After living in Spain, close to Barcelona, for seven years, we (my husband, two children, and I) decided it was time to try out a different country… to make a change… to shake things up a little.
So we set off on a home-seeking tour of Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, and the United States. We were in search of a country that would check as many boxes as possible on our long wish list.
After almost eight months of travel and change, we decided that some but not enough boxes had been checked off by each country we’d spent time in. Furthermore, thanks to our travels in Central America, we came to a slightly unexplainable realization:
We wanted to return to Europe.
But where in Europe? Not Scandinavia, where we were initially drawn (too cold and dark), not Italy, nearly Croatia… but, finally, France, specifically in the southwest of the country, near the city of Pau.
I had been visiting France since I was a young teenager and had very happy memories of summer months there. I also have close family in the north and south of the country. Plus, I felt that this would be a safe, stable, and interesting place to raise our children.
Have we been happy with our decision? I can respond today, more than a decade later, with a confident and enthusiastic yes.
Has it been easy and hassle-free? No.
French country life has worked her magic on us… but no place is perfect… including, certainly, France.
Here’s how I’d size things up… la belle et la bête:
Beast: All but the big food stores close at noon. Shop assistants begin to get misty eyed at the thought of lunch at about 11:30. Don’t try to make any big buying decisions around that time. I have been in a furniture store with a full load, ready to pay, just before noon and the assistant told me to come back later, because she had already closed the till. You will be hustled, though politely, out. Lunch is sacrosanct.
Beauty: Between noon and 2 p.m. is a great time to do your grocery shopping. Or do as the French; stop and eat. US$12 is an average price for a delicious three-course meal.
Beast: Don’t do your grocery shopping on Friday mornings, unless you want to join the ranks of French retirees for a good natter. They really do park their carts in the aisles, blocking the flow of other shoppers, and chat.
Beauty: Friday food shopping is a lot of fun… if you’re not in a hurry. It’s when the local farmers come into the supermarkets to sell their farm-produced cheeses. It’s when the fishmonger shouts out the day’s best catch and buy. It’s when the bakery counter has lots of samples and great deals; 10 fresh buttery croissants for 2 euros. And it’s when the local cherry growers dress up in their jaunty Basque berets and give out handfuls of sweet cherries. This is at the huge national supermarket, not a small Farmer’s Market.
Beast: Don’t expect to negotiate a better price when buying a big-ticket item. When we bought our secondhand car, the price was not negotiable, even though the dealer had several cars on his lot. We tried all the usual ploys, to no avail. We just got The Shrug, the Gallic gesture you can generally take to mean, “It’s your choice, Madame. I don’t mind if I sell it or not. But please hurry up and make a decision, because it’s nearly lunchtime!”
Beauty: When you buy a big-ticket item, like a car, the sales process is calm, unhurried, and even gentle. The salesman rolls out the red carpet and helps you with all the paperwork (mounds). And you may discover a few surprise bonuses that the sales guy forgot to mention. Our car came with window insurance that lowered our overall insurance premium, and if we have any problems with it, we get a free replacement car while ours is in their shop.
Beast: To kiss or not to kiss… the indecision can be agonizing. How long does it take to know someone well enough before you can change from a handshake to apetit bisou(a little kiss)? I sometimes see a flicker of indecision run across my French acquaintances’ eyes; should I kiss this foreigner or not? If I’ve met someone a few times, I take the plunge and go for thebisou. But never kiss full on the lips.
Beauty: Thepetit bisou… the charming way French people greet each other. Now that my son has been playing basketball with the same team for three months, I feel comfortable joining in the greet and kiss pre-game ritual; this full team’s worth of kissing can take quite a while. Note: Do not kiss if you have a cold. “J’ai un rhume” (I’ve got a cold) is enough to put off even the most determined kisser.
Beast: Getting my Anglo-Saxon 10-year-old son to adopt the same standards of greeting as French children is proving tricky. Shaking hands with all his teammates is not a problem but kissing all their sisters, too? That’s something he’s had to work on.
Beauty: The French are so effortlessly polite. Not only the adults but all age groups, even teenagers and young adults, show respect for each other, older friends, family members, and acquaintances.
Beast: Smoking. Despite the fact that smoking is banned in airports, railway stations, hospitals, schools, shops, offices, restaurants, and bars, it is still common to see people puffing in the street and at outdoor cafés.
Beauty: There isn’t one… unless you’re a smoker, in which case, welcome to the land of chic smokers.
Beast: French drivers. They use their signals oddly, they often beep after something has happened so no one knows who the beep is meant for, and they cut back into line on the freeway, after passing, as if there were a chase on.
Beauty: Compared with other south European drivers, who seem to do everything but concentrate on driving, French drivers are on the ball and considerate. They let you out if you are waiting to enter traffic, and, as with everything else in life, they are generally courteous (Parisians excluded!).
Beast: OK, this is a little beast… nevertheless: Why do the French sleep with weirdly shaped pillows? They’re long, thin, and hard or enormous squares. If you’re pillow fussy, bring your own or risk a sore neck.
Beauty: The big square pillows make great floor cushions.
Beast: French people are proud and arrogant.
Beauty: It’s a myth or at least an over-generalization. Here in southern France, the people certainly are not arrogant. Proud, yes, but that can be a good thing if you have a lot to be proud of.
Beast: Strikes. It is true that the French are constantly striking about one thing or another… and costing the taxpayer millions of euros in the process.
Beauty: Sometimes you get a day off work or school.
Beast: Learning French. It is a tricky language to master; there are so many ways to say the same thing and so many ways to say the wrong thing. How many languages use three vowels for one sound? For example, the word for water, “eau,” sounds like “o.”
Beauty: French is a beautiful, sexy language to listen to.
Beast: The school system is strict and regimental. I have friends who pulled their children out of primary school because it didn’t allow the children to develop their creativity and personalities. And if a child cannot keep up, he won’t get personalized attention.
Beauty: The school system is strict and regimental. I have friends who say French high school has been greatly beneficial for their children, improving the children’s behavior and their grades.
Beast: Sport. You can’t escape it. If sport is not your thing, you’ll have an adjustment to make. Remember, though, that, here in France, you don’t have to get hot and sweaty to participate; a sedate game of boules with the locals on a shady square qualifies you as a sportsman.
Beauty: If you are a sports enthusiast, France is a great place to be.
Beast: French women are obsessed with their weight, and France has the highest percentage of underweight women among the countries of Western Europe. If you’re a woman, you’ll find it difficult to buy clothes if you wear anything bigger than a size 8. If you’re a man, you’ll find it difficult to find curvaceous women to date. (Or so I’m told.)
Beauty: French women have great figures. A recent report from France’s National Institute of Demographic Studies confirmed that French women are the slimmest (read, skinniest) in Western Europe.
Beast: Opening a bank account. Be prepared for the third degree. You will be asked a lot of questions about your financial situation. If you are uncertain where you stand vis-à-vis your tax, residency, etc., status, be careful.
Beauty: After a long and complicated bank manager meeting, I stepped out onto the town square, into the middle of the Farmer’s Market, bought some smelly cheese, a long crusty baguette, a bunch of home-grown Lily of the Valley, then sat to contemplate life as I sipped acafé allongé.