Expat Update: Living in France for Six Months

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Jordan reminded me that yesterday was an important milestone on our expat journey. We have lived as American expats in France for six months. Can you believe it? Exactly a year ago, last August, we took a trip to Switzerland. On that trip, we visited Lyon for a day so Jordan could show me around. One year later, here we are! The six-month mark means we are through a quarter of our expat journey in France. When we take a step back to reflect, we realize how much has changed in this time frame.

I’ll get back to sharing our Norway content next week. This week, I want to share some things that we have learned since becoming an expat in France six months ago.

Lyon France. Saone river with a boat.

1. Making Friends is hard

The biggest advice we heard before moving to France was, “do not become friends with other Americans.” I get it. The goal of moving abroad is to assimilate into the country we live in and understand their culture, their people, and their way of life. However, a lot of the people who gave us this advice have never lived abroad. I’m ready to throw this phrase out the window. Every day we experience new challenges. Whether it’s a random guy talking to me on the street (this does not happen when Jordan is with me), contacting customer service over the phone, or trying to get a package delivered, it’s all difficult to some degree. It is honestly refreshing to have American friends and to speak to someone in English.

We are trying to integrate our lives into France as much as possible. However, these friends are the only time where we don’t have to challenge ourselves. They are a break from our “normal.” It’s a state where we don’t have to try, where conversation comes easy, and where we feel like ourselves. I’ve written in a previous blog post about how we are getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, but there are times where we want to be comfortable. Think of it as your favorite comfort food; you don’t need it all the time, but there are times when you just need it.

The first friends we have made in Lyon also lived in Greenville. They are also Americans who moved to France as an expat. We didn’t know them while we lived in the U.S., but we share many of the same experiences. These shared experiences make it easier to connect because they are going through the same events. It also makes us not feel so alone in this journey and helps us build a support network. Yes, the ultimate goal is to become friends with actual French-speaking people, and we are trying!

2. Social media Connections are helpful

I’ve changed how I use social media since moving to Lyon. Yes, I started this blog and my @planestrainsandshanes Instagram account to keep up with friends and family (hi guys!), but I didn’t expect to make new connections through it. While many social media feeds are mentally toxic (hello, Facebook during an election year), I’ve found a positive light in the typically dark feeds. It’s probably no surprise to many of you that I’m using social media to make connections, as Jordan and I met each other on an online dating app, Tinder.

On Facebook, there is an “Expat in Lyon, France” group. This expat group includes people from all over the world who have moved to Lyon, France. It has been a great source of information for us to find out about new government policies or rules, places to eat, or places to get jewelry repaired. People also post about events like yoga in the park, a new free Zumba class, or a group picnic. It’s a group of people who are also looking to make those comfortable connections with others.

On Instagram, I started to follow the hashtag #americaninfrance. As the hashtag explains, this hashtag has helped me connect with others, who is both an American expat and living in France. I have “met” and chat with four others regularly through Instagram. Again, these connections are about taking a break from our “normal.” We can laugh at ridiculous French real estate. Or talk about how excellent the food is here (and how our pants don’t fit because of it). We can complain about weird rules about wearing masks on certain streets. Or even reminisce about how we miss Chick-fil-a.

Jordan and I are both what you would consider extroverted-introverts. We are outgoing with our friends but are more reserved when we first meet someone. Can we skip the whole “getting to know you” part of the process and move straight to the “ok, we are good friends now” phase? To do that, we have to channel our extroverted energy and put ourselves out there. We have nothing to lose but everything to gain. For example, I met a girl on Instagram who is an expat from America and lives in Lyon, France. We are planning to meet up and grab a coffee when she is back in town. Is this insane? I’ll let you all know soon. But remember, I blindly met up with Jordan for the first time after meeting him online. I’ve got high hopes this will go well.

3. Navigating through city life is easy

It’s safe to say that both Jordan and I are loving life in Lyon, even amid a pandemic. The modern conveniences of living in a city are a refreshing break from our suburban, car-dependent home in South Carolina. I’ve written before about how difficult it is to get packages in Lyon. But, it’s not so bad when you pair walking to pick up a package from an Amazon locker with stopping by the local beer joint for a drink on the way home.

We enjoy taking long walks along the river at night, walking to the grocery store, hopping on our bicycles to the Parc de la Tête D’or to visit the monkeys at the zoo, or jumping on the tram to head to dinner. I can walk a couple of blocks to the nearby grocery store to pick up any last-minute items we may have forgot purchasing at the store.

For the most part, everything we need is within walking distance of our house. But for everything we want, we can take the metro to get us there. At first, I used Jordan as a crutch and would not go anywhere alone. Initially, I was nervous. I was unfamiliar with my surroundings and was worried I would get lost or have trouble.

I didn’t want to go to the grocery store alone. So we would both go after Jordan finished work during the week. I was anxious that someone would ask me something. Or nervous that I would have problems with the checkout line. I was worried that my card would be declined. But I forced myself to go to the grocery store by myself to get over the initial fear (ok, I didn’t force myself. But I’m unemployed, and it makes more sense for me to go while Jordan is working than for both of us to go).

