Expat Essentials

A simple guide for Americans moving to France, Pt. 1: Get that Champagne lifestyle on a beer budget

Overlooking the Champagne Ardennes valley with a bottle of Crémant de Bourgogne for Bastille Day. (Photo by Alice Verberne)

(Editor’s note: This post on France is the second in a series looking at the best countries in Europe for American expats. You can read the introductory post here.)

Walk down the beverage isles at Leclerc or Carrefour in France. Price compare a six pack of beer to a regular bottle of sparkling wine. Six to eight euros: Bah oui, c’est la France. It’s full of wonderful incompatibilities.

And, it’s true: I’ve managed to have a Champagne lifestyle on a beer budget for 22 years.

Okay, I do actually live in the Champagne-Ardennes where Champagne (especially from the Aube) is amazingly affordable. Which underpins my point that rural France is an awesome destination for those looking to economize.

Alice’s village of Bourmont in the Champagne-Ardennes (Photo by Alice Verberne)

Buying in France

But, rural France is not the only place where you can find deals. I went apartment hunting in Paris and was astounded that I could afford a place on the Isle of Saint Louis. Okay, it was the maid’s quarters and I knocked my head on the roof beams, but still. The selling price was 200,000 euros. I mean, I would never be able to afford a closet on 5th Avenue. 

For the most part, housing in France is comparatively affordable, but as with everything, prices are relative. One can find an average house in move-in condition for about 80,000 euros in my area. For more info on finding your dream home, check out this post.

And if you want to buy a castle, I can help with that.

Buying in France

Before taking the plunge into foreign home ownership, it would be prudent to rent a place to get the feel for where you may want to buy. Finding a rental apartment can get tricky. Renters are typically expected to submit a dossