Does Expat Living Influence Your Self Identity?

Barry Whittingham relates his own experience. Barry has been living in France since 1972 when he came as part of an official teacher exchange scheme. He has been in a serious relationship with his French partner, Renée, for the last 38 years.


My recent reading of Louise Wiles’ blog How Has Expat Living Impacted on Your Sense of Who You Are?’ at recalled to mind the words of my old university tutor (himself a former French schoolmaster) who often used to say that his ability to speak a foreign language fluently had enabled him to lead two distinct lives. In my own case, I would go even further and say that 41 years of uninterrupted expat living in France, has transformed me into two almost distinct people: for I don’t perceive the French version of Barry Whittingham as being quite the same as the English one – so much so that it gave me the idea of writing my book ‘François Théodore Thistlethwaite’s FRENGLISH THOUGHTS’ which looks at the French and English – especially in their everyday lives – through the eyes of a split-identity ‘Frenglishman’, each of whose extremes can take control of the identity of the whole. This same article prompted me to reflect on some of the reasons which might go to explain why a long-standing expat Brit like me doesn’t have the same perception of himself in France as he does in England.

I think the main explanation can be found in the fact that the initial challenge I set myself on settling in France was to immerse myself so totally in the everyday life, culture and language of the country as to become as much of a native as I possibly could. One of the things this meant was having the least possible contact with my countrymen. But don’t get me wrong. This in no way stemmed from a desire to deny my English origins (which I have always been proud of, and which I’ve always found to be an advantage in France), but from what might be called a sense of adventure which filled me with an irresistible urge to give myself another dimension by becoming part of a culture perceived as being excitingly different to the one I knew, and for which I had felt a constant attraction from the age of 11 when I had begun learning the language at school. In addition, the year I spent at a French university as part of my studies in French Language and Literature had left me with a feeling of intense dissatisfaction. For a number of reasons (see my blog ‘Some Lost Illusions’ at, the original aim of making spectacular progress in spoken French had fallen far short of my expectations, and had left me with the frustrating feeling of having let a golden opportunity slip by. And I had promised myself that if ever a second chance were ever to come my way I would do all in my power to succeed. And a second chance did present itself when my application to spend a year as an exchange teacher in France was accepted.

On reflection, however, perhaps the word ‘adventure’ is not entirely appropriate. I know it has connotations of courage and audacity, but I can sincerely say, without false modesty, that I don’t think these notions are really applicable to my case. For I’ve always thought that courage should have a sustained, consistent form, and involve fighting mentally against the permanent temptation to give in to adversity rather than meeting the specific, short-term, physical challenge of climbing a snow-topped summit, or hacking your way through a steamy jungle. And since my freely-consented choice to go and live in a foreign country was the result of a desire so overwhelmingly invasive that I couldn’t resist, real courage for me would have meant making the constant effort to endure what I considered to be barely tolerable – the conventional, routine English schoolteacher’s life I was leading, and which I would probably continue leading, in one way or another, for the rest of my working days.

The concept you have of your inner self is, of course, determined to a great extent by the environment in which you evolve, and your perception of the image others have of you. In this respect, language – that verbal garment we are obliged to don in our self presentation to others – plays, I think, the most important part. For nothing says more about you than the way you express yourself. Even though I did set myself the perfectionist’s task of speaking the language like a Frenchman, I think that, in spite of my best efforts to reach it, in the absolute my goal was an unattainable. For though I’m frequently told I could almost (it’s the little words which hurt the most) be taken for a French native speaker, I’m convinced that, with the exception of the highly gifted, speaking a foreign language without a trace of accent requires you to live in a bi-lingual environment from your very earliest years. Since I began learning French at the relatively advanced age of 11 and, in addition, was subjected to old-school, translation methods more adapted to the teaching of a dead language than a living, spoken one, I’ve never been quite able to rid myself of an accent which, though I’m told is ever so slight, is enough to make me frustratingly aware that I never have, and never will completely fulfill my initial aim. For, despite the fact that it doesn’t readily betray my English origins, my accent frequently prompts strangers to politely enquire whether I’m Swiss or Belgian. And only the other day someone even asked me if I was French Canadian!  So in my experience, once you’ve been tagged as English (even though for me this has always been an advantage), you’re never really allowed to forget it.

