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.
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?!
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.