SOS Help: France's English-speaking crisis line

SOS Help: France's English-speaking crisis line

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France's SOS helpline is ready to listen to any of your emergency problems, from emotional breakdowns to feeling homesick or isolated, or just to ask about your mobile bill.

Sometimes the crisis is a full-blown emotional breakdown. Sometimes it's figuring out the gas bill. And sometimes it's a homesick holiday. If you're living in France, the place they call the 'Listening Post' is ready to hear it all.

You can call SOS Help France's English-speaking crisis line on 01 46 21 46 46, 3–11pm any day of the year. If the line is busy, make sure you call back.

The trained 'listeners' at SOS Help don't want you to wait until you're on the brink to call them. On the other hand, if you get to the brink, they are there to catch you — if you want to be caught.

"We deal with everything from if you lost your cat to you can't understand the tax forms you just received from the mairie to where to get orange juice at 11pm on a Saturday in Paris," says the operation's outgoing chairperson Alex, who gives no last name, even to a reporter, as he and all his fellow 'listeners' operate under strict anonymity.

Strictly anonymous

SOS Help is an English-language 'crisis line' operating out of an undisclosed Paris location for the past 30 years; a non-profit association, it's run completely by volunteers who keep their names a secret but who provide a sympathetic ear for 300 to 400 calls a month.

The calls run the gamut from the banal — how to find a plumber or a hospital with English-speaking staff — to full-blown suicide calls.

The listeners are there to be helpful for practical problems, like finding that plumber or figuring out the gas bill, but they hasten to explain they are not the English-speaking A-Z Listings.

Where you don't have to work hard to communicate

Most of the calls require only one technique: to listen, with empathy, and, hopefully, in the end to help the caller solve their own problem.

"Here you don't get treated as an expat or as a foreigner or as a Columbian living in Paris," says Alex. "We're simply someplace to call where you don't have to work hard to communicate."

It's the only such helpline in France and they get calls from all over the country, even from all over Europe, and even from French people who may feel more comfortable talking about some topics to a non-French person.

"We are there to listen in a non-judgmental and non-directive way. We can't really do a thing besides listening and without tipping over into advice-giving,' says Alex. "What we don't get is people playing about calling just to practice their English."

Practical, empathetic, confidential

The hotline offers only two things: an English-speaker who will listen and absolute guaranteed confidentiality. The service won't — can't, in fact — trace your phone number and even suicide callers must ask the hotline listener at the other end to call police or SAMU before they'll do so.

The operation is volunteer-run but takes its role seriously; while suicide calls account for a very small percentage of the call-log, SOS Help recognizes it sometimes plays, literally, a life or death role.

Listeners come from all parts of the world, all walks of life, all ages and all levels of expat experience, from people who've lived here for 40 years to those freshly arrived. They receive a weekend plus eight evenings of training from professional counsellors; then they do four 'shifts' with an experienced listener before being left to man the phones on their own.

Many of the calls stem from one of two sources: frustration or confusion about dealing with the French bureaucracy ("which would make a strong man cry," says Alex) and loneliness.

I'm just lonely

"We hear a lot from people who are having trouble finding their niche or being homesick for their family. Sometimes they interpret it as being because they are a foreigner in a foreign land but of course loneliness is a theme for other helplines," says one experienced listener who keeps her name private.

Alex points out that expats are actually less isolated now than ever before; with the easy accessibility of email and the vast price drops for international phone calls, most expats find it much easier than even 10 years ago to stay in touch with friends and family 'back home'.

On the other hand, listeners do attribute some of that loneliness to a 'French context', that is, the perception that France is a relatively closed society, with lots of formal rules of behaviour and a lack of open displays of friendliness.

To an expat who has already had to hurdle a heap of administrative challenges, whose head is swimming with new experiences, and who perhaps is struggling with the language, France can indeed seem a cold place.

Advice for the isolated

While the listeners avoid advice-giving or pep talks while on the phone with a caller, they do say the most obvious solutions are often the best for expats who feel isolated: keeping active, keeping an open mind, not taking it all personally.

They point out that English-speaking churches in France often play a vital social role that often has nothing to do with the traditional functioning of the church.

But while the hotline operates out of Paris, they do help callers from all over France, including the more rural areas where English-speakers have no choice but to reach out beyond the Anglophone social network.

Helping the helpers SOS Help is completely donation-funded. If you want to contribute, send tax-deductible cheques to: B.P. 43 92101 Boulogne-Billancourt. The hotline also periodically recruits new listeners, and other volunteer support staff.

"It's essential for people to be with people. It doesn't necessarily have to be English-speakers. It's not necessarily more healthy to associate with English-speakers than with French people," says Alex.

Most of us would agree that it's not that English-speakers are necessarily more empathetic or helpful than the 60 million French people we live with.

But even for fluent French-speakers, it's only human sometimes to want to 'talk it out' in your own language.

And when you do, SOS Help is ready to listen.

Clair Whitmer / Expatica
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