EFAM | Escape From America Magazine

Expats Living in France

France features a rich and diverse history, culture, and geography

As one of the largest countries in Europe, France features a rich and diverse history, culture, and geography. While the French are famously defensive about maintaining their “French identity,” it is not at all singular. Influences range from Ionic Greek in what is today Marseilles; to Celtic rein over ancient Gaul; to Roman conquest of southern France and the eventual spreading of Roman cultural influences throughout the country; to incursions by various Germanic tribes, most notably the Franks, from east of the Rhine; to Celtic Briton settlement of Brittany in the northwest. Figures such as Charlemagne, Joan of Arc, Cardinal Richelieu, The Sun King Louis XIV, and Napoleon Bonaparte stand as icons of a storied French history, and the Eiffel Tower stands out among the world’s most recognizable symbols, representing all of the vibrancy and romance of Paris, the City of Lights.

The geography of France holds as much diversity as the culture does. The posh Riviera in the south, the stark limestone cliffs of Normandy in the north, and the lovely Atlantic beaches of the southwestern coast offer beach-going experiences that seem worlds apart. In the southeast, the Alps and the Massif Central mountain ranges are cut through by the Rhone River Valley. Whereas this river flows west out of Switzerland and then south to the Mediterranean, the Seine, the Loire, and the Garonne Rivers feed the rich agricultural landscapes throughout the rest of France, with the different regions producing the many varieties of wines, cheeses, and other gastronomical wonders that enrich the refined French palate. In the southwest, the Pyrenees divide France from Spain, while the northeast is an economic and cultural crossroads with strong German influences as well as connections with Belgium and Luxembourg.

Metz, Lorraine, Northeastern France

Metz, Lorraine - This city’s history dates back 3,000 years

The region of Lorraine is in the northeast, with the city of Metz as its administrative capital. This city’s history dates back 3,000 years. Julius Cesar identified it as Divodurum, the walled fortress that served as the capital of the Celtic tribe known as the Mediomatrici of Gaul. It became a major center of wealth and power under Roman occupation, then of the Frankish Empire, followed by centuries of contention between what we would today call French and German influences.

Today’s Metz remains a major cultural and economic center, not only for Lorraine, but also for the SaarLorLux Euroregion, a transnational cooperative structure that takes advantage of the region’s centralized location, despite national boundaries. An ambitious urban renaissance is currently underway that includes a high-tech park specializing in information technology, an impressive new museum of modern and contemporary art that is a branch of the Pompidou Center in Paris, and high-speed rail connections. Metz is also known as The Green City due to the large amount of green space that has been designed into the city’s history-filled framework.

Aaron is an expat from the United States who has been living in Metz. He offers an interesting perspective of expat life in France with his thoughtful answers to this familiar set of questions about living abroad, and you can read more about Aaron’s life in France at his blog, Floating in France.

J.R.B. Where did you come from originally?

I’m originally from Cincinnati, Ohio

J.R.B. Why did you choose to live in France?

Since childhood I had always dreamed about Europe, its history, its architecture, its beauty and the way of life here. I was interested pretty much in every country, but especially France, Spain and Italy. This led me to study abroad and take longer and longer trips. When I learned of an opportunity to teach in France for two years, I jumped at the opportunity. It was a dream come true for me, and I ended up staying. I’ve been here for twelve years now.

J.R.B. What do you like about it?

In America I developed an aversion to the rat race culture. I was a bit of a slave to my datebook. I had to think months in advance to book a lunch with a friend. In December I was planning July, and in July December. This is not to mention all the driving around every day. In France we don’t have this lifestyle. We live day to day. Life is more spontaneous. On a beautiful day people make time to have a croissant with coffee at a sidewalk café, take a walk in the park, meet friends, or go to an art exhibition. They take advantage of each moment and have an eye for detail. How to make tonight’s dinner party perfect? What wines to choose? What vegetable goes best with the roast? And never forget the dessert! Or the flowers for the center piece! So many examples come to mind. Savoir-faire is priceless. I’m not sure I could do without it now. It’s become a part of me.

