Many Americans dream of living long-term in France. And while it was not always my dream, it quickly became my dream after backpacking through Europe when I was 21. Living in Europe for two months altered my life path so drastically that I ended up leaving a 10+ year career and my home of New York City behind forever. (You can read more about that journey here!)
I’m appreciative beyond measure to be living in this slow-paced, pleasurable, and ultra cultured country. My 21-year-old self is still in shock, not able to believe that I was able to make this intentional thought real, and after 8 months of living here, I still pinch myself regularly.
So, as I’m able to live this dream, I wanted to share with you exactly what living in France is like, from an American girl’s perspective. We’ve gone through all 4 seasons of living in France. After experiencing the dry heat from the end of summer, the magnificent colors in the Fall, the dreary overcast skies in Winter and the ethereal cherry blossom blooms in Spring, it’s about time I share what this year has been like for us as newlywed expats living abroad.
Our first year of marriage has been a dream. Because the lifestyle in France offers plenty of work-life balance, my husband and I are able to spend most of our time leisurely together. Alex teaches 8 hours per week at the University of Strasbourg. 8 HOURS.
While he does go into his office a few hours before class to prepare, we still have many hours every day to hang out and explore our beloved city of Strasbourg. This first year, thanks to the work-life balance in France, has truly set our marriage on the right foundation for the years to come. As optimists and true kid-at-hearts, we find the silly playfulness of our everyday. We find the time to play, be joyful and count our appreciations, and there is no greater way to begin a life journey together than from joy and gratitude. You can see our move to Strasbourg in video format here!
Life is slow here. People don’t place as much importance on career, money or purpose, and time and attention is instead focused on family and friends. There is less future grand dreaming and more being appreciative of the present. The cafe culture is strong, as brasseries are always packed with University students and families, and leisure picnics and strolls through the l’orangerie park are the go-to activity for many in France.
There is a focus on leisure, pleasure and enjoyment more than in America, and in turn, I have noticed my naturally driven, Type-A personality ease more as I observe and accommodate myself into the local culture here in France. My free time is no longer spent goal-setting, future-planning or checking off items on my to-do list. Now my free time is spent walking around town (the French walk everywhere!), studying paintings from books, reading Rumi on the couch and people-watching from cafes.
Not being able to speak French left me feeling like an outsider, and the first few months were challenging for me. As a super social person who loves making small talk with everyone and anyone I meet, not being able to talk with others around town left me feeling isolated and homesick for the United States. While I am taking classes, for those who are not as gifted at learning languages as others, I feel for you; learning a foreign language is difficult.
Unlike the surrounding countries such as Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, very few people in France make an attempt to learn English. So if you don’t speak French, you’re on your own.
Enrolling in classes at the University, befriending a French tutor, and practicing phrases in my nightly bubble bath has allowed me to now feel less alone. These days, I am more determined than ever to reach B1 level French.
Unless you are physically in the town you are moving to in France, finding a rental home is tricky. Alex and I learned in the many months leading up to our move to Strasbourg, that we physically needed to be in Strasbourg to rent an apartment and that many apartments are rented out mere weeks ahead!
We used Leboncoin.com (a.k.a. the Craigslist in France) to find housing, as well as used bikes and furniture. It is common to only communicate with apartment owners via telephone. Emailing homeowners led to a zero response rate in the months leading up to our move, so we weren’t able to actually get ahold of anyone until Alex bought a cheap “dumb phone” at a Tabac store in Paris. The French also do not pick up their phones on Sundays, which are dedicated Family-Days only. They value their family and leisure time, and calling someone regarding business during non-working hours is an unspoken faux-pas. Have I mentioned how much I respect and adore France?
Once Alex got a French phone with a pay-as-you-go sim card, we were able to start making appointments. Alex made day-trips to Strasbourg from Paris, where we were staying with a friend, and in the few days leading to our move-in day, he found the most incredible fully-furnished apartment perfect for our cozy newlywed home. In a quiet suburb, we have a lush forest out front and cornfields and an elementary school behind us, with quaint French villages around us and the tram that takes us straight into the center of Strasbourg!
The French lifestyle is simple, elegant and slow. Hardly anyone here owns a car, and if they do, they only use it for road trips to nearby cities and quaint French villages. Europeans take the high-speed trains, and the French walk everywhere. Just like my New York City days, I have gotten back into the daily habit of walking everywhere I go. Strasbourg is also a biking city, so avoiding collisions with bikers on the street and cobblestoned alleyways is a daily activity.
