International Man: Many of our readers are interested in knowing how they can earn an income from abroad. You've obviously found a way to do that as a freelance writer. Are there any insights you could offer to our readers?
Barbara Diggs: I think it takes more effort to get started as a freelancer from abroad, especially if you want to break into print magazines in your home country, but it definitely can be done. It's easier now than when I first started thanks to the increase in online magazines and websites. Also, as an expat you're well-positioned to break into travel writing.
The most important piece of advice I could offer (if you want to be a freelancer) is to treat your writing as a business. Read all you can about the business of freelancing, protect your writing time, talk to other freelancers, and understand that to earn a real income you have to be a sales and marketing person as much as a writer.
My second most important piece of advice is: don't work for pennies unless you believe the project can significantly boost your career in some way. People think they can make money off the backs of writers all the time without properly compensating them for their time. Don't fall into the trap of thinking your talents are worth less than they are. Well-paying writer jobs exist – you just have to put in the hard work to find them.
IM: Paris has a history of attracting American expats (e.g. Hemmingway, Stein, etc. in the early 20th century)… Do you get the impression that is still the case today?
BD: Paris is stuffed with American expats! According to the U.S. consulate's figures from 2003, there are about 50,000 of us in Paris and 165,000 in France! Really, you find Americans everywhere you turn. Just yesterday, I was at a farmer's market in a small out-of-the-way town in Burgundy and wandered into a tiny art gallery. Turned out the owner was from Boston but had lived in the town for 20 years.
I know many (American) lawyers, but there are also tons of entrepreneurs, artists, teachers, corporate types, accountants and the NGO crowd.
IM: That's interesting… Makes me remember of a few years ago when I was in the “Loire” valley of France. We stayed in a castle for a couple of nights and, sure enough, the owner was a woman from New York. What has been the most difficult (and best) thing about living abroad so far?
BD: The most difficult thing has been adjusting to French culture. Life here is just so different. It takes a long time to learn the “rules for living,” working and getting things done – this can be very frustrating. Also, just because you've learned some of the rules doesn't mean you'll agree with them or like them.
IM: Can you give us some examples of these rules?
BD: Sure. Take customer service, for example. In the U.S., when there's a problem with a purchase or service, if you complain, management will attempt to make you happy because they value your business. It's not like that here. As a customer, if you're dissatisfied with something, saying, “I'll take my business elsewhere!” doesn't work at all. I mean, at all. Instead, you have to be placating to the people whom you feel wronged you. You have to sweet talk them into getting them to help you. For an American, that's just crazy. But that's how it works here, so that's what you learn to do. It's not easy because it goes against everything you've been taught is right!
But the most difficult thing can also be the best the thing. When French culture isn't annoying, it's awesome. I feel privileged to get an inside view of another culture in this way. I also love how easy it is to visit other countries in Europe. You can just skip over to Switzerland or Italy for a weekend, no problem.
IM: What – if anything – do you miss from back home?
BD: I miss my family and friends, of course. I also miss some American foods and restaurants. I miss New York City. I also miss living in a country where I understand the societal codes. Back home, I don't have to worry about whether I've offended someone by slicing a piece of cheese the wrong way!
IM: What did your family/friends think when you told them you were packing up and moving overseas?
BD: They were sad but pleased for me. They think it's exciting to know someone who lives in Paris and have a place to visit. My mother wasn't too happy at first, it's true. But now she comes over once or twice a year and navigates the town like a pro!
IM: One of your blogs deals with “exploring Paris with kids under 12“… how has your family adapted to living there? How is the school system?
BD: My children were born here so there's been no adaptation for them – Paris is home.
The public school system in Paris is great in certain regards; not so great in others. The French do not encourage creativity, but usually teach through negative reinforcement and rote memorization. In my opinion, French-educated kids graduate knowing everything they need to know and then some, but are unlikely to be good at thinking “outside the box,” and always fear making a mistake. (And it's not just my opinion – Time and The Economist both featured articles on these aspects of the French school system.)
That said, there are excellent private and alternative schools in Paris. Plus, I know many expats who are fully satisfied with the French public school system. My kids are in a bilingual Montessori school that I absolutely love.
IM: What advice would you give to anyone considering making a move abroad?
BD: Talk to expats in your target country before leaving. Read expat blogs and ask as many questions as possible to get a real look at life in that country. Everyone has different opinions, of course, so it's good to get a range. I would also recommend getting on Twitter and connecting with expats in your target country that way. Be diligent enough about it and you'll have a little community waiting for you upon your arrival.
Also, I strongly encourage anyone who has ever longed to live abroad (or become a writer) to figure out how to make it happen. It is possible.
IM: Where can people go to find out more about you and your site(s)?
BD: My business site is www.barbaradiggs.com. There you'll find my biography, samples of my work and links to my other blogs, theexpatfreelancer.blogspot.com (where I write about the freelance writing life) and lepetitparisguide.com (my guide to Paris for kids under age 12).
IM: Thank you Barbara.
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