Our Survival Guide helps you get settled in France as quickly and painlessly as possible – but it hasn’t covered the emotional roller coaster that is your first year abroad.
I’ve been here long enough — three years — to have gotten my own Life in France largely settled: paperwork, job, house, kids in school…But I haven’t been here so long I don’t remember what it feels like to be fresh off the plane.
Ups and downs
And the truth is that your first year is exhilarating and exciting — but also draining and overwhelming. Some days, in the morning you might say to yourself: “Wow, look at me, I live in France!” And that afternoon, you may wonder to yourself: “Now why exactly was it I thought moving to France was such a good idea?”
People complain about the administrative headaches that come with moving here, but few people end up leaving because of them. No, they leave because they simply don’t feel comfortable here. I can tell you the rules for getting a carte de séjour, but there are no rules for finding your place to call home and feel at home in France.
I get email from readers in all circumstances from all over France and I can say that, from the expat point of view, there’s really no such thing as France.
Everyone’s experience is unique depending on where you live; whether or not you’re single, here with an expat spouse or married to a French person; working or retired; and, most of all, depending on why you came here in the first place.
That said, there are certain themes and questions that repeat themselves in both reader email and many of the books on expat life in France.
This ‘bootleg version’ of the Survival Guide, which I’m introducing here and will add to regularly, are simply anecdotes from my first year (or two) about some of those themes and some things I think I’ve figured out about ‘surviving’ as an expat.
The expat spirit guide phenomenon
It’s often true that our viewpoint on France — the behaviour, habits, sense of humour, politics and even the vocabulary — everything we come to think of as ‘typical French’ is predicated on one person, or one circle of people.
In one sense, by moving far from home, your universe has infinitely expanded.
IIn another sense, the one that means you arrive not knowing anyone and with only a vague sense of your physical environment and how things operate, your universe has shrunk.
At first, it may be confined to your apartment, your office and the grocery store. To your boss and your French teacher and your neighbours. Maybe one or two other expat friends.
For most of us, our lives don’t stay fixed by these boundaries, but this process takes time. And during this time, our observations about France are, obviously, informed by the people we happen to know here. I call this the expat spirit guide phenomenon.
Expat spirit guides
For example, I’ve been married for 10 years to a French man so, of course, my expat spirit guide is: my mother-in-law.
I realised this one day at her house, where we stayed for five months when we first got here. I was in a rush and wanted to feed my children a quick lunch: peanut butter and jelly. My mother-in-law comes into the kitchen and asks me, with genuine consternation, worry and confusion: “Why, why would you do that?” The kids got steack-frites, which is what French mothers in a hurry feed their kids.
The importance of this story is that I realised at this moment that everything I think of as ‘typical French’, and most of the changes I have made to my lifestyle, are rooted in my observations of and relations with my in-laws.
Specifically, they are most influenced by a mother-in-law who thinks peanut butter and jelly is tantamount to child abuse; a woman who irons her sheets, the underwear, and, occasionally, the bath towels; and who, as a general rule, dislikes foreigners, and yet who has been genuinely kind to and accepting of her American daughter-in-law.
My France and your France
This paradox is My France. It may have nothing to do with Your France.
The point, however, is that expats have to be careful about picking the person or environment that comes to function as their spirit guide.
There are several long threads on our discussion boards of expats complaining about their French mother-in-laws. I genuinely like mine — and, as a Bourguignonne who grew up during the war on a farm without running water or electricity, she does represent what the French call les français de souche. So she has been a wonderful and helpful point of reference for me.
But if you don’t get along with your French mother-in-law, or you’re an expat exec who doesn’t get along with your French boss, or a homeowner living next to a difficult French neighbour, this one person can have a negative and disproportionate influence on how you feel about living here.
If you realise that this is what’s happening, however, you can try to find a new Expat Spirit Guide, someone who provides you with a helpful and a positive outlook on life here.
It’s your job as a new arrival to find this person or environment. And, especially if you intend to stay for a while, it is as important a responsibility as getting healthcare or paying your taxes.
This is a closely related idea that comes from a children’s book titled ‘Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day’.
In this book, a little boy named Alexander is having one of these days and he thinks that if he could only run away to Australia, he’d never have another one. At the end of the book, his mother explains to him that some days are simply like that, even in Australia.
Even for those new arrivals who are true Francophiles, you will undoubtedly have some days like this; these are the moments when you feel frustrated, or infantilised, or just mentally fatigued. In a way, it’s only logical to conclude that it’s France that’s making you feel this way.
For example: a few months after arriving here, an American girlfriend, who has lived here for more than 10 years, and I are walking through a grocery store parking lot on a rainy day. A car goes by, driving a bit too fast, and splashes water on me.
This was something that had happened to me back in California too. But because I was in the middle of the frustrating and often humiliating experience of obtaining my French driver’s license, I chose this moment to launch into one of my personal favourite rants about French driving.
My friend turns to me and says: “You know, Clair, it’s not France’s fault it’s raining.”
Indeed, it even rains in Australia.
For me, it took a full two years before I could honestly and completely distinguish between the “even in Australia days” and the particular aspects of Life in France that I don’t like. Or the converse can be true too: it takes time to be able to tell the difference between that feeling of adventure and excitement that comes with moving abroad and a lifestyle you want to adopt.
If you’re here less than two years or if you’re a ‘serial expat’ whose career means moving from one country to another, it certainly doesn’t mean you won’t learn anything meaningful about France or the French.
But you to have keep guard against the “even in Australia days”, those days when it’s easy to imagine that whatever difficulty you’re experiencing would never happen to you anywhere else.