Time is a magical thing. Sometimes it feels like life is creeping by at a snail’s pace and other times it whizzes by and you can barely catch your breath. Time can help to put things in perspective, mark different periods of our lives, and maybe best of all it allows us to heal, grow and reflect. This past winter marked 5 years in France, and wow, I can’t it’s been half a decade already.
Truth be told, this post has been in my drafts folder for months. I kept starting it and then deleting what I’d written not sure what I should say or how I should say it. It’s difficult to condense 5 years of your life into a blog post and to accurately convey what the experience has been like. Anyway, I’m going to try.
It’s a long one clocking in at over 3,500 words, so pour yourself a beverage and settle in, OK?
Reflecting on 5 years in France
The 2016 Christmas season marked 5 years since I packed up my life in the USA and made France my home after marrying a Frenchman (if you’re new here, read more about my backstory here). I didn’t move for work or school. I wasn’t fluent in French. And I didn’t know anyone beyond my husband and his family. Shortly after arriving, we added Dagny to our little family (had been waiting to get a dog for years but life was too fast in NYC to allow for it) and I felt complete.
Saying I was scared to make the move would’ve been an understatement, but I focused on the prize. I kept my head up, carefully researched, saved money and planned and then worked through the challenges that arose. Five years later, I’m still here… happy, hopeful and looking forward to whatever comes my way.
So where to begin, where to begin…
I have no regrets.
I’m more thankful than ever for where my life has taken me..
I’ve always been a self-aware person and I have never taken for granted the positives that come with living abroad. It sounds all sentimental, but I’m thankful for my husband and the support of my family and friends. Flip on the news and there are horrible situations everywhere we look, so the fact that I have a loving support system, food to eat, and a roof over my head is a privilege that I’m well aware of and is nothing to take lightly.
Living abroad, seeing more, and getting older and wiser has made me less judgy. I see shades of gray in life situations much more easily now. Things aren’t so cut and dry and I take a very human approach to most things. I feel like I understand people and their plights better than I did 5 years ago.
Even if I don’t agree with your point of view or your life choices, I can understand why you believe what you do, why you’ve acted the way you have, and how you got there. I don’t know if living abroad has contributed to how I see the world or if this shift is just part of maturing, keeping an open mind, and seeing and experiencing more. I have to think it’s a little bit of everything.
Something else I’ve learned is that people who belong in your life will stay there regardless, and no move, job change, baby, relationship, health crisis, etc. will change that. The people who are in your inner circle love you for you. Sometimes a major life change — either yours or theirs — will test the relationship and show you who really is in your corner. I guess it’s better to know late than never.
Maybe most importantly to me is that I’m still the same old American I always was. My humor is still a tad inappropriate and I still find stupid things funny. America still feels like home. It’s comfortable and familiar. With every trip back, I take comfort in the fact that my home still feels like a home and I’m welcomed by family and friends with open arms. I’ve had little culture shock moments here and there, but at my core, I am, and always will be, an American.
Now I’m going to get all specific on you. Let’s take a look at some aspects of my life in France and how things were then, when I first arrived, and now, 5 years later.
The weather here is similar to what I experienced back in New York City. The summers would be warm with one or two really hot weeks in the 90s the rest of the seasons are close enough to what I was used to. With 2 exceptions — no a/c and no “real” winter. If you been reading here awhile, you know that winter is my favorite season and I love snow.
THEN: The only time I saw snow here was when Mother Nature gave me a welcome gift of sorts and dumped a whopping 2 inches of snow on the area in January or February of 2012.
NOW: Since then, I think we’ve had one or two dustings that melted by noon but no snowstorms. I rely on Facetime with friends and YouTube for my snow fix. Speaking of snow, one of my super-sweet readers — Lori in New Jersey — made me this little snowman on her deck that just melted my heart. SO thoughtful. She made my day, THANK YOU!
THEN: When I first arrived, I felt like I had to prove something. To who? No idea. I was under the impression that all French women were fashion mavens and that as a foreigner I had to put on makeup every day and dress up to fit in. I think I was scared that if I was “me” that people wouldn’t accept me or like me. Then I opened my eyes and saw that out here in small-town France in the Maine-et-Loire, no one really cares what you’re wearing and high fashion and 4-inch heels aren’t necessary. The media has gotten it wrong! I let my guard down and was much happier that way.