J.R.B. What don’t you like about it?

Well, I think it’s the flipside of what I love about France. It’s a country entrenched in tradition. We live in such a beautiful place, are privileged to art, cuisine, philosophies and ideas centuries old that have withstood even terrible wars, cultural revolutions and social upheavals. By nature, France is resistant, even allergic to change. Being American I have a tendency to want to change things, evolve as a person, see a progression to something different, better, greater or at least step back and look at the big picture. This is all lacking in France. Sometimes I feel like I’m a prisoner of what I love about France. If I were from Los Angeles I might find life here so monotonous. Case in point, spending the day in Paris (two hours away) is exceptional here whereas for Americans it just might be a daily commute! Likewise, the goal of the weekly meeting at work is the meeting itself since everyone knows beforehand no issue will be addressed directly, let alone resolved.

J.R.B. What has been the most difficult aspect of life in France for you to adjust to?

One word: bureaucracy, a French word after all, translated literally as “busy work at a desk”. I would compare this to the scavenger hunt. It works like this: you are told by X person that for your wish/need to be granted you have to prepare a dossier and to submit it to a committee of experts (all of these French words too!). There are about ten items on the given list to include in your file, yet soon it becomes apparent that each of the items actually constitutes another dossier in itself. They can include affidavits with stamps and signatures that are impossible to come by. And all of that can be to do the most simple of things.

J.R.B. What has surprised you about France?

I suppose this could be an essay on its own. Every day there are marvelous little surprises reminding me how much I love France mixed sometimes with setbacks and crazy little issues that have to be solved yet prove surprisingly daunting. There would certainly be fewer of both in the United States. Or else the concerns would be different. One of the most surprising aspects of my life in France has been a resurgence of my American identity. This is shared among most expats I know. Before coming to France I never deeply identified with America and could certainly never have been confused with a patriot. Nowadays it’s different. I have dual nationality and am as Frenchified as I will ever get. My French is fluent and even French people can be surprised I wasn’t born here. Yet, I feel more American each day. Most of core of who I am is directly related to my origins. I have great pride in being American, and the joy I feel when I go back to Cincinnati is indescribable. Now really that is the biggest surprise of them all.

Provence, Southeastern France

Provence, France – enchanting landscapes and legendary food

In the southeastern corner of France, the large region of Provence is defined by Italy to the east, the Mediterranean Sea to the south, the Rhone River to the west, and the French Alps, which hold some of the highest elevations in all of Europe. Although the varying geography creates microclimates, the region generally enjoys a Mediterranean climate that is warm, dry, and sunny, blended with alpine climates in the mountains and the continental climate that is less affected by the ocean or the sea in the department of Vaucluse, where the cities of Avignon and Orange are located.

Impressionist and Modernist artists such as Cézanne, van Gogh, Renoir, Matisse, Picasso, and Monet, among many others, came to Provence to paint the enchanting landscapes dotted with sleepy villages, drawn by the legendary quality of the light. The cuisine of Provence is also legendary, a product of the warm, dry climate, rugged terrain in the east, fruit orchards and vineyards in the Rhone Valley, and seafood from the Mediterranean. Also of legendary fame is the French Riviera, where sunny Saint-Tropez, Cannes, and Nice are magnates for the rich and fabulous along the southeastern coastline. It is a region of immense history and culture, where ancient Greek and Roman heritage abounds and distinct dialects endure.

Sara Louise lives in a tiny village in the mountains of central Provence. A similar set of questions was put to her, and the same lively zest for life that infuses her entertaining as well as informative blog, Sara in Le Petit Village, comes through in her responses here:

J.R.B. Where did you come from originally?

I was born in New York where I lived before moving to Texas at 12 and then flip-flopping back and forth between the two throughout my teenage years. Eight years ago, I moved to Dublin Ireland, and lived there for six years before moving to France two years ago.

