In January, I passed the 5-year-mark of living in France. At once a shocking, amazing, and comforting fact, the date passed with little fanfare… except for my overwhelming sense of gratitude and relief.
Gratitude for all of the people who have supported me through my move to another country, and relief for the sense of peace that I now feel living in my adopted home. Because now I really do feel that France is my home and that I actually have a life here outside of the French lessons, job searches, and paperwork-chasing that made up those early first days, and months, of my expat experience. Because, truth be told, it’s taken about 5 years to build a life here.
Moving to another country is not for the faint of heart. I started my journey to France via a move to Italy that was based more on one-too-many showings of Under the Tuscan Sun, than anything practical… even though I’d always fancied myself a very practical kinda gal. I’d done all of the “right” things during my life in the US… attended a good college, landed a great job, and started a steady climb up the career ladder. But when all of those boxes were checked, I couldn’t stop myself from asking, What’s next? Marriage, kids, more school? Throughout college, I’d been too financially strapped to travel, then came the career and as I saw most of my friends starting to settle down, I couldn’t stop a nagging feeling that I’d missed out on something. At 31, I wasn’t quite ready to set-up my picket fence, and I definitely wasn’t ready to put more letters behind my name, so I hatched a plan to move to Italy.
It wasn’t totally out of the blue, although it seems a bit that way now… During my search for “what was next”, I booked my first trip to Europe, with a tour group, and fell completely in love with the city of Rome. I decided on that trip that I would make Rome my new home, even if only temporarily.
And I felt it was a very solid plan. I spent two years preparing for my move… language lessons, job searching, Italian guidebook-devouring, and TEFL-course preparing. I also signed-up for a degree program at an American university in case I couldn’t find a job. Somehow or other, I was going to make this work.
But moving abroad, I soon discovered, is a lot more complicated than getting your passport up-to-date or renting an apartment. You can plan your little heart out, but it’s really the intangible things in your life that take the most work… and unlike finishing language classes or completing a degree, they really have no time limit.
And in the beginning you’ll feel lonely, really lonely.
Like, how do you make friends, real friends? Are they expats or locals? Are they here for a few short months and then off to the next adventure or will they somehow manage to stick it out for a couple of years? And what about when they eventually leave, because they do almost always leave, will you have to start all over again? Because, as I discovered those first few years in Italy, surviving abroad isn’t so much about learning the language or adopting the customs, it’s about having a support network you can rely on.
And so to sum up three years of living in Rome in one short paragraph…. I made a lot of friends and I “lost” a lot of friends who moved back to their home countries. It goes without saying that I had an amazing time, perhaps the “adventure” of my life, but in the end, Rome never felt like home to me. The expat life is truly a transitory one, and with so many people coming and going, it’s hard to catch your breath… or form a long-term support network. Often it seemed like were held together by a love of wine bars and pasta carbonara and not much else. Again, a very fun time indeed, but not much to build a life on.
And then there was the move to France. It’s exhausting even to think about. Far from years to plan, I had about three months before we made the leap. No language classes, zero job searches, and no idea at all about how to make friends. I thought that having someone take the lead, ie. the French guy I was moving with, would make things easier all around. Yes, paper-work and apartment-finding was certainly much easier, but then we came back those intangibles… finding a friend network, building a support system, and creating a foundation for a new life.
Well, no surprise there, but those three things take a whole, whole lot of time. The good news is, although it was a lot harder to find friends in our small-ish town in France than cosmopolitan Rome, the expats who have settled here in the “deep south” are usually in it for the long haul. A lot are married, many are retired, and some just love the French lifestyle so much they couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. And I’ve made some French friends, which I never thought would happen when I arrived. It takes an even longer time to get “in” with the French, but once you do, you’ll have friends for life.
So after 5 years in France, 8 years living abroad, I would say that the most important lesson I’ve learned is, beyond taking care of all of the “housekeeping” details of uprooting your life, it’s the process of getting connected to others that makes any place home.
Needless to say, I’m excited to see what these next 5 years will bring…
And I’d love to hear if you have any memorable moments about connecting with others while living / traveling abroad (?)
20 thoughts on “5 Years in France… Finding a place to call home”
Tuula, you are so brave, to leave all you know and head for Europe! Congratulations on having the courage to do it in the first place, then making it work, then accepting that maybe Rome wasn’t THE place (Gosh I would have tried that too, love Rome!!) and then moving to France! I have moved back and forth to California 3 times before deciding to settle here but I did it with my husband each time so I can only imagine how hard it was to be completely alone. When we moved to France, again it was together….. you are very brave. I totally relate with your comments on trying to find friends when you are far from home, I can remember being here and walking around looking at complete strangers wondering whether they might be good people to be friends with!! It is a lonely time but somehow you find like minded people. So great to be blogging friends with you! X
That’s very kind of you Caroline! I know you’ve moved around a lot too, so you understand how much work it can be… put also how rewarding it all is in the end. Thanks again for your support and for your great blog!
Hi Tuula. I have been following your story for some time now and really enjoyed reading your “5 years” post. I’m sure you’ve absolutely nailed it in terms of the need for “connections” and networks. I would love to have done what you’ve done. Reading about your journey is almost as good as being there. I have travelled to Europe regularly over the years (from New Zealand!) and my favourite area is exactly where you live. One day I will get to Provence for an extended period. Thanks for sharing your story and for providing wonderful insight into life in la belle Provence.
Thank you Geoffrey, your feedback means a lot and really happy you enjoyed reading the post. It’s great that you’ve been able to travel so much… and I would have to agree that Provence is a pretty special place (of course I’m a bit biased!). Hope you find yourself back in France soon and many thanks for your kind words about the blog!
I lived in Spain with a boyfriend. He got on very well with the Spanish gardener, so one day he invited him and his wife for Sunday lunch. Some English ex-pat neighbours told him that was something one never does, and that he’d made a mistake. The following Sunday we waited and waited into the afternoon and no sign of the gardener. Just as we had given up, suddenly there was a knock on the door and in walked, not only the gardener and his wife, but their whole extended family – 18 people! Small women in black took over my kitchen and cooked blood sausages and other things. Much wine and beer appeared, and two men played guitars. Everyone stood around the walls of the sitting-room, and took turns to dance in the middle. Once we got over the shock of so many guests, we really enjoyed ourselves for the rest of the day, and agreed it was much more fun than sitting on the chintz sofas of our snobby ex-pat neighbours!
That sounds like a blast! I love those kind of people… open and spontaneous and willing to open their hearts to new friendships. That is one unforgettable afternoon! Thanks for sharing Gill, appreciate hearing about your expat experience… et bon weekend!
Tuula, your story is inspirational … the good days and the not so good. I follow you regularly although I don’t comment often … too many writing deadlines looming. It’s wonderful to see you finding your place and building such a lovely website with such helpful information and observations. I still plan to send you a post at some point! Congratulations!
Thank you very much Patricia! I appreciate your kind comment and happy that we’ve been able to connect… look forward to reading more of your work… on all things French and fabulous! Thanks again 🙂
Thank you for telling us your story, Tuula. The ex-pat I know best is Delana (you know her, right?) and I’ve heard so much from her about that life and the rewards and hardships. But in the end, no matter where you are, it IS the people and relationships that are so very important. Even for us, moving down to a totally new state, and part of the country, it’s the people and connections here that have made it so very wonderful (the weather helps too!)
Hello Libby, I know you are a frequent traveller to Provence and you’ve got a lot of the “inside scoop” on what it’s like to live here (from you lovely friend Delana!). Happy you can share in the experience and I totally agree, wherever you live, it’s all about the people that make any place feel like “home”. Thank you for your kind comment!
Wow, Tuula, reading this post came at just the right time for me. I’ll reach the 5-year mark of living in France (Burgundy for me) this July, and I can totally relate to those ups and downs of trying to crete a social support system. I think it makes us stronger and you realize that the relationships that do persevere are very special ones. It’s reassuring to know that there are other ex-pats going through the confusing transitions of trying to integrate without compromising individuality and true identity. Thanks for sharing your perspective and keep writing!
Oh Burgundy is so wonderful Danielle, lucky you! And a big congrats to making it to the 5-year mark… no easy feat indeed! I agree that it definitely makes us stronger…. even though it can be really hard to hold onto your indentity but, as tough as it’s been at some points, I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.
Thank you for your inspiring words!
