When I was back home in the USA last month, my feelings about one aspect of the living abroad experience surfaced again. The longer I live abroad, the more uneasy I feel about telling people from back home that I live in France. Let me explain why.
Over the years, I’ve met a bunch of people in the U.S. in casual situations or in passing and when it’s come up first thing in the conversation that I live in France, it has made me feel a little weird. Now eight years into living in France, I can better articulate why I feel hesitant, self-conscious, and even nervous when conversations lead with the fact that I live in France.
First, I’ve talked about how France conjures up such sophistication but the reality is that life in France is just real life after a while. It makes me uncomfortable, almost embarrassed, when I meet people for the first time and a friend or relative of mine excitedly introduces me as, “My friend Diane and her husband Tom. They live in France” — instead of just “These are my friends Diane and Tom.”
Let me back up.
When it comes up in passing that I live in France, there are usually 3 types of reactions:
- Doesn’t spark any reaction either way. No emotional response to France. I could say I live in Kansas and it would be the same reaction. It’s just a neutral detail and the convo moves on.
- They think it’s cool and interesting, ask questions, and are happy to hear more. Maybe they share a story about their trip to Paris and are genuinely curious. It’s harmless small talk I’m happy to engage in.
- A negative reaction of some sort either in what they say in response or their behavior. The reaction can be dismissive, snarky, or downright rude and are either aimed at me or even at the French!
It’s #3 that makes me uneasy. People’s reactions to the simple fact that I live in France sometimes place judgment on me and assume things about my life that just aren’t true. Their idea of my life doesn’t match up with the reality. When I meet someone for the first time, I try to avoid telling them I live in France (if I can help it).
Quick note: To be clear, I’m talking about random casual interactions with people I don’t know well. I obviously love talking about France and everything that comes with living here since I have a blog and YouTube channel about exactly that. People seek out France content and find me and I love talking to you guys about all things France in this space on my own turf. So that’s not what I am referring to in this post.
Also, let me say that this post might surprise those of you reading who have reactions #1 or #2 above and would never conceive of acting rudely over something as innocuous as living in France. The first handful of times this happened, I was confused and figured I had caught people on an off day or something. But nope, it’s a thing. It took me a while to pinpoint why people get all weird over France.
So first, about judgments. No one is immune. It’s how we process the world and our place in it and judging situations and people around us is normal. But when this crosses over to assumptions and our emotions fuel what comes out of our mouths, that’s when the problems start. Ever since being on the receiving end of a lot of these off-base assumptions, I’ve been extra careful about not making them about other people, whose lives and circumstances I know nothing about.
But I know being afraid of the negative reactions is a “me” problem. I should stand tall and not feel nervous or self-conscious about telling people that I live in France. Especially people I won’t see often or at all!
At this point, I let any rudeness roll off my back and laugh at it. We can’t control how other people act anyway. That said, I still think it’s a topic worth talking about.
The dark side of expat life in France >>
So why do these negative reactions come about? There are a whole host of reasons.
People seem to think that living abroad in France has some air of superiority to it like my life is inherently better, richer, more fulfilling, or fancier than theirs. Or that I think I’m special that I live in glorious, oh-so-wonderful France. Like it’s a prize I won.
People assume I’m out gallivanting to markets and cafes with my wicker basket and a baguette tucked under my arm living the high life full of Champagne and chic nights out while my husband pays my way.
In reality, I don’t go out every night. I also like to chill on the couch under a blanket with my dog and a good book. I have a mortgage. I work. My life is, dare I say it, pretty normal in the day to day. There are pros and cons to every place.
Also, a big part of France’s allure is that movies and pop culture place everything French on a pedestal and a social standard to aspire to — a place with only thin and fashionable women, food that’s the best in the world, parents who have perfectly well-behaved children, etc. To do things the “French way” is what we should all be striving for, the media tells us.
The generalizations have snowballed into facts and people love France and believe all this (hook, line, and sinker!), for good reason. Most people have no idea what it’s like actually living in France because they’ve never done it. I love living in France, but it’s real life after a while.
Along with this, France has a connotation of being sophisticated and even having an air of pretension. By association, simply mentioning I live in France sounds pretentious in people’s minds. Almost like I’m bragging.