NOW: These days, comfort is the name of the game and I have no problem putting on my North Face windbreaker to walk the dog in sneakers. I’m not the only one. I’d much rather wear flat boots or fashionable sneakers over heels any day, and from what I’ve observed, many French women agree. I guess I dress for myself and that’s good enough for me. Note: I do notice that older folks, like 70+, do tend to dress up more for everyday things.
French language skills
THEN: Back in the early years, my level of French was very much intermediate. I didn’t study French in college (genius here thought Irish, as in Gaelic, was a good idea) and only started taking classes once a week at the Alliance Francaise a few years after college. The hardest part for me was comprehension. Understanding what people were saying to me in real time stressed me out because the sounds just didn’t make sense. I’d understand half of the sentence but not the important part. Context helped, but random questions had me shaking in my (flat) boots. And this continued for a long time.
NOW: These days, I’m kind of at peace with my level of French and have given myself grace to just be. I’d say I plateaued about 3-4 years in and haven’t really improved a ton since. Sometimes I’m still not comfortable, but overall, I’m confident and proud of how far I’ve come. I’m not a French expert and I don’t speak French perfectly. I still mess up le/la occasionally. My grammar isn’t always correct. I’m advanced but not perfect and that’s fine by me.
To an outsider, I’d probably appear fluent, but I’m well aware that there’s still a lot I don’t know. I’m also my worst critic. I was that asshole in high school who told everyone after a hard math test that I totally bombed and definitely got an F. Then I’d get my paper back with a 95. French is kind of like that. My inner voice tells me I suck but I know I don’t. Far from it.
At this point I’d say I’m good enough to speak to anyone with confidence. If I wanted to really master the language, the truth is that it would require some significant effort, like writing exercises and reviewing grammar. My daily life just doesn’t require mastery so I don’t practice writing and reading. Comprehension/speaking are my strongest suits.
Some days I get mad at myself and think, “You’ve been here 5 years! You should speak perfectly at this point, you dummie!” I beat myself up and stress myself out because I don’t speak/write/read French flawlessly, making me not want to improve, like I’ve already been defeated. But then I snap out of it and remind myself that language learning is an ongoing process and I’ve come a long way. It’s never too late to learn.
I’ve lived in the Maine-et-Loire department of France in the same town since I moved here.
THEN: When I first moved to France, I shacked up with Tom in his one-bedroom apartment. We had a nice balcony but no yard and cooking was difficult because our kitchen lacked storage and counter space.
NOW: A year or so after moving to France, we started looking for a house of our own in the same town. We live in a little house with a yard in our town’s center that’s central to most things so I can walk.
THEN AND NOW: Legal permanent resident.
As the spouse of a French citizen, I am legally allowed to live and work in France. I have a 10-year residency card to prove that.
Sometimes people confuse permanent resident with citizen but being granted citizenship is not automatic, nor do you have to be a French citizen to live in France. Other than being able to vote, being a citizen of France wouldn’t really change much for me. After 4 years of marriage, I was legally allowed to apply for citizenship, but it’s not something I’m pursuing at this point. It’s a big undertaking in terms of paperwork and cost, and as I said, it wouldn’t change anything substantial for me in my day-to-day life. I have the option to apply for citizenship down the road and I probably will; it’s just not something I’m looking to start now.
THEN: When I first arrived, the trouble was mostly administrative and situational, so the stress was about my carte de sejour and getting my health insurance card and making sure I was understood at the bakery. The difficulties I faced then mostly had to do with adjusting to a new place as a foreigner. Everything came fast and furious and was totally new so that kept me busy.
NOW: I settled into life as you’d expect and quickly became familiar with my new surroundings and routine. My life in France is real life, not a permanent vacation. I think life problems are hard anywhere, but when you’re far away and stressed by a new culture and language barrier, regular life problems can seem magnified. We all deal with health issues, death, fights with loved ones, job loss, relationship and financial stress, etc. and sometimes the stress of living abroad can compound life problems that you’d have to deal with anywhere.
