Isolation, Linguistically & Socially: the 4 Year Edition.
June 4, 2013 7:29 AM   Subscribe

This past late March marked four years of living in Quebec. It has also marked more or less four years of isolation. This needs to change. A myriad of snowflakes within.

I moved here from Atlanta, where I lived for a decade and where I always had friends to hang out with (drinks, movies, eating, art openings, drinks, etc.). While I loved living in Atlanta, I fell in love with a Canadian, married, and gladly uprooted my life to move to Canada. I knew it was going to be a challenge. I had never lived outside of the US; before my marriage, the furthest North I'd ever been was Winston-Salem, NC, and the furthest west was Denver, CO. I was aware my future husband lived in Quebec, and while I am not at all ignorant of Canada or its geography, I just never really thought about French-speaking Canada. I knew it existed, but really that's about it.

It's been hard-going. I took some French classes about six months after I moved. I got as far as Debutant I & II, passed the exam to move onto Intermediare I, but opted not to because I felt so far removed from the other people learning French (much younger than me, much more boisterous than me, and it made for a disruptive classroom environment). I understand French pretty well; I can read it, write it if necessary, but my spoken French is not great. Mostly because I am terribly shy and because there doesn't seem to be a social network I can plug myself into. At least, one that seems comfortable.

My husband and I have Anglophone friends, but unlike my previous social circle, most of them are married w/kids or ready to have kids, or live 30 minutes outside of town, or seemingly inclined to not be very social except on rare occasion. Whereas back home, I could count on texting friends for food/drink/going to see a band or art opening, I spend a lot of my time alone. Obviously, my husband has a proper job that requires him being in the office from 8:30 to 5, five days a week. I am in the process of trying to get my nascent vegan bakery/catering business off the ground. (But again: horrible horrible shyness.)

I don't stop very often to let myself think about how much time I spend alone, or how much I have spent alone in the past four years. If I do, then I just burst into tears. I feel bad by how much I keep babbling on and on when my husband gets home from work but I don't talk to anyone except our cats! When he gets home is sometimes the first time I get to interact with a human voice all day. (Aside from maybe going to the grocery store or something like that.) My social life is 90% lived through social media; I tweet A LOT, occasionally post on Facebook, but I am not kidding when I tell you that I will sometimes realize I haven't left the house in days. To make things worse, I feel so incredibly guilty. I know it's my fault that I am in this situation, that I have brought this on myself, but I don't feel confident to try and figure out to how make friends, how to practice my French, so I say nothing at all to my partner. I married an wonderfully kind and patient person, but I know he too gets exasperated with me.

So, Hive Mind, what do I do? How can I feel better and make real friends and not feel so terribly isolated?
posted by Kitteh to Health & Fitness (28 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The first step is to deal with the shyness. There are various types of therapy, coaching and counselling that will help.

I am very shy by nature but I don't give myself that choice. When I undertook the process of learning to act as an outgoing person would act, I had to accept that a certain amount of discomfort would ensue. My friends and family were there to support me, often to the point of doing basic tasks for me because I was exhausted from being sociable. At a certain point I developed some 'callousing' on my psyche and it became easier but acting extroverted will never be second nature to me.

If you can force yourself through the discomfort - 'eat bitterness' as they say in China - you will reap the rewards.
posted by Mistress at 7:41 AM on June 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I think it would be good to go where the people are. It would also be good if the going had a purpose and even was required by a (small) dependency on you. Like a small volunteer commitment. I like library reshelving, but basically anything that A) makes you leave the house on a schedule, and B) puts you into the hum of society will help.
P.S. Your Twitter wit belies your shyness; this is a skill that you already have that wants only a new venue. :)
posted by smuna at 7:45 AM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

You're not going to get "learn to cope" advice from me.

You need to take action to change the situation. Get your husband to understand that your life in Quebec is killing you slowly and suggest that you both make plans to move to a large English-speaking city where you can find more people and situations that are much more familiar to you and thus easier to integrate into.

You have given up almost everything in order to start a new life with him. While relationships don't always have to be quid-pro-quo, it is also not fair for it to be totally one sided like this.