Guess what happened on that trip to the grocery store? Nothing. It was uneventful. Stressful but uneventful. My card was not declined; I found everything we needed and quickly made it there and back. Honestly, the worst part was our vague grocery list (“toothpaste” is not sufficient. I also need brand name and type!), but that’s on us. It gave me the confidence that I could handle a situation where it may not go well.

A few solo trips in, I used the self-checkout lane, and the machine acted up the entire transaction. The grocery store attendant had to come over multiple times. One item wouldn’t ring up at all. And oh yeah, I also felt confident enough to bring a coupon with me to try and use it! But I got through it. I was able to speak French to the attendant the entire time, purchase the item that wouldn’t ring up, and use my coupon! It was a triumphant moment for me.

I realized that I needed to build my confidence by doing something once by myself because now I don’t think twice about heading to the grocery store or jumping on the metro and tram system to get around in Lyon by myself. I have regained a certain level of independence, and it feels good.

4. Developing a global-mindset is eye Opening

When we moved away from the United States, we were able to view everything with a different lens. We are now outsiders looking in and were surprised by what we saw. We were now adjusting to the expat life in France. Maybe it’s the pandemic, and it’s an election year, but wow.

During our long evening walks, Jordan and I have had countless conversations about politicians, corruption, capitalism, protests, conspiracy theories. You name it, and we’ve probably talked about it with each other. We compare many of these topics to what we see and experience as an expat in France. Living abroad, not only traveling abroad, has opened our eyes and our minds. Typically we only see the highlights when traveling abroad, like an Instagram reel. Living abroad has allowed us to experience the French bureaucracy, the “complain, but comply” mentality, and learn a different way of life. It’s given us a new appreciation for where we came from and appreciate what we currently have.

5. Eating Meals Late in the evening is normal

The first time our non-American, English-speaking friends invited us over to dinner, we arrived at 7:30 pm. There were a total of eight of us for dinner that night. After good food and better conversation, we finished dinner after midnight. On a Monday! That’s right; dinner lasted almost five hours. It was a three-course meal that included the main entree, cheese after the entree, and then dessert. This is never something that we would have done in South Carolina. If, and that’s a big if, we went out to dinner with our friends in Greenville, we would want to be home no later than 10:00 pm to get ready for bed and prepare for the next day.

Here in Lyon, we view dinner a little differently. It’s not a sprint but a marathon. We don’t rush; we enjoy each other’s company and appreciate the time spent together. This new-found view could also be because we experienced such a strict lockdown, but either way, we appreciate connecting with others more than we did before.

Even when we aren’t connecting with others over a meal, we eat dinner at home around 8:30 pm – 9:00 pm. This may have something to do with the sun setting so late this Summer. Our minds would still see the sun shining high in the sky between 7:00-8:00 pm. It couldn’t possibly be dinner time if it was that light out. There were many nights we would have to force ourselves to cook early (read: 7:00 pm) so that we wouldn’t be eating dinner so late. Now that we are heading into Fall and the sun is starting to set earlier, we aren’t sure if this will impact when we eat dinner. We will keep you updated!

6. adapting a slower way of life is refreshing

I may be biased because I don’t currently have a job, but I would consider stress-free living the French way of life. I saw a hilarious meme that summed up life in the U.S. compared to France. It was describing how differently people in the U.S. and France take a vacation. It goes something like this:

American: “I am currently on vacation, but will still be checking my emails the entire time and will respond as quickly as possible. I’ll have my phone on me at all times and can be reached at xxx-xxx-xxxx. Sorry to inconvenience you by taking time off.”

French: “I am currently on vacation for three weeks. You cannot reach me, and all emails I receive will be deleted upon my return and not responded to.”

Right? A very different approach.

It’s honestly refreshing. There is more of an attitude of “work to live” here instead of the “live to work” mentality that we have in the U.S. In South Carolina, Jordan and I worked all the time and consistently worked late. We both were constantly on the brink of burn-out, too exhausted to cook dinner some nights. Sometimes, we didn’t want to talk to each other in the evenings when the days were so mentally tough at the office.

Now, Jordan gets home from work around 6:00 pm. We still have plenty of time to go for a walk, cook dinner with each other, and enjoy each other’s company. We have been able to create this “work-life balance” that I never actually believed could exist. And it’s not only a balance because Jordan is the one working and I am the one living! It’s something that we are going to prioritize and try to keep when we move back to South Carolina after the expat assignment in France is over.

The French also aren’t concerned about shutting down for vacation. Many shops and restaurants are closed for the entire month of August. These places are locally owned, and the family goes on vacation. Jordan’s company required us to take the first two weeks off in August. We also have another week off that we have to take by the end of November. Don’t mind if we do!

7. french is still difficult

Jordan and I have taken about 50 hours of French classes since moving here. We still have a lot to learn. We try to take class 2-3 times a week to keep the momentum going. Our vocabulary has grown greatly, and we are learning all the different tenses—C’est difficile.

There are many minor technical pieces in French that we have to memorize as there aren’t hard and fast rules for many things. This includes whether something is masculine or feminine to determine if we should use ” la” or “le” before the word. There’s a joke in France where the biggest dilemma this year is determining whether COVID is masculine as “le COVID” or feminine as “la COVID.” These are the real issues at hand! Jordan’s coworkers have reassured him that even they get corrected in their French, and if we are close, people will understand us. That’s our goal – not perfection, but to be close enough to correct to have a conversation.

Reading French continues to be way easier than listening to French. I feel confident that I can navigate a restaurant menu, a news article, or a poster and understand it. Speaking French is still difficult. However, I can get through it most times or prepare for it in advance as much as possible. Like the time I went to get coffee beans from a local shop. I spent the entire metro ride over practicing in my head what I wanted to say.

Writing French is getting easier when I have to email a business or our French teacher. I use Google Translate, but instead of writing in English and translating it to French, I write it in French and translate it to English. This is a huge confidence booster for me when I can write something in French, and it makes sense.

Listening to and comprehending French remains the most difficult right now. I’ve started to use Amazon Prime to play shows like The Office and Seinfeld in French. I turn the French subtitles on as well. I realized what they speak, and the subtitles don’t match up many times. That’s a start! I find myself reading the subtitles more than I find myself actively listening to what the characters say. My next move is to turn the French subtitles off to force myself to listen to the conversation.

If you ever watched Seinfeld, there’s an episode called “The Comeback.” One of the main characters, George Costanza, spends the entire episode trying to deliver a comeback or retort to someone he thought of too late. At the moment, George didn’t know what to say. But after he had a chance to think about it, he figured out the “perfect” retort to tell someone.

This example is exactly how listening to and speaking French is. There have been so many times where after the conversation ended, I would think, “oh, that’s what they were saying. I should have said (enter response here) instead”. But unlike George, I’m not going to try and recreate the moment to deliver “the comeback.”

Thanks for reading today’s blog post! If there are other things you are interested in reading about or want to know more about being an expat in France, please let me know in the comments, and I will write about it!

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11 thoughts on “Expat Update: Living in France for Six Months

  1. It’s such a joy to follow your adventures and experiences! I may have mentioned that I lived with my French uncle and his family in Cannes for 3 months when I was in the 8th grade, and attended parochial school with my cousins. Luckily, I already had 2 years of French classes under my belt, so I had a great head start. I remember listening to conversations and learning the appropriate responses, such as my aunt saying, “ca suffit!” when my cousins were getting unruly. I found it fascinating how the brain learns a foreign language…over time, I found myself actually THINKING in French when I was winding down at night, trying to go to sleep! I was too young to realize the distinction in work cultures between France and the US, but I would surely appreciate it NOW! Enjoy!!

    1. Jackie, thanks so much for reading my blog! I’m picking up on phrases I can use in real situations through the TV shows I watch. I’ll have to integrate, “ca suffit” into my day to day. Maybe I can yell it to the unruly kids who have screaming matches in the park outside our apartment building :). I’m starting to think in French now, especially when I’m speaking English.
      No dreaming in French yet though!

  2. Laura, you should be a writer! I enjoy your posts so much. I always wanted to teach overseas, but never took the chance. I am so proud of you two for being brave enough to follow your dreams!

    1. Hi Debbie! Thank you so much for reading our blog. I really appreciate it! I have a lot of fun writing and it helps keep my mind busy while I’m not employed.

      It’s never too late in life to take the jump and move over :). There’s plenty of English teaching opportunities in France.

  3. Wonderful account! Your eating experience reminded me of a vignette in “A year in Provence” by Peter Mayle. Read it! They went out to eat New Years day and it was an all day affair. They were not only full but soused.
    I have always admired people who learned English as a second language. It has to be tough. Sounds like you are doing great. Your comment about being fearful has struck people here in the US because of Covid. A trip to the grocery store is fearful, yet once there you feel ok and not afraid. However, I have friends who have only been to doctor appointments for the last 6 months and they have become extremely fearful. That has been the greatest overall negative to come from this pandemic.
    As you may know, your namesake has made a mess on the gulf and inland. She is to visit us today!
    Look forward to hearing more about your Norway trip! Pleasure deferred is sweeter.

    1. I will have to read it. Thank you for the recommendation!

      I think it will be interesting to see post-pandemic how people act and react. There may be a shift in how stores and places operate. Jordan told me today that Disney is testing the release of a movie on their Disney Plus subscription model by charging people $30 to see it. It would be the same as a family of 4 going to the movie theatre, but I can’t imagine paying $30 to watch a movie when it first is released… at home! Is this the beginning of the end of movie theatres?

      My mom really enjoys following hurricanes and kept me updated on hurricane Laura! It looks like it didn’t create as much damage as expected which is good.

      Hope you have a great week!

  4. I find myself looking forward to reading about your life and adventures abroad – you are a gifted writer! I continue to admire you both for taking advantage of this opportunity. It’s fun to read how you are navigating the challenges and I rejoice with you for every challenge you overcome! Keep it up!

    1. Hi Barbara, thank you so much for continuing to read! I have a lot of fun writing these blog posts. I’ve never really spent much time writing before, and this is a new creative outlet for me! Thank you!

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