Speaking of pretentious, there was this whole online backlash against a Fisher Price charcuterie toy set for kids and how “bougie” and “snooty” it is to buy a toy like this. In reality, a charcuterie platter in France is a normal part of a meal, at least sometimes, even for middle class, non-snooty people. So many things about the French way of life come across as high-brow or classy (even if they’re normal in French culture) and by association, so does living in France.
Sometimes, too, I think people project their feelings about their own situation onto those of us living a different life, maybe one they deem better or more interesting (never mind the fact that I don’t know them and they don’t know me). I know this to be true because someone who later turned into a friend told me as much (and apologized) after her snarky comment upon meeting me.
The unhappiest people can have the strangest reactions.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that if you answer people’s questions and honestly talk about your experience and demystify some of the things not in line with the fairytale mindset of France, people will get angry and defensive as if France needs them to come to its rescue.
When I politely point out to people who seem genuinely curious that no, despite what you’ve heard, not all French people are slim and fashion mavens and no, not everyone shops at the farmers’ market, people get mad and have even told me I don’t know what I’m talking about. Like what?!
If I mention anything critical or negative about living in France, people get weird too and strangely defensive. I wrote about that here and here.
The living abroad experience is not one size fits all >>
I’ve had such weird experiences after simply mentioning I live in France that if I can help it, I’ve learned to not mention where I live at all. Or when in Florida (where “home” is these days), if someone asks where I live, I half answer and say, “Oh I’m from New Jersey.” Not a lie.
Or I’ll say I live abroad and leave France out of it. Telling people I live in France doesn’t always set my interactions off on the right foot.
Would people have the same reactions if I said I lived in Poland? Maybe. Probably not.
Someone wise told me a long time ago that what people think about you is none of your business. But if they’re basing what they think off of assumptions that aren’t true, it makes me want to set things straight. How do I do that? I don’t lead with the fact that I live in France.
I feel more at ease when the conversation doesn’t start with where I live and that people get to know me for me. It’ll come up in conversation eventually, but when you mention you live in France, I feel like it gives off a certain first impression that can backfire. There’s nothing wrong with living abroad in France, but when you’ve had weird reactions enough times, you start to question where it’s coming from.
It’s even happened in exchanges with people I’ll never see again. Let’s take shopping in the USA. At many mall stores, employees are required to offer a store credit card and can be pushy when you say no. When a simple no won’t suffice, I’ve resorted to telling them I am no longer a U.S. resident to shut the conversation down. Without being a U.S. resident with a permanent address, you can’t get a store credit card.
One guy didn’t believe me and asked for proof. When he saw my French residency card, he replied with an, “Ooooh la la!” which was fine.
His co-worker looked at the card, then at me, and smirked with a snort, “Must be nice.” Yahhhhhhhhhhhh.
I know friends and family lead with the “they live in France thing” with excitement and almost a sense of pride. But is living in France something to be proud of in and of itself? I am not sure.
I’m proud of all the challenges I’ve overcome while living in France, hanging on, pushing through, and doing my best to succeed on a path which hasn’t been easy. I lost my mom. And my dog, Dagny. Life is not easy anywhere. But the personal growth that’s come with moving abroad is unparalleled.
Living in France has been a life-changing experience that I’ll be forever thankful for, but I don’t view living in France as an achievement or the fulfillment of a life-long dream. It’s part of my life story, yes, and was just a small part with an end date until I met Tom and decided to move back to France for good. I’m so grateful for where life has taken me. Friends and family know this. I wouldn’t change it for anything.
What I’ve come to learn over the years is that people who say I’m lucky place a high value on the experience of living abroad in France. They think of it as something admirable or even desirable. Some know about the struggles. Most don’t. Life in France isn’t as glamorous as you imagine it is. Or at least my life isn’t.
So again, why does it make me uncomfortable to tell people I’ve just met that I live in France? I think it comes down to this: People judge other people constantly and I’d rather they get to know me before wrongly assuming anything about my life solely on the fact that I live in France. It’s a small detail and there are so many more interesting things we can start with. But I can’t control what other people think of me.
Basically, I’m afraid that people are getting it wrong in their heads. That they think that I think I’m better than them and my life is far superior to theirs. The truth is I don’t think that at all. My life is my unique path and it’s not superior to anyone else’s. Period.