What a lovely post! Our family has been living in Normandy for the last year (and relocating to Provence this summer) and I found myself nodding my head in agreement. You have far more expat experience than I, but I so appreciate and connect with your thoughts! Merci!
Thank you Anna! Normandy is a lovely part of France and I’m sure it’s been an amazing experience so far. Will have a pop over to your blog and thanks again for your kind comment.
This is so true Tuula. Thanks for sharing your experience, it is nice to know that I wasn’t the only one finding it difficult at times.
I’m a Canadian who moved to the UK for a masters program – I ended up meeting my future husband and have now been living in the UK for over 5 years. The paperwork is endless when trying to stay in a country as an ex-pat and even more so when you have to re-apply for all those documents again in your married name! However, when I look back, the most challenging aspect of moving to a new country was creating a friend network to fill in for all the close friends and family I left behind. I still struggle sometimes as, like you said, many of my Canadian friends moved back to Canada, but I am very lucky that I’ve made some lovely British friends too!
One of the best things about living in the UK is that I am much closer to France which has always held a special place in my heart ever since my first visit in 2004. In fact, I’ve created a blog dedicated to French food: http://www.classictasteblog.com, and am looking forward to my next trip to Ménerbes, Provence in May!
Hello Allison! Wow, that is a lot of change. And I feel you on the paperwork… France has so much it will make your head spin 🙂 One of the less “fun” aspects of being an expat for sure! Happy to hear that you’ve made some good friends in the UK, no easy feat, and looking forward to reading you blog… never tired of French food! Thanks again for reaching out and wishing you much success in your own expat experience. Tuula
I’m an old man, lived in France for a year, 50 years ago. My heart has been set upon living retirement and continuing my writing in Cassis. I am now trying to unravel the layers of paper work, and medical/Rx confronting me. My budget will allow for my really modest life there, but the medical/Rx & paperwork monster may end my long time dream. Does anyone there have any remedies or other advice for me ~ Thanks ~ Jim
Hi Jim, thank you for your comment and I can understand the desire to retire in France, it’s a lovely place. Have you thought of somewhere close to Cassis? I only say this because Cassis is expensive, really expensive… Our town of Toulon (still on the sea) is probably about a third of the cost to give you an idea. And if you get a French social security card, you should benefit from the social welfare system. I hope that is helpful, good luck to you!
Thank you so very much for your reply to my post.
Indeed the years do take some tolls. It seems that yesteryears Cassis relative cost of living has become Toulon’s relative current cost of living. I’ve always appreciated the many benefits of being near a metropolitan area. Both my comfort zone and my ease of focusing upon my writing is a slow way of life; which in general is somewhat characteristic of France. I enjoy both socialization and my sequestering for writing and retreat.
The coastal region’s moderate climate and the opportunity to find a local fisherman willing to sell a fresh catch to me is asking a lot. When I was there Cassis, Sanary Sur Mer and other small coastal towns were economical places to live, now quite apparently no longer the case. I did find Toulon to be a wonderful city. Is there any small coastal village (commune) with a reasonable cost of living? (& hopefully a fresh catch fish to buy and cook?)
I might try to come for a few months to explore details of both my residence and what would be the loss of my medical and Rx insurance. Being cost conscious I would really hope that my ‘visit’ could simply be the first three month of my retirement there. Knowing full well that “the best laid schemes of mice and men often go astray”, I do still try to plan my schemes and find amusement as the ‘astray’ unfolds.
Once Again ~ Many Thanks ~ Jim
Yes, living near the sea is wonderful! Once you get used to it, it’s difficult to change… especially in the South of France. Indeed, unfortunately, everyone seems to have a bit of the same idea… prices have really gone up here. I guess it all depends if you are looking to rent or buy. In Toulon, you could rent a one-bedroom for a very reasonable rate and be very close to your fresh fish! Otherwise, you might think about going out to a village close by – very good prices there. Not too far from the coast, you could try the villages of La Crau, Cuers, or Belgentier. We absolutely love Sanary-sur-Mer, but it is not in our budget. A decent house starts at €500,000, and that’s still a pretty small one! And rents near the port are very high too. Villages are a great option – you get the real “Provençal” feel, but are still a short drive / bus ride to the sea. Good luck with your search, it’s not always easy to find the right fit, but a few months here will give you a good idea. Safe travels, bon voyage!