Answers to a few general questions about moving to France from the Ask an Expat series of posts.
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]
What's the Best Thing About Living in France?
Last week, I discussed some of the difficulties of living in France, and now I'd like to look at some of the best things about calling this country home. While I was going through photos for this post, I thought about how challenging living abroad is & how it's easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day details of making a life for yourself in a foreign land, while forgetting what's wonderful in your new home.
Again, these are some of my thoughts from living in the South of France, which I find warm (the weather & the people), quirky (more the people), & above all, oh-so-delicious. Here is what I enjoy best about living in France:
1. The French
Before moving here, I guess I was carrying around a bit of my own generalized anti-French sentiment, some of which I discussed in French Stereotypes, because I had bought into the idea that the French were arrogant, at best, and downright (cough) scoundrels, at worst. Now that I have spent some time with these nasty Frenchies (& cohabit with one), I have found that quite the opposite is true. Although I can't claim to be friends with everyone in our town, the majority of French that I have come into contact with are among the kindest, funniest, and most generous people I have ever met. This coming after living for three years in Italy with it's fair share of warm & hospitable people. I'm not sure where these stereotypes about the French have their roots (perhaps a few snooty waiters in Paris made the trek back to the States & spread like wildfire), but right at the top of my favorite things about France is the people themselves.
2. The Food
I'd be a little wary of any best of France post that failed to mention the food. As with Italy, when you think about the country, you can't help but envision all of the culinary delights that await you on a trip or extended stay. Although I certainly miss the heaping plates pasta carbonara, I am quite in love with French food- the salty & the sweet. Sometimes standing in the cheese aisle at a French supermarket is enough to remind me why I love living here, and learning the ins & outs of French cooking can be a lifetime pursuit (which many happily sign-up for). I'm just waiting for the release of American Women Don't Get Fat because I could use a bit of help getting my pastry-sampling under control.
3. The Aesthetics
If you like pretty things, chances are you'll love French style. Along with a French food obsession, I also have a keen admiration for how things look & a special fondness for attention to detail. In French design, you get it all; your shabby and your chic. Shabby in the faded interiors & softness of white & blue cotton arranged just so that daily living feels not only exceedingly comfortable, but dreamy. Chic in the elaborately-layered chocolate pastries, cherry-oak antiques, and couture fashions. I may not be able to afford many of the goodies that are quintessentially French, but the care & attention the French give to creating beautiful environments makes this a very pleasant place to live.
4. The Attitude to Time
This is the classic live to work vs. work to live argument and, as you can imagine, the majority of the French fall into the later category. I'm in the South, so attitudes are even more relaxed here.
Certainly we can point out a few folks who do live for their job, but the focus is much more on working in order to enjoy your free time. Oh, and there's that little thing called the 35-hour work week. Not everyone adheres to it, and there is a decent argument about what it means for the economy, but it does speak to a pervasive sentiment in the culture that work comes second, or third, in your list of priorities. Call it European values in general, or just an excuse to skip out early to hit the cafés, but I like a slower approach to life- even if all the best markets are closed on Sundays.
How Did You Prepare to Move to France?
Perhaps there is nothing so challenging in life as moving to another country. Whether it be for work, love, or simply to have a short-term adventure, preparing to make the leap abroad brings 1,001 questions, concerns, & downright anxieties. While everyone is different in their approach to planning a major life transition, I wanted to finish the Ask an Expat series by providing a short list of 5 helpful tips when preparing for a stint abroad.
1. Read, read, read
I'm not the first one to write it, and I've found the same sort of advice from others dealing with culture shock, but one of the best ways cope with moving abroad is to find out as much as you can about your new home. I tried to get my hands on as many books about France as possible, and a few of my stand-out favorites include: Working & Living in France by Monica Larner (who also penned my prior expat fail-safe: Living, Studying, & Working in Italy) and Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong. The former is an excellent nuts & bolts approach to navigating everything from ordering drinks at cafès to setting up your own enterprise; while the later dives deeper into the cultural elements which make the French well, so French. I was given about a million & one France guidebooks (ok, about five) and they were also indispensable for helping me get my bearings; not to mention the grammar books for that little thing called learning the language. Oui, très importante.
2. Find a Social Network
The one nice thing about being an expat is that in many places you will already find a built-in social network waiting to take you in. Even if you already know some of the locals in your destination city, sharing the ups & downs with other foreigners in the same circumstance can help you get through those difficult first months. And it goes without saying that expats are the best source of information on where to find housing, jobs, the best markets and also how to navigate bureaucracy (pull up a chair for that one...) in your host country. A good expat networking site to check out is AngloInfo; they have event & classified listings for multiple regions in France.
3. Get Your Professional House in Order
If you are moving to France for work, then you are already in an excellent position for having one of the biggest living-abroad challenges taken care of. On the other hand, if you find yourself wondering how the heck you're going to make a living in La Belle France, it's a good idea to channel a significant amount of energy into researching the job market & understanding where your skill-set will fit in. It's easy to get discouraged as a foreigner in an already tight job market, but being an expat also has several advantages. You bring a unique perspective, and if you are a native English speaker you can leverage this asset into the teaching, training, or tourism industries. The Transitions Abroad site has some good leads as to where to find short & long-term employment in France.
4. Save Money & Have a Plan B
Living in Italy & in France, I found the most popular question would-be expats ask is, "How much money do I need to save?". There doesn't seem to be an easy answer. Some recommend saving enough to live off for three months & others recommend twice as much. While it's a good idea to have a cushion, you'll have to determine what your living expenses will be and go from there. Likewise with work; you could find a job immediately or it could take several months. Leaping into the unknown is one of the most thrilling things about moving abroad and also one of the scariest. This is why it's a good idea to have a Plan B. How long will you wait to find a job & what are your alternate plans if the prospects don't pan out as you had hoped? Most likely, you'll find something sooner than later but having something to fall back on helps ease the stress & pressure of the job search, and also gives you something to tell those pesky folks back home. "Don't worry, if I don't make it in France, I'm becoming an interior decorator" (I always wanted to get my hands on those color palettes...).
5. Develop a Strategy for Coping with Stress & Reward Yourself Along the Way
Most of my strategies for coping with stress have to do with wine, chocolate, & French pastries, but everyone knows what works best for them. Books recommend exercising regularly & getting lots of sleep, which are also good ideas, but I much prefer shopping or taking day trips (to bakeries) to take my mind off the stressors of those first few months. Similarly, I enjoy planning for a trip that I'll take at the end of the 4-6 month transition period. Ok, so it's just a small camping trip to Italy, but it gives me something to look forward to while I'm conjugating verbs & making a fourth trip to the bank to sign-up for a checking account.