Life in France

A guide preparing you for life in France

Life in France - a big decision

To head for a life in France or not... the decision is made... or nearly. If you are thinking of moving to live your life in France, whether this is a permanent move or the purchase of a property in which you plan to spend many happy holidays, it is a big decision. Your life and future happiness will be affected by the people, language and culture of France, and also in no small way by the property you choose and its location within France. (Introduction to France.) Presumably you will have given careful consideration to most of these factors, but just in case there is something you haven't thought of, you might like to read on. It's your life!

Solving language issues will improve your life in France

It may sound a little simplistic, but they really do speak French in France. Really. In most places, they actually don't speak anything else unlike many other countries you may have visited on holiday. The attitude to language is, like the attitudes to so many things, typically French and uncompromising. They believe that French is a perfectly good language (it is!) so if we Brits want to enjoy a life in France we should learn to speak it. (Learning to speak French - Misadventures in a Foreign Tongue.)

Language differences affecting your life in France

Now, in theory that's fine, and I quite agree, but in practice it can present problems. Not all of us pick it up as easily as we might like, and it gets harder the older we are. Certain parts of France can throw in the added complication of pronounced regional accents and even dialects as well, just to make it even harder. I live in the south, in the Languedoc region (Languedoc-Roussillon Property - an insider's guide), and you can hear French with a strong southern accent (think "pain" (bread) pronounced "peng", and "vin" (wine) as "veng"!); Occitan the ancient regional language spoken as a first language by the older people; or even Catalan, as we are not far from the border with Spanish Catalonia. Just to complicate your life further!

Ex-pat communities in France

So, the best advice, of course, is to learn French if you want to pursue your life in France. For those of us who are less than perfect, however, (and I assure you I am firmly in this group!) there are lots of things you can do that will make life easier. Before you buy your property in France, think very carefully about the area in which you plan to live. Some areas have established British ex-pat communities, and although you will probably feel that you want to integrate into French society and not associate only with other ex-pats, these communities can actually offer a lot of help in the early days of your new life in France.

Help with settling into your new life in France

Contrary to cutting you off from French society, Brits who have lived in France for a while will probably have integrated to some degree already, and may be able to introduce you to local people, to invite you to events such as village fêtes, "moules et frites" suppers and suchlike, and keep you up to date on local news. There will be some who speak French well, and can perhaps help you to get settled in and to make sense of the sometimes bewildering necessities like opening bank accounts (Banking in France), finding suppliers for fuel (Connecting utilities (water, gas, electricity, telephone and sewage) in France) and registering with doctors (Health Care in France: a French Hospital Experience) and dentists (often in areas with a high English ex-pat population there will be doctors and dentists and even vets who are able to speak English). It all helps to make your life in France a little easier.

Where British are living in France

Areas you might consider for your new life include the Dordogne (Dordogne Property Guide), Poitou-Charentes (Poitou-Charentes Property Guide), Brittany (Brittany Property Guide) and the Côte-d'Azur (Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur Property Guide). Certain towns also are known to be popular with the British, so if you are looking at a region it may be worth trying to suss out these towns and villages. Close to where I live in the Languedoc-Roussillon, for example, you can find a high concentration of British ex-pats in Beziers (Béziers Property Guide) and Limoux (Limoux Property Guide). While in the neighbouring Midi-Pyrénées region (Midi-Pyrénées Property Guide), Mirepoix (Mirepoix Property Guide) is also popular. Local Immobiliers will know these areas, and in fact, Immobiliers (estate agents) in "Brit-popular" towns will almost certainly have some English staff. (French Estate Agents.)

Dreams of a new life in France

The English dream of a new life in France is frequently a rose-tinted picture of a farmhouse in the country, surrounded by nothing much other than acres of beautiful countryside, whether this be seaside (The Atlantic Coast) (Property near Sailing Ports / Marinas in France), pastures, vineyards (French properties with vineyards), mountains (Ski Chalets for Sale in France) (Finding property in the best walking areas of France) or lakes (French Properties with Lakes) and valleys. In fact, this dream of a new life is eminently attainable here in France, and you will probably have little difficulty locating a house that fits the bill. With a bit of luck, you will probably even be able to afford it! It's worth, however, a moment or two's reflection before you commit.

Do you want a quiet life in France?

Rural retreats in France are indeed delightful, but if you have lived most of your life in the city, or in the suburbs, are you sure that you will take to such a quiet and even isolated life? Many of the things we take for granted in England (even for those of us who lived in the country there) are simply not available in rural France. You may picture yourself popping to the village boulangerie each morning to buy a baguette and to sit outside the café and chat with the locals, but not every village has a shop of any description, let alone a café and a boulangerie!