And I can’t help thinking that, when conversation goes beyond the repetitious banalities of everyday life, what is expressed by me in French could be better expressed in English, and I’ve finally had to resign myself to the reality of the fact that the former is a language I have gradually acquired. As a result, it requires a greater effort of concentration and attention, not only in regard to what you yourself are attempting to express, but to what your conversational partners are saying. For in discussions of a more cerebral nature thoughts get cluttered with questions like ‘Is what I’m going to say grammatically correct?’ ‘Was that the right word I used?’ ‘Is that noun masculine or feminine?’ ‘Did I pronounce it correctly?’ ‘Did I really understand all he said?’ And you frequently have to rely on the judgement of the native speaker with regard to the standard of your own linguistic efforts. When I’m speaking English, on the other hand, since I myself am able to judge the quality of my language, my mind is freed of all these niggling linguistic doubts; language and ideas flow much nearer together so that I can talk, and at the same time think ahead about what I want to communicate. So speaking an acquired language for lengthy periods of time can get a little suffocating, and going back to England now and again – even if it’s only for a week – gives me the opportunity not only of seeing my family (I’ve long since lost all contact with my English friends), but re-finding my roots. And somewhere in my own eyes this refreshing breathe of native air resuscitates the stifled Englishman in me.


Barry A. Whittingham is the author of François Théodore Thistlethwaite’s FRENGLISH THOUGHTS. For more details please consult his blog and websites at and

The Hardest Part of Learning French

French Verb Conjugation Can Be Tricky

French verb conjugation

English is easy when it comes to verb conjugation. There’s hardly anything that changes. So oftentimes for English speakers, the hardest part of learning French is memorizing how to conjugate verbs. With nouns, you have to memorize one thing basically for each English word. But then with verbs you have to basically memorize 6 different forms for each! For a beginner, this can be daunting.

In the early days of studying French you’ll be needing to check your verb conjugation frequently. It will be extremely useful to have a book like this:

This is the book I used the first 3 years or so that I was learning French. It was invaluable to me. When working on assignments for French class I always had it with me. This book is worth its weight in gold if you’re serious about getting better at French and learning the French verb conjugations. And it will still prove useful even after you become better at French. I’m fluent, but when I’m writing sometimes I still have a doubt about the spelling or conjugation of a verb for some of the more complicated tenses, like Futur antérieur for instance. When that happens I still reach for my well worn copy of 501 French Verbs.

More French Verb Conjugation Study Tips

There are more simple methods one can use to speed up the memorization process.

One tried and true method is flashcards. If you’re trying to learn a new or irregular verb, try writing the person on one side and the conjugated verb on the other. Do this for each tense you’re trying to learn, such as present, passé composé, l’imparfait, futur simple, conditionnel, or subjonctif.

It will also help considerably to take the time to write a sentence for each conjugated form and then repeat it to yourself out loud. You need to train your ear to get used to hearing the correct conjugated verb form. This way you’ll make fewer conjugation errors when you’re speaking, because you’ll be used to saying and hearing the correct form. This is especially true when trying to learn the subjonctif. Repeat out-loud to yourself over and over “que je fasse, que j’aille, que je sois, etc” That way using the subjonctif will become automatic. When you hear yourself saying “que je” you will remember to complete the sentence with the subjontif form of the verb.

The final tip about learning French verb conjugation is simply to not sweat it too much. It can really appear like an impossible task in the beginning. But know this: you will make mistakes, but most of the time it won’t matter. People will understand you anyway. And the more time you spend speaking with French people, the better you’ll become. The correct conjugations will get imprinted in your brain because you’ve heard other people say it that way so many times. Conjugating verbs while speaking will become second nature and you won’t even think about it anymore.

To help you get to that point, think of checking out some of these resources:

Why is Paris the Capital of France?

Why is Paris the Capital of France

Paris was not always the Capital of France

Why is Paris the Capital of France? Paris was not always the important city that it is today or has been for the last few hundred years.

The place where Paris currently sits first began to be settled around 4200BC. Later, around 250BC the area around the Seine was occupied and settled by Celtic Senones.

Paris did not have very much importance at all under the Gallo-Romans. At this time the city existed under a different name. Paris was called “Lutetia” or “Lutèce”. The capital of France at the time known as Gaul was the city of Lyon.

