1. In your opinion, what’s the most significant cultural difference expats should be aware of when moving to France?
Something we Americans take for granted is our ability to form fast friendships. We meet someone at a party or at work whose company we enjoy, and immediately begin emailing, texting, or calling to make plans to meet up again. The French have a different approach, and you’ll likely get a sense of that right away. Cultivating friendships—especially with foreigners with whom one has a brief history—is a slow, cautious process, and it’s not uncommon for years to pass before you receive an invitation to dinner at a French colleague’s home. When you do form that bond, there’s an unspoken code you’ll be expected to follow, which includes keeping scheduled appointments and following through when you say you’ll call, write, or visit. You can expect the same level of committed friendship in return.
2. What advice do you have for meeting people and making friends there?
It sounds so simple, but this one is actually very difficult for a lot of expatriates: talk to people—in French! Talk to your grocer, your neighbors, the server at the café, the mail-delivery person, and anyone else you encounter where small talk comes naturally. So many of us are afraid of speaking French poorly or of being misunderstood, but you’d be surprised at how accommodating the locals are when you make an effort. They’ll listen attentively, gently correct you, and nod with comprehension when you get it right. If you don’t make the effort to speak the local language, making friends will pose an even bigger challenge.
On the other hand, meeting other expats is easy: Anglophone associations, both formal and informal, exist in most university cities, and even in many small towns. Tweetups and other social-media related get-togethers are a popular form of socializing. Another way I’ve found to meet people who share your living-abroad experience is to surf the blogosphere, find an expat-in-France blog to follow, then send the blogger a note and ask to meet for a café or un verre. Many people I know have met each other that way!
3. How does the price of living measure up to America?
When you consider that the biggies—healthcare, childcare, education—are either free or very low-cost, the cost of living in France begins to look extremely low compared to the United States. Some things, like fuel for your car and electricity in your home, are definitely pricier, but the bulk of your absolute necessities—food, wine, and public transportation, for example—are all extremely affordable in France. (And French food and wine seems to taste better, too, making it better value for your euro!) One of the most pleasant surprises I discovered when setting up my Paris apartment was the affordability of telecommunications. Several companies here offer bundled internet/unlimited international landline phone/cable television service for less than €30 per month (approximately $40 USD), and one mobile phone company just launched an unlimited monthly service for €20 (approximately $26 USD). I paid about five times as much in San Francisco!
4. The French are known for their ability to balance their work and home life perfectly. How does this manifest in every day life there?
France is a very family-oriented country, and you see that reflected in the social structure. Vacation time, for example, is doled out in generous helpings throughout the year by the state, and is considered a right rather than a privilege. You’d be hard-pressed to meet a French person who doesn’t take each and every day off he or she has earned.
On a day-to-day basis, you see this idea manifested in the long, wine-fueled lunch breaks (just visit any brasserie between 12:30 and 3:30 pm, and you’ll see men and women in business attire eating and drinking with unabashed zeal), at the open-air markets where everyone seems to be shopping for that evening’s meal, and by riding the métro during rush hour; clearly, no one is putting in extra hours at the office! That’s what I call balance!
5. What are some of your favorite things to eat, unique to France?
Fruits and vegetables aren’t unique to France, but eating seasonally is very French. As you move through the year, you’ll discover the joy of shopping for fresh foods and eating them at their peak ripeness. In the fall, you’ll find fresh nuts (have you ever tried a green hazelnut?!), woodsy-smelling mushrooms in all sorts of sizes and colors, and grapes galore. Winter brings root vegetables like Jerusalem artichokes and parsnips, and tropical fruits like litchees from Madagascar and other former French colonies. Spring is magnificent, color- and flavor-wise: Cherries, bright-green peas, asparagus, and rhubarb all make their debut. And summer is a veritable cornucopia of luscious stone fruits: peaches, plums, apricots. You’ll never want to buy an out-of-season tomato again once you’ve tried a locally grown, vine-ripened one from a French marché.