J.R.B. What took you to Ireland eight years ago?

My mother is from Dublin, and I grew up spending a number of summers and holidays there with my large extended family. Living there was always something I had thought about, and then, in my mid-twenties I found myself at a crossroads, and thought, “why not?” I didn’t want to wake up one day, owned by a mortgage and my life and always wonder, “what if?” So I went. With the only plan being that if it didn’t work out, I could always move back. Honestly, it was the best decision of my life.

J.R.B. So how did you end up in France?

It’s very cliché I know, but I moved to France for love. I met my French husband in Dublin, and ten months later, moved to France with him. Six months later, we were married.

J.R.B. What do you like about it?

Cheese and wine. There’s something like 400 different types of cheese and 400 different varieties of wine in a country smaller than Texas! So many to explore and try (and to account for the weight gain currently camped out on my bottom).

But seriously, I am lucky enough to live in a place cloaked in history. My village was a market town that was a stop on the old road between Rome and Spain during Roman times, and on the ruins of that village, a 12th century village stands with homes that people still live in. People live in 900 year old homes, it’s amazing!

And the scenery! I jog every morning as the sun rises over the Luberon mountains. The view is breathtaking, and at the beginning of summer the air is sweet with lavender. It makes me feel truly blessed.

Life is a collection of experiences, and living in a small village in Provence, learning a new language and experiencing a new culture means I’m collecting some pretty unique ones.

J.R.B. What don’t you like about it?

Ai yai yai! France can be unbelievably inconvenient. Sometimes it feels like people, whether in government agencies or commercial enterprises, are deliberately working against you. The post office might open thirty minutes late, or a store or restaurant might decide to close on a whim without any notice. And while I refuse to stereotype an entire population, most of the customer service experiences I have had here have been less than stellar. Trying to accomplish things here, especially when you don’t have a full grasp of the language can be frustrating and infuriating.

J.R.B. What has been the most difficult aspect of life in France for you to adjust to?

The language barrier. While I’ve been taking French lessons since moving here, I still find it hard to fully express myself, or make a joke understood. After two years, I’m only beginning to think that people are getting to know ‘me’. I miss having long conversations with ease that don’t leave my brain aching and where I’m not performing charades and miming half of it.

J.R.B. What has surprised you about France?

How much Provence reminds me of Texas, except replace the bourbon or margaritas with Pastis [anis liqueur]. There’s lots of hunting, lots of dogs in trucks, and lots of guns. And also the man bags! Men here carry purses. Seriously.

A Word About Expat Blog

Many thanks go out to Aaron and Sara Louis, as well as all of the other expats living abroad who have participated in the short interviews featured in this series. They have all shared a little about their experiences with the hope that they can help others to get an idea of what the expat experience is all about. Many also make the effort to blog about their experiences living abroad, for a wide variety of reasons, with the result that anybody can go on the internet and take a peek at what expat life in just about any place in the world can be like. And one of the best places to find blogs as well as helpful information and expat forums, whether you are an expat looking to network with other expats, someone seeking information or advice about living in a specific place, or you enjoy learning about the world and finding out what other people’s experiences in different places are like, is at expat-blog.com. They cover the entire world and, like the majority of the expats who have offered their insights in these interviews, they want to help make the world more available and inviting to anyone who is interested.

About the author: Julie R Butler is a traveler, blogger, writer, and editor who has authored several books, self-published as eBooks, including Nine Months In Uruguay and No Stranger To Strange Lands (click here for more info). Julie presently lives in the sunny wine country of Argentina, where she co-edits and writes for Expat Daily News and Expat Daily News Latin America.

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7 Comments

  1. Erin Martinho January 4, 2012 at 10:17 am

    Great interviews and so true. I feel many of the same frustrations, but wouldn’t change anything.

