Expat Voices: Catharine Higginson on living in France
Catharine Higginson misses pubs and car boot sales but recognises that the quality of life in France is better than in her native UK.
Name: Catharine Higginson
City of residence: near Biarritz
Date of birth: 17.10.69
Civil status: Married
Occupation: Freelance journalist and translator
Reason for moving to France: Where do I start? Well, we wanted an adventure and I was really disenchanted with the education system in the UK. I thought learning another language would be a great advantage for the children and we wanted a better lifestyle.
Lived in France for six years.
What was your first impression of France?
We moved to a very rural part of Brittany and the culture shock was immense. I couldn’t believe how quiet it was and how bars and restaurants shut so early out of season, if indeed they opened at all...
What do you think of the food?
If I am being totally honest, in general I think French food is overrated and unutterably boring. Yes, traditional French food can be great but I am sick and tired of going out for lunch and being offered ‘steak frites’ on the menu de jour. I love steak (and chips!) but it would be nice for the meat to be accompanied by something else, sometimes...
And I don’t mean soggy pasta either because it just doesn’t work! I have yet to find decent Italian food in France and I really miss the sheer variety of food that we have in the UK. And I really detest the way the French take something (that works) from another culture’s cuisine - say pizza - and bastardise it by adding French ingredients like foie gras, honey and camembert. The worst example I have ever seen of this was in a posh restaurant and was supposedly a ‘kebab’ but contained foie gras marinated in Sangria!
What do you think of the shopping in France?
Fantastic fresh produce but for everything else from clothes, to trampolines, to computers to car parts, we buy from elsewhere in Europe. It is far cheaper, the after sales service is better and delivery is invariably quicker than buying from a French company online.
What do you appreciate about living in France?
The countryside, the people, the weather, the health service, there are loads of things. Perhaps most important of all is the feeling of safety and security.
What do you find most frustrating about living in France?
The way it takes so, so, so long to get anything done. And the complete and utter lack of customer service.
What puzzles you about France and what do you miss since you’ve moved here?
These days I don’t really miss anything other than people, especially my parents who I don’t see anything like as much of as I would like. We have learnt to make decent curries (and even crumpets!) so the things I miss are places rather than things. I would love to go for a long pub lunch at the weekends, I miss being able to go to a car boot sale and know there will be good quality cheap gear there and most of all, I really miss being able to complain really effectively! What puzzles me the most is how the French as a nation seem oblivious to the way they are becoming economically uncompetitive and being left behind in terms of technology. If I was in a position of power in France, I would be very, very worried by this.
How does the quality of life in France compare to the quality of life in other countries that you’ve lived in?
Having only ever lived in the UK, I don’t have a lot to compare it with but I would say the overall quality of life for our family is far better. Our children have more freedom and get to take part in things in a way that would just not have happened in the UK. School trips are cheap, there are grants towards holiday clubs with really great activities and activity holidays. Last night, my 13 year old daughter was taken to the ballet by school. It cost €3 including the coach.
During the half term she went skiing for a week, again it was very reasonable. We live in a great area and spend our summers at the beach. We have a lot less money than we had in the UK but we have far more time.
If you could change anything about France, what would it be?
It doesn’t affect me personally but I think France needs to drop the idea that people train to do one job and then do it for the rest of their life.
What advice would you give to a newcomer?
Don’t bury yourself alive in the countryside - the people there may be very pleasant but you will be unlikely to meet many like-minded people.
Don’t try too hard to make friends, let it happen naturally like you would back home and find a forum where you can converse with like-minded people. Oh and insist all your guests bring tea bags!
Networking is really important and so is support. All forums are different and those covering the entire country are great for general advice but local info is vital. That’s why we are shortly launching a forum for people local to us in the 64 region of France. www.catharinehigginson.com
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