Top Ten Survival Tips for Living in France

By: Milam Tourbez

Top Ten Survival Tips for Living in France

France might not be a country where you need vaccinations.  There are no kidnappings of foreigners. But that doesn’t mean it’s harmless.  This is a country where gloominess and complaining are genetic (and if you don’t believe me, check out this recent article from The Guardian).  It’s also a place where customer service is an oxymoron.  Just ask any expat who’s been here for more than a fly-by vacation in Paris and you’ll find that a bit of gear and plenty of psychological armor is in order.  So would-be and new expats, take note!

1.       Learn to care less.  Unfortunately the stereotype of the French being kind of surly can be true.  Not all the time, mind you, but often enough.  That’s where the armor comes in.  Shed your Anglo-Saxon guilt at not having bowled over the cashier.  She’s probably like that with everyone.

2.       Get a scarf.  Forget the cliché beret.  A cotton, silk or woolen scarf will help you blend in on days you don’t want to stick out like a foreigner.  A Canadian expat friend of mine figured this one out quite quickly.  Man or woman, you’ll see lots of Frenchies wearing scarves for fashion and also because the weather can change quickly in the northern half of the country!

3.       Parlez français! English can get you by in a lot of places, especially with the younger generation and in tourist-sort-of-friendly Paris.  But if you’re counting on staying any length of time, being able to explain your illness to the pharmacist or express your dissatisfaction with a grumpy waiter or civil servant will come in handy.  I learned a lot by watching French tv when I arrived so give it a try.                                   

4.       Be epi-curious.  As in epicurean and curious.  This country has some great though sometimes weird food.  My motto is I’ll try everything once.  (Except maybe sheep’s brains.)  And who knows, you might like it.  If not, you’ll have a great story to tell the folks back home about the time you tried pork intestine sausage (andouillette).  I’ll pass, thanks.

5.       Loosen that belt.  And not just because you’re trying all that food.  If you’re invited to a French family meal, you’ll spend hours à table.  Two starters, copious main courses, salad and cheese course, sometimes two desserts.  All washed down with plenty of vin and interminably long conversation. 

6.       Hit the rails.  Don’t just stay in your tiny studio apartment, great rail service and so much to see will stave off homesickness and remind you why you had that wanderlust in the first place.  Even quick day trips can chase the blahs away and won’t necessarily break your budget.

7.       Build up your local support group. Of course, contact with family and friends back home is indispensable.  But I wouldn’t have survived eleven years here without other expat friends who have been through basically the same thing as me.  It absolutely helps to have friends to commiserate with.  Or start a blog to rant publicly about things. 

8.       But don’t snub the locals.  Despite what I said above about some French people being rather stand-offish, there are also some truly kind and funny folks.  Though you may find yourself in a job that groups you with other foreigners (such as English teacher, er, like me), do make an effort to talk to neighbors and chat with fellow shoppers (if only to gripe together about the lack of customer service).    You can work on your French and understand the French mindset better.

9.       If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em (sort of).  Joining in on activities like an exercise class or making friends with French parents (if you’ve got school-age children) is a great way to get out of your shell while still staying in a fairly protected environment. 

10.   Be true to yourself.  Being an expat in France means adapting quite often to a horde of cultural differences.  But stick to your home values and optimism amid all the nay-saying.  A recent study showed expats in France were often the unhappiest compared to those in other countries.  Seriously!  So keep centered.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingMilam Tourbez is an American expat living in France. Blog description: Another American landed in France, raising a little girl and trying to stay afloat!
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Contest Comments » There are 7 comments

Janet Vasseur wrote 10 years ago:

Very very true and meaningful ! Could not have said better myself!

Crystal wrote 10 years ago:

Well, you know I'd have to agree with everything on that list! I think I had bought a scarf before I even had a refrigerator when I moved to France in 2005. And the holidays with my French in-laws are now synonymous with: heartburn, never-ending political debate between family members, and finding excuses to leave the table for a few minutes (having a dog makes this easier). Even after 8 years in France, I still feel like I'm filming a documentary of the French...on the outside looking in.

Sunny Sheppard wrote 10 years ago:

Milam is my niece so I may be a little prejudiced. She has exhibited a talent for writing since she could write a sentence. I am an elementary teacher of 45 years and every year read stories to my class that were written by Milam when she was in elementary school. They always enjoy her humor and pictures that go along with her amazing stories. I always enjoy reading her literary works. Her wit and ease with the written word is amazing to me for one so young. Sunny Sheppard

Katherine Leask wrote 10 years ago:

Milam - this is such a wonderful insight into the realities of the life abroad! There's a commercial over here in the US currently that glorifies the idea of living in Paris -showing how some do it in spirit - - but you really are the spirit! and your spirit is kind, gentle, forgiving, and observant. Thanks so much for providing a real window into and really quite useful tips on how to live in a foreign country - sometimes I feel like that as a Southerner living in New York!

Adriane N Sheffield wrote 10 years ago:

I loved this! Great tips to keep in mind if I ever decide to relocate...

Jessamyn Saxon wrote 10 years ago:

I wish Americans were better about the scarves. The fashion-scarves are definitely in right now - but it hasn't quite made it into daily life (unless you're in a big urban city). I think you're quite brave for completely altering your life to live in another country with so many differences. But you're trying to take it day by day with a positive attitude. And the expat support system seems to be an absolute necessity!

Jessica wrote 10 years ago:

Great to see the scarf tip made it in! You certainly hit the nail on the head with your tips.. I just wish I had known them when I first arrived. I'm still working on tip number four - andouillette still scares me!!

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