Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Reflections of a three and a half year expat....How I've adjusted to life in France

Still Adapting to French Life

I was just thinking lately how much my life has changed in the past 3 and half years.  Yesterday, as I was working, I had some people mistake me for being got me thinking - do I really seem French to others?  Have I changed that much?  Do I blend in more?  What happens to us as we live longer and longer in an "adopted" country?

I know I will never be French - and I'm very proud to be an American also.  But I enjoy the fact that people don't stereotype me as just an American.  It's nice to be seen as an individual.  Maybe I seem more French, now that I've lived here longer.  I know I walk slower, my voice is quieter, I think I've also adopted some French gestures that help me blend in more.  I know I'm more easy going, life is just slower here.  My spoken French is better and I'm more confident in joining in conversations, There's a natural ease that wasn't there before.  I find myself even thinking in French sometimes. I would say my fluency in French has happenned mostly in the past year as I started work and also began managing my life on my own.

Three and a half years has also made a difference as I'm more aware of how to get things done...who to contact, what to ask - managing the idiosyncrasies of French bureaucracy.  Yes, there are still surprises in life - I still don't like to talk on the phone too much (this is never a problem in English) - and certain accents are still hard to understand.  Yes, like the US - there are regional accents here in France - Northern, Parisian, Bordealais, Toulousian et Provencals - just to name a few.  Not to mention, there are a large number of Moroccans & Tunisians here in Bordeaux and like myself, speak French with an accent.   It's interesting to really be able to hear the differences, where as before I wasn't as turned in to accents in French.

I've always been able to understand pretty well - but it's beginning to feel more natural.  Now there are just certain phrases that seem easier or more comfortable in French than in English.  Even speaking with the girls, we often speak Franglais - a mix of English & French.  I know this is very common with bilingual families and since we all know both languages it works fine.  Intuitively, the kids know when to speak only English or only French to those who are mono-lingual.  That's works the same for me.  With ease, I can narrate to my clients the history of Bordeaux, describe wine regions and point out geographic phenomenons all in English but then turn to the bus driver and have a conversation in French.   Yes, as the saying goes practice make perfect.  But it's not about being perfect, it's more about being comfortable, feeling more at ease and confident in a foreign country.

It's about starting over, creating a new life in a foreign country, making new friends, and of course managing everyday life in a place where rules are not the same as the ones that I am use to from my home country.  Do we ever feel truly at home?

I'm not sure the answer to that question, but I can share how life has changed here for me and my girls. These are new habits, thoughts or routines I now know that we do differently than we did in the States.  This list is not ongoing and it's really just a quick summation of certain things that stand out for me.  I'm sure everyone has their own list/adjustments.

Life in France....

Everytime I see a friend to greet them I "fait les bises" or give cheek kisses.  One does this to say goodbye too.  This has become so common in my daily routine that I find myself doing it even to American friends or other close friend visitors who might not understand this custom.  I know when I visited the States in May, I found my body want to lean in and "fait les bises" with my college friends.  It's amazing how quickly we adapt on all levels. It's still a custom that baffles me a little, in the sense of when to start doing this with new friends you make.  It's a welcoming and acceptance gesture and more intimate than a handshake.  I usually wait to see what the other new person does, before I lean in.  Watching body language and observing others has really been one of my greatest strengths since living here and has helped me a lot in understanding the French. 

If you call and leave a message - it's likely you will not get a call back - It's much better to interact in person in France.  The French seem to really value and like the personal relationship.  In the day of Internet, emails, texts and phone messages - it still seems more productive to address issues and/or ask questions in person.  Even entering a store in Bordeaux, it's considered polite to say hello and goodbye to the store clerk.  I have grown to enjoy this personal touch. It goes both ways - they will often say bonjour et aurevior to me too.  I've heard that Paris and other cities are different, but I like this personal interaction and to find out it's a more regional habit, gives Bordeaux even more charm!

Most administrative things take a fair amount of paperwork.  If you are filling out an application for things - it's often 2 or 3 pages plus copies of assorted paperwork.  The joke is often that the French love paperwork....and that I have found to be very true!  But as the saying goes, if you can't beat them, join them - so this is just something I have come to accept and not get frustrated by anymore.  In fact, in the rare cases where less is asked for, it's a refreshing surprise!

Here, we eat our meals in courses - often simple, fresh and pretty healthy.  A normal dinner is some kind of entree (entrance course) - tomato salad, soup etc.., then the main dish and then dessert.  (The French love desserts!)  But to be fair, dessert can be just a piece of fruit.  Courses are served separated.  I've changed how we serve dinner and lunch - start with the entree - eat that first, then bring the main dish to the table and finally dessert. Socialization around the table is definitely part of life here!

Surprisingly, we have adjusted quite easily to dinner after 7pm   In France, dinner hour is that time or even later.  It's not unusual that many adults don't eat until 8pm. I, now accept that restaurants don't open until 7 pm. I also expect to be at the restaurant for close to 2 hours for a meal - it's just the way here.  Food and socialization are highly valued. In fact, you rarely see people walking around with plastic coffee cups in their hands here.  If they order something to "go", they go somewhere to sit down to eat or drink it. 

Now eating outside on the terrace is more common than eating inside in the summer.  Using a tray to take items back and forth is just an everyday occurrence for us and others here.  I don't think I ever used a tray in the States.

Gouter or snack time is sacred for kids!  Believe me, my children know when it's 4-5 pm and can't wait to dig into snacks.  Additionally, I have adjusted lunches here - sandwiches are rare and most of the time - lunch is some kind of salad or roasted chicken.  If a sandwich is made, it would be for what the French call a picnic.  

In speaking about time, the 24 hour clock (or military time) took a bit of getting use to. Finally after a few years, I can quickly compute and understand when someone says they are picking up their child at 18h - it's 6pm at night.  and it's now in my language to say that the girls finish school at 16h30.  (4:30pm). 

I now find the metric system easier to understand than the English system. - in measurement and in temperature.  There is something about the fact that freezing is actually 0.  1000 meters (1/2 mile) to an exit is still plenty of time to move over. I still count in English though....they say numbers and counting are one of the last traits that change over from your native language.

We walk more/ride bikes more - & using public transportation is just the norm. Bike riding is normal here and has become something I enjoy doing a lot. I don't think I rode my bike in the States that often and certainly not a part of everyday life. Cars are use to bikes also and are more cautious around riders and there are excellent bike paths throughout the area.  Even little kids ride on sidewalks - they learn early. 

Why would I drive downtown - when there is a tram/bus nearby?  I have readily adjusted to timing the trams/buses - how long will it take to get there by tram or bus, is what I think about first, instead of driving.  I know this part might be the same for anyone who lives in a big city - but for this suburban girl, it's a new way to think.

The independence of teenagers is amazing here.  My 14 year old leaves the house and uses public transportation to hangout with her friends. I rarely drive her around to meet up with others.  It's also not unusual for her and her friends to go to Bordeaux for a day to walk around. Getting to the movie theater is often done independently by tram or bus.  Most of the time,  the kids figure out how to get somewhere on their own.  It's not unusal that my daughter will run her plans by me, but she's already figured out how to get there and back. This reminds me a bit of my childhood where I remember leaving the house on weekends to play outside or be with friends and only returning for meals.

We, like the Bordelais, love being outside in beautiful weather/walking along river/through parks - I especially love taking photos along quai often lots of people enjoying nice weather.  The climate here also pretty sunny year round making it very enticing to enjoy the outdoors.

I'm now use to the fact that stores are not open 24 hours/7days.  It's actually very nice to know that my choices are to be outside, enjoying life instead of being a consumer.  Not to say, I don't enjoy hitting the Sales, but it's more conscious and planned, less impulsive.  Additionally, since France has 2 general sale periods during the year (July & January), I know that I won't necessarily find that "incredible" deal anytime.

Speaking of being conscious to life, I, like other French people, accept the fact that electricity and water prices are higher here than in the States.  Given that, the use of low rate hours (middle of the night or afternoon) are often used by setting timers on the dishwashers or the clothes washer to work during the night.  Only keeping on the lights that one needs is also something I think about now. I also dry most of my laundry on racks like most of my friends and neighbors.  Although, I still love my bath towels to come out of the dryer soft and warm.   All of this is good for the environment too, so I readily and eagerly accept my new habits.
Life changes and routines and habits that we use to have in the States have been adapted here, to this country, to this lifestyle.  Does it feel normal yet?  Does it feel like home?  Both are good questions.  I think anyone who is living in a foreign country always feels like life is different - but isn't that who we are as human beings - People who adapt to our surroundings, people who adjust to new norms.  As we get older and our life changes, we adapt too.

