The French really do seem to have a word for everything, don’t they? In fact, the French language is full of idioms and words which cannot quite be translated. Dépaysement is one of those and yet, the feeling behind it is universal.
Those who speak French know how hard it is to explain what dépaysement means to an English speaker. It can be used to describe anything from a change of scenery to culture shock. It also happens to be deeply rooted in the idea of land, pays. And it just happens to be a feeling many of us privileged millennials know all too well, or will get to experience at some point in our lives.
As a matter of fact, more and more of us are looking to uproot our lives and start afresh somewhere new. Our current generation is so privileged to be able to call it quits and move halfway across the world, but what is that really like?
Well, I first packed my bags at the age of 19. After being born and raised in the South of France, I decided that I wanted to experience something new. A few months later, I was off to study in Exeter, Devon. I could sort of speak English, although I would make sure to keep my mouth shut whenever in the presence of a native speaker, I knew the country fairly well and after all, home was only a short flight away. And yet, the dépaysement hit my teenage self hard.
University in the UK is a whole different experience compared to its French counterpart. It’s as much of a social event as it is educational. People were using words I had never once seen in my textbooks, they spoke with accents I never even knew existed and the culture I once thought would be familiar simply wasn’t.
And yet, little by little, I watched myself getting more and more comfortable with this new normal, challenging myself to do things so outside of my comfort zone, I would have never even considered doing it. It made me grow curious of others and their cultures. I made friends from all over the world and swore to visit them one day. And for the most part, I did.
Fast forward a few years and here I am, thinking about doing it all over again, like many of us expats do. You start to miss the thrill of it all, always being on your toes, discovering something new on every street corner and trying to make the few words you know stretch enough to have small conversations with the locals.
So you start to look at visa requirements, flights and places to live. You download some kind of language-learning podcast, buy a few vocabulary books that will probably remain untouched until you’re on your way there and it gives you enough confidence to keep going. Suddenly, the life that felt so mundane starts to feel exciting again. You take it all in as in it will be the last time you get to experience this version of normal. In a way, it is. And then the day comes when your papers are in order and you do it all over again.
This is how I ended in Seoul, South Korea, with enough knowledge of the language to order myself an iced coffee and a roof over my head for the next week or so. But little by little, you start to grasp the language, get familiar with your new city, its noises, its smells, the ladies who sell fresh produce outside your building, the man working in your local coffee shop. You also get overwhelmed and scared and maybe, just maybe, even cry a little. But slowly but surely, you start putting yourself out there.
You get a job. You meet new people, locals and expats alike. You share your experiences and culture over one too many bottles of soju. You say yes to everything and it takes you a few months before you realise that you don’t actually need to. You live here now. This is your new normal. You learn to tune out the people back home who tell you you lack direction in life. You laugh at the things you once thought you’d be doing by now and realise that actually, everything worked out exactly how it was supposed to be
And then one day, you wake up and think about all the people you’ve met, the places you’ve been and realise that each and every one of them taught you something and made you into who you are today – a better version of yourself.