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How to Live in France

(Without Tearing Your Hair Out)

Life in downtown Bordeaux
Downtown Bordeaux.

We love France. That’s a given, or many of us would not have made it our home.

What’s not to love? The usual (fabulous food and wine, style, history, natural beauty) but also a quality of life, a certain energy and passion, and a mighty sense of pride. To the French, this is the best country on earth.

Plenty of people agree: France is the world’s #1 tourist destination, and 4.3 million expats have chosen to settle in the country.

There’s no question that French expat life can be balmy, serene, pastoral, or elegantly romantic.

Chateau Chaumont
Chateau Chaumont. In most parts of France an elegant castle is never far away.

But it is not perfect.

In fact, it can be downright irritating, even hair-pulling.

At times France can jolt our serenity, reminding us that culture shock is a very real thing.

Some repeat cultural offenders

Wherever we live, we have a certain way of doing things, from being punctual to standing in line or ordering something.

We expect differences when we move abroad. After all, weren’t we seeking some of those very differences by coming here?

Perhaps. But that doesn’t mean we have to love them all.

A farmhouse in Bretagne
A farmhouse in Bretagne.

And yes, sometimes we’ll scratch our heads and wonder what possessed us to grab that dilapidated farmhouse sold for a song and turn it into our personal paradise…

Especially on these occcasions...

Boutique in France
Some nice accessories in a boutique. Can I get some help, please?

We are snubbed in a shop

It’s true, it happens. You walk into a boutique, eyes (and wallet) open with expectation, scanning all the delightful racks – but the one and only salesperson is busy rummaging behind the counter. You do not exist.

But wait – don’t they want to sell to you? Aren’t you, the customer, king (or queen)?

Actually, no, you are not. But you ARE an equal, and the salesperson will treat you the way they would like to be treated: with a slightly haughty distance, by leaving you alone to browse until you actually need something and ask for it. No hovering over you or pushing you to buy.

And by the way, did you remember to say “Bonjour” as you walked in?

If you forgot, hurry up and say it now. Otherwise, you WILL be ignored.

Stairs in France
Bureaucracy in France can often be like endless stairs through labyrinths.

We battle with bureaucracy

Rarely have I seen a country that prizes paperwork so highly. After all, was it not an 18th-century French government minister who coined the term “bureaucracy”?

As an organizational principle, it certainly beats the nepotism that preceded it, but feeding the bureaucratic machine has become an end in itself.

Take my efforts to validate a simple foreign document with two distinct governments, the British and the French.

“Don’t worry,” the British consulate told me, “what you have is fine. We’ll accept it.”

The French response?

“Ah well, that is problematic. You will need an official translation, by an accredited translator, of course, plus a recent copy of your birth certificate, your passport, two photographs, your livret de famille (family tree, an official French document that traces your immediate ancestry), an official stamp (which you can purchase in a tobacco shop, of all places), an electricity or phone bill, and four other documents – don’t worry, we’ll email you the list.”

Feel like tearing your hair out yet? Don’t, there’s more!

Having spent weeks gathering all the said documents, I was then rewarded with a note from the government (a really NICE, personal note) informing me that most of the attached documents were no longer required since the rule had changed (last week, did you say?). We apologize but according to the new rule, we regret to inform you you’ll need an additional two documents not included on the original list. We do wish at this time to present you with our most respectful salutations…

If France produces so much wine, possibly to help ease the pain of these bureaucratic transactions.

To keep your sanity, just assume you will have to fill out every form at least twice, produce additional documents no matter what, and visit at least two unexpected offices, both of which will be closed for lunch.

Which brings me to…

A typical pharmacie in France
A typical pharmacie in France, when open, is generally a dependable place to soothe what ails you.

We keep finding “Closed” signs on shops

Lunch may be your only free time during the day, but it also happens to be… lunchtime, which, to just about every French person, means “time for LUNCH”.

Unless you live in a large city, you’ll be confronted with this sign as soon as noon strikes: “Fermé”. Closed.

Which leaves… Saturday, so crowded you can read a novel in the time it takes you to get to the cash register with your groceries. Or, blessed Sunday.

Except Sunday really is blessed. Things are shut all day (and often on Mondays too, in case you were in a rush).

