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France is distinctive – but that is part of the appeal

Be prepared to embrace some idiosyncrasies... We newcomers often consider ourselves experts in French culture.

Whether it is our vision of the elderly paysan in his Breton stripes and beret – his bicycle laden with baguettes, a string of garlic around his neck and a dangling Gauloises – or our appreciation of sophisticated Pari­sian café culture, it is tempting to believe we already know and love every idiosyncrasy of French life.

But, as anyone who has stepped off the ferry for anything longer than a holiday here will tell you, there is a great deal in French culture – other than the need to drive on the right – that can catch even seasoned Francophiles unawares.

For a start, French administration does have a reputation for being complicated, which is sometimes deserved - though often the biggest hurdle is langu­age, as forms and information are rarely translated and officials may not speak English.

However it can creep into many areas of life. For example, hiring a holiday gîte might have been a breeze, but entering into an agreement to rent a flat can require a surprising amount of paperwork.

There are also somewhat elaborate processes for registering a car, obtaining a carte vitale, registering children at school, paying tax, and opening a bank account.

Officials in charge of these rites of passage may have little interest in guiding bewildered expats through the tangle of procedures.

And, while in the UK it is possible to get many things done online, the worldwide web seems comparatively less used in France’s officialdom although this is improving and the government’s website is a mine of information.

A telephone call may sometimes suffice, but you may find there is no substitute for going into an office in person with all your documents in good order… sometimes repeatedly.

New arrivals who are discouraged by all this might be tempted to recover their equilibrium by treating themselves to a little cake from the local pâtisserie, or a glass of wine in the village bar. Inviting though they may be, they can be a little intimidating for the expat crossing their threshold for the first time.

It may take a while to be served, not necessarily because there is anyone waiting, but because the shop assistants or waiters are chatting amongst themselves and fail to take any notice of the new arrival patiently waiting with an expectant gaze.

In such situations do remember basic rules such as always saying bonjour. In fact, so attached are the French to good manners that there have even been cases of cafés charging customers differently depending on whe­ther or not they said bonjour!

As you scratch the surface of French life, you begin to discover yet more everyday differences.

Some expats report being surprised at being asked to strip off for a diagnosis at the doctor’s in situations which would not usually call for it in the UK. Having said which, this is far from systematic; what is more, many say the biggest difference is that GPs have a more caring and personal approach and take more time to listen.

More examples of a more unnerving kind we have heard of include stress with a delivery of logs to fuel a wood-burning stove, when the lorry tipped five cubic metres of timber into the road in front of the house and then drove off, provoking noisy rage in passing drivers. Other expats have found that routine roadside police checks can feel like an ordeal when the police are wielding guns.

Further little differences include their meal times – the French eat dinner later than the British, and they often stop promptly at noon for lunch. It is true too that the French are fairly style conscious – popping to the shops in sweat pants and flipflops tends to make you stick out.

Every new arrival has the odd moment when the 19 nautical miles of the Channel can feel like a yawning chasm; at times like these it is vital to hang on to your original motivation for moving to France.

Whether it was to find a better work-life balance; to enjoy the country’s gastro­nomic delights; acqui­ring one of the world’s most beau­tiful lang­ua­ges; more sun­shine; or sim­ply exploring a dif­ferent cul­ture, in time, and with patience, France may well realise all your dreams.

One practical key to integra­tion is to consi­der see­king help from a professional to guide your way through it, particularly if your French is rusty.

The second is a question of yes, you may prefer your baguette to be delivered without a scowl, but if you smile, persist and remain open to new experiences, you will soon find that scowl replaced by a cheery bonjour.

Many positive clichés also turn out to be true – the vegetables are juicier, the coffee is tastier. Scenery is often stunning. As for the French people, many expats are embraced by the locals, especially if they make the effort to fit in by joining local associations – a choir, a sports or hiking club... or perhaps volunteering to sit on the local council.

What is more the French talk of solidarité is not just empty words as is seen for example in a recent rule that colleagues can donate days off to a worker with a sick or handicapped child – which has been repeatedly taken up in a generous spirit in French firms.

Hit the road, jacques

Do not plan family trips for the first or third weekends of July or August. This is when half of France’s 65million population sets off for or comes back from their summer holidays. On August 2, 2014, 1,000km of traffic jams were recorded. That is stationary traffic stretching the country’s length.


You may be used to seeing SALE notices in the shops almost all year round but you will not get used to it in France. Official sales periods here are strictly controlled and limited to a few weeks in January and July. 

French days off

There are 11 annual public holidays (jours fériés) in France but, unlike in the UK, they are not movable. It means that, for example, May Day is always May 1 and not the nearest Monday. If the holiday falls on the weekend when you do not usually work, it is bad luck – you lose the day off. Good news for anyone moving to France in 2017 - there are no public holidays falling on weekends.

Chien shame

Keep one eye out when you are out and about. Dog owners are notorious for not cleaning up after their pets. The mairie in the Nord commune of Hazebrouck last year launched a campaign urging owners to clear up their pets’ mess, only to face complaints about the lack of dog toilets or free ‘poop bags’.

Oddball laws

If you are planning to live a Year in Provence-style life in France, do not name your pet pig Napoleon – it is illegal. As is kissing on a train. Bizarrely, until 2013, it was also technically against the law for women in Paris to wear trousers unless they were riding or wheeling a bicycle

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