Also, there’s never enough time to fully answer the questions that come up. I love when people are curious and excited, but a quick exchange with a stranger needs to stay surface level. Like when you answer an acquaintance’s “How are you” with a bland “fine” even if you’ve had a tough couple of days. There’s just no time to explain everything. It’s not the place.
And back to the negative reactions, #3, I mentioned at the start of the post. Why do I believe these negative reactions are connected to the fact that I live in France?
Well, two reasons. One, as I mentioned, because people have told me as much and to protect their privacy, I’ll leave it at that. And because I used to think along those same lines.
Before moving to France and experiencing the culture, people and way of life myself, even I used to think the majority of French people lived a classy life full of only high-quality food, very cultured activities, and lively debates every night at dinner. But then once I moved and experienced France for all it is, at its best and worst, I realized my preconceived notions didn’t hold much weight. The French are not all magical unicorns. France is diverse in every sense of the word and I’ll be forever grateful I’ve been able to discover that for myself.
In my early 20’s, I hadn’t yet found my confidence or voice. When someone would mention something about their life that I placed a high value on or found exciting — but most of all was something that I didn’t have — it made me feel kind of inadequate. Or happy for them but sad for me. Or low-key jealous.
It made the person seem unrelatable, like someone I would never have anything in common with. But I was ignoring the fact that I literally knew nothing else about this person. I was being unnecessarily dismissive before I’d even given them a chance.
I’m not like that anymore and it’s one of the lessons that living abroad has taught me — to listen and give people a chance. Don’t react. Don’t assume. Above all, listen and just let people be.
In closing, this isn’t a huge deal and is not something I worry about at this point. I’m happy with my life path and accomplishments and can’t worry about what others think.
The negative reaction is not the typical one, but it has happened enough that I wanted to discuss it with you now eight years into living in France once I was sure it was “a thing” and not me imagining things. I’m confident in my life choices and know I have nothing to be self-conscious or uneasy about. If people choose to treat others strangely, that’s their baggage they’re bringing to the table and it has nothing to do with me. Let’s talk in the comments.
Do you live abroad in France? Do people get kind of weird sometimes when you mention it?
This post is part of Not Dressed as Lamb’s #ShareAllLinkUp.
I’ve been living in France for the past 8 years, as well, and understand exactly what you mean. Though, I’ve never personally experienced the #3 I know that it can and does happen. I don’t have a problem with people knowing I live in France, but I wont immediately announce that I do. I actually feel bad when they do find out and start asking questions because they’re genuinely interested, and I break the news that life here is the same as anywhere else. It’s like broke their dream/imagination about France.
Hi Shannon, first happy New Year and thanks for reading and taking the time to share your thoughts. That was a long one!
I really am hesitant sometimes to mention it because I would never want to come across like I’m bragging or being showy. So thank you for understanding where I’m coming from!
It’s almost like if you tell everyone how great it is, it sounds like you’re bragging and if you crush people’s dreams of the fairytale, they’re disappointed.
People will think whatever they want and you can’t stop that . A lot of people when they hear France they immediately think of Paris and have no idea that France is a huge and diverse country. I recently went back to the UK for Xmas and had strange reactions when I saw some old acquaintances and they learnt I was living in France. Some English people have a strange
view of France They like France but think it is too good for the French (maybe because of the 100 years war) !!Brexit was on lots of people’s minds and some questioned my choice directly and one.person even said to me “don’t think you can come running back to the UK when you’re kicked out of France. What can you say to that? I made a very quick exit. It seems inconceivable that people can make judgements about where one.lives without even knowing you are first
Hi Kameela, glad to know it’s not just Americans with the strange reactions! 😉 You mention Brexit and that’s another big reason why people in the UK might have a negative reaction so thanks for bringing it up. It hadn’t even crossed my mind.
Bruce Jewell says
Thanks for posting this. We’ve never lived in France, but we visit yearly, this last time for two months. We get the same reactions you do, and we’ve learned not to talk about it unless asked.
We can live with the folks who have starry-eyed notions about France, but it surprised us how much negativity we’ve gotten over the years.