I misspeak. MOST things are shut. There has been a bit of loosening: shops can now open in tourist areas (not helpful if you don’t live in one), and some can open a few Sundays a year. Rules are also more lax for garden centers and supermarkets, many of which now open too, at least in the morning. Just don’t expect all-day Sunday shopping to be the norm.

Why not make it easy on yourself and do as the French do? Consider Sunday a welcome day off, one to spend with family or to go out and discover the country.

Speaking of closures, did I mention France closes in August? All of France, all of August? And perhaps even July? (I wanted to drip the news gently.)

Come summer, don’t plan to get anything done, whether it’s home improvements, surgical procedures, or government permits. People go on holiday either in July or August, and life seems to come to a standstill both months.

My plumber takes his vacation in July, but I can’t really hope to reach him until the end of August. And my electrician, who is an “Augustian”, won’t even take my calls past the end of June. The notion of summer can be somewhat elastic.

Like lunch and Sundays, summer is family time, and several generations get together at the beach or the mountains and catch up on the rest of the year. Consider lowering your blood pressure by doing the same: September will be around soon enough to get everything done. Meantime, go recharge your batteries and have some fun.

Protests in France
Strikes and general protests by workers and students, an important part of French democratic culture, are known to happen at any time and of any size. Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Our pilots go on strike (the day before our flight)

Those of us who fly in and out of France buy tickets with trepidation. Will we be able to leave? And if we do, will we be able to come back?

When you travel, best not to schedule any crucial appointments the week before your departure or after your return.

After all, what better time to go on strike than when most people are traveling? (Christmas and long weekends are favorites.)

Nor are strikes limited to airlines or air traffic controllers or railway workers. It could be teachers, or civil servants, or construction workers. Or, it could be all at once, as France has periodic general strikes when everyone seems to walk off the job. Remember the “yellow vest” phenomenon, with rolling weekend strikes lasting endless months?

Many French actually support strikers, which is why it takes time for frustration levels to reach their limit. If strikers win, their victory sets a precedent for others, who might gain benefits without themselves having to walk out.

So yes, plan for strikes, since you know they’ll happen (it’s only a question of when).

If you’re feeling particularly irked, grab a placard and join them. You’ll be able to scream out loud without anyone caring what you’re saying or in which language.

Go for it. Release those frustrations!

Pastry in France
Few places on earth can you enjoy such great pastries, food, and wine.

The other side of the coin

The secret to living serenely in France is attitude (yours, not theirs). Stop comparing with “back home” and embrace this country wholeheartedly, warts and all.

There’s no perfect country. And while France may overflow with frustrations (did I forget to mention driving?), there is a flip side. A marvelous, extraordinary, heavenly flip side.

For each inconvenience, you’ll find a dozen reasons to fall in love with France. Consider the beauty of a masterfully arranged dish, a shop window fashioned by the world’s best stylists, the geometric perfection of a luscious vineyard or castle garden, or the cascade of art treasures found in the country’s more than 750 art museums. You’ll be in perpetual discovery mode.

As for those little inconveniences, remember that those closed shops actually contribute to your quality of life, giving you plenty of time to enjoy all that delicious food or explore those historical mysteries. Strikes? No problem. Surely you have plenty to do at home. The strike will eventually end when the workers get what they want, get bored with striking, or the weather turns.

Meantime, it’s a well-known fact that we need time off in order to refresh and rejuvenate. We’re more productive that way. Enjoy those long lunches, Sundays in the countryside, and Augusts by the sea.

Those high taxes you pay are there for a reason: to help you, but also to wed you to France’s fabric. They provide subsidies for better energies at home, nearly free education and pharmaceutical products (France has the cheapest medicines in Europe), and a generous welfare scheme. Your job is to show up: the rest will take care of itself.

Providing you have the correct dozen forms filled out, of course.

Related Topics
Living in France: Articles and Resources
Related Articles
Living in Paris: Practical Tips for Expats
A Guide to Buying a Property in France

Leyla Giray Alyanak is a citizen of Canada, France, and Turkey. After a long career in journalism and international affairs that has taken her to nearly 100 countries, she has chosen to make her home in France. Most days she believes she made the right choice. You can find her online at Women on the Road and Offbeat France.


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