Note that I basically gave up my life in the US just like you did, including two children by my previous wife, to live in Canada with my Canadian sweetie. The difference is that we're living in English-speaking Ontario in the walkable midtown of a modest city with lots of people with similar interests and activities everywhere I look. Making friends isn't easy for me, but on the other hand, there are no more barriers (language, cultural, proximity) here than there would be back in the states.

I'm sure your marriage is happy and you love your husband. But that also means he needs to see and understand how you are suffering. And instead of expecting you to change and become someone you're not, like a shade plant that got dropped in full sun, maybe instead you should consider being replanted.

Bonus to moving: you'll both have to make new friends, and can do so together. It would be a huge upset, but sometimes an upset is what is needed.

Good luck to you. (Sometimes I feel miserable about how much I've given up, too. But I've made friends through the art community, the theatre community, tech/maker community, and through sitting on municipal committees.)
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:49 AM on June 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

Have you considered Skype? Maybe a total total stranger could help you. It might also be very weird because nobody looks good on computer screen, and I'd be worrying about that the whole time. But it's worth a shot.

Also, for French classes, maybe there are courses aimed at immigrants or older people to cut down on the distractions?

Barring that, is there a coffee shop where you can manage to get yourself a drink you like, and maybe ask the person behind the counter if they know anyone who tutors in French? (Bonus points because just going in and ordering the same drink every day makes you familiar to the staff, which gives you a foot in the door when you do feel ready to broach the subject of your baked goods. They'll already know you, which puts you worlds ahead of a total stranger.)

A third idea is volunteering. I know, that sounds much more stressful, but if you think about your vocabulary, it probably matches pretty well with small kids? Maybe you can go be silly with kids for a few hours a week. You could also choose something that requires you to talk to even fewer people, like cleaning up a park or stuffing envelopes for a cause you believe in.
posted by bilabial at 7:49 AM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'd look into meetup groups or classes that focus on vegan cooking or baking--or, if that's too niche, more general cooking and baking groups. Socializing and practicing your language skills is probably easier if you're engaging in an activity you already have skills in and care about.

In a similar vein, depending on how far you are into building your business, it might be a good idea to look at joining an existing catering company in order to build a professional network. Alternatively, if your business is fairly well established, you could look for opportunities to connect with other small business owners in your area.

Also consider that your Anglophone friends may be able to introduce you to friends of theirs. Think about approaching a friend and saying, "I'd like to make more friends and improve my French skills. Can you think of anyone in your social circle I might click with?"
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:59 AM on June 4, 2013

I am in the process of trying to get my nascent vegan bakery/catering business off the ground. ... I will sometimes realize I haven't left the house in days.

Honestly, you need to either move or get a steady job, because it doesn't sound like you're making any progress on your vegan bakery/catering business. Maybe you should start joining a group of entrepreneurs in your town. This would give you a chance to get out more, interact with more people, and make more progress getting your business off the ground.
posted by deanc at 8:03 AM on June 4, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Therapy could definitely help. You've experienced a huge loss, and it sounds like you're dealing with a form of depression that's being covered by a lot of external stuff (understandably so). Your happy marriage is one of those things covering up all you've lost! It can be very difficult for "trailing spouses", as they're called in expatriate terminology, precisely because they're living an experience that many see as desirable (international, with the person they love, etc.) and yet that also entails a great loss (home, family, familiar cultural practices, language) that tends to get brushed aside.

As for French, it sounds like you gave it up more due to reasons that could be depression-related, as opposed to simply because you don't like the language. I point it out because I think that therapy could also help you re-discover your own, internal motivation for learning French. That in turn would be a boost towards finding new opportunities for socializing.

Everyone is different; some people can "transplant" more easily than others. You may indeed find that, deep down, you'll feel more comfortable in a different environment. Or you may find that the place you are now is one you're happy in. Therapy will really help you tease things out in detail. It will take time, but it's worth it.