Some of it is based on the idea that foreign travel is pretentious. Some of it is based on exaggerated fears of terrorism. But a lot of it stems from outright antipathy toward European culture in general and French culture in particular. The disdain for European ideas runs deep in America and has been a part of our national make up since the very beginning.
So, we’re a little reluctant to discuss it. I’m sure your experience is like ours but on steroids.
Thanks for writing about it. I look forward to your FB and IG posts every day.
Hi Bruce, thanks for sharing your experience and sorry to hear that you’ve experienced some negativity as well. The point about terrorism is a good one and goes alongside people moving abroad to escape the political climate in the USA, as someone in my FB group brought up. You’re absolutely right about the antipathy.
It makes me so happy to hear you look forward to my posts. I never know if things that matter to me ever strike a chord for others, so when people like you tell me you can relate or you find something interesting, it really means everything. Re: Instagram, I hope to get more consistent with doing stories, doing little videos, so stay tuned. Thank you again!
Keith Van Sickle says
I agree that France gets the kind of reactions that other countries don’t. My wife have lived part-time in France for 11 years and previously lived full-time in Switzerland for 5.
The reactions we got when we said we lived in Switzerland were either the bland ones you described or positive, along the lines of “it’s such a beautiful country.” We never got the “oh, that must be nice” comments because Switzerland doesn’t have that same glamorous image as France.. And we certainly didn’t get the negative reactions you can sometimes get with France because nobody really dislikes an assiduously neutral country like Switzerland.
Because we aren’t permanent residents of France we usually don’t bring it up. But when friends or family do, we get the same range of responses that you do.
Hi Keith! You, like others, have said that you usually don’t mention where you live and it really is a shame. The more I think about it, it’s really so dumb that we feel like we can’t mention certain benign details of our lives because of people’s weird reactions. I figured some people might relate but seems like a LOT of people can.
Personally speaking, I”d be a #2 for Switzerland. I’ve never been there but I know about the Glacier Express and one day I’d love to ride it. As a winter lover who sees far too little snow each year, I’d probably be TOO happy to grill you on life in Switzerland. 😉
Niculina McClanahan says
Oh, the strange questions, looks and opinions some of our fellows would grant us with! Sometimes I’m seriously considering writing a comic book about all the comments I have heard from all kinds of people when I say where am I originally from and where I live now. Like you, I’m avoiding to share too much because at some point it was kind of ridiculous hearing the most astonishing things and eventually I just gave up explaining why their opinions were so far from reality. I can’t fix everything in the Universe, that’s my theory. Instead, I dodge the bullet and avoid giving details until I am convinced that the person I interact with comes from a place where it’s genuinely interested about the truth and my story. I’m sorry you had to learn this lesson but glad that now you are stronger and don’t get trapped anymore in endless explaining that living in France is like living in any other country, not in a fantasy land.
Hi Niculina, this is the 2nd time I’m writing my comment. Ughhhh wordpress ate it the first time around.
So what I was saying was first, I’d LOVE to buy your comic book. So great. Are you an illustrator or will it be stick figure style? Either way, do it! Hahha.
I’m pleasantly surprised to see that people are interested in discussing this topic. I never know before publishing something if people will find a post interesting or not. Sad to see others have had similar weird reactions, but hey, it’s life.
These days I just laugh and go about my day if people are weird. I’d say I’m 95% there, still human though so sometimes it does affect me.
Thx for reading!
I discovered your blog while I was researching my 7 month stay in France and I love it! It’s been so helpful, thank you for continuing to write.
I completely understand your perspective and the reaction you receive – luckily I rarely received it myself when discussing my stay in France.
I also completely agree with the reality of living in France vs. the mental image of living in France. In fact it was many of your posts on the challenges that helped me get through the same or similar challenges I encountered during my stay.
Hi there, Jane! It makes me so happy to hear my site has been helpful to you. Really, truly makes my day. Sometimes I write to process my own thoughts and other times I write in the hopes that my experiences will help others or at least let them know they aren’t alone. But you can never be sure before hitting publish. I SO appreciate the comment letting me know.
David Skalak says
Intriguing post, Diane — thank you for posting this. A few quick thoughts and questions.
