It’s easy to find a million reasons why you should move abroad to France. But once you’re here, is life perfect? Of course not! Let’s talk about the hardest parts of living abroad in France.
The hardest parts of living abroad in France
You can still enjoy your life abroad and know it’s the right place for you to be while simultaneously talking about what’s difficult, so that’s what I’m doing here.
Life isn’t so black and white and no place is 100% perfect. I’ve talked about this warped mentality people seem to have that life abroad=a 24/7 vacation and that’s just not the case for most people. Life abroad is real life and not a paradise.
A quick reminder: I feel like I don’t need to say this because I have a good group here, but I’m saying it anyway. If you leave a comment, please be kind. I am sharing my personal experience as someone who has been abroad for 6+ years now and there’s no one right way to do anything. What I’ve written below is my truth. What you find hard about living in France might look totally different and I acknowledge that (if you move abroad as a parent, as a retiree, as a student, as a single person, as someone living in Paris, as someone staying for just a year or two, etc.).
Regardless of what has brought us abroad or what’s led us back home, there’s value in sharing, connecting, and supporting each other no matter where we are on our living abroad journey. So be cool, aight?
The hardest parts of living abroad in France:
(you’ll notice most aren’t France specific at this point, 6+ years in…)
1. Being away from everything that’s comfortable
I don’t think anything positive comes from staying in our comfort zones forever, but sometimes it sure feels good to be surrounded by people, ideas, and ways of doing things that feel familiar. Being away from all things “comfortable” can feel difficult especially during times when you’re not at your best. So under this umbrella, I’m including the people we love, first and foremost, but also culture and mindsets that we grew up with and know like the back of our hand.
As hard as it is being away, it’s also a positive because it exposes us to a whole new way of doing things. These new things become the norm after a while, things like having to deal with new store hours or learning how to go around a traffic circle the right way. The little things aren’t a major concern after you’ve lived somewhere for several years and have adapted, but now and then you just yearn for that comfortable feeling of home.
2. Social connections
I’ve touched on this in various posts over the years. Social norms in France are very different than what I was used to from back home. French people have public and private spheres that are quite separate. A lot of times, what would be considered normal small talk in the US would be considered prying into someone’s personal life in France or even rude.
(Note: I want to say that of course there are going to be super outgoing, open people in all areas of the world just like others are more closed off and cold. I’m not saying ALL people of one nationality are any one particular way. I’m not making a sweeping generalization about people’s personalities either, but I am saying that the way French people go about interacting socially is different than what a lot of people would consider normal in the USA. Social differences are something to be aware of.)
I’ve talked about this example before, but for anyone new here, let me recap it. Looking back, it was just a misunderstanding and part of the process of me learning about French culture, but my first couple of years in France, this type of situation really got to me. I thought people were kind of blasé, uninterested, and detached, so much so that I thought there was something wrong with me. I’d second-guess how I spoke, what I did, even how much I smiled. It made me kind of nuts thinking I was the problem!
So long story short, I was at my neighborhood pharmacy one day talking to the pharmacist. He’s a man in his 50s who I’d been seeing weekly for about a year at that point. We aren’t friends but we’re friendly enough.
One day, he mentioned he’d be on vacation the next week and to see his employee about the medicine I needed to pick up. I thanked him and then asked where he was going on vacation, genuinely curious and interested in his plans. French people often jet off for 2-3 weeks during the summer and it’s a hot topic of conversation, so I made some small talk asking if he was going with his family and if he’d been there before. Things like that. He politely answered my questions.
Then I mentioned that I had just gotten back from vacation. I paused to let him respond. To my surprise, he didn’t ask me anything about where I’d been, if I’d visited family, nothing. No details. I felt like the conversation came to a weird halt with a farewell bonne journée au revoir, but I shrugged it off and figured he was busy with work. No biggie.
Except this sort of interaction would happen again with others as time went on. Not with every person; some people are chattier than others. But it would happen often enough that I’d noticed a pattern. I’d ask people some questions as part of our conversation, as you do — nothing crazy personal or out of line at all — and they’d politely respond but wouldn’t reciprocate and ask me much of anything at all.