Sometimes little issues can snowball, and before you know it, you have yourself all worked up. Sometimes it’s over nothing and other times it’s a legit problem. I know that sometimes I’ll blame “life in France” for whatever I’m going through and that’s only a valid excuse half the time. I talk about mistakes I made in more depth here.
Blogging was then, and still is now, something I truly enjoy.
THEN: I started Oui in France about six months after arriving here in May 2012. It was kind of an experiment because I jumped in headfirst without having too much of a plan. Sometimes that’s the best way. When I first started, my content revolved around my discoveries as a newly married foreigner adjusting to life in France. Since my blog’s inception, I’ve managed to consistently post twice a week.
NOW: My blog is still super active. I have 575 published posts (holy heck, right?) and have built quite a resource here. That said, I plan on cutting back to a once-a-week posting schedule. I just don’t want to feel self-imposed pressure to post twice a week, so I’m giving myself some leeway now that I’m about to hit the 5-year blogging mark. Will I actually cut back? We’ll see, but I’m giving myself the option. Hope that’s OK. 😉
Over the years, I’ve toyed with the direction I wanted Oui in France to go in and announced a shift in focus a couple of years back to include more fitness posts. I never want to pigeonhole myself and come across as just “Diane, an American in France.” I feel like I’m more than that as a person and can bring more than just “life in France” posts to this blog. What I share here is authentically me but it’s just a small sliver of who I am as a person.
I didn’t feel fitness was the right direction because I wasn’t authoritative enough to write anything of value but still don’t want to only write on French culture/language and expat topics. So I reaffirm that sometimes you’ll see posts that delve into other topics. Posts on my dog, cool products I want to share, maybe a recipe or fitness post here and there or other life topics that have nothing to do with the fact that I’m a foreigner in France.
On a technical level, I’ve become more consistent with images and fonts. I started a newsletter last year (sign up here!). I also opened a specialty online shop with Francophile tees and tote bags. I’ve also tightened up my social media game and regularly use Pinterest now. I’d love to do a blog redesign at some point just to update my theme and help categorize the content better. I have a ton of content and a lot of it has gotten buried over the years, but a redesign is not in the budget right now. Anyway, blogging is probably my favorite hobby and it’s here to stay 🙂 Thank you for being here.
THEN AND NOW: I think the excitement of living in a new place sweeps you off your feet. For the first 6 months, you’re so busy seeing and doing that you have no time to be homesick. As time has gone on, I think I miss certain things about home, but I’ve been lucky in that I haven’t experienced any real bouts of homesickness. Here’s my theory on why.
I think my experience with homesickness has been more subtle. Sure, I miss certain aspects of life in the USA and of course my family, but I don’t have a deep longing to move back and I don’t feel a sense of loss. At least not now. I think this is because I came to France on my terms, for something positive, to start a new phase of my life after getting married to a French guy who is super supportive of me. So I was looking forward to life here and to turning over a new leaf, if that makes sense. I am settled here. It’s France where we bought a house, where I was finally able to get my dog, etc.
Now that said, of course I miss things in the USA. To help combat that, I focus on these 3 things:
1) Care packages. I regularly get packages: Either things I buy myself or things from generous family and friends. Along with that, I try to keep “American things” in my house to give me that American comfort even if I’m not in the US. It’s like it helps me retain my Americanness in a way. So for example, purposely buying a pillow in the USA and putting it on my bed here in France or a baking with a baking tray I found in Homegoods in the US. It’s silly but simple things like home decor and products from the US mean a lot.
2) I talk to my friends and family often, pretty much daily. We’re lucky that in 2017, a familiar voice is just a Facetime click away and they don’t feel far away at all.
3) Visit home often, finances and time permitting. 😉
And finally, I guess I remember that we’re never “stuck” in life. That if at some point life abroad isn’t right for us anymore, then we move. Things like owning a house and a great job can make that more difficult but not impossible. Life is fluid and we always have options.
NOW: I’d love to do more travel but it’s not always financially possible, so we do what we can. When we have extra money, we almost always head to the USA and that’s fine with me. One place I’ve never been to is Iceland. I’d reallllllllly like to visit one day. You know, winter lover and all. 😉
Ah, this is a hard one.
