Sometimes you start out with a new goal in mind, a dream perhaps, and you’re not sure exactly what direction you’re headed in, but you know you’ve just got to get moving. This was how my expat life started out, fulfilling a “dream” by moving to Italy and then eventually, through a few twists of fate, ending up in the south of France.
And like most expats, I tried to adapt to my “new culture” as best as possible – learning the language (still learning!), trying to understand the customs, and above all, just trying to fit in. Each place affects you – sometimes quite a bit – and no matter where I’ve lived, I’ve always tried to remember how I felt when I first arrived and how my life has been shaped over the years by my adopted home.
Since we first moved to Provence in January, the start of the year always finds me reflecting on how much my life has changed since arriving in la belle France. And since it’s been six years (a rollercoaster, challenging, hard-fought, and above all, very happy six years) I can finally look back at my long transition with a bit of humor.
So I hope you’ll enjoy this mostly tongue-in-cheek, but altogether true, post about the joys and quirks of living in France.
You might be living in France if…
1. There’s nothing low-fat in your refrigerator.
It’s not that nothing low-fat exists in France, but you’ll find very few items at the supermarket that carry that distinction. Yogurt and milk are two of the biggies, but beyond that, I’m hard-pressed to think of anything else we eat on a regular basis. Mostly, the idea is to eat everything in moderation – full-fat cheeses, creams, crackers, cookies, bread, etc. I love this idea, although I’m still working on the “moderation” part…
2. You’ve lost 5 pounds.
The French paradox is alive and well dear friends! Eat what you want and somehow, miraculously, lose weight… Well, I’m not talking 10lbs here or that my body changed completely when I moved to France, but I did shed about 5 lbs. within the first year. The secret to all this craziness? Well, it all goes back to #1, eat everything in moderation and above all (this is a biggie!), no snacking. The French aren’t big snackers and if you grab an apple or yogurt between meals that’s thought to be enought to tide you through to the next meal. Coming from the US, that’s a pretty radical concept and it took me quite a while to get used to…. I don’t practice it religiously (see the handful of peanut butter cookies I gobbled yesterday) but since everyone pretty much sticks to this idea, you find yourself changing your eating habits slowly but surely.
3. You go to the market every day.
Within reason! Of course if you work full-time, this isn’t always possible, but the French do tend to shop for what they need on a daily basis, or fill-in what they missed on a weekly trip. And the outdoor Provençal markets are a wonderful way to get the best, and freshest, of the season.
4. Driving for more than 30 minutes anywhere seems like a major road trip.
Again another crazy one for us Americans, and as someone who commuted an hour each way to work for years, I would have laughed it anyone would have told me this 6 years ago. The French do indeed like to stick close to home and don’t relish the idea of even short commutes to work. I guess since my life has become a lot simpler, and everything I need I can find in town, our weekends tend to be spent close to home. Also, Bandol, Sanary-sur-Mer, Hyeres, and Le Castellet village are in that 30-minute radius, so we’re in pretty good company.
5. You’ve become very, very polite.
I think I’ve said bonjour monsieur, bonjour madame, approximately 87,568 times. Far from being rude as many a stereotype might have us believe, the French are extremely polite. And sometimes I still forget just how polite, until I’m out and about shopping and the person helping me drops about 5 madames on me in the space of 5 minutes.
6. Hosting a dinner party requires a spreadsheet.
Long gone are the days of putting together a nice lasagne, serving a classic wine, and finishing off the whole deal with a rich chocolate cake. Woe is me…. French dinner parties are a major affair. First, there’s the “apéro” – basically pre-dinner drinks and appetizers. I mean you could just throw together a cocktail and put out some chips and nuts… except no one ever does that. There are entire books dedicated to apéro hour (which I actually love) so “happy hour” time usually means more baking in the oven, putting together myriad mini-“wraps”, rolls, etc, and perhaps assembling mini-salads in tiny little glasses (verrines). Next comes the entrée, followed by the main dish (plat), and then the cheese course, and perhaps a salad (although I’m still confused if the salad or the cheese come first). Everything must be in season, with matching wines (for the most part!), and above all, the dessert must not be too “heavy”. For example, you wouldn’t serve cake after having a stew – oh no! – something light and refreshing like a citrus mousse or perhaps a panna cotta would be in order. Don’t get me wrong, I love getting all foodie-crazy and planning these things, but some weekends you wanna just throw down a pepperoni pizza with a side of ranch and call it a night. Of course I’d serve craft beer, I wouldn’t slide so far…
7. Two weeks of vacation a year seems like a national crime.
This is probably the biggest sign that you’ve “gone native”. It really has taken me a good 6 years to get used to being able to take 5 weeks a year (for some lucky folks it’s even more!), but as you can imagine, once you get into the rhythm, it’s hard to imagine having it any other way. And here we are smack-dab in the middle of ski season… wow, it’s still hard to believe!
8. Eating anything out of season is, if not a national crime, is at least a major felony.
Another very silly one, but something that the French are so aware of, it’s hard not to follow step. I remember one July that we went out to a nice lunch in a neighboring village with a few friends and were served a very nice piece of meat…with a side of pumpkin purée. Oh the outrage! Of course the purée had to come from a frozen source, so that was pretty much the end of our outings to that restaurant. The French are nothing if not serious about their food.
9. About half of your day is spent talking about the weather.
The French talk about the weather… a lot. Don’t get me wrong, coming from California this is a welcome change since even a sprinkling of rain sends us into a panic, but I have to say that it took me a long time to get used to it. But it all makes sense… the weather affects your quality of life and in the end, that’s probably one of the number one concerns here. So let’s keep up the chatter and get ready for the sunny days just around the corner.
10. You wait for the annual sales with a religious fervor.
Sales only happen 2 times a year in France, so long gone are the days of skipping over to Macy’s on a Saturday and sifting through the 50% off racks – what a change! Well, let’s just say that I’ve saved a ton of money over here folks, and that I’m like a race horse in the starting blocks when those dates roll around… well, me and the rest of the south of France. Bring your sneakers if you happen to be here on vacation, you’re gonna cover a lot of ground!
11. You live in fear of the day you might mistakenly use the “tu” form instead of “vous”.
It’s happened to me and it’s not pretty. Never in a million years would I have understood the weight of using the different forms if I hadn’t spent a considerable amount of time here. I used the “tu” form with my boss the other day, accidentally, and I felt like I might as well have reached over the desk and smacked him. And we’ve known each other for 5 years… A bit of an exaggeration, but vous is such a sacred form of respect, it’s hard to see it any other way.
12. You have file folders for days.
French Bureaucracy. It deserves the capital letters for a reason… it’s everywhere and you can’t escape it. Thus the file folders tucked all around our home. There’s the medical forms, social security forms, property forms, something called a “livre de famille” which tracks who’s who in our family, and then, of course, TAXES (the biggie!). I take it all with a grain of salt because there are 2 other words that put it all into perspective: Italian Bureaucracy.
13. Talking in opposites makes complete sense.
Why do I say, “I’m not very warm” (Je n’ai pas très chaud) trying to say a long French goodbye after midnight in the freezing cold when all you really want to say is, “I’m as cold as all get-out people!”? I’m not too sure, but I think it goes back to French politeness. All I know is that I spend a lot of time saying the opposite of what I mean and totally understanding why.
14. You don’t own a credit card.
The French don’t really do credit cards. This is pretty awesome and makes a lot sense in a lot of ways. I’ve tried explaining the US credit system to my husband (about 5 times) with no success. He’s not a dim bulb or anything, it’s just not in their mentality. They do have things similar to “layaway” and of course we have a card to purchase airline tickets etc, but it all just gets debited from our account. This has changed my spending for sure…. vive la France!
15. You do own about 125 scarves.
Living in France is all about having scarves, and lots of them. I think there’s probably about as many ways to tie them as the scarves themselves. Just hoping one day to look as chic and sophisticated as all the French ladies who have it down to perfection… I’ve got enough to practice with.
16. Paying for anything at the pharmacy seems scandalous.
The first time I took a prescription to the pharmacy and the clerk handed me my medicine, I asked, “Is that all?”. She kind of eyeballed me as if she thought I expected some kind of medal with my antibotics, but said, “Oui, c’est tout”. Not having to pay for healthcare (yeah, there’s those dang taxes of course) is well, no-holds-barred amazing. Now if I have to pop-in to buy some aspirin, it’s like sticker shock – What, €4.50? This isn’t covered? Wow, what a change.
17. There is a corner, drawer, or cabinet in your house full of shopping bags.
Shopping bags are a hot commodity in France. Since you have to pay for them at the supermarket, any “free” bags that come your way from boutiques are quickly stored in a well-guarded spot in your home. Why you may ask? Surely you will need a bag to bring wine to a friend’s house, carry your lunch to work, or pretty much any time you need to carry something too big for your purse. My mother-in-law asked me for a bag to carry her shoes while packing a few months back and when I produced one, she looked surprised. “Oh, I don’t need a bag that nice!” I giggled softly to myself because 1) I knew exactly what she was talking about and 2) it was a plastic bag from the airport.
18. The cheese aisle no longer overwhelms you.
I remember wanting to take photos of the cheese aisle – excuse me, aisles – when I first arrived in France. They seemed to go on forever and were filled with many more exotic names than my standard knowledge of brie and camembert. Now I just take them for granted… delightfully for granted, as I dump comte, goat cheese, and a little tomme de savoie for good measure into my cart. I might not know all the cheeses yet, but I can attest, they’re all delicious… and deliciously stinky.
Bonne journée and please feel free to share any travel experiences you’ve had where you felt like a native!