire time, and she’d had the place to herself for a long time. She worked at the reception in one of the hotels and she was so inconsiderate. She came home at 11 pm, turned all the lights on and started cooking while I tried to sleep, and all in a studio of less than 10 m2. In the mornings, if she was sleeping, I got up as quietly as possible, turned on only the bathroom light and ate my breakfast quietly by my bed, but sadly, this was not enough for her. She huffed and puffed and turned in her bed, making it very clear I was interrupting her sleep. Luckily she had a boyfriend who had his own place and they spent a lot of time there. The last resort was one day when I had just gotten out of the shower and they came to our apartment. I asked them to wait two minutes in the hall so I could get dressed but they refused to do that so I had to take my clothes and get dressed in the bathroom. After that I went to the reception of our residence and demanded to be moved. I knew a Finnish girl whose roommate had to leave earlier than planned so after an extremely intense exchange they grudgingly allowed me to move.
After my move things got gradually better. My job changed from cleaning the tables to hostessing, I made more friends and even started to go out. I visited Paris both with friends and by myself. I actually had FUN.
The problem was that all my friends were on short term contracts and were leaving either in August or in September. The idea of starting the friend-making process all over again from scratch (and with the French being as challenging as it was) seemed like too much work. Besides, I had only planned to stay a year and leaving after 6 months didn’t seem like giving up. After all, I had gone through so much already. If I had had another job with different shifts and even one friend staying beyond summer, I might have stayed too, but the idea of working only breakfast shifts and spending virtually all my time off by myself wasn’t all that tempting.
Despite leaving earlier than I intended, I took away a lot of good things from that experience, and I returned to work in Disney in 2006 and 2008. My French improved in leaps and bounds that first time and so did my self-confidence.
I know I can deal with anything life throws at me, even if it is in a foreign country and speaking a different language. I have often wondered how my experience would have been if I had concentrated on studying French more before I went and during my first months there. Who knows? But life leads us in such funny directions and I’m so, so happy with my life now that I just can’t regret how things have gone.
I asked her how her life has changed because of her experience in France.
It was my first time away from home so all the challenges I faced made me a much stronger person. I gained so much self-confidence and now I know I can survive pretty much anything life throws at me. Of course the fluency in French is all thanks to my time spent in France and I made loads of friends with whom I still keep in touch.
I couldn’t resist asking if she’d recommend the same Disney experience to others.
YES! It was really easy way (for me) to move to France: you have a job, housing is provided, opening a bank account requires just one visit to the bank and the working conditions are good (salaries come on time, you don’t have to work overtime, etc). Not to mention the amazing perks: you get to visit Disney for FREE as much as you like. With that said, it’s not all fun and games and having too high expectations can lead to disapointments. The shifts can be at stupid o’clock, you rarely have days off on weekends and, sadly, not everyone’s work ethic is the best as for most people the job is minimum wage. But as an experience and as a way of trying to live in France it’s one of the best I can come up with!
You can follow Jaana on twitter (although you’ll have to ask first!).