There is a lot of renovating work that just isn’t that interesting. I could pretend it was fascinating, posting some well-lit close-ups of struts and joists, but I’m too lazy even to figure out what these words are in French, so best to indulge in an interlude.
We’ve lived in France for eighteen months, and the things we thought would be difficult have proved less difficult (pandemic aside) and things we never gave a thought to have proven to challenge us hour by hour. If you’re thinking you might like to live abroad, best to perform a little self-interrogation.
Here are some questions to help save you some aggravation.
Do you know where you want to go?
I’m a member of a Facebook group for expats in France, and people who aspire to be expats, and at least once a week someone asks why people chose France instead of Spain/Portugal/Italy. What always follows is a long thread extolling the virtues of each country. Then someone inevitably comments: “If you have to ask, you’re not ready to make the leap.” This is true. The world is not Epcot. Spain and France share a border, and from a cultural perspective that’s about it. Best to know where you want to go and why before you start divvying up the family heirlooms.
Do you understand the worst traits of the people in your new country and do you share them? If you don’t share them, be sure they don’t drive you completely insane.
We are happy in France because the people here are a little reserved and they love to complain. Complaining is a national pastime. When they are not complaining, they like to talk about how difficult it is to learn French, and also geography. At a party, it’s not considered impolite to say something provocative to start an argument. I am down with all of this, and thus we fit in as well as was to be expected.
Are you comfortable never knowing how hot, cold, big, small, heavy, light, fast or slow, close or far away something is?
Wherever you go, there will be people who speak English, but there will never be anyone who uses Fahrenheit, inches, feet, yards, pounds, ounces, and miles. Start learning your metric system now. It is the only way.
Are you a person who has no trouble making do?
For decades I’ve used Original Listerine (the yellow one). That harsh, paint remover-y taste is a part of me. For whatever reason, there is no Original Listerine to be had in Collioure, or any of the neighboring villages. Listerine Total Care (the purple one), Listerine Menthol (the green one), and the entire rainbow of other Listerines are on offer, but not my beloved Original. There is, of course, amazon.fr, where for a cool thirty-five euros you can order a bottle that costs five bucks at Walgreens. This may seem like nothing, but your entire life will be a series of these sorts of minor adjustment. In France, for example, you can buy a giant pack of Haribo Gummy Bears “for sharing” (ha), but no Twizzlers. The pillows are square and most mattresses are one step above the worst futon you’ve ever slept on. Bagels? Big bottles of Advil? Chairs large enough for our ample American asses? No, no, and no. Not the end of the world—duh—but do you really want to live this way?
Are you honest with yourself about your need for a certain type of weather (climate change aside)?
This may seem obvious, but if you hate the sun you will not love a sunny country where everyone is always sweaty and a little smelly. NEVER. Likewise, take somewhere like Brittany, which is in all ways exquisite, except: the DREAR. If you are not a fan of the drear in your own neighborhood, drear with a French accent is even worse.
Do you have a high tolerance for research and view complicated bureaucratic requirements as a challenge?
A friend here says “Every day is a school day” when you’re living in a foreign country, and boy howdy, is she right. I took five years of French and can read it fairly well. I still spend every day baffled about what I’m reading, what it means, what I’m supposed to do or not do. Google Translate is often no help. I’ve received official letters that basically say, “We understand that you are e-mailing because we told you to e-mail, and we would like to thank you very much for e-mailing.” Making sense of all the paperwork and filling it out is a part-time job. That said, if you’ve ever filled out a grant application or undergone the rigors of a tax audit, you got this!
Can you can tolerate conducting your relationships via Facetime?
I don’t want to tell anyone that it’s OK to leave your adult children to fend for themselves, but consider this: I talk to my adult daughter more now that I live in France than when she lived across town from me in Portland.
Do you have a high tolerance for public humiliation?
Last summer, before Covid, my friend Valérie and I joined a gym in a neighboring village. Gym culture isn’t as big a thing in France as it is the States. When they exercise, they tend to go for outdoorsy stuff—hiking, biking, swimming, tennis, football. Hollywood Greg Gym (I have no idea why it is called this: Greg is Belgian, and resembles the late actor Bob Hoskins, if Hoskins was a professional weight lifter) offered high-intensity exercise classes several times a week. It was summer, there was no air-conditioning, and the workout was hard. Doubly so for me, because it was conducted all in French. Sometimes, when Greg ordered us to do another set, I would groan “Oh God!” and everyone would laugh. I assumed that I was ridiculous simply because I was the lone American in the class. But no, at the end of the summer Greg finally took me aside and said, “You know ‘god’ means dildo in French, right?” (The actual word is godemiché). Are you willing to be that person unaware they’re shouting “Oh dildo!” for weeks on end?
Are you the kind of person energized by spending an entire day going from shop to shop, trying to find baking soda or a fitted sheet?
Why would you be? It’s completely ridiculous. Best to stay home or couch surf in the home of friends who made the leap. They will love to see you. Could you bring some Original Listerine and Twizzlers?