This holiday season marks my 6th year of living in France and I’m reflecting on a question I received a little while ago from a reader. What has surprised me the most about my life in France?
What’s surprised me the most about my life in France?
Sometimes things that surprise you sneak up little by little and it’s not until you look back that you realize what you now consider normal once wasn’t. Our lives change in ways big and small. Slowly and then more quickly. Life makes sense and then it doesn’t.
I think my first bits of French culture surprise started when I was a teen. I’d visited France several times over the years before moving more permanently at the very end of 2011. My first trip was as a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed high school student back in the late 90s.
And I hated France. People spat on us. It was the dead of summer and I was always covered in sweat (I hate heat). Everything felt foreign and nothing on that trip made me feel welcome. Traveling in a tour bus with a bunch of other teens isn’t the best way to see France either. I returned home majorly disappointed and tired with nothing pulling me back to France.
I think my perceptions of France and the French — and all the negative stereotypes — were kind of cemented after that trip to France as a teenager.
As an adult, I gave France another chance and visited Paris with a girlfriend of mine. We had a blast. It’s amazing what a difference 10 years and a change of traveling companion can make. A year later, I accepted a job teaching English in Paris and that was the first time I’d gone to France as a non-tourist. It was during that 7-month contract that I got to know Tom. The rest was history. 😉
Then the real surprises began. You know, the ones that are more impactful than the fleeting feelings of vacation culture shock. The ones that will dissipate once you’re back home where none of it matters. It’s interesting what you notice and what affects you once you realize you’re no longer just passing through.
So what has surprised me about my life in France?
A bunch of surface-level things have shocked me the first couple of times — and have then become normal. Things like horse meat and rabbit meat with eyes still intact and cow tongue in the grocery store. Although surprising, little things like that don’t count for much beyond shock value in the moment. Those types of shocks ended after the first couple of years here.
On a deeper level, I’ve learned time and time again that people don’t fit into boxes. There are all different types of people from all walks of life in France who like doing all different types of things. Duh, right? Of course. But before you live somewhere, it’s easy to buy into the stereotypes that are formed after a vacation or two to a place.
I thought I knew France, or at least a piece of it, from my previous visits. But how little did I know.
Black, white, brown. Business owners. Hard workers, people who game the system. Fashionable, religious, poor, rich, kind, rude, standoffish, bilingual, monolingual, open-minded, close-minded. France has it all.
There are all kinds of people everywhere and making assumptions about them will only steer us into uncomfortable territory.
Let’s take a French gym acquaintance of mine, for example. She is a hardcore fan of working out (love that!) and she doesn’t drink alcohol. Ever. She’d rather wear jeans and comfortable shoes over a dress and heels. She has a motorcycle — not a scooter — and always picks up after her dog. How’s that for dispelling myths about French women?
Which brings me to…
French people are not all fashionable and thin. The French are not all classy, upper middle class white people with perfectly behaved kids who shop at the farmers’ markets and cook fresh food every night.
It’s crazy to think that people actually believe that, but I think I did to an extent. Well, not that ALL French people are a certain way, but that generally speaking, certain things would ring true. Generalizations are helpful to a point but there are always outliers. I’m glad I’ve seen the light!
I’ve met all kinds of people that dispel stereotypes and I’m grateful for that.
The French aren’t superior to everyone else, nor do they act like it. There’s no reason to feel intimidated.
I’ve discovered that not all French food is fatty and rich. There are French specialties that might not be for the faint of heart but there’s also a focus on fresh, local food cooked simply. Grilled fish, sautéed veggies, some fresh bread and cheese are all you need.
Something else that has surprised me is how much people (who don’t live in France) romanticize life here. People have their own ideas based on the media, their experiences and perceptions. I think some people think that life in France is the same as a vacation and that’s just not the case.
I hear surprising comments via this blog and also from people back in the US who think I’m so lucky and my life here is like something out of a fairy tale. I assure you it’s not. 😉 I do all the routine things everyone else does like work, clean, deal with paperwork, walk the dog. Just in a foreign language and culture.