6. Do there tend to be large expat communities throughout the country, or only in Paris?
Wherever there are universities, you’ll find thriving expatriate communities. France has long had an open-door policy toward foreign students (though current immigration concerns within Europe are tightening that loophole somewhat), so you’ll discover youthful expat communities all the way from Rennes to Aix-en-Provence. The high-tech and pharmaceutical sectors also draw a workforce from around the globe; Airbus, near Toulouse, for example, employs hundreds upon hundreds of foreigners. You’ll find similar communities in Grenoble and Nice, and, of course, Paris. For the last 25 years or so, there’s been a steady influx of British newcomers, and in some small villages in the Dordogne, Cote d’Azur, and Brittany, you hear more English than French being spoken in the public sphere. It can be disorienting!
7. What do you love most about living in France?
There’s so much to love! Generally, it’s the pace. Life tends to move slower here than what we’re used to in the United States. The afternoon café break, the long lunches, the prioritizing of friends-and-family time above work—all those things have a trickle-down effect that you won’t be able to miss here. It sounds hackneyed, but the French really do take pleasure in the little things, and appear to have mastered the art of leisure. I love that people take the time to go to museums and to enjoy art in all its forms, to savor long lunches and protracted dinners, and simply enjoy unhurried conversations. Rush-hour traffic is still nothing to get excited about, but generally, there’s a sense of relaxed calm that permeates life here that I really, really love.
8. What do you recommend packing before moving? Are there any things you miss that just aren’t available there?
One of the joys of discovering a new country is learning to adapt to the local culture—and the local amenities. You’ll learn to live without your Burger King and Krispy Kreme doughnuts—trust me! In their places, you’ll discover all sorts of wonderful French treasures that taste just as delicious as what you’ve been used to, if you give them a chance. On a practical level, contacts lenses and eyeglasses, I’ve found, are more expensive here and thus worth stocking up on, and my husband still can’t seem to find underwear with a flap in the front (!). Otherwise, most things you find in the United States are available here. The only things I ever pine for are authentic corn tortillas, but that void just fosters appreciation for the little things I used to take for granted.
9. What are some of the best reasons for relocating to France?
The quality of life is extremely high here. It comes back down to the quality and safety of the food, the cultural and education opportunities, efficiency of transportation, and the social safety net that ensures most everyone’s basic needs are met. It’s also no secret that France has a great healthcare system. I’ve met several Americans who’ve moved to France specifically for access to affordable healthcare. In theory, if you pay into Sécurité Sociale, you’re entitled to reap its benefits, one of which is extremely low-cost medical services. Even freelancers who earn their income in the U.S. have access. Geographically, France has a lot to offer, too, with mountains, oceans, seas, lakes, rivers, and opportunities galore for enjoying those physical features.
10. What would people be surprised to know about life in France?
Most people would be surprised to discover how many resources are available here to help them integrate into French life. Wherever you settle, it’s a good idea to visit the mairie, or local administration office, to discover what resources exist in your area. Ask for a list of local “associations,” which is Frenchspeak for non-profit organization. There are thousands of them (and 14 million volunteers nationwide) spanning every imaginable interest or need, so tapping into what’s available in your neck of the woods can be a money-saver and a great way to meet locals and other newcomers. I’m currently taking advantage of my neighborhood association’s low-cost French immersion courses. For 30 euro a year, I get four hours of instruction per week (and a class with just two other students) plus workbooks and classes tailored to my needs.
11. What are some of your favorite French phrases?
Without a doubt, my number-one favorite and highly overused French phrase is “oh là là,” I love its multi-purpose functionality: it can be used to express surprise (“You had to wait in line how long at the prefecture? Oh là là!”), the gravity of a situation (“Oh là là!—I just stepped in dog poop again”), and emphatic approval (“Oh là là! Your new haircut is divine!).
In addition to all the formal niceties—merci, s’il vous plaît, and je vous en prie (you’re welcome)—I use et voilà (and there you have it!) and je suis désolée de vous déranger (I’m sorry to bother you) rather consistently. I’ve also taken rather well to French profanity, which slipped off the tongue a little too easily sometimes. Anyone moving here will surely pick up a few colorful phrases without any aiding or abetting from me!