Top 10 tips for surviving in France
Veteran expat Vanessa Couchman offers 10 tips on how newcomers can experience life in France to its fullest.
You love holidaying in France but living permanently in this country is a different prospect from spending a couple of weeks here. Whether you stay for a few years or forever, some common sense hints will help you get more out of life in France.
1. Learn the language
Even if you never speak French fluently, mastering some essential phrases will help with everyday situations. Dealing with officialdom is infinitely more difficult if you don’t understand what’s going on. If your current level is elementary, don’t expect just to absorb the language. Your vocabulary will increase, but your ability to string together more than a few words won’t. French language courses to suit all levels are available in most places. In addition, read the French papers, watch the French news and talk to your neighbours.
2. Stay warm in winter
The mellow stone house with the sparkling blue pool you saw basking in the sunshine changes character mysteriously from November to March. No one tells you this before you move in. Many parts of France, even in the south, can be freezing in the winter with night time temperatures often well below zero.
If your house does not have central heating, think seriously about investing in it. Depending on the type of heating you choose, there are tax breaks available, which can reduce the burden considerably.
3. Keep yourself occupied
Not much goes on during the winter in rural areas – unlike the summer months when there is usually too much to choose from. In winter, you might have to drive a long way to get to a restaurant, cinema or concert. If you don’t work, take up a hobby or occupation that keeps you busy for at least some of the time. Join a club or association, such as a choir or a walking group, which will help you to integrate and learn French.
4. Don’t spurn fellow expats
Naturally, you want to make French friends and integrate. But if your French is still basic, it will take a long time to get a social life if you restrict yourself to the locals. So don’t give your fellow expats the cold shoulder. You don’t have to be best pals with everybody of your nationality but they can provide an entrée to a very effective mutual support network. Guard against getting drawn into expat-only cliques, though – they just reinforce the stereotype.
5. Make sure you have enough to live on
Depending on where you come from, the cost of living in rural France can be relatively cheap, but you still can’t run on fresh air. Many British people living on pension income were caught out by sterling’s slide against the euro in 2008 and have had trouble making ends meet. Allow a certain margin for the unforeseen.
6. Keep in with the taxman
If you are permanently residing in France you will need to register with the tax authorities, the Impôts. They assess you on your worldwide income. While the French themselves regard non-declaration of income as a sort of national sport, it’s best as a foreigner to stick to the rules. The declaration forms themselves, especially the one for overseas income, are difficult to figure out even if your French is good.
The authorities themselves are surprisingly human and will help you complete them – after all, they have an interest in you getting it right! You can normally turn up at the local Hôtel des Impôts (tax office) during opening hours without an appointment.
7. Live with bureaucracy
French bureaucracy is legendary and its Byzantine complexity is all too real – whether you’re installing a phone line or registering in the health system. You’ll find yourself having to provide proof of address, identity, paternity and everything bar inside leg measurement to achieve the simplest administrative tasks. You will often need to provide French translations of the required documents.
Keep a stock of passport-sized photos, make multiple photocopies of essential documents and guard the originals carefully. Many préfectures now have staff who can speak English, but don’t bank on it. This is yet another reason for learning the language.
8. Be nice to builders
Local tradesmen can be infuriatingly casual. They don’t turn up when they said they would, the estimate you asked for six months ago never arrived or the job they started last year is still only half-finished. Throwing money at the problem is not the solution, nor is working yourself into a blind rage – on the contrary.
The pace of life here is slower; people are in less of a hurry. That’s why you came. Patience is the only remedy, combined with the odd gentle reminder. Remember that one day you might urgently need a burst pipe plugged or a hole in the roof mended. Tradesmen are usually more responsive to real emergencies – which probably explains their absence when you were expecting them.
9. Learn to shop and cook with the seasons
Produce in rural French supermarkets is not as varied as you might expect. Fresh game can be almost impossible to get, except around Christmas, despite the French passion for la chasse. Certain types of fresh produce, such as asparagus or melons, are available only in season. This is not necessarily a bad thing: think how environmentally friendly it is not buying out of season strawberries that have thousands of air miles behind them. And produce eaten only in season is much more of a treat. Get to know the local dishes, which are based on seasonal produce.
10. Get out more!
France is blessed with wonderful countryside, picturesque towns and villages and varied regional cuisine and it’s steeped in history. Having moved here, it’s tempting to sit and enjoy the scenery chez vous without venturing into other parts of the country. Also, for the first few summers you might feel you are running a small hotel without the significant benefit of being paid for it. So take time out to see and enjoy France.
Reprinted with permission from Life on La Lune.
Vanessa Couchman is a British freelance writer who has lived in southwest France since 1997. She writes magazine articles as well as business literature, such as annual reports, for clients in the UK and internationally.
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