Maybe the most surprising to me of all is that even after 6 years of living and working in France, I don’t have much of a personal or professional network locally.
I have Tom and Dagny. It’s my normal. But when I sit back and think about it, the lack of a network surprises me. And it’s not for a lack of trying, although I will admit I was more proactive about meeting people my first 2-3 years here. From meetup groups, to events in town, to even going to a Mormon church (I’m not religious at all), I put myself out there and nothing really came of it. It’s difficult to build a new social network. I think underestimated that.
Now I accept my situation and focus on the positives and staying in touch with the people I already have connected with. This was a shock to me because I’m not a loner at all but I’ve become one in a lot of ways. I have acquaintances I’m friendly with and people I know from the neighborhood… but real friends in my area? Nope.
I’m the first to admit this isn’t France’s problem or something I’ll blame on the French.
It’s just my reality of moving from a big city to a small town in a foreign country as an adult. An easily discouraged adult, in some ways. But one who owns her decision 100%. I love hearing about people with wonderful neighbors and colleagues and French friends because at least I know it exists. That’s just not my experience, but luckily, my experience isn’t the only one you can have.
Maybe 2018 will be my year of meeting people locally. The good still outweighs the bad. Until that changes, France will be my home.
I’m surprised by how many wonderful wineries there are locally. I can drive an hour or less in several directions and be face to face with some of the most generous, knowledgeable wine producers who clearly love what they do. With affordable wines!
Back in the US, I drank wine but reserved it for special occasions for the most part. It was expensive and I never found any wine that I truly loved. It wasn’t until I moved to France that I learned to appreciate the French culture of wine and discover varietals beyond my comfort zone. Living in a wine-producing region has helped me learn so much about wine from the very people who produce it. I’ll never take that for granted. I even have a few Loire Valley favorites.
Finally, it’s surprised me that it’s been 6 years already. Time passes so quickly and I just want to hold on. I’m amazed by my resilience and ability to adapt despite the bumps along the way that always seem to pop up at all the wrong times. I don’t think life would have pushed me as much as it has in the comfort of my own language and culture back in NYC. I’m incredibly grateful for the challenge, even though I’ve had my moments of weakness.
The challenges of life abroad always remind me that I’m human and doing the best I can. I notice things. I slow down. I say sorry. I try again.
Through it all, I’m still here living life and learning along the way. I might even smile and appreciate the view.
What about you? What living in France surprises have you experienced?
Happy New Year to you and your family. Wishing you happiness, success, and lots of good wine in 2018! And food. Lots of good wine and food. 😉
Today’s my birthday (12/31) and to celebrate, I’ll be ringing in 2018 with Tom, my in-laws, niece and nephew, and a nice bottle of local Crémant.
Keith Van Sickle says
Making friends in a new country can be hard–there are so many subtle barriers to cross. I’ve been lucky to make good friends in France and I miss them when I’m in California.
My wife and I are part of a French organization in California that supports new arrivals, and they say the same thing from the other side–“It’s so hard to make American friends!” So we’ve created a program we call Bay Area Buddies, to match newly-arrived French with francophile Americans. So far it’s been great, an opportunity for language exchange, questions about how things work here, and…hopefully…friendship.
Je te souhaite un bon bout d’an !
Hi Keith, yes about the barriers. Even when we move from one place to another in our own country. I think life circumstances play into it as well. Sometimes we get so busy with our own family, job, house projects, friends, etc. that we don’t make more mental space to reach out to others — good or bad. As I said, not a France or a me problem, but just how things have played out thus far.
I LOVE that you and you wife support new French folks in the USA. LOVE LOVE LOVE. Link me and I’ll share on FB!
Happy New Year!
Jo-Anne the crazy lady says
I cannot imagine living in a different country let alone one that speaks a different language
You’d probably surprise yourself at how well you’d adapt and learn!