  2. Linda Kalver January 5, 2012 at 11:02 pm

    How do you get to be an expat in France? Do you need a work permit? (Many expats, no douvt, are retired.) Do you pay money and get “cleared” (as I did in the Philippines)? Or are you really not permanent, and required to leave the country every year, or every six months, or whatever?

    France has excellent public health; if you are an expat, are you entitled to it? What about taxes? (The only expat I know living in France is married to a Frenchman; that’s an obvious way to do it, but what about singles?) And what about taxes/

    • Aaron February 23, 2012 at 10:19 am

      Hello Linda,
      Yes, you need a work permit to work in France. It’s called a Carte de Sejour. You obtain it in France with a visa (you get that in the States before you leave) and an official contract for employment. You do have to pay moeny to get both the visa and the carte de sejour. Once you get the “CdJ” you can get a social security number which you need to be paid by your employer and also to visit a doctor or get medicine from a pharmacy. When you work in France you are entitled to all the same social benefits as a French citizen, but you also pay income taxes immediately.

      Many thanks to Julie R. Butler for this interview.

      Just a note that my blog address has been changed. It is now once again: http://frenchiflyable.blogspot.com/

      Aaron

  3. Simon Oliver January 13, 2012 at 5:45 am

    A good article with some interesting feedback.

    One aspect of moving to France, however, has not been broached. That is the thorny question of moving into an essentially rural community. Apart from Paris, ex-pats tend to avoid city living in France as it is much the same as elsewhere – over-crowded, noisy, dirty, stressed-out and mildly dangerous. All the ‘good’ aspects to France – the lifestyle, the wine, the easy-going neighbours, the rich cultural heritage etc – are associated with village life or rural bliss. But the question remains: are you ready for rural life? Would you consider leaving DC for a crossroads in Iowa? Or Cinncinati for a rambling ranch in New Mexico?

    Having lived in France for over 30 years I find that this is the biggest single problem facing ex-pats: they find it very hard to adapt to rural living.

  4. Aaron March 19, 2012 at 6:58 pm

    Thanks to Julie R. Butler for the interview. I enjoyed participating. I wish her the best of luck with her project.

    To answer Linda’s question, you need to get a visa if you plan to spend more than 6 months there. If you have this and also get a job with a contract you can ask for a “carte de sejour” at the departemental prefecture. There are “dossiers” to put together for all of that, and of course, fees to be paid. Once you do this you get a social security number which entitles you to the same social benefits as a French citizen, including health care and social subsities. Yes, of course, you also have to pay taxes from the very beginning of your stay in France.

    For Simon, I largely agree with you about rural life in France outside the Paris area. However, here in the northeast though it’s pretty densely populated. It doesn’t seem rural at all, especially with all that urban sprawl around here. Nancy-Metz-Thionville-Luxembourg seems like one metropolitain area. What does seem provincial is everything being closed in the evenings and on Sundays! 24/7 not a concept.

    new link to my blog
    http://frenchiflyable.blogspot.fr/
    Aaron

  5. Tony Stowers November 8, 2012 at 9:20 am

    Hello

    I am an English writer/actor and I live in France.

    I’ve recently published to Amazon Kindle my new book “Gauguin’s Ghost story” and (lacking JK Rowling’s promotional budget) I am looking for platforms to critique or review or support the work, which is extremely well-researched. I explore in detail the Gauguin story and his links with his friends and family, including his relationships with other Impressionist painters and his family at the same time as creating a one-man show about him on a shoestring budget! Travel, immigration, art, culture, theatre, creativity, great food and wine – it’s all here, intelligently told with wit and humour.

    http://www.amazon.fr/Gauguins-Ghost-Story-ebook/dp/B0093N2Y90

    Would this interest you?

    Regards

    Tony Stowers

    • Alice Alech October 28, 2013 at 1:35 am

      Hi Toni,

      I too have self published with kindle and more recently with Smashwords. I would gladly review your work if you would do the same for mine.

      An Olive Oil Tour of France is all about the olive oil culture in France.

      Best;

      Alice Alech

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