Life Abroad in France or Anywhere Else




by Terry Link

Planning Your Fact-Finding Trip

Lots of people fall in love with France the first time they visit. But no one should decide to move there without taking a realistic look at what everyday life in France will be like. The best way to do that is to visit the country and stay where you think you might like to live for as long as you can. At the very least, explore life beyond Paris and the tourist spots.  Follow the tips in this article to discover for yourself the terrain, climate, and general conditions that appeal to you—don't depend solely on the opinions of others.


Know Yourself

It's time to take an inventory of all the factors—practical, cultural, financial, emotional, geographical—that make you feel at home. For example, climate, terrain, and vegetation all have profound effects on people whether they realize it or not-especially when the familiar supports of culture and acquaintances are abruptly removed. Someone who has spent his or her life on the Midwestern plains, for example, might find the Alps or the Pyrénées a trial; someone from the Rockies might be dismayed by the flatness of the Camargue. Many people find the Mediterranean coast too dry and rocky for their tastes; others find the lush greenery of the Dordogne damp and uninviting. Are you more comfortable in certain landscapes than others?

Similarly, are you an aggressive urbanite, or are you a retiring type who likes it when the sidewalks roll up at dusk? Just as in the United States, daily life in a city in France is far different than life in a small village or the country. If you've always lived in a city, many conveniences you take for granted will be unavailable in a small town. And if you've only dreamed of living on a farm, don't expect the reality to match your dream—although it may still be the life you want.

Consider your lifestyle. Will you be working, studying, or retired? What about your spouse or partner? Think about how you actually like to spend your free time. Is golf a passion, for instance? Many parts of France have no golf courses. Is a day without soap operas, or any American television, a grim one for you? Your favorite programming may not be aired in France. What about fast food? Yes, there are McDonalds in France, but fast food is not a primary staple in this culinary capital. What about reading? Even if you speak French fluently, you may be reluctant to give up recreational reading in English, and you can't pop around the corner to pick up a copy of the New Yorker or the latest John Grisham paperback in a French village. Are you used to endless selection in supermarkets, year-round? Produce is much more seasonal in France. Apples are available all the time, but not apricots; cherries appear in late spring and vanish by mid-summer.

Life is lived in the details, and you should look closely at your own to see if your preferences can be met in France, or if you can comfortably, willingly adapt.


Talk to Folks

Talk to as many different people as you can who have been in the country.  Find out what they liked and disliked about France. Try to meet French people in the United States. Consider hosting a French student, for example, or hire a French au pair. In general, try to establish contacts, so that when you do visit France you will be able to meet people and discuss your ideas and plans with them. The opportunity to hear their viewpoints will be invaluable.


Study Maps

To familiarize yourself with the regions and geography of France, buy good maps and study them. Michelin's are perhaps best known and widely available, but Blay and IGN are also good. A map of the whole country in book format on the scale of 1:200,000 or 1:250,000, with an index, is an excellent place to begin. Such a map will show every commune and even isolated farmhouses; the index will save lots of time no matter where in France you go. Once in the country, you can use it for touring.

Also get a large map of the entire country; it will give you a better sense of proportion-just how far one place is from another, not in kilometers or miles but in relation to places perhaps you already know.



Read up on France. You might start with guidebooks, but remember, most are written by and for foreign tourists, not residents. Among the best are the Michelin Green Guides. Available in English or French, they are packed with maps and good information—historical, geological, and archaeological, as well as practical information about places of interest, transportation, and the like.

From there you can move on to travel literature by authors such as Peter Mayle who have lived in France, fiction set in France, histories of France, and so on.

Once you arrive in France, you'll find more specialized books available. Don't overlook magazines as a source of information on a region or topic.  Many fine regional guides in France are published as slick magazines with superb photography and sold on the newsstands rather than in bookstores.


Study French

Even before you visit, consider spending some time studying French. If you move there, you will need to be able to speak at least rudimentary French—after all, you'll be surrounded by French speakers. Knowing some French before you get there will give you a definite advantage.  And if you find that French is just not a language you want to speak, France might not be the country you want to live in, either.