I really enjoy your blog! Regarding making new friends as an adult, it’s hard to do that in the US as well when you move from one place to another. We retired in South Carolina and have lived here almost 5 years. I have made several acquaintances, but it is difficult to move past that stage. I think that just happens as adults. Happy New Year and Happy Birthday!
Thanks so much! Happy New Year as well.
Absolutely, making friends anywhere can be hit or miss and certainly isn’t a slam dunk in our own country either. It can be very hard to move past the acquaintance stage. But then when you do meet someone fun, it makes the struggle worth it. 🙂
I read this and thought It could have been written by me. This is kind of different than your other posts and I loved it.
I think it’s great that you are educating others who romantise about life in France with a more realistic view of France.
Hey Annie, thank you! I think there are a lot of different types of blogs out there but I tend to personally gravitate toward ones that let you peek behind the curtain of whatever they’re blogging about. I think it’s wonderful to show beautiful pictures of a fairy tale places and what life is like when you’re on a 24/7 vacation. But it’s just as valid to share our experiences and struggles as human beings just trying to connect, integrate, and laugh along the way while trying to permanently (?) make a life for ourselves abroad. For better or for worse. I’ll never tell anyone their experience will be just like mine, but I hope that by sharing my life in France this far, that I’ve maybe opened people’s eyes or taught them something.
Lots of content here ties into life in France/culture/language in some way, but I also write about healthy living/pets/other lifestyle topics. If you liked this, my “personal” category in the living abroad menu might be of interest:
Thanks again for taking the time to read. 😉
Well said. I will take a deep dive into that category. I haven’t really been sharing much in terms of life behind the curtain but I’m changing that in 2018. I had a few bad experiences ( read a few hundred, hah haha) where people were sending me nasty emails and messages about my views of life in France and that kind of traumatized me so I stopped. Remember that post of mine you shared on your FB page.? I had another post that kind of went viral. It attracted a lot of positive feedback but the evil internet trolls went all out on this post. I think I was too sensitive. I must have that people pleaser gene which prevents me from speaking my peace sometimes. Thanks for being an inspiration and sharing the “the real Housewives of France”. We should start a youtube channel like that. Now wouldn’t that be funny?
Haha, wish I were a housewife!! Gotta make money to pay the bills. I’ve worked full time since I moved here. 😉
Sorry to hear about the nasty emails. If people don’t like your writing, they can move along. No need to be nasty!
Hi, I’m new to this blog. Loved your article. I’m an American that was born in Paris and do have dual citizenship. I’ve been going to Paris every year since 2011 for two weeks. I recently retired and will be renting an apartment in Paris for three months in 2018. I have friends in paris that I met on Meetup groups. I believe that living in Paris is very different when accustomed to the american life. I love Paris and feel it is my second home, was my first home until my ninth birthday. I’m hoping to be able to do this every year. Keep being positive and good things will come your way. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
Thanks so much, Elizabeth. Welcome! That’s so wonderful to hear that you’ve been able to make it back to Paris every year and revisit your first home. All the best to you in 2018!!
Things like horse meat and rabbit meat with eyes still intact and cow tongue in the grocery store.
OMG yes, SAME HERE. I eat both and I like them but I remember one time I opened Massi’s fridge back in Canada and he had a rabbit chopped up in there with the two eyes placed on top…here’s a question…why??? They also love to see the chicken heads, basically just the heads of everything displayed. I wonder why? Like Massi’s family doesn’t like to buy a chicken unless it comes with the head and neck. Is this a testament to freshness or something that I’m unaware of?
Cosette Paneque says
We are spoiled and coloured by all those wonderful movies about France. I like that you challenge those popular images and stereotypes.
I think making friends is hard for many expats. It’s certainly been one of the hardest things for me, very lonely. Like you, I’ve been living abroad for about six years. It’s only been in the last year that I’ve started forming some deeper friendships.
Meg Knox-Davies says
I think that the way people either romanticise living here, or romanticise what it was like back home is a good one to point out. People always seem to think the grass is better elsewhere, or that how you spend your holiday in a country is how you will live in that country – they don’t realise how far the truth that is!