After the fall of Rome and the Germanic invasions, Paris was largely abandoned for a time. It abandoned the name Lutetia and was once again known as Paris.

Paris then became a capital under Clovis, King of the Franks. He made the city the capital of the territories he controlled. The city was sacked and ransomed and suffered greatly from plagues and general strife. Paris lost and gained its status as capital of France multiple times, at the hands of the English and others.

The city remained important due to its strategic location. It is in the middle of a rich agricultural region and several trade routes. It is also located around the banks of the Seine River.

In 1528 King Francis the First made Paris once again capital. From this time on, the seat of power generally stayed either in Paris or Versailles which is not too far away.

That’s not to say that more strife and temporary changes weren’t in store. The French revolution would overthrow the powerful in Paris. Later, during World War 2 , Nazi Germany moved the capital of France from Paris to Vichy during the duration of their reign of control in France. The puppet French government was located in Vichy in the Allier Department in the Auvergne Region. Paris was liberated in August of 1944 and once again became capital.

Want to Know More about the History of Paris? Check out these books:

Where Does the French President Live and Work?

Where does the French President live and work?

The President of France works in L’Elysée

Everyone knows that the President of the United States lives and works in the Whitehouse, but where does the French President live and work? The answer is l’Elysée.

L’Elysée has been expanded and transformed several times. For example, a reception room or Party Hall (salle des fêtes) was added and inaugurated for the Universal Exposition of 1889.

At the beginning of the 18th century, Louis Henri de La Tour d’Auvergne, the Count of Evreux, who was very rich indeed, had a magnificent residence constructed for himself in a neighborhood of Paris that was relatively lightly occupied in the 8th arrondissement. He hired the architect Armand-Claude Mollet. At the end of the 18th century this splendid residence started to take on the name of l’Elysée because it was situation not too far away from the famous avenue called the Champs-Elysée.

Towards the middle of the 19th century, under the 2nd French Republic, the building was given to the President of the French Republic. It would have been inconceivable at the time for the head of State in France to take up residence in any of the palaces of the former Kings of France! Since, after all  France was trying to break away from its history of authoritarian regimes. It wouldn’t be appropriate for the new French leader to live like one of the French kings of Old.

French President

Ever since the 2nd Republic all of the French presidents have had their offices in l’Elysée. The daily work of running France takes place within the storied halls of l’Elysée. This is where he meets with all of his various ministers for important meetings and the making of important decisions concerning the government of France.

When the French President accepts guests such as foreign dignateries and foreign heads of state they stay at l’Elysée.

The President of France is also free to live in l’Elysée if he chooses. The current socialist President of France Francois Hollande lives and works in l’Elysée. As has his predecessors Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac, and others.

 Learn More About the Presidents of France:

Why is France Nicknamed The Hexagon?

France is shaped like a Hexagon

France Nicknamed the Hexagon

At some point during my first year in France I was watching the news when I became very confused. The news anchor was referring to something as “l’hexagone.” Up until that point, I had been completely unaware that France was nicknamed the Hexagon. Despite being quite skilled in shapes when I was elementary school, I did not immediately make the connection between France and a hexagon. Yet, when I looked again, I saw that indeed the country has six sides of roughly equal distance.

Four of its sides form borders with Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, and Germany, and the other two consisting of coasts.

Hexagon France's Six Sides

There is practically the same distance from Dunkerque in the north to Perpignan in the south, as from Brest in the west to Strasbourg in the east (940km and 910km respectively).

So you’ve got Italy which looks like a boot, the state of Oklahoma that looks like a cooking pot, and France that looks like a hexagon.

I found it pretty odd at first (and honestly I still do find it a bit odd) but you’ll routinely hear news anchors and other people referring to the country not as “France” but as “L’Hegagone.” The Hexagone is a well established nickname for France and “L’Hexagone” is interchangeable with the real name of the country.

If you decide to use the nickname don’t worry. Everyone will know what you’re talking about if you do.

There’s even a song by Renaud called “LHexagone.” The song is actually a social commentary and criticism of the French government and even of the French people. But it’s a catchy tune regardless of whether or not you agree with the political opinions expressed within. Have a listen:

Have you heard anybody refer to France by the nickname of the Hexagon? Leave a note in the comments.