I've been there and done this, the main difference being I already had French under my belt. But you will always feel out-of-sorts speaking a foreign language; the key is getting comfortable in your own skin (therapy!! :) ) to the point where "feeling like a dork" when you hear your own accent becomes "meh, whatever! Talking to people is fun!" You're building muscles. Remind yourself that kids from that country/culture have had their whole lives to build their strength. I still have to remind myself that I only have 13 in-country years of speaking French on me, when I occasionally mess up and feel silly. And I too am a serious introvert. I've lived on my own for nine years now, with two cats, in a foreign country that only recently became my second citizenship home. I dreamt of living an adventure and speaking many languages when I was a kid, so my current life fits a narrative I've always had. This is what therapy helps you do: tease out the underlying narrative of the life you're living/that you want to live, remind you of it, strengthen it, and identify extraneous things that you might be able to let go of.
posted by fraula at 8:07 AM on June 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

You should look into getting into more French classes. If the people really don't work for you because the groups aren't different, find some other kind of classes (art? classes at Bishop's? evening program at a Cegep?). If there's a group for small business owners, that might be helpful for you also. Volunteering can also help. You also might be able to find a "your English for my French" conversation partner or group on Kijiji or
posted by jeather at 8:12 AM on June 4, 2013

I see you're in Sherbrooke; Craigslist has a Sherbrooke page, and you can check out local activities (Community, Discussion, even Gigs); if the listing is in English you're sure to meet at least one other anglophone. Worth checking out at least!

Also, Sherbrooke isn't too painfully far from Montreal (an hour and a half drive), which has a massive and active anglo population where you can meet lots of people. Memail me if you want to come to town!
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 8:15 AM on June 4, 2013

I got as far as Debutant I & II, passed the exam to move onto Intermediare I, but opted not to because I felt so far removed from the other people learning French (much younger than me, much more boisterous than me, and it made for a disruptive classroom environment).

Can you clarify this a little more? I'm not understanding how your feeling far removed from the other students disrupted the class. How do someone's internal feelings disrupt the external classroom environment?

Also, as mentioned earlier, I'm not understanding how you can be starting a catering business and not talking to people for four days at a time. By definition, starting/planning a business requires a certain degree of extroversion, socializing and schmoozing a lot with other people (vendors, customers, etc.), which is what you say you want.

Everyone is different; some people can "transplant" more easily than others. You may indeed find that, deep down, you'll feel more comfortable in a different environment. Or you may find that the place you are now is one you're happy in. Therapy will really help you tease things out in detail.

This. Some people just don't do well anywhere outside their home environment; I cannot imagine living permanently outside of the Boston area, for exactly the same reasons you discuss...I can just talk to my buddies, and they're always there for me. The language barrier can make it even more difficult. Keep in mind that you may just not be wired for a foreign language: I took 5 years of French, got all A's with my slow-speaking, American teacher, and promptly went to Quebec for vacation and couldn't understand a damn thing anyone said.

So yeah, as others said, look deep, deep inside yourself and figure out what you are and are not capable of doing. But don't keep on trying to be someone that you're not.
posted by Melismata at 8:28 AM on June 4, 2013

Best answer: You need to be more physically active. Montrealers tend to regard the Eastern Townships as the place to be living if you want to be more connected to nature and doing active stuff. (Montreal's a great place but it IS an island and if you don't have a car you can honestly not leave the island for months or years at a time.)

You don't mention looking after a kid, so I assume time is on your hands. Why not look into volunteering and helping older people, or helping out at a school? This is also the beginning of gardening season, is there nowhere you could help with a garden? If you're shy, having a physical thing to do first and foremost, whether it's exercise, gardening, cooking for a collective kitchen, anything like that, means you can focus mostly on the physical activity and not worry too much about chatting, at least at first.

If you focus more on helping others you can forget about your own woes. And if people are happy you're helping out, they'll be glad to help you with your language skills. Win win. Or should I say, gagner-gagner ?
posted by zadcat at 8:44 AM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I got as far as Debutant I & II, passed the exam to move onto Intermediare I, but opted not to because I felt so far removed from the other people learning French (much younger than me, much more boisterous than me, and it made for a disruptive classroom environment).