My husband is looking into a promotion with his company that would take us to France. I’m freaking out. My biggest concern is living arrangement. I envision everything being these tight, tiny little apartments with little foreign cars zipping by right when you step out of the entry.
Are there suburbs? Neighborhoods with cul-de-sacs? I’m not sure what part of France he’ll be in. This promotion won’t happen until summer. Are there schools for us non-French speaking people? Will I have to take up smoking again so I fit in (kidding).
I don’t live in France, but I found this post so thoughtful! I really appreciated what you said about how you thought you knew France, but have realized that you really didn’t, and there’s no one cookie-cutter type of French person. I’ve been living in Spain for two years, so hearing you say that many people romanticize your life in France and often think you’re on a never-ending vacation really rang true for me as well. My husband and I, too, have a very normal, every day life that involves routine, work, waiting in line, bureaucracy, running errands, and so on. We value living abroad and all of the challenges and joys it brings, just as you do, but when it comes down to it, it’s certainly not an extended vacation! Anyways, I applaud your authenticity in your writing, and hope you have a really wonderful 2018!
Clare (Suitcases and Sandcastles) says
This is such an interesting, thoughtful post. I think travel anywhere broadens our horizons and helps us get rid of those stereotypes we can be so guilty of clinging onto. Congratulations on your six year anniversary. Good to read you via #AllAboutFrance
A brave move! I love France and my wife & I often have those romantic notions of what it would be like to live there. We even settled on Provence/Avignon as chosen region as we figured Left Bank Central Paris would be a step to far! I love reading books about foreigners living in France like Almost French and A Year In The Merde. Perhaps you should consider writing one too! Wilbur. #AllAboutFrance
Rosie Hill (@EcoGitesLenault) says
10 years in France for me. Now, fewer things surprise me than when we first arrived but I still get so surprised/frustrated with all the levels of bureaucracy and the fact that often you will hear one thing from one person and something completely different from another one in the same office and that official things take an age to be sorted. I now always expect anything to take a long time to get sorted and am therefore pleasantly surprised when it gets done quickly and without any hassle! #AllAboutFrance
Catherine Berry (But you are in France, Madame) says
I took a l…oong time for me to even do the bare minimum on social media, but it seems that you have a lot of very supportive friends right here on your blog. As for living a duel life, you are right to point out that living in France is not one long fleuve tranquille. The said, even the difficulties of life in France seem to not be off-putting for so many of us and that is something that I still have to work out and understand. I did enjoy your introspective piece and I wish you all the best for 2018.
Catherine Berry (But you are in France, Madame) says
PS I forgot to add the # AllAbout France – sorry!
Richard Alexander says
Hi, Diane. As always, I enjoy reading everything you write about life in France. For us, the biggest surprises came from the experience of putting our 8-year-old son into a French school. It seemed a much harsher environment than the “everybody gets a star” culture he had seen in his American elementary school — but we’re convinced now that it was one of the great times in his life. For me personally, the biggest surprise was how the expat experience can leave you feeling forever “different” — an outsider in your adopted country, yes, but somewhat alien after you go back home, too, because you now have a different filter for seeing your native country through the eyes of French friends and colleagues. Thanks for writing this — it’s obvious from the other comments that you’ve touched a nerve that runs deeply through the expat community! #AllAboutFrance
June de Silva says
Great, thought provoking post. I had a year in Tours, as a student and I loved it. Ten years later I spent a year in Metz, teaching English in a state secondary school and I loved it. I always imagined that when my sons grew up we would retire to France. What I hadn’t appreciated is how strong the ties of family and life long friends can be. Now I’m retired, I’m lucky enough to have a home in the UK and one in France which is the ideal situation for me, However, if I’d married a French man it might be a different story…!