When you visit France, consider spending your time there studying French.  Language classes are conducted throughout the country; finding one that suits your needs in the region that interests you is likely. The instructors may prove helpful and knowledgeable beyond language lessons in the classroom. Part of class may very well be spent discussing the customs of the country and answering students' questions about French life.


Consider Your Family, Relatives, and Friends

It's always easier to make a big change when the people dear to you support your decision. If you're relocating the whole family, how does each member feel about the move? If you have school age children, especially teenagers, how will they adapt? Just because you like the idea of living in a foreign country or a small village doesn't mean your children will. Then again, they might view it as the adventure of a lifetime.

Beyond your immediate family, how about your relatives and friends? It is very common for some relatives and close friends to react to the decision as if it were some sort of personal betrayal. Yes, there are telephones and letters and email, but the fact is, you're considering moving thousands of miles away. It is the emotional experience that will likely determine your eventual satisfaction with the move. While the actual travel time and expense are not much more than many trips within the United States, the psychological separation is far greater.

This is because, although it's relatively easy to keep up with the public events of both societies, it is very difficult to be a participating member of two widely separated communities. Much of the personal minutiae of our lives—who died or divorced or moved away or made a fool of themselves—gets lost. The ephemera of popular culture in the U.S. is not communicated in France. Few Americans know or care about the ephemera of France. Sooner or later you must commit to one country or the other, to decide where you will live and where you will vacation. That is the real challenge—and the reason some relatives and friends may resist your move. Your move will inevitably change some of your personal relationships. Unless you come to terms with that, and understand the enormity of the change you're undertaking, your new life in France may be more frustrating than rewarding.


Visit France

No decision-making process about moving to the country is complete before you've actually visited France. Try to stay as long as possible and live as you would at home. If you've never been outside of Paris, definitely plan on touring the country. France has many faces and finding the countenance that suits you is important. You're an immigrant, not a refugee. You have a choice of where you are going to go, or if you are going to go at all. You may decide that Paris is, after all, where you want to be, but at the same time you'll know more about your adopted country.

There are a few essential items you should take on your fact-finding mission. First, a small calculator, one of those solar-powered, credit-card sized ones. You will be converting dollars to euros and square feet to square meters or vice versa, and adding up various costs wherever you go.  It's a handy tool.

Also pack a good French-English dictionary or plan on buying one on arrival.  A small paperback version may be nice to carry in the car when sightseeing, but it won't help you write a letter, frame an argument, or provide a context for many of the words you may encounter. Nor will the paper binding stand much use.

Depending on your language ability, a phrase book for travelers such as those published by Berlitz is handy. This type of book condenses a lot of information and vocabulary, packages it in a useable format, and gives a reasonable guide to pronunciation.

Now, start looking around. Tour the country. After you've identified the regions you like, rent a house or an apartment for two weeks or a month and try to fit into the daily life around you. Or try several different regions for a week at a time. Do it more than once and at different times of the year if you can. You may love Paris in the springtime, as countless others have, but not in the winter. Californians, who have been told they live in a Mediterranean climate, may be surprised to find it can and does rain in Languedoc and Provence any month of the year, and that there really are four seasons, not just a wet one and a dry one.

Embarrassing as it may be at first, practice your French. Can people understand you? Do you understand them? These efforts are going to be informative well beyond language ability itself. They will help you gauge how ordinary people respond to you.

Keep an itemized accounting of your expenditures for food and gas and anything else you buy. Spend some time going into stores and looking at prices; make a note of them for your future reference. Are items you would likely purchase if you lived here readily available, or is there a substitute? If the electric meter where you stay is visible, take a reading to see how much electricity you use.

Whether you are moving temporarily or permanently to France, think about renting property. Even for those who intend to buy eventually, a rental affords the opportunity to get to know a city or village before committing to a purchase and also to have the time to find the property that they really want, rather than a hurried compromise.

