I was still in grade school when I realized I wanted to live abroad. At the time I didn’t know where I just knew I saw myself living somewhere else.
Just because I felt that way, didn’t mean I knew how to get there or what it would entail.
I read a lot of books before making the official move over. Everyone said it’s hard and that it’s a bureaucratic nightmare and, in a way, I thought it’d be easier than what everyone said because I’d been going back and forth for four years already and I knew the language. How hard could it be!?
Don’t hear me wrong, living abroad has its perks but it also has downfalls and knowing what to prepare for is a big part of enduring it. My hope is that if you dream of living in France, or anywhere else for that matter, that you will do it. I don’t want to dissuade you from a move, quite the opposite, I just want to give you the tools so you can make it a reality if it’s what you want. So here are my tips on how to make your life a little easier through the transition phase. This is a long one but I hope that you’ll be greatly helped so grab a glass of wine…
First off get organized.
I started my first bullet journal September 2016 and I’m wondering how I lived without one before that. You will be making lots of appointments, you have deadlines to meet and you want to write down anytime you do anything, or call anyone so that you have a good trace that you can go back to if things go belly up. No one argues with facts!
Bureaucracy might as well be written bureau-crazy, bureau means desk or office in French – but it’s deskwork that’ll make you nuts if you let it, but there’s no avoiding it if you want to live here. Whenever you are dealing with the French know that more is always in order. Never give the bare minimum or you’ll be booking yet another appointment. One of the smartest things you can do when you get here is buy yourself a printer/scanner combo and lots of ink! It’s one of the most useful small investments you’ll make. Here are a few documents you always seem to need when you go in for an appointment or when applying for just about anything:
-Your passport and photocopies (including a valid visa or titre de sejour)
-A bill with your name and french address often for water or electricity but sometimes the phone works too and it must be dated within the last 3 months. If they aren’t in your name you will need a letter from whoever’s name is on it stating you live with them and for how long
-If you’re married you will need your family book and/or (always come with more documentation than you need) your marriage act signed and dated by the local Mayor.
-A French bank account and RIB number (this is usually used for getting healthcare but in any case, it’ll open doors for you once you get your hands on one!)
-All forms filled out correctly (ie: don’t use white-out or cross anything out and some forms must be printed in colour) often they’ll ask for the use of a black pen, all capital letters and NO accents.
-Occasionally you will need a copy of your long form birth certificate which means you’ll need both your mom and dad’s name on it and you will need it to be officially translated into French (you can get a list of official translators at any French mayors office) and often times they will need to have it be dated within 3 months and stamped by the consulate. This takes time.
-Lots of official photos. There’s a reason you see the photomatons everywhere in France and it’s for more than just jamming everyone in the photo booth (though that’s fun too and a good way to de-stress.) They have official sized photos that must be on a white background similar rules to a passport photo apply and I can’t tell you how many times it has come in handy to have a handful in the back pocket of my planner. Sometimes rules change and you need to give more than they originally requested and it doesn’t hurt to be ready. It’s also a great way to save time so you aren’t having to rebook an appointment or trying to find a photomaton.
*If you’re sending anything in by mail be sure to ask the post office to send it by A/R or “accusé de réception,” which means that once it’s delivered you get a slip in the mail prooving the other party has received it, now hold onto it for dear life. This is a golden ticket when things go wrong!
**Always and I repeat ALWAYS scan everything before you hand it over. Translations, forms, anything and everything and when you make copies you’ll often need one if not two of everything.
Now that the biggie is written up how can you make your life easier for the first year in France?
Be good to yourself. Adopt a little self-love. You might not be able to work when you first arrive so use the time to discover. Go out and meet people, make friends, join online expat groups and learn from shared wisdom. Develop a rhythm to your days. I write in my journal, I list my gratitude and meditate every day (or almost – some days life happens and that’s okay.) Take up a hobby or learn a new skill. Creativity is good for the soul and it’s a great way to pass the time and to deal with some of the difficult moments in the process and you’ll be proud of all that you will learn. It’s also great conversation material for your new French friends because here the question isn’t so much what you do for work, it’s what you enjoy and I think that’s a great way to look at life.
Know what you need. If you’re struggling just say so. Have a few friends you can talk to and get it out, or write it out in a journal or try and have a healthy conversation with your significant other or a family member. It’s okay to struggle with all the changes from time to time. You are developing a new normal. Just remember to share the good moments too. Train your eyes to see them.
Do your best with the language. If you can start before you arrive or brush up pre-existing skills it’s always a great idea. There are so many great tools out there that are cheap, free or sometimes they’re an investment let your personal situation dictate (Comme une Francaise , Duolingo, Rosetta Stone or Alliance Francaise to name a few.) You decide but there’s no time like the present you’ll be glad you did. All that said, immersion is still the best teacher so even if you only know a little use it often and watch it grow.
Be a regular somewhere. This is in keeping with using what little or as much as you might have in language skills. Go to the same bakery, cafe, butcher or market stand and become a regular. Practice saying, “une baguette s’il vous plaît.” People here are very relationship oriented. Over time they’ll treat you more like family and you might find they even throw in the occasional fruit or veggie at the market. So not only will it be great practice, but it’ll make you feel more welcome. I have found that people appreciate seeing you’re not just a tourist and the more you try, the more they open up.