For me there is something invigorating about living here - the  French culture constantly presents new challenges and different ways of doing things. But approaching those ways from my American perspective definitely allows me to choose.  It's for that reason that I know I'm growing as an individual and as a mother.  There is no one way to do things - no one way to think about it - just choices to make .... and a conscious decision to live life and keep moving forward!

Yes, life has gotten a bit easier here and I get less frustrated by some approaches that are typically French - but I'm happy to adopt and embrace others.
I would love to hear from other expats who have lived in a foreign country for more than 2 years - how has life changes since your arrival?

Expat Life with a Double Buggy


  1. Jennifer, I so enjoyed reading your blog. I am long-time Francophile student living in the U.S. and your blog was the perfect taste of a country so close to my heart. Thank you for sharing your experience so beautifully!

    1. Thank you Josh - It's so nice to hear that my blog makes a difference for others. It's become a labor of love and I have fallen in love with France. It's become my passion to share insights from this experience and maybe help others to look at the world with an additional perspective. Come back anytime and read more - love hearing from readers!! Have a great weekend!

  2. sounds like you've settled in really well,. I've been living in Germany nearly 5 years. In Ireland I used to take the train/bus, walk or take taxis, whereas here I cycle loads of places or go by tram/train. Germany is extremely bike friendly! The culture is more outdoorsy too, lots more sitting outside in beer gardens, going to festivals, hiking. So that side is healthier. The food less healthy here though. Back in Ireland I used to eat more fish and there were more vegetarian options available. Here there is strong emphasis on things like pork- schnizel and fries is served everywhere. #ExpatLifeLinky

    1. Thank you for commenting - so nice to hear from readers. I agree - every country and region has it's unique style and culture. It's nice to experience and note the differences.

  3. Thanks, Jennifer, for your details reflections on how you´ve been adopting to the French way of life over the last 3 and a half years. I am German and have only recently become an expat, too, living in or close to Paris with my family. I think quite often about how life here is going to change me; apart from changes in daily routines that come quite naturally of course from the moment one changes places. I had an interesting read about your experiences. Thank you for giving these honest insights! Bonne dimanche à toi, Sabine.

    1. Merci Sabine - So nice to hear from readers and I appreciate a lot that these insights might help others. Adjusting to expat life is a constant process. I know I will never be fully French and I appreciate my American perspective on life here - but it's also nice to feel more comfortable. Good luck to you and your adjustments as you live your expat life. Feel free to visit my blog again and comment from time to time - always nice to gain other perspectives too.

  4. Adapting whilst retaining your sense of personal identity? That sounds like the key to expat life to me. How wonderful it is how expat life changes us! Thanks for linking up #ExpatLifeLinky

    1. Thank you Amanda for hosting #expatlifelinky ! It's get to read other people's perspectives and at the same time find solidarity in the experience of being an expat.

  5. I've just been reading around your blog a bit this evening instead of finishing the paperwork for my daughters' school. My husband and I are both Canadian and have lived in France for 15 years now. We went back to Canada for a family reunion in July and like you I found myself wanting to fait les bises with everyone. I also found it really strange to go into a shop or restaurant without being greeted since, in my experience, saying hello/goodbye in shops and restaurants is normal throughout France (and also in Germany).
    My biggest struggle in France is trying to get my girls to bed early enough to get enough sleep when all their extracuricular activities are in the evenings since school gets out so late. That is getting a little easier since they are now 10 and 12 years old but since they are both in collège they are also getting more homework.

    1. Hi Susanna - So nice to hear from a 'fellow expat". I can so relate to the bedtime issue!! You are so right - with late afternoon school, activities in the evenings - it's definitely hard. I know every year the teachers in Primary stress how important it is for the kids to be in bed early. We try our best. The hardest is also in the Spring when it's still light here until 10 pm. It's hard to go to bed when it's not dark!
      Where do you live in France? So nice to hear from readers. Come visit again anytime. I love hearing perspectives from other expats. Have a great weekend.

    2. We live in a small town, Souppes-sur-Loing, about 100 km south of Paris. We have the benefits of living in a small town but can also easily spend the day in Paris (just over an hour by train). Until last year, my girls both went to the local primary school which is a two minute walk from our front door but now I have to drive them to collège in Fontainebleau where there is an anglophone section in the school. I think it was good for them to be in the local school through primary but it was a little difficult at first for my oldest to start school without knowing French. She learned quickly but my neighbours were all horrified that I was sending them to school without knowing any French. Now that they are older though, I think they benefit from being in school with other billingual children.


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