I know I’m not the only foreigner in France, nor am I the most interesting person in the world, but I’m a human being with things to say and it felt like everyone was closed off to chitchat and that no one really cared.
Honestly, I took it personally and looking back, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that. I’d think to myself, “Wow, I’m new here. A foreigner. Clearly I don’t have it easy with the language or integration and no one is making an effort to try to get to know me like I’m trying to get to know them?” It was incredibly isolating to feel like people weren’t very receptive to getting to know a newcomer. These days, I go out of my way to talk to newbies because I know what it feels like being on the other side.
As time went on, I learned more about the social norms in France. I’ve accepted that this aspect about my life in France is just something to adapt to and is nothing to take personally or fear. It’s not good or bad. I’m not saying being overly bubbly and superficial is the right way either. As someone who is here permanently, I’d be better off if I learned to roll with it. So I did and have worked hard at finding like-minded individuals who have similar interests and mindsets. But making friends has not been easy at all and that is something that can be difficult anywhere. It’s not a French or American problem and is certainly not a problem only foreigners abroad face.
3. The French language
Ask anyone who has thrown themselves headfirst into language learning if their journey has been linear and all unicorns and rainbows and they’ll laugh at the absurdity of the question. Picking up French, or any language, as an adult has its ups and downs and is anything but easy. Just because you get to an advanced level or consider yourself fluent doesn’t mean all of your problems with the language will disappear. You may miss cultural references, not know words, or feel like an outsider because of your accent. Some people don’t care. I do.
I speak French just fine but I’m clearly an outsider. I can always improve and some days I just don’t have the motivation to practice and push myself. Then I beat myself up for not being good “enough.” Whatever enough means. We’re allowed to make mistakes and not know stuff. I’d give anyone else in my position a break. But do I give myself a break? Maybe a less sensitive person wouldn’t care so much.
Sometimes I feel like damn, I’ve been here 6 years, I should speak French perfectly just like my native French speaking husband but with an accent and I’m far, far from that. So in my head, I feel like I’ve already failed, although I know that’s a stupid way to think since I can always just set my mind to it and work on improving. But then I convince myself that I’ll never sound like a native speaker, so why try to improve upon where I am if I’m good enough to live my life and talk to anyone about anything? I’m just being honest about how hard I am on myself. Maybe you can relate? I hope you can’t.
The truth is that speaking French or taking stock of how much you don’t know can be overwhelming and tiring. You can be the most positive and motivated person in the world with the best attitude and some days it’ll just get you down. Then logically, I look at people who have been here 20 years who still make mistakes and remind myself we’re all just doing the best we can. Most people do not speak their second language as fluidly as their mother tongue and that is normal. And refreshing. My French books are waiting for me when I’m ready to crack them open again…
4. Life problems
When you’re going through a difficult period in life, it sucks regardless of where you live. Hard times are hard even when you’re at home. I’m talking about things like death, loss, career changes, health struggles, stress, personal conflicts, and more. No one wants to deal with any of these things — ever. But living abroad makes delicate circumstances even more fragile.
Distance adds one extra level of complexity that makes navigating hard times more stressful. That’s not to say that everyone should just stay home where they’re comfortable. That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m a big advocate for pushing yourself and trying new and challenging things. But what I am saying is that when life is difficult, being abroad doesn’t make it any easier. Time zones, communication challenges, tech issues, physical distance, and more all contribute to turning the dial up on your stress levels when that’s the last thing you need.
Having this conversation about things that are hard when you live abroad in France isn’t meant to dissuade you from moving abroad. It’s real talk, which I feel is a necessary part of the living abroad conversation as a whole. It’s easy to gloss over talking about the hard stuff or to ignore it completely.
Again, life isn’t easy anywhere and if all we do is post pictures of beautiful places and talk about how wonderful life is all the time, we’re crafting a dishonest narrative. That’s not one I aim to perpetuate on this blog. I like having real conversations and talking about things that aren’t always so rosy.
As I’ve said before, my inbox is open if you ever want to chat. I consider all of you friends and friends support each other, so always feel free to reach out.
What’s been the hardest part of living abroad for you? Has it changed as time has passed?