Can you clarify this a little more? I'm not understanding how your feeling far removed from the other students disrupted the class. How do someone's internal feelings disrupt the external classroom environment?

I think it was the boisterousness of the younger members that was disruptive.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 8:46 AM on June 4, 2013

Best answer: I feel your pain, it's incredibly hard to learn French in Quebec. I think that maybe the Quebecois are not always super nice or patient with learners or people who don't speak French.

But I know many people who succeeded! (I'm not one of them, alas). The people who succeeded studied in French or worked in French. They did not study French, they studied Design, Chemistry, Photo, Biology, etc, in Cegep or University. Or they got any jobs they could get (dish-washers, baby-sitters, cooks, bakers). Some volunteered. Now they all speak fluent French.

The beginning was hard and a bit scary. But they never gave up and all of my friends are just regular laid-back folk, not crazy perseverant highly ambitious marathon-runner type-A people. They just had a couple of things I don't have (time and a pressing need) to pursue a full-time all-consuming activity. If you do have some time, that's the route I'd recommend and that I saw working. The French school thing doesn't seem too effective (I finished it, have the diploma, and here I am).
posted by TheGoodBlood at 8:48 AM on June 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You've likely already found this website, and I can't read a single word of French, but here is a list of upcoming events/meetups on Vegan Québec dot net. (Here is one page in English.)
It looks like there are regularly-held VQ potlucks, and attending one might be a nice way to start putting yourself out there -- people could taste your awesome baked goods, and vegans are (IMO) a resoundingly nice and accepting bunch of folks... especially when you are giving them delicious cookies! Make sure to bring business cards, of course.

I love going to vegan meetups because if all else fails, you can always talk about delicious food ("have you tried [restaurant/recipe/new product]?"/"how long have you been vegan?"/"are there any vegan baked goods you've been missing?").
It might be a way for you to start slowly dissolving your shyness by talking with people with whom you have something major in common -- as I'm sure you're aware by now, vegans tend to love to talk about veganism with other vegans. :)

If you can handle thrusting yourself into the spotlight for a spell, these meetups would likely be a great way to network for your fledgling business, too: You will be handed a group of prospective customers, employees, volunteers, etc. on a silver platter, in the most casual and friendly setting possible. Not only are they likely to help you with your French, but they can specifically help you with your veganism-related French, which I imagine would be a great boon to your hopeful future line of employ.

As far as language learning goes, if you're not already advanced beyond what these programs offer, something simple like Duolingo or Memrise might help you until you can handle the stress of a classroom environment -- I completely understand how realizing that your whole class is younger and much more outspoken than you can be deeply intimidating.
There are also resources like language exchanges where you can improve your spoken French by voice chatting with someone who is fluent in exchange for your assisting them with their spoken English.

I'd also recommend a spell in therapy to help deal with your feelings of cultural and social isolation, help to truly mourn your old life in America, and get a new perspective with which you can honestly observe and assess your new life in Canada with fresh eyes and see if it is still what you want from life.
Until then, use a program like Workrave to remind yourself to get up (and preferably out of the house) every so often. Even a nice half-hour walk per day will help get you back into the groove. Do you have the time or resources to adopt a dog? They're completely aces at getting people out of the house no matter what (says the woman who adopted a dog to help assuage her suffocating agoraphobia).

I'm the polar opposite of shy, and have lived within 30 miles of the hospital I was born for my whole life, but when I have a long weekend or vacation from work, I have just enough time to get into one of my "don't/can't leave the house" spells. Climbing out of the well can be ridiculously tough unless there is someone or something to shove or drag me out of my nest; I really empathize with your struggle and hope you can find a workable solution. Good luck!
posted by divined by radio at 8:49 AM on June 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Don't forget to listen to Radio-Canada a bit at home and ease into watching some TV in French too. This Quebec French guide blog might help with understanding some of the expressions you'll hear in Québécois but not in metropolitan French. He takes a lot of examples from TV dialogue so you can watch or listen to how it sounds.
posted by zadcat at 9:12 AM on June 4, 2013

Best answer: Oops, just realized that you're in the province of Québec, not the city. /dumb American

If you're amenable to socializing after consuming some liquid courage, it looks like someone just started a Vegan Drinks chapter in Sherbrooke.