Visit real estate offices even if you have no intention of buying at the moment or in the future. Most of them fill their windows with photos and descriptions of property along with the prices. Without even stepping inside the office, you can get an idea about the range of prices for particular types of property and the names of different localities. Before even buying your airline ticket, know that you'll need to budget a minimum of 75,000 euros ($67,500) to purchase a home or apartment. The initial cost may be less, but renovations and furnishings will almost certainly bring the total actual cost at least to that level.

That amount is a minimum almost anywhere in the country for basic housing.  In Paris, or Nice, or dozens of other places, it is a down payment; for two hectares of land with a view and a swimming pool, it is not a fraction of a down payment. In this respect, the French are no different from Americans: the nicer homes in the better locations cost more, a lot more than shabby quarters in a rundown neighborhood.

Look at the kind of property you might buy: What would it cost? Are such houses readily available in the area or few and far between? Talk to a salesperson and perhaps visit some of the offerings. When a house is described as livable, are you likely to be satisfied or would you want further renovations and at what cost?

This is the sort of information you need to take back with you for serious planning. Perhaps you will establish rapport with a real estate agent that will prove valuable when you do get serious. On the other hand, you may find agencies to avoid in the future.

For this kind of research, a car is necessary. Both Renault and Peugeot will sell foreigners a new car and buy it back at the end of their stay, with full insurance and roadside assistance. The plans avoid payment of the TVA added to auto rentals and may be less expensive than ordinary rentals, but require a minimum number of days of ownership.  On this score, be aware that distances in France can be deceiving. A journey you anticipate will take an hour becomes one and a half because the route passes through, rather than around, a medium-sized city. Or you get stuck behind a convoi exceptionelle (a truck with an oversized load) and can't pass for kilometers. And, while the autoroutes are fast, they are expensive and do not go everywhere. To reach some destinations, your only options will be smaller, slower roads.

So the rational approach is to prepare yourself carefully, consider all your options and weigh the pros and cons of each choice, avoiding all the possible pitfalls. Then do what most people do when suddenly realizing that they are looking at the home of their dreams: Forget all the good advice and follow your heart.


Time difference

As your planning your trip, bear in mind the time difference between France and the United States. Without taking into account daylight savings, when it's seven in the morning in New York, it's one in the afternoon in Paris.  In mid-March the clocks go forward by one hour; at the end of October they are put back an hour (spring forward, fall back).


Don't Leave Home Without . . .

The application process for obtaining a visa will require you to collect certain records, such as birth certificates and marriage licenses. Beyond that, in preparing to move to France, don't forget to gather other important documents, some personal, some professional.

And don't forget to make copies of them and leave them in a trusted location in the United States. Just as aggravating as finding yourself in France without some necessary document is returning to the States only to discover you left your papers in France.

Cover all your bases. Write down an inventory of all your important papers-and make a copy of that, too.

If you or the person usually responsible for the information is incapacitated, God forbid, someone else can find it.

Here is a checklist of the documents you should gather:

·       If you own real estate in the United States, collect deeds or mortgage papers, insurance policies, tax records, and guarantees on applicances (water heaters, air conditioners, etc.). In the event of an emergency or the need for repairs, make a list of the service people and building contractors you trust.

·       Records of all bank accounts, copies of state and federal tax records, insurance policies, and pension funds. It's probably best to leave stocks with a brokerage, since you may wish to sell or trade them at some point.

·       A list of the Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, and passport numbers of all family members.

·       Medical records (documenting vaccinations, allergies, eyeglass or contact lens prescriptions, etc.) and a list of the names and phone numbers of your doctors, dentists, optometrists, pharmacists, and other health-care providers.

·       An inventory of everything left in storage in the States, including the precise locations. If you or anyone else has to find something, an inventory of numbered boxes detailing the contents of each will be an enormous help.

·       Employment and educational records, including awards and letters of recommendation.

·       Current addresses and phone numbers of your friends, family members, and business associates. A list of your friends' and relatives' birthdays (and their children's).

·       Notarized powers of attorney for you and your spouse or companion.


From Adapter Kit: France. Copyright © 2001 by Avalon Travel Publishing, Inc. Excerpted by arrangement with by Avalon Travel Publishing, Inc. $17.95. Available in local bookstores or click here.