Well I don’t live in France and I will “keep it for holidays” but I do feel for you not being able to make good friends. However I think that’s not France, instead I think it’s modern life. I know people who have that trouble in my own friendly Yorkshire town. I have only ever made friends as an adult through work, church and the school playground (and the work friends haven’t stuck around). It’s tricky. I hope 2018 is your year. #AllAboutFrance
Phoebe | Lou Messugo says
I feel like France is so heavily romanticised, especially Paris and to a lesser extent Provence. I wonder if we were living in Germany or Sweden (for example) we’d find that foreigners romanticised living there? It doesn’t sound as likely to me. This is the 9th country I’ve lived in and it feels like it’s the one with the most unrealistic expectations of what real life is like here. Thanks for doing your bit to dispel the myth. I write mainly positive stuff because I am basically trying to market my own little bit of “paradise” for holidaymakers so it wouldn’t be great to go on about the administrative hassles, loneliness and daily grind really! However I do feel all the normal stuff and living in Provence, running a gîte isn’t all roses! Thanks for linking up to #AllAboutFrance again.
Boy it’s tricky making new good friends as an adult! I live in the Seattle area and Seattleites are notorious for being hard to date or make friends with. And I have lived here all of my life! I have spent the last 20 years trying to make friends. Sure we moved in the middle of that but it seems as though most people aren’t looking for new friends in their life. I did notice that as my kids were growing up the people that became friends with each other had kids on sports teams together. My daughters weren’t at all interested in group sports and so I didn’t have that opportunity to make friends that way. And like you it wasn’t for lack of trying. I am friendly, outgoing, adventurous, open-minded and still I never found those friends. I invited people to go out, come over, help them with their yard projects and still no solid friends. I have read all the articles on how to make friends and it just didn’t work for me. On and off I wondered if it was me. But I knew women that were abrasive and put their foots in their mouth frequently had close friends that did things together. I still don’t have the answer but I do know that I am quite a catch as far as being a friend goes. I am naturally an optimist and so I keep hoping. It’s almost as if the stars must be aligned. What the heck?
I am enjoying your perspective through your blog. Merci for sharing your life in France with us. 🙂
I came across your blog today and am really enjoying your posts. I am also married to a French man since 2010 and we lived in France for 4 years in Figeac (Le Lot). Currently back in the US but we travel back regularly and will eventually return one day full time. This particular blog brings up so many memories of my first year or so in France…..and that feeling of being a lost sole and needing to re-learn everyday things that we take for granted, from learning a new language, tackling grocery shopping and hoping to find what I thought would be “common” ingredients (Oh how wrong I was!! It took me a month before I found brown sugar! ) , banking and writing a check to cultural formalities like bonsoir and Bonne soirée, and that dinner parties are normal part of life in France and that they will last into the wee hours of the nite. I learned so much that first year…..some of it the hard way….l had a panic attack on my first grocery store trip.. first the carts were locked up (and of course I had no coins with me) and then I got to the register to pay and realized that they do not supply bags for you to use….you have to buy/bring your own bags (which I have several dozen of now in my car at all times!) and how at Christmas there is only one gift exchanged per person….not multiple gifts like we are used here in the US. I found this out on my 1st Christmas with my soon to be new in-laws before we were married as I proudly arrived to their home with several gifts per person. Everyone was very kind and smiled politely and thanked me for everything, all the while having a strange, “you have 3 heads” look on their faces…..then I realized why! Ooops! The beginning of my many faux pas that made my daily life in France interesting and always amusing…well.. usually amusing.
Thank you for sharing your experiences, they made me laugh! I look forward to reading more of your blog and bringing back memories of France.
Hi Mary, welcome! So happy to have you here and thank you for your comment.
Yes, there are so many cultural differences in France — big and small — that are constantly uncovered in France. Some of them are evident from the get-go and others take years to truly grasp. I enjoyed reading about your faux pas. We’re all in this together.
Not sure if you came across this post, but one of my most embarrassing faux pas had to do w/the bread drawer in a friend’s kitchen. I was mortified: https://www.ouiinfrance.com/new-house-wtf-3-that-cloth-trash-can-thing/
Dawn Johnson says