Le Marche Vegetarien looks promising, either for actual work or networking. You might be able to consignment sell your baked goods there, or here -- a vegetarian restaurant in Sherbrooke called The Singing Goat.

And this might be a little too far from you to be useful, but you could make a day trip of it -- in Montreal, there is a rather large veg*n Meetup group, as well as a much larger vegetarian Meetup group.
posted by divined by radio at 9:27 AM on June 4, 2013

Response by poster: Actually, I am the one that started the Vegan Drinks chapter in Sherbrooke; it was not well attended. I am going to try it again later this summer. But it's very frustrating when you post flyers all over town and it's nearly crickets for actual attendance. (People did show up; they didn't understand the concept.)

Believe me, I am well aware of the vegetarian/vegan community in Sherbrooke. My husband is on the board of the local Vegetarian Association. I'm considering polling that community as to what they would like to do socially so I can at least meet people who share my dietary preferences. From what I can tell--and this is being ungracious, I know--they don't seem to do much of anything or want to do much of anything. I legitimately wonder if this is a cultural context that I don't understand. (The Montreal Vegan groups are super nice and I know them already. I just don't live in Montreal!)
posted by Kitteh at 9:33 AM on June 4, 2013

Thought of taking courses at Bishop's or the Université de Sherbrooke?
posted by zadcat at 11:33 AM on June 4, 2013

Best answer: I'm sorry, this must be pretty hard :( I really feel for you. I can speak French pretty well, but not perfectly, and I'm very shy too so I have real trouble making actual connections with people when the language we communicate in with each other is French - and I say this as an anglophone who was born and raised in Montreal. I would feel quite isolated in your situation.

You've gone from a large city where you speak the language of the majority, to a much smaller city where only 4% of the population speaks your language. That's a major culture shock.

A couple of people above suggested that you move to another city. What's keeping you in Sherbrooke? Have you considered a move to Montreal? I think it would be a lot easier to find the type of social group you're looking for here.
posted by ohmy at 12:03 PM on June 4, 2013

Response by poster: I meant to address this in the original body of post, but I was a bit too emotional to remember to write it.

The biggest reason we don't move is because my husband has a really good job that pays pretty well, we have a house that is paid off, as well as the car. We are debt-free. But with impending middle age and both of us having grown up less than wealthy, it's hard to pull up stakes with no new job or prospects to another Canadian city. It's a question of financial stability to move somewhere else at the moment.

Sorry! I will stop threadsitting.
posted by Kitteh at 12:09 PM on June 4, 2013

Best answer: What about a part-time job? Perhaps you could work a couple of days a week at a bakery or a vegan/natural foods store. I know you are working on starting a bakery of your own, but taking a job like this even for a few months will get you out of the house, get you exposure to a small business in your area, and give you contacts that could prove useful when you launch your bakery. And, if it's a business that overlaps with your interests, you're likely to have something in common with your coworkers and customers.
posted by pompelmo at 12:09 PM on June 4, 2013

Best answer: Apologies, I didn't mean to imply that you were unfamiliar with the veg*n resources in your own town -- I only suggested those places as locations where you would be most likely to have a chance getting your foot in the door when it comes to getting catering jobs, getting your business name/work ethic out there, offering menus, etc. Like, if people knew you were the person who made the awesome vegan baked goods for, say, Le Marche Vegetarien, they might want to hire you to make their birthday cake or whatever.
(I only know one person who successfully built her own vegan bakery catering company from scratch in a mid-sized and notoriously un-vegan-friendly town, and that was how she did it -- slowly expanding a base of local businesses for whom she would bake stuff on a weekly basis. It was super-tough every day and took ~3+ years for her to start getting recognition, but this year, she made the PPK Top 100!)

Additional apologies if any/all of the following is stuff you've already tried and passed on...

