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4 Things I Learned During my Five-Month French “Exile” (Part I)

My Canadian passport with entry and exit stamps
My Canadian passport with entry and exit stamps

You (probably) already know my 2021 COVID story. We flew to Brazil in December 2020, Feng and Mark came back to Canada in January 2021 and I should have met them in Ottawa a few weeks later. By the time I reached Brazil’s Nordeste in February, Canada had implemented a $2,000 quarantine-hotel system and shortly after, Air Canada cancelled pretty much all flights and routes. There was no plan B to fly to Canada from Latin America, so I extended my visa and stayed in Brazil. I ended up flying to France in March. It was going to be a one- or two-week “stopover” to find a flight to Canada, except Ontario went into full lockdown mode. So I got vaccinated in April in France and waited for travel restrictions, namely the quarantine-hotel system, to be lifted—eventually they were, on July 7. I flew to Canada to pick up Mark and offer him a “normal” summer in France. We both came back to Canada late August.

I had never thought I’d end up staying in France for five months, the first time since 2002 I was there this long.

And just in case you were wondering, I don’t regret a thing. This was our 2021 pandemic experience—I mean, we all have weird stories full of unexpected crisis and last-minute decisions that may or may not save the situation or your sanity.

In a way, I lived the dream of many immigrants who sometimes wonder how life is “at home” these days and how they would fare if they were to go back for more than just holidays.

And I did learn a thing or two from this experience…

You can just waltz in and resume your former life

You may still be an American, an Indian or a French citizen by birth but if you’re no longer a resident, don’t expect easy access to benefits and services locals enjoy. You’d probably be able to reestablish your rights if you were moving back for good, but things are trickier if you’re “only” staying for a few months.

Take my French social insurance number, for example. Like any French teen, when I was 18 I was issued a “numéro de sécu” and my own “Carte vitale” (health card) to gain access to the national healthcare system. The thing is, I’ve been somewhere in the world but not in France from the age of 18, so I’ve never used my own benefits as an adult and I have no idea where my card and number are.

It was a bit of a problem this year because technically, I needed to provide my “numéro de sécu” to get vaccinated. I tried to “guess” my own number—first digit is “1” for men, “2” for women, the next two digits are your year of birth, then month of birth, the “département” where you were born, etc. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. So I called the sécurité sociale services and explained my situation. They were able to find me in the system but my number is “dormant” and reactivating it takes months, plus a commitment to reestablish residency in France. And obviously they couldn’t tell me the number over the phone, not even mail it.

In the end, an exception was officially made for French citizens abroad and I was able to get vaccinated easily without my numéro de sécu.

Keeping ties to your home country pays off

I let most of my French IDs expire in my twenties because I was too busy getting brand-new Canadian driver’s licence, passport, etc. Besides, renewing them at the local consulate or embassy is a pain in the butt.

I smartened up when Mark was born. Over the years, I got a livret de famille, renewed my carte d’identité and my passport, and I even reopened a bank account in France.

Just as well—I couldn’t have boarded the São Paulo-Paris flight without my French passport, and having a French bank account made life so much easier this year.

If you can keep a few ties to your home country—valid IDs, credit cards, bank account, etc.—, just do it. You never know, it may come in handy.

Making new friends is harder than it seems

I’m pretty sociable, yet I didn’t hang out with anyone but relatives when I was in France. Meeting new people when you’re an adult isn’t as easy at it seems—I mean, I can’t just go on the swing set at the park and ask anyone playing around if they want to be my friend for the afternoon.

I met most of my Canadian friends at work, at the gym and even through this blog. When you’re working from home and most gathering places are closed, you just don’t get to be in settings where you can meet and get to know people. Also, it takes time to make friends. Several acquaintances could have become good friends if I had stayed a few more months, but I didn’t get the chance to move to that stage.

You don’t stop being a partner or a parent just because you’re physically away from your loved ones

Of course, I missed Feng and Mark—I wanted to hug them so badly it was driving me crazy. But we chatted every night on Skype, plus Feng and I wrote to each other every day. I was involved in their life, thy were involved in mine. I was helping Mark with homework, Feng knew the latest French family drama, we chatted about work, life, everything.

In a way, this long-distance relationship experience brought Feng and I closer. We had the chance to talk about things we don’t usually talk about at home, when life gets in the way. The time we spent together, even if it was online, was quality time.

Wait… I think I learned a few other things—to be continued!

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