Rural life but not too rural

Distances also can be misleading. If you are told that the nearest town is, perhaps, six miles (ten kilometres) away, don't necessarily assume that you can guess how long it will take you to drive there. Many rural roads (especially in hilly areas such as the Languedoc) are so twisty that it can take a long time to travel a short distance... and by the time you get there some of your passengers will have turned a fetching shade of green! Once again, doing your homework is the key to a finding the best location for your new life. (French Connections.) If you want a rural life without being isolated, make sure that this is what you are getting. You may have to pay a little more for a house in this situation, but in the long run it will be worth it.

Cultural differences affecting life in France

Contrary to much popular thinking, the French are not actually Brits with funny accents. The culture, whilst not so different from ours as that found in, for example, India, is wholly French, and you need to have a clear understanding of this and what it means to enjoy life within it. Many British people in France think that the French are being rude or unnecessarily abrupt, when, in fact, they are simply behaving in the normal, culturally acceptable manner.

French supermarkets

In the supermarket, for example, the checkout girl will greet you with a cheery "Bonjour!", and wish you a "Bon journée" ("Have a nice day!") as you leave, but she does not expect you to ask if she knows where to find the Puy lentils, or to try to negotiate a reduction on a product with damaged packaging. Should you do this you will probably receive a Gallic shrug as a reply... don't take offence, there's none intended! To find out what you want to know you need to find the right person to ask... the Accueil desk is good place to start. (Buying and cooking French food.)

How etiquette affects life in France

Etiquette may be a French word that is familiarly used in English, but the French interpretation is quite different in many ways. In France, etiquette is important at all times and in all situations, formal and informal, whereas in Britain it tends to be important only in formal or semi-formal settings. You can seriously offend a French person if you neglect to greet them on meeting for the first time in a day, either with the formal "Bonjour" and a handshake or with the ubiquitous exchange of kisses. Calling out a cheery "Hi" from a distance is just not an option! It is also worth paying attention to the gestures and expressions commonly used by the French... they are different from the English ones and it can take a while to understand them. Don't laugh when you hear a big burly rugby player say; "Ooh la la!"... it won't help with your integration into your new life in France!

French life and manners

Although the French are extremely polite in every day life (much more so than the English, in fact), this politeness can take a different form here. I used to feel quite slighted when having French friends round for a meal and on offering more food or wine would simply receive "No" as a response. I have learned, however, not to take offence. The French do not, generally, say "No, thank you", and they find it confusing and strange when we say it to them, remaining unsure of whether or not we actually do want whatever is being offered. Other comments can seem equally abrupt, but it is important to understand that this is just the French way. Unlike the English, the French don't "pussyfoot" around an issue, but rather they "give it to you straight", tell you exactly what they think, then forget all about it.

Differences to expect in France

What else is different? Well, shops close on Sundays, for one thing. Really. You might find a "Presse" (paper shop) open for a few hours on a Sunday morning, and boulangeries and patisseries are also often open, but as for supermarkets and clothes shops... forget it! All night shopping is way in the future here too. Lunch time shopping in England is common, with shops tending to be busier then than at any other time of day, as people take advantage of their lunch break to pop down the high street. Not in France.

Long lunches - all part of life in France

Most shops close between twelve and two, and in the hot summer months they frequently don't reopen until four! Supermarkets... the bigger ones, at least, do stay open throughout lunch, but close many of their tills. If a till at which you are queuing suddenly decides to close right in front of you at about midday, don't bother getting annoyed... life is too short... do what the French do and wish the departing cashier a "Bon appetit!" and simply join another queue. It can be a good time to do the shopping, though, as the aisles are blissfully quiet and the queues short. The best way to cope with all this is to adopt a French attitude and learn to treasure the long, leisurely lunches. It's much better for the digestion anyway and can only enhance your life in France!

That's life in France!

Well, as they say, "c'est la vie"! France is... well, France, and if you are to enjoy your life here then you need to accept and if not understand, then at least forgive her little idiosyncrasies. New experiences are part of life's adventure, so give yourself up to the whole experience of life in France, and remember, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em!

Other articles which may be of interest:

Living in France
Jobs in France
French Education System - Schools in France

About the author

Joanna Simm moved to the Languedoc area of south-west France in October 2004 having found her property through French Property Links.

your questions...

1. A question about life in France as a wheelchair user (added 14/8/12)...

Does anyone have any knowledge of living in France if you a wheelchair user? I have been researching the subject for ages and I must say without a great deal of success.

2. A question about help available (added 24/1/13)...

Hi - can you tell me if things go wrong ie: illness, can a UK person if living full-time in France get any form of help with money or help in anyway?

Jo Rhodes, editor of French Property Links replies...

Thanks for contacting us. My colleague Joanna who used to live in France, says if you are registered in the French system there may be help available with essential bills etc, along with other help if you are registered as unemployed too. She also says there is always private insurance you could take out.

Perhaps it would be worth checking with the DHSS here. If they don't know the answer, they should be able to point you in the write direction. Our article Benefits in France for UK Ex-pats may also be of interest.

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