I'd recommend dropping a line to the Vegan Quebec folks to see if you could maybe get an event listing added or a small ad placed there, either for your business or even for your little branch of Vegan Drinks.
Could you let people mail order treats, either through your own website/online storefront or Etsy? What's your specialty? If you gather the nerve to do another Vegan Drinks outreach, could you make a bunch of cookies for people to try and bring a bunch of business cards (and advertise "Free [mega-amazing vegan sweet treats] by Kitteh!" or something)?

Worldwide Vegan Bake Sale is another great outreach program; they will publicize the hell out of your event no matter what. I have been organizing/running a one-woman bake sale for three years and highly recommend doing so if it wouldn't be too much for your shyness to handle -- I had ZERO contact with any friendly vegans nearby until I started doing those, and have met so many awesome people/volunteers/kindred spirits I would have never met if it weren't for the bake sale. It doesn't look like there have been any WWVBS in the entire province of Quebec, so you could blaze the trail!
posted by divined by radio at 1:44 PM on June 4, 2013

Best answer: I'd get involved in community activities. Perhaps you can be a Vegan pastry chef somewhere (do you have the permission to work in Canada?) Contact some restaurants and see if they'd like to offer your desserts on their menus.

I do recommend that you find someone to work with regarding your shyness. At this point it's impacting your life negatively and that needs to change.

Volunteer somewhere, you won't need perfect French for that.

You have options, you're just defining them withing a very narrow scope that's seen through shyness. Solve that problem and the others will follow.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:08 PM on June 4, 2013

I second taking a course at Bishop's. When I was there, there were quite a few mature students taking courses just for personal enrichment, and the class sizes are so small that it is super easy to meet people. If you don't mind side-stepping broken beer bottles, dodging the odd flaming couch or crossing the street to avoid a mob of drunken first years, there are actually some interesting cultural things going on in Lennoxville aimed at the general public.
posted by winterportage at 2:10 PM on June 4, 2013

Umm....Bishop's is very young and insular...maybe not the place to be if you don't like young and boisterous. Courses at Universite de Sherbrooke may be much calmer, albeit in French- is that where you were able to take the Intro courses? Maybe try that again.

Hmm, Sherbrooke is tough. The Eastern Townships are very nice but...yeah. Maybe try to get a job at a vegan bakery? Or volunteer at a yoga studio?

I am extremely financial conservative/non-risk-taking as well but I would definitely have a sit-down with your husband and discuss if maybe Sherbrooke is the best place to be.

Also...winter sports? Hiking, skiing? Maybe get a dog? These might all help you integrate into the community better. Or social events through your husband's work.
posted by bquarters at 2:22 PM on June 4, 2013

Best answer: Keep in mind that you may just not be wired for a foreign language: I took 5 years of French, got all A's with my slow-speaking, American teacher, and promptly went to Quebec for vacation and couldn't understand a damn thing anyone said.

Please don't let this comment discourage you! Learning a language in a classroom in a country where it is not spoken is totally different from being in the country where it is spoken. They are completely different skills. I think most people are definitely "wired" to speak a foreign language, and if you can understand and read French then you're fine. Extroverts tend to speak more fluently at first but introverts may make fewer mistakes when speaking because of thinking things through in their heads. (these little tidbits are from language theory classes I've taken as well as my own experience living for 9 years in a foreign country).

As a fellow introvert who learned Mandarin while living in China, I can tell you that making friends with people and speaking one-on-one helped me a lot. Also, talking to waiters, shopkeepers and the like helped me because (at least in China) these people often welcome diversions and are interested in talking to foreigners. That part may be very different in Canada....but either way, I think you can totally make progress with the language! Good luck.
posted by bearette at 8:29 PM on June 4, 2013

Response by poster: Update!

My partner was very troubled to learn that I had been keeping all these feels to myself. Right now I'm going through a list of bilingual therapists, looking into some volunteering. Moving is on the table for the future.
posted by Kitteh at 7:17 AM on June 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ganbatte, Kitteh!

We care about you, let us know how it goes.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:42 AM on June 11, 2013

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