Adventures and misadventures in France.

Archive for March, 2014

The pitfalls of marrying an American woman

Celebrity gossip is not my first choice of reading material, but this week’s article about the Gwyneth Paltrow/Chris Martin split from the Telegraph offers a hilarious commentary on European-American relationships.

The Pitfalls of Marrying an American Woman

The evidence hits far too close to home :

To marry an American is to accept the word “woo!” into your life. The word is not in any dictionary, but is written deep inside an American’s heart and soul. To an American, if anything vaguely good is happening, one must emit a “woo”. Perhaps a baseball team has hit a baseball. Or a tray of cupcakes successfully made it from the kitchen to a living room table. Anything dimly positive can be greeted with a overly-loud, obnoxiously out-of-context: “WOOO! YEAH! Cupcakes! Awesome!”. It is insufferable.

Excuse me while I look up more recipes for cupcakes. Woo!

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Good things come to those who hustle.

While my fellow Bostonians were celebrating their Irish heritage with kelly-green accessories, celtic music, and alcohol, I spent St. Patrick’s Day in Nantes for a day of French civic training. As I mentioned before, this was the last step in a series of required appointments to qualify for extended residency in France. In addition, I would need to find time to get to the préfecture of Nantes to obtain the actual carte de séjour.

6:45 – Bus

The training session was scheduled to last all day beginning at 9 am. I requested the day off from work, and planned to race across town during the lunch break to pick up the carte to avoid an additional day wasted on public transportation. I caught an early bus into the city but managed to choose the longest bus route (two hours instead of one), which meant a stressful speed-walk to the training center.

9:15 – France 101

I followed another latecomer into class and sat down to begin taking notes. It soon became apparent that a room full of middle-aged white French women was not the OFII class at all, but a nursing course, so I apologized and slipped back out the door with their laughter echoing into the hallway.

Finally I arrived in the correct class, which presented a fascinating level of cultural diversity. The instructor who appeared to be French had immigrated from Kosovo almost twenty years ago. Half of the class was from Africa, but each from a different country. I was seated next to a woman from Mongolia and two nuns from New Zealand. The morning session was filled with lessons about the rights, responsibilities, and advantages of seeking naturalization in France. Next came an overview of French history. The instructor offered hilights of the French revolution (incoherent anecdotes about Mary Antoinette and the guillotine), the European Union, and WWI and WWII. Some how he also managed to fit in a lesson about the most recent French presidents, gay rights, and the legalization of abortion.

12:00 – Lunch

Pausing for lunch, we were offered a complimentary three-course meal in the training center cafeteria. Scooting through the line, I could hear a server arguing with one of my classmates, a man from Cuba. “Monsieur! That salad has ham in it! It has ham!” The classmate responded quickly with “Yes I know, I can see that,” and turned to me with an exhasperated expression, “Everyone here thinks I’m Muslim. It happens constantly.” We ate, chatted about the class, and discussed my plan to run across town for the carte de séjour. He wished me luck, but offered a warning about notoriously long wait times. Confident, I promised to signal the outcome when I got back.

Soon I headed uptown. The immigration office closed for lunch until 1:30, but I needed to buy timbres fiscaux (stamps used as tax payments). They can be purchased in most convenience stores, but I had to ask in three different stores before somebody had them in stock.

1:00 – Préfecture

A crowd had already gathered at the préfecture, and people in the hallway started to get agressive. When the doors opened, everyone rushed to take a numbered ticket. Remembering previous visits, I didn’t bother, and patiently waited in an area reserved for people with appointments. Ten minutes later, a woman at the counter explained that I was in the wrong line and needed a ticket. Apparently, only one window is reserved for people picking up their cartes. Merde. I grabbed a ticket marked with the 30th place in line, which would mean hours of waiting. It was over. I handed off the ticket to someone else and shuffled out the door as a failure.

2:20 – Afternoon session

Late to the afternoon training session, I apologized to the instructor and gave a sullen “thumbs down” to the Cuban. The instructor launched into a lecture about democracy and the organization of local/regional/national government offices. He showed us some symbols of France, including the flag, national anthem, and Marianne. Soon the class was drawn into a discussion about French laïcité (secularism) and its impact on the rights of men and women, which led to the following dialogue :

“So if I understand correctly, here in France it is recommended to take only one wife?”

“Not recommended! Illegal! You may only legally have one wife.”

“Women here have too much power. But I have another question. If my wife and I are separated but not divorced, and I’m living in a different house with another woman, is it legal?”

