I guess many of you have already dreamed of living in a foreign country and since I am not different from anybody else, I’ve also had this idea in my mind. I always wanted to have the experience to live abroad. As a matter of fact, I had the chance as a teenager to live in the States, in San Francisco, as an exchange student. It was a wonderful and exciting experience apart from the kilos I’ve gained (lost them afterward!). But what I really wanted was to actually live and work abroad not as a student but as a citizen.
I don’t know about you but I’ve always thought that my ordinary problems, worries, and my stressful life would simply fade away if I went to another country. Big mistake! You just change problems. At this point of my story, you might have figured out that I don’t intend to extol the glories of quitting your country but to make you aware of the pros and cons so that you can make up your mind consciously.
In December 2002, I reached the glorious moment of coming to live in France. At first, I was supposed to come in order to have my Ph.D. in marketing with all my family support including my ex-husband. I said “ex,” that’s right. I don’t want you to get involved in my personal life but the fact is that after a year in France I got divorced. And to end up this part pretty fast, I found myself completely alone in the middle of a bunch of French people without being able to make myself understood .The reason for that is that during that first year here, I spent 50 percent of my time in front of a computer at the university making research and the second half at home cleaning up the mess the others had made during the day. As a result, no contact with French apart from “bonjour “and “ça va.”
There comes my first lesson: If you intend to live in another country, learn the language as much as you can before coming!
In a nutshell, since I got divorced I had to quit school and make a decision: either come back to Brazil (yes, I’m Brazilian) or stay in France and find a job. My kids were all here with me and they also had tough moments trying to cope with their new way of life. Besides, I thought that it’s unique for kids to have the chance to live in the first world, to experience a different culture and to have access to things that they might not have had if they had stayed in Brazil. Nowadays I have second thoughts about that too! So I finally decided to stay and there is the climax of my story. I still don’t know whether I’ve made the correct decision, as a matter of fact, I guess I’ll never know it.
My professional and educational background made me believe that finding a job in France would be as simple as a snap of fingers. Wrong again! I forgot a very important detail. I was forty-one, too old to get into the market, no experience in France. Here you must have experience, they don’t care if you’ve had it elsewhere, I promise you. What really got me out of trouble? English! I started giving classes in English but I had another big challenge: French students want to have classes with native speakers, mainly British and their methodology for learning languages belongs to the nineteenth century. Now you understand why French do not speak English. They memorize tons of verbs, translate every word they don’t understand and keep their strong accent believing that they are understood—a real disaster! Anyway, I started teaching English Portuguese and Spanish and step by step, I made my way out.
Second lesson: You age is a very important aspect to be consider. If you are over thirty-five, don’t come. Enterprises are looking for seniors with experience in France and for very young people without experience. I was neither one nor the other.
Why don’t we get into the cultural aspects of my story? I’ve decided to make a list of the interesting, funny, and weird things French are used to doing. That’s my own personal impression! I’m not judging them! It’s just different to me, that’s all. I must also add that I live in the outskirts of Toulouse in the southwest of France. It’s not Paris! Maybe you’ll find them extremely interesting, “normal” and you might even have the same habit in your country, who knows!
1. They have a desperate need to greet people, to excuse themselves, and to wish a good day many times to the same person. Even though they can be very rude towards you.
2. However, they don’t have money, they go on vacation anyhow. Even if it that means putting up a tent in your garden or take your house with you for a journey because you don’t have a penny. I don’t know why but they think it’s great!
3. If they don’t have breakfast (“petit déjeuner”) they get out of their minds. Let alone if they don’t have the famous “goûter” in the afternoon.
4. And the laws? You have a law for everything and they respect it even if they don’t agree with them! And when they don’t know whether it’s forbidden or not, they just don’t do it because it might be out of the law!
5. Kids are very, extremely controlled, supervised, and watched but once they are eighteen they are completely on their own.
6. Teenagers do a lot of stuff hidden from their parents. It’s cool to be against parents.
7. To put your hands inside of your pockets in front of a teacher means lack of respect.
8. I used to get messages from school saying that my son who was fifteen had turned his cellular phone on during a class. I still think what I could have done about it!
9. They love to buy second-hand stuff. They think they are saving money except for clothes. They do to “on sale” twice a year and it’s really cheaper!
10. Houses in France are never finished. They start remodeling them but after ten years the kitchen is not ready, the ceiling is to be fixed and the garage is going to be built …
11. They don’t travel too much outside France so you might cross someone asking if he or she can visit Buenos Aires in Brazil!
12. Never, ever talk about your salary. It’s a forbidden subject around here. Everybody is just fine! You know what I mean.
13. Hierarchy is extremely strong. If you are a mere employee, don’t say a word; accept whatever comes.
14. And what about machismo? Most of the French women have double tasks. She’s supposed to take care of the kids, the house, and the husband besides her real job, of course.
15. Women earn less than men for the same job.
16. If you are invited to dinner at somebody’s house you should arrive with flowers for the hostess and wine for her husband.
17. Don’t laugh in the middle of the street. Everybody is going to stare at you.
18. They hate to brush their teeth and they never make use of dental floss. Some don’t even know what it is.
19. Be ready to pay taxes! They are all over like flies!
20. Every French has a “no birthday day “to be celebrated. Their names are linked to the catholic calendar so you’re supposed to send a card or an email to the person’s “no birthday day.” They take it very seriously.
21. Be ready for an awful weather even when the broadcast announces a sunny day.
Summer around here lasts three months and that’s it!
22. Maids, housekeepers, chauffeur and all that luxury does not exist. We are in the do-it-yourself world. And when you don’t know how to do it? You’re in trouble!
23. Public services are not made for foreigners. Everything is only in French and they don’t have the slightest patience to explain things to a foreigner.
24. If you get your French nationality, you’re not informed of anything. You just become French without knowing your dos and don’ts. But do not forget to follow the laws. Yes, I know it’s difficult to understand!
25. Public services ask you to write a letter of honor stating that whatever you declare in that letter is true but at the same time, they ask you to prepare tons of documents to prove that you are actually telling the truth.
26. In every document besides your signature you have to write “lu et approuvé” which means “read and approved.” Could you tell me what is the sense in doing that?
27. French keep the records of their families in a “livret de famille” that is a “family booklet.” Once you become French you normally do not have that booklet but they keep asking you anyhow and there’s no way to have it made if your husband or wife is not French.
28. When paying income taxes, they do not take into account that you live with someone else (not marital status) but if you need any kind of help from the government, they do ask you for the income of the other person.
29. They have a lot of prejudice against foreigners.
Well, I’d just like to end up this list by saying that you have to be really open-minded, very flexible and sometimes ready to change your social status when living abroad. I might be generalizing but I don’t think it would be much different in another occidental country. Maybe you could tell me your own experience.