Get used to French manners. What do I mean? When you go into any shop, restaurant or make eye contact with someone always say at very least, “Bonjour,” bonus points if you say, “Bonjour Monsieur/Madame.” Why is that? Well in France there’s a belief since the time of the revolution about fraternity. When you acknowledge someone you are saying that you see them, you acknowledge their humanity, your sameness. Don’t wait for shop owners to say it to you. If they say it first, you’re too late! You are entering their space. Try to think of it like walking into someone’s home without saying hello and acting like you own the place. The French will greatly appreciate this gesture of cultural prowess.
Practice Gratitude. You are going to face challenging days I can promise you this. I have had some of the most frustrating scenarios arise being in France but you can do it just try not to focus on the negative. See the good in every situation. As an example, last year I ended up having to fly back to Canada (after having been there a few months earlier) to update my visa paperwork. I had inquired before the first leisure trip that I wouldn’t need to do anything with my visa while in Canada, everything would be in the mail when I got home. Later I found out that I would have to go or I could face serious headaches here, and then if you’re still following, learning after the second trip that I’d just been faced with several employees who didn’t know that in fact as a married person there was no need for me to have traveled to Canada to do said paperwork… so If you caught that, there was an extra unnecessary flight to Canada BUT while I could be upset about it, I just have to be thankful that it meant I got to see family and friends for a couple weeks and that my paperwork was dealt with quickly. So, see the good, try and move past the bad.
Know that things will take time. Many processes in France seem really lengthy. Getting an appointment to validate my long-stay visa took 4 months but it took another month before I could get the stamp which would allow me to work and for some it takes much longer. Exchanging my drivers’ license they gave me an estimated wait time of minimum 4 months. My healthcare took 10 months to sort out before I had an official number I could use, and even then I’m still waiting for the official “carte vitale” the little green card that is the holy grail of the French healthcare system. Don’t stress about the things you cannot change. Also, note that I’m speaking as someone who is married and who is fluent in French. Start meditating now so you can adopt a good frame of mind through it all. Waiting is part of the game.
And in the end, don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself. If you’re in it for the long haul just breath deeply and remind yourself you’re doing a great job and it’s hard work but you’re making it happen (even when it feels like it’s at a standstill.) Remember you’re not alone. Then, call some friends and share a glass of wine. Good wine is one of the many perks of living here and you can’t forget the reasons that lured you in to begin with.
Have you lived as an expat anywhere? Are you living as one right now? Did this post raise any questions for you or do you have something to add? Feel free to comment below or share this with a friend or family member who’s been dreaming of life abroad I would greatly appreciate it.
In some ways, moving to Vancouver Island from Langley has been quite similar. No paperwork hassles due to immigration issues, no language barriers, but some of the other issues were still there… Finding new doctor and dentist, living in a completely new place that we’d only visited before, securing housing, etc. Some days all you can do is open a fine micro-brew (the “Wine” of Victoria…) and enjoy a quiet afternoon and forget about the difficult bits for a while. And know that in the end, it will be worth it!
Yeah, I think you’re right. Any move is a hard one. Getting set up just takes time and it is a hassle but it does pay off in the end. Being a frequent visitor can be a tricky beast because even though you feel like you know the place (especially because I’d be around for long stretches at a time) it doesn’t actually get you any further ahead. If it makes you feel better we like a good microbrew over here too… or at very least a good Belgian brew, because I gotta hand it to them, they’ve got more going for them than just the fries and the chocolates!
Enjoyed reading this article. Lots of sound observations and interesting to hear another perspective. For us, the hardest thing was getting a place to rent. Medical insurance was easy, and work was legally easy, although hard to find. Different regions in France also cause variation in what’s difficult — it sounds like the area around Paris is more demanding in terms of courtesy than the southwest. Speaking to other people who have moved to France, it always amazes me how everyone has their own challenges…. But EVERYONE is exhausted and often bewildered by anything administrative here. It’s very, very hard to get your bearings, but it’s also a rite of passage, and if you get someone else to do it for you, you’re just delaying the inevitable. If you want to live, really live in France, dare I say BECOME French, you have to make it your personal project to understand and manage your finances, phone/internet plan, apartment rental, health insurance, work benefits, retirement, and everything in between. You have to be a functioning adult, and in France it means coming to terms with a bazillion acronyms and what they mean to you. Fortunately if you do research online, call and talk to a helpful person (50% chance), or visit a local office that is a real branch with helpful people (80% chance), you can learn a lot. Keep at it. Don’t give up.
Absolutely! They definitely want you to show that you want to be here by jumping through hoops and I will say that I always hear that lodging is one of the hardest to tackle and I was fortunate not to have to worry about that. In general, I believe it’s better to arrive with a job than without one if you want things to move faster.
The process of going through it though has really caused me to be more organized than ever. I wasn’t too bad when it came to going back and forth for four years (that’s a whole other story of crazy organization) but when it comes to documents or following up with people I have what I need or seem to get through things much faster now because I’ve got dates of phone calls, AR’s to prove they’ve received my dossiers and I am firm but calm and it seems to get a better response on the other end.
I can’t help but laugh at your percentages about people on the phone and in person. There is a lot of misinformation or staff who either don’t know or won’t do their job (debatable.) It’s very frustrating but knowing to get a second opinion by talking to another person is a helpful tip!