“Well your wife won’t be happy, but yes, it’s legal.”

3:30 – Coffee break

The instructor came over and complimented my doodles and notetaking, so I took the opportunity to ask what time the class would end. Five pm. Earlier than expected, but too late for the préfecture. I launched into a tale of woe about living so far away, missing days of work, and just hoping for the opportunity to go pick up my new visa. He paused for a moment, shrugged, and offered to let me go early for “special circumstances.” Shocked, I thanked him profusely, whipped out a pen to sign my attendance certificate, avoided eye contact with jealous classmates, and ran out the door.

3:45 – Préfecture part deux

Twenty minutes later, I was facing a sign taped to the préfecture ticket machine.

“No more tickets. Office closed.”

Of course I hadn’t bothered to keep my ticket from earlier. A few people were still waiting to be called, so I hunted on the floor and under seats to see if anyone had dropped a ticket. No luck. Finally, the line cleared and I cautiously approached the window. A cheerful man benhind the counter took my paperwork and timbres, asked me to sign some documents, then handed over the carte de séjour! I shook his hand, high-fived some fellow étrangers, and skipped out of the office…

… directly to a pub for a celebratory Guinness.

Interview with Aux Cinq Coins du Monde

People back home often ask about my experience transitioning to expat life in France. As promised, here’s an excerpt from my interview with Aux Cinq Coins du Monde, with some completely honest answers. I’ve translated the text to English, but you can read the original article in French here.

What do you like about your host country?

I love that the French enjoy a relaxed lifestyle. Stores close super early, which means that the evening for relaxatino and appreciating a good meal. Many families here have lived in the same town for generations, and know their neighbors and local businesses. France has a rich history dating back thousands of years. The culture and climate of each region is very distinct, and France is very accessible for trips to other European countries. 

The climate here is also pretty great – it never gets too hot or too cold between seasons, so the view stays green all year round. I’m originally from Boston, where each season is very distinct. It’s easier here, but I miss snow and hot summers!

What do you dislike ?

I grew up in a matriarcal family. Here in our corner of France, the roles of men and women are still pretty rigid. When we are invited to people’s homes, women generally cook and clean, while men generally repair things and drink. Difficult to avoid speaking out and insulting people ! I also miss local beers, and international dining options.

What are some characteristics of your host country ?

  • Food

I can never stop raving about French food! I love the wine, trying meals with rabbit and duck meat, galettes, and plenty of the traditional desserts. There are many farms in the area where we can buy local food directly, which is a great advantage that most people don’t have in the US.
I guess my only complaint would be that people tend to eat a lot of meat and cheese here, without too many vegetables. For example, in the summer, people enjoy grilled meats with potatoes, and in the winter, it’s raclette.

French restaurants are delicious, but there aren’t too many international restaurant options here. I also miss New England specialties like apple cider, pumpkin foods, and seafood (lobster, clam chowder, and fried clams). And iced coffee ! But honestly, I can’t complain here – we eat very well !

  • Vacation

In the US, the standard vacation time offered by employers is two weeks. Here, I have a minimum of 5 weeks! I use them to visit my family and travel. It’s very easy to travel on the weekends here. We’ve already visited the Mont St. Michel, La Baule, and the Puy du Fou. We’re planning to visit Normandie and Paris. It’s also possible to travel by car or train to Belgium, Germany, England, Switzerland, etc.

  • Healthcare

All of my experiences with the French healthcare system have been very good. I don’t have the carte vitale (French social security card) yet,  but a typical consultation with a doctor, dentist, or vet will cost about 25€. There’s no need to make an appointment (except for specialists),  you see the doctor directly (no assistants) and they are very laid-back and attentive.

  • Driving

If I want to drive in France, I will need to re-take a driving exam, because a MA state licence is not accepted here, and learn to drive manual. For now, I’ve been getting around by bike. But I love that most traffic lights here have been replaced with small rotary/roundabout so that traffic moves more fluidly.

  • Living costs

More expensive in France : gas, highway tolls, food, restaurants (but there’s no need to tip), bank fees, taxes, and clothing.

Less expensive in France : healthcare and medication, wine and liquor (especially in restaurants), rent, and insurance rates (car/home/health).

Salaries tend to be lower overall in France than in the US.

Has your integration been easy ?

My boyfriend, my language ability, and my previous experiences in France have really helped me feel at home here. But with my accent and “weird” American habits, I will always be considered a foreigner here! People have made fun of the way I eat pizza and certain clothing choices.

It’s been difficult to meet locals in France. Most people aleady have close friends, and though everyone is very polite, it is difficult to integrate into a new group. So most of the people I hang out with include my boyfriend’s friends/family, colleagues, and other expats.

How often do you visit your home country ?

Over the past year I’ve lived in France, I had the opportunity to return to the US three times. Once for a wedding and my sister’s graduation, once for work, and once for Christmas. Visiting my family is a big priority for me, and I have plenty of vacation time, but the plane tickets are expensive! I use social media (Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Skype, Google chat) to contact family and friends as often as possible. I also have a landline that I can use to call any US number for free.

Do you intend to return to your home country one day ?

My boyfriend and I decided long before the move that we wanted to permanently live in the US one day. We are both very close with our families, but I think we would still prefer to live in a country with more career opportunities for both of us. So we intend to settle down on the East coast of the US within the next couple of years.

Do you want to share an anecdote ?

Last summer, we took a weekend trip to the beach. We visited La Baule, and I remember that we discussed the cultural differences between France and the US, that we never see American women topless on the beach, especially not with their families ! But in France, it’s completely normal. The next day, we decided to visit the medieval village Guerande and the neighboring salt flats. Afterwards, we saw signs for a beach not too far away. We parked the car and followed a long path through a forest. When we finally arrived at the beach, hot and ready to go for a swim, we realized that we were surrounded by naked people !  There had been no sign, no indication that this was a nudist beach! We immedately turned around and headed back to the car.

Do you have any advice for future expats ?

Thoroughly research your new life before you leave ! Expatriation is a fantastic experience, but there are many challenges. It is difficult to integrate without some knowledge of the language and culture of your host country, and it is often difficult to obtain visas and employment. Best of luck!

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I’d like to thank Sara from Aux Cinq Coins du Monde for reaching out! For other expats who may be interested, the site is always looking for more francophones to share their experiences.

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Featured : Aux Cinq Coins du Monde

Featured : Aux Cinq Coins du Monde

Say La Vie has been selected to be featured on Aux 5 Coins du Monde, a site featuring interviews with francophone expats located all over the world. Each week, interviewees submit pictures from their coin (corner), and readers attempt to guess the location.

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My picture of the Etang de Choisel (that I wish was higher quality!) was added on Friday, and someone has already managed to guess correctly. Later this week, there will be an article following up with hilights from my expat experience. This is a great site to check out (unfortunately, only available in French), but I’ll post some English translations from my interview this week. I would encourage everyone to check it out!

The harsh reality of biking to work

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Last week, I decided to try biking to work. With the best intentions, I researched potential routes, gathered weather-appropriate gear, and purchased a safety light and reflective vest. Rain was expected for Monday, so Max loaned me a rain jacket. I felt prepared and excited.

Expectation : 8 km, 30 minutes, stunning countryside views

Things did not go according to plan.

Leaving the house, there were some ominous clouds in the distance, but no rain just yet. Cruising along the route as planned, I was quickly reminded how little physical exertion I’m accustomed to. Sweating through three layers, I arrived in a quiet neighborhood and estimated that it was the halfway point. Someone’s adorable golden retriever got loose and began running along the road beside me, which was encouraging. But in a moment, the dog miscalculated his enthusiasm and crashed into the back wheel. Shocked and convinced that I had just killed my spirit animal, I threw the bike into a ditch and ran back.

OH NO HE’S LIMPING

After several minutes of pure panic, the dog was actually running around like normal, so it was time to go. Arriving at the next intersection, however, it was clear that someone (the map or I) had really messed up. Not only was I tired and very late for work, I was also lost.

Cue torrential downpour.

For a minute, I considered calling someone from the office to come find me. It also became apparent that Max’s jacket was not suited for rain at all. But another half mile down the road, I finally found a familiar road and knew the office wasn’t too far. Distance is relative when you’re struggling to maneuver a bike uphill on a busy road in the rain. Finally I arrived at the office, exhaused and soaking wet, a full hour late.

Reality : 11 km, 75 minutes, monsoon season

Where did it all go wrong?

Sure there are things I could’ve done differently. Bike the route ahead of time, get an earlier start, bring an actual rain jacket… details.

Will I ever bike again?

Absolutely. Maybe even tomorrow. But I’ll probably catch a ride from a coworker in the morning and stick to the mostly-downhill ride home for now.

Twainbike

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