(1) Are most people are working with almost no information about “real life” in France? I know I’m bombarded with beautiful images of France and the ideal French life and I suspect others are too. But for example, back in 2002 a National Geographic Survey-Roper Survey revealed that 65% of US 18-24 year-olds could not even identify France on a world map ( https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/11/geography-survey-illiteracy/ ).
(2) Is there any chance that people (probably unconsciously) assume that a U.S. person living in France is independently wealthy (and therefore has nothing to do except to enjoy idyllic France).
(3) As you point out, people don’t realize that it’s immediately that the bulk of living in France turns into, well, just living. You fly to France, get to your residence, unpack, and realize that you’re hungry. In 10 minutes you find yourself in the corner Spar grocery with a plastic basket in hand and wondering why the meat is so expensive and the line is so long. Real life in France has begun.
Hi David, thanks for taking the time to read this one! Let me reply to your q’s”
1) I really have no idea! I think people know a little about France and maybe have even visited but they haven’t considered what living here might actually be like. That 2002 study is scary.
2) Absolutely. I think this is a popular assumption and one I’ve seen in the comments here. I’m sure it’s true for many foreigners who live here but there are even more of us who are not wealthy. It may confuse people because they assume you have to be rich to live in France.
3) Yes, real life settles in and it’s just a matter of people not realizing what day-to-day life is like or not caring or wanting to learn. So instead, they’re strange/rude/weird sometimes.
Thanks again for sharing your thoughts! Say hi to the little plum and her sister 😉
Geraldine Ventura says
Thank you for your article. I often tease my husband that the only thing he never gave me was a house in Provence. We have visited France nearly every other year, staying at least a month each time. So I hope you can see how much I would love to live there. Sadly, the negatives, I believe, come from the expats living there, who speak about our country so negatively because they haven’t gotten over the election of 2016. I find this to be very true of women who write some of the popular blogs and on Facebook. Yet, they are still eager to reap the financial benefits of being an American, that allow them to live in France, and get upset when people challenge them. Thus, they instill negatives to Americans who are still living in the USA. Whenever I read these comments, I am saddened that they used their blog to dwell on the so called negatives of their political choices instead of on all the wonderful aspects of living in France along with the situations that have been challenging for them. I think you do a very positive effort in this regard. Thank you.
Hi Geraldine, thanks for reading.
I can’t say I’ve come across any blogs I read regularly that are expats in France that are heavy on politics, but I’d probably steer clear of those anyway.I think politics (and religion) is a valid point of discussion, but my blog personally isn’t a place where I discuss those things except in passing. Doesn’t feel right to me. People get very emotional and fired up and discussions rarely end well (if FB is any indicator).
Thanks again for being here. 😉
Taste of France says
It’s about them, not you and not France. It’s about somebody saying to themselves, maybe I shouldn’t have partied so much in high school, or maybe I should have made more of an effort. That’s for the insecure, jealous ones. There might be those who are happy with their families and situations where they are, and though they might have dreamed of living in France, they wouldn’t trade their families for anything. But the ones who are unhappy are the ones who will attack you for being different. Just like grade school, where if you had exactly the same things as everybody else, you were a boring copycat but if you had something just a bit different it could be the launchpad for merciless bullying.
France is just another country. It’s relatively well-run, and the people are still in touch with their cultural roots, and that makes it charming. But as someone else said, at the end of the day, everybody still goes to buy food, they still get stuck in traffic, they still enjoy the small pleasures of life, usually focused on family and friends. I’ve lived in four countries and France is my favorite. If it weren’t it would be on me to move.
I always enjoy your posts, and this one in particular because I have experienced the same reactions on our visits back to the US. I’ve noticed that we either get the snarky comments about how rude “all” the French are, or I get questioned about why we would want to live here. Another curious reaction is that some of our good friends don’t even discuss it. We have been living in France for 9 months, and we come back to visit, and you don’t even want to ask how our new life is going? I can’t tell if they are just a bit jealous, or if they just are so caught up in their own lives that they can’t deal with ours.
Hi Alison! It’s such a delicate balance, isn’t it? We want to be cheerleaders for others and ask about their lives and then when it isn’t reciprocated, it’s so easy to feel let down. I have no idea if it’s jealousy or people who are too busy to care about anyone but themselves or what. I absolutely think there’s a way to talk about your different life abroad in a non-arrogant and non-showy way. But people interpret it however they want and it’s a shame because we could all learn from each other.