THEN: When I first moved here, I didn’t think it would be that difficult to make friends. I didn’t think it would be a slam dunk either but figured that with time and a bit of effort, I would have a new network.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The truth is that making friends has probably been the most frustrating part of life in France. It’s not a France problem, so let me be clear on that. There are lovely people here, as there are all over the world, so please don’t think if you move to France you won’t make friends. Maybe it’s bad luck. Maybe I’m a social pariah!
It’s not for a lack of trying to make friends, though, and I want to be clear about that as well. I joined meet-up groups and was more active on them during my first couple of years here. The people I met were just not a good fit. I met a few weirdos and also a stalker. And one of the most selfish people I’ve ever met in my life. I even went to a Mormon church (I’m not Mormon). I’ve met people in person who reached out through my blog who live in other areas of the country or have since moved home. I enjoy meeting people, but as far as people in my area? Nada. I don’t have any close French friends (or any nationality) in and around where I live. Sometimes I’ll meet the wife or girlfriend of one of the American basketball players for a local team, but they’re usually here for just part of the year and then move to another country.
NOW: About 3 years ago, I joined the local gym and I now have a small circle of acquaintances. These are people I look forward to chitchatting with but we’ve never done anything together outside the gym. Except for my one teenager guy friend who loves speaking English with me. He’s great and has a really nice family. But women in their 20s or 30s? Zip. Zero. Remember I don’t live in Paris or a big city — not that it’s easy there but maybe it would be easier. I don’t know. I’m ashamed to admit I’ve kind of given up in the friend department and have just accepted the situation. I’m not sad about it anymore and have embraced Tom, Dagny, and technology over real-life friends in my town. I appreciate the long-distance friends and family I do have so much more. I’m hopeful, though, that maybe a new friend is right around the corner. I’m completely open to it. 😉
THEN: I discovered my love for spinning (indoor cycling) and the gym when I was in college, and other than blogging, it’s my other favorite hobby. I’d go to my gym back home regularly and enjoy group fitness classes, lifting weights, and the community that a gym could bring. When I first arrived in France, I held off on joining the gym and looked to online videos and subscriptions for my fitness fix. But it was lonely working out alone and it wasn’t very motivating.
NOW: As time went on, I realized that socially speaking the gym would be great, so I joined and never looked back. These days, I take mostly Les Mills classes my gym offers as well as weightlifting even though my gym is kind of run down and has old equipment. It’s the only one in the center of my town.
The one thing I really miss about my life here is access to fitness studios like PureBarre, Orange Theory, Cyclebar and all the other cool classes that are commonplace even in suburbs in the US. I feel like the US is about 10 years ahead of France. Everything new and innovative is coming out of the US and sometimes I feel like I’m missing out by not being there. Again, thank goodness for technology and my visits home where I look forward to taking all kinds of fun classes. Peloton has an app now that I LOVE.
Your guess is as good as mine. I don’t see us leaving France anytime soon although I don’t feel too attached to the town in which I live. Maybe we’d move somewhere within France in the future? Or try out life in the US at some point? I’m open to all possibilities.
Life abroad is what you make of it. My life isn’t glamorous. I haven’t become French. I’m still me. It’s regular life. It’s fun sometimes. It’s monotonous sometimes. It’s exhilarating. It’s stressful. It’s eye-opening. It’s hard. It’s everything life was at home, just in a new setting with a new language. It’s regular life.
Before moving, I think I was guilty of thinking that the joy and fulfillment of moving abroad would be more about what France could do for me. The travel, the excitement, the fun things I could see and do. It was like that the first couple of years. But then you realize the value of living in France is less about external factors of the country itself and more about one’s experience as a foreigner making a life for themselves in a completely new setting and how that helps you to evolve as a person.
Even as the sometimes-confused foreigner, I embrace my life in France because it has opened up a whole new side of my personality that I never would have uncovered if I was still in New York City.
I’ve learned the beauty of a slower-paced life and the meaning of patience and resilience. I’ve chilled out. I’ve been able to overcome challenges that probably once seemed insurmountable. I’ve had a bunch of firsts in France. And I’ve done them all with the man I love. All of that is the real joy and fulfillment of life in France. I guess both halves of Diane — pre-France and right now — are authentically me, but one was just waiting to be uncovered and challenged. For that, I’ll be forever grateful.
Can you relate? How long have you lived abroad?