We’re 6 years into our move. Personally I still feel very much like a visitor – an “etranger”. While my French ability has improved there is rarely a day when I’m not introduced to some cultural difference that would never have occurred to me before relocating. Don’t get me wrong: I totally love the French people. We are having a fairly tricky time due to various things BUT the things that grate are usually to do with general admin, dealings with officialdom, or other Brits, many of whom seem to make a living by exploiting other Brits (and English speakers.) Having lived day-to-day and having to interact quite intensively with the systems, such as Immigration thanks to Brexit, education due to having to school-age children, planning and local politics due to have land and a house to build, plus setting up businesses, working as a self-employed web developer and supportong many other French-based “expats” running businesses here, I feel fairly qualified to comment on the many systemic differences in this country we now call “home”. This isn’t particularly my top 3 but, if given the time again, would we have made the same choices if we’d gone into this with our eyes open?
1 – The Internet Does Not Work like it does in the UK or US
There’s no easy way to say this and, to be honest, if you’ve been living in the modern world for the past decade you’re unlikely to be able to comprehend the exact impact this can have, so just trust me when I say the Internet is broken in France. What do I mean by this? Essentially, you can Google something and find… rien (nothing.) Are you trying to find a builder or a gardener? Maybe you’re looking for a specific product or services and would like to find a local supplier. The chances of this happening in your home country are high. Not only that, you’ll very often find nice websites with pictures, reviews, and helpful information like pricing, credentials, and more. In France, you’re most likely to have to wade through pages of search results that show listing sites. By that I mean the yellow pages (now yell) and other such sites. Likewise dentists and doctors (a listing on Doctolib, if you’re lucky) – and don’t even get me started on schools. (Why oh why is there nothing like Ofsted here?)
Even if you do find a company with a website the chance are it was created in the style of Internet v.1.0. You know the type: black background, yellow or orange text, maybe some hideous, animated gifs, badly formatted images plopped on the page with a “bevel-and-emboss”-formatted border. I mean… ? Shopping sites require you to put in your postcode and find your local store, which changes the prices, availability… everything. It’s a whole new world!
It’s not all bad on this front though because it means if you are planning to start a business once you move having a great website gives you a significant edge over your competitors because the chances of them having one are low, really low. Plenty of the businesses I’ve worked with have said this exact thing: like you there are many other people looking for and expecting to find information on the Internet, so provide it to them and you’ll be the first choice.
2 – You won’t learn French speaking to other English people (in English)
You’re in France so of course you’ll pick up French by osmosis, right? Er, sadly no. I can confirm that this does not work. Our policy since moving has been to basically avoid other English speakers, a policy that has served us (fairly) well for two reasons. First, we both know how learning works. If you are mostly speaking your mother tongue with other natives, your brain has to work harder to separate the languages. This is why kids (particulary when they’re in school) seem to pick up languages quickly. Whatever you tell yourself, it’s not magic: it’s immersion. For the best part of 8 hours a day our brave children are uprooted from their home countries and thrown into school. Sink or swim, most children are jabbering away proficiently within a year; after three years they’re as good as fluent. Adults ont he other hand? We naturally gravitate to other native speakers. It’s HARD to only speak and retain a small amount of French if you only use one or two times a week because the sad fact is you can pretty much get away without speaking to anyone French (cashiers in shops, mechanics, anyone!) most days. The only way to learn is to make yourself uncomfortable.
Don’t go walking (swimming/cycling/crafting/etc.) with a small group of English-speaking friends. Do join an established Association made up mostly of French people.
Don’t go to a French class with mostly other English people! You’ll end up speaking more English than French and immediately switch to English the minute the course has finished, which is like emptying your brain of every French word you’ve just paid to learn. Do go to a mixed English class with people from any different nationalities and treat French as your common language: some of my fastest learning was a result of speaking French with other non-native speakers.
You get the idea.
It’s so uncomfortable doing this and you’ll feel like you know literally no-one for ages – but it’s worth it in the end!
What you’re looking to do is create your own immersive experiences. Go to French cafes and listen. Watch French TV, listen to stories in French. Feed your brain! No-one very learned French watching Loose Women or Strictly Come Dancing! (Sorry.)
3 – The Countryside is Beautiful but there is literally nothing to do
Do consider this. Many of us move to the countryside (which is stunning, by the way) but find our selves drawn to more densely populated areas before long. We’re 20 minutes from the supermarket. As the main “industry” in our area is tourism, everything is closed from September to June. This is fine for retried couples, who have each other for company as well as if you’ve time and a good pension, but for families – or singles – I would say it’s not ideal. It’s nice to have choices. Do you have those? Can you really spend the rest of your life without a takeaway? A curry? What about dance classes for the kids? Music classes? Sports clubs? Yes, you will find most of these things in the countryside, you will get a choice of… one. What if they’re no good? While most of the people running these things are very well-meaning the quality is totally it and miss! Is that good enough for your kids? If you’re along, what are the chances of finding like minds? (Sad but true, if there aren’t many people to choose from you will end up with nothing better to do than eat and gossip!)
So yes, you can buy a house with a big garden at a bargain price but what does that mean for the family as a whole? Factor in time lost to driving, difficulties finding friends, work – or clients – and travel costs, if you’re running a service business and will be visiting people in their homes. Phew! There really is alot to think about.