Just know that you are not alone and I’m always happy to hear about how things are going for you. Email is always open 🙂 That goes for anyone reading this…
Also, so happy you enjoy my posts. Means a lot!
Assuming you are talking about telling Americans back home you live in France, yeah, I can get that (sometimes if I am vague and just say “I live in Europe”). But yes, as France is one of those places Americans romanticize big-time, it must be even more extreme. People don’t even know what to do if I tell them I live in the Czech Republic. Sometimes they like to talk about how beautiful Prague is, other times they wonder how life in ‘Czechoslovakia’ is… my mother in law didn’t even know that we live in a city where there are things like buses and shopping centers. I guess everywhere’s got their stereotype.
I’m French and I’ve had similar reactions when I mention that I spent a year abroad in the USA. To me, my year abroad was just that – a year abroad. I studied English in college and I had a choice to be a language assistant in the UK, Ireland or the USA – I chose the USA because I thought that I was less likely to be able to travel to the USA in my life than in the UK or Ireland, which were closer to France.
So all of my friens spent their year abroad in the UK or Ireland, and I went to the USA. When I came back, a lot of people seemed to be kind of jealous that I went to the USA, they even seemed to think that it was better than a year abroad in the UK. Their reaction sometimes made me think that they didn’t know how much energy (and money) I spent setting things up for my year abroad. Like I won the lottery or something. I had to go through an interview, I was selected among 100 other applicants and got accepted in a program that was way more competitive than the assistant program in the EU – but people seemed to ignore that.
They were just awed at the fact that I lived in the US. It’s just weird to me that people seem to think living – or just travelling, for that matter – in the USA is like living the dream. To me it’s just a country like any other.
When I tell American women I live in France they clasp their hands to their chests and get a dreamy look and say “How wonderful!”. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten negative comments. Most women seem to dream of living in Paris. I think people who travel are much more open minded about other countries. I have found that many French people think Americans living in France are wealthy so it goes both ways.
Hi Diane, I live in France – I mean, in Paris, “oh good god!” – and I always avoid mentioning it when talking to British or American people. If we end up being friends, and only then, will I eventually tell them that actually, I AM French. More often than not, I get the same reaction as your No3, at least for a while. And then they realize we’ve been sharing the same stories, laughs and so on for a couple of years so I’m probably not that different from them ! It’s a bit annoying though… Lol
Hi Elven, yes you get it! It’s funny I even think about this stuff but when you notice a pattern, it does become a “thing” and sorry that you’ve experienced it too!
Virginia Koffke says
Have just found this post. I do have sympathy for the reluctance to say where you live. I live in Australia and years ago stopped telling anyone that when we went Europe because I got fed up with saying that deadly spiders don’t lurk in all our homes, nor do the snakes and I have only twice seen a shark and that was from a boat! Every country has it’s myths it would seem and once you live there it is just ‘home’ with all the day to day stuff that happens anywhere. Mind you I do fantasize about living in France more because of food choices and being near our family.
I get those comments when I mention my sister lives in Paris. “Oh, lucky you. You get a free place to stay”. We have taken some long term trips over there to visit and explore. Most people think that I get a free trip when I go over there. Nope. I save for 3 years in order to afford it. I didn’t always have a free place to stay because her place was too small. I have paid for hotels and Air B&B’s. They assume I get a free tour guide. While she does offer suggestions and advice when we ask, I did my own research and made my own itinerary. We learned how to use the metro and did all our sightseeing on our own while she was at work. I speak French, so I can go to the local markets and stay outside of the tourist neighborhoods. Just visiting there for a few weeks, and exploring other regions of France, I could see how living there would be very different than vacationing there. Some things would drive me nuts. It is a different culture and way of doing things. There are pros and cons of living in the US and France. Do I love vacationing there and the French culture? Yes. Will I ever live there? Maybe take longer visits when I retire, but I don’t know if I would live there permanently like my sister, who is a French citizen. Knowing more about France than most US citizens, I wind up setting people straight about what it is true and what is Hollywood.