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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Ask an Expat: What's the most difficult thing about living in France?

I thought it would be a good idea to create a Q&A series about living abroad, and, more specifically, about life in France.  If you have ever lived abroad, are toying with the idea of making the move, or just like dreaming about what it might be like, you may find some of the questions in this series helpful.  I'm starting with a bit of a tough question because although we might all have a love affair with La Belle France, it's important to be informed of the potential challenges of living abroad before deciding to take the big leap to la vie française.

Of course, everyone will experience life abroad differently, but, only speaking for myself, I have found that the challenges I faced living in Italy are quite the same as the ones I currently face in France.  There can be many trials living in another country, but I believe the following three issues to be the most challenging for my life in France:

1. Always Feeling Foreign
This may seem obvious, or even laughable. Of course you're going to feel foreign, you're in a foreign country.  At first the feeling of being "different" is quite novel & exciting. People will probably go out of their way to help you (I think our local "cheese guy" could talk to me forever about the grandeur of Comte), and nearly everyone is curious about who you are & why you are in their country. You may surely love the attention, but being special also means feeling a bit different everyday. It's part of the unique living-abroad experience and many expats find ways to benefit from their uniqueness, but it does take some time to make the adjustment.

2. Expressing Yourself in Another Language
Much like the forever "foreign feeling", being truly able to express yourself in another language is quite difficult. I reached a good level in Italy, & felt comfortable conversing, shopping, and even hosting a few parties; but this was after living in the country for three years.  You eventually get to the point where speaking another language becomes second nature, but in the beginning showing your personality and having French speakers "get" the real you is very tough.  I find that having complex conversations (French politics at a dinner party anyone?), expressing opinions, and showing humor (I promise I really am funny in English) to be the most challenging language tasks when speaking French.

3. Finding a (Good) Job
There are a lot of factors that go into job-hunting success; ie. level of language fluency, professional background, & sheer willingness to pound the pavement until an opportunity comes your way. Of course there are jobs to be had in France, and surely you can find more opportunities in bigger cities like Paris, but it's a very important consideration when deciding where you will move in France. I love the South of France, but jobs here are fewer (even for the French) and so expat opportunities are limited.  In short, many foreigners make their own opportunities in teaching, tourism, translation, importing/exporting, or offering services to other expats (to name a few).  It's not impossible, but it does take a lot of work and you have to be willing to be creative when carving out your professional niche.

Everyone will face their own particular issues when living abroad, and there are many strategies for coping with the stress of transition & culture shock.  In the end, I believe the positives outweigh the negatives, as I hope to illustrate with next week's question, "What's the best thing about living in France?". And yes, cheese will surely be near the top of the list.

[photo: design gallery live]


  1. The never being truly understood is one of the most difficult things for me. I can't express my humor or personality to people and it makes me feel BLAH!

  2. How about being at a dinner where someone tells a joke (in French of course) but the joke references a movie or song or something that you're not familiar with. So, while you understand the words the context or hidden meaning is, well, hidden from you. You certainly feel foreign then.

  3. It's good to hear I'm not the only one! I totally miss the jokes at dinner too; or this weekend when we went to a party & everyone broke into a spontaneous dance routine from a few year back! Too funny...
    Thanks for the comments!