The French pooches are pampered, and not a day goes by when I don’t see a perfectly manicured Westie or Bichon Frize in town. Needless to say, I often ask “Est-ce que je caresser votre chien?” to local passerbyers daily. (In fact, it was the first sentence I learned in French!)
In France, I have had to learn to lower my voice, remind myself of manners, and dress elegantly. I am the quintessential friendly, loud, outgoing American girl. And while I am proud of my upbringing and value my optimism and friendliness, I have also learned to adjust. I don’t speak as loudly on public transportation as I did in New York – the French are quiet, respectful, and politely discerning – and I dress in a more refined and polished way. The leather pants are out, and so are the funky bowling hats and fuzzy purses. I’ve swapped faux leather for a J. Crew trench and shiny, bedazzled shirts for clean and comfortable striped tees.
The food scene in France, is perhaps, one of the biggest adjustments. I gained weight in my first months living in France. The amount of nutty cheeses, baguettes, and pain au chocolates I consumed has lead to a soft belly pouch, and let’s not get started on the chocolate mousse! We’ve scouted out our favorite Indian, Thai and running sushi joints, along with our favorite boulangeries where the smell of warm bread rushes out onto the street, begging me to come back in. I’ve shared plenty of cheese boards and tiramisus, delicate pastries and cappuccinos, french onion soups and mushroom spaetzle. And I regret nothing.
Saturday mornings are spent at the local marche where we purchase our vegetables from one of two vegetable stands. We buy our local French cheese from, whom we call “the cheese man”, at a cheese cart, where I attempt to practice my French and sample new cheeses from Switzerland and Italy. The food is enough to make me want to obtain citizenship.
The French are proud and independent. They jump at the opportunity to vocalize their opinions, and in turn, routine protests often block public transportation from running. I love their spirit, even if they force my morning commute to frequently change.
While the French system is heavily bureaucratic and administrative (the amount of red tape one has to go through before getting any type of confirmed answer is excessive, to say the least), there is always a sense of togetherness and fairness. No one is better or more important than the other. There is no entitlement with getting that corner office and everyone has to get in line with everybody else. I love that feeling: that we are all in the same boat together. That we are all equals, that we all pay taxes to help one another out, and we have all access to the same level of education and health care.
I would rather pay more in taxes and have equal access to dental care and health insurance. I , quite simply, sleep better at night. I feel rest assured knowing that I, and my fellow people, are safe. Quite simply, I love the French government.
I love the seasons in France, but I don’t care for living here in the winter. The winters are mild in terms of climate, but the heavy dreariness and overcast skies caused me to fret that I might have Seasonal Affective Disorder. Blue skies, frigid cold temperatures, and crispy white cottage-cheese snow are what I crave, and the lack of blue skies during the winter months affected me deeply during my first winter in France, so much so that I booked a last-minute trip to my hometown of San Diego in January to escape.
But the rest of the seasons in France? Magical. The spring left us with blooming magnolias and cherry blossoms, baby ducklings wading in the river, and endless sprouting wildflowers. We have a magnificently large cherry blossoms tree in front of our kitchen window, and the rich greenery is divine.
Living in France is more than what I hoped for. As an American, I have learned to adapt and cherish a culture and lifestyle that is so different from my home in America. I have learned to enjoy leisure and place my focus on daily pleasure. I have learned to cherish the quiet simplicity in a deeper, softer way, and I have altered my values and political beliefs from Democrat to proud Socialist. I believe that we are all in this together, that we must help one another out, and that immigration is the greatest gift we can give our countries and the residents who live there. I live in France, a country that has immigrants from all parts of the world, and in turn, I have experienced joyously profound conversations, been compassionately educated in ways I never could have in the United States and enjoyed the added bonus of trying new foods and delicacies right in my hometown! I love France and all that is represents, but I had to live here to truly experience what is deeply hidden beneath the surface.
You can read more about the specific differences from living in France versus the United States here.
Life is different here, for life is slow. Daily life is focused on the simple, the mundane, and the pure enjoyment of doing nothing but gazing out of a window. It is focused on picnicking with a cup of mousse au chocolate, peacefully observing the willow tree’s drooping blissfully swaying with the river. It is noticing and wondering, admiring the stylishly elegant men and women on bicycles and petting a passing, pampered pooch.
These are lessons that France teaches those who live here.
It is the life of an expat.
April 10, 2019
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