In the beginning, the attractions of living in France are many and obvious. The country has not so much a certain je ne sais quoi as a je sais exactement quoi.
In that glorious first period of enchantment, it is easy to reel off the qualities for which you are willing to abandon your homeland. It is a no-brainer: move to France and there is no loss, only gain.
Live here for a while and the shine begins to wear off.
You need the cheap bottle of wine on the terrace in the warmth of the evening just to recover from the quotidian reality: endless layers of bureaucracy; noisy neighbours; arrogant drivers; unexpected taxes; a baroque system of health insurance... add whatever your particular gripe is.
It is easy to forget what once charmed you into burning your bridges and embracing a new life abroad. Some expatriates get so discouraged that they up sticks and move back from a tarnished paradise to the devil at home they know.
For those of us who stay on, may I suggest the following prescription, applied periodically? Simply remind yourself of why you fell in love with France in the first place.
Speaking for myself, it is easy to get enraged by all the stuff I do not like and to completely ignore the wonderful things that brought me here.
The virtues of life in France have not gone away. It is just that I have stopped paying attention to them.
All it takes is an act of will for me to compile a mental list of reasons to love France. Then, it just takes a step out of the door in the right frame of mind for me to return to the confirmed Francophile I always was.
The hassles add to my rich and realistic understanding of this country, but they need to be balanced with the good stuff.
Everyone’s list of what lured them to France will be different, but here are some experiences that I would include, in no particular order.
You will notice I have not mentioned items of food and drink, climate, cinema, culture, the language, or particular tourist attractions – all those can be taken as given.
- The extraordinary variety of vernacular architecture: ordinary ancient houses, particularly timber-framed, that have centuries of history etched into their walls.
- Walking the banks of any broad, green river, whether in the countryside or as it flows through a city.
- Smelling a boulangerie from afar early in the morning.
- Sitting with friends on the terrace of a cafe under the plane trees of the town’s main square.
- Strolling around the streets of Paris: I rarely get the opportunity, which makes the experience all the more special.
- Good manners: how people automatically say “hello”, acknowledging my presence and expecting me to acknowledge theirs.
- The great variety of bandes dessinées (comic books). These are undoubtedly an art form in their own right.
- The concept of the commune: a unit of local government at human scale that I can relate to. Our mayor and his secretary are invaluable interfaces between little me and big bureaucracy.
- Visiting prehistoric painted caves with a knowledgeable guide by torchlight.
- Stepping outside on a winter’s night after the street lights have been turned off and seeing the Milky Way.
- Intellectual and artistic conversations with the most surprising people. Never assume that the plumber is only a plumber – he might also be a great musician or philosopher.
- Romanesque churches: there are so many of them, and a lot of the unknown ones are exquisitely carved.
- Equality: the fact that French people are all citizens without class, with no one of intrinsically higher or lower status. Every monsieur and madame expects the same respect. There are still people with aristocratic titles but these mean nothing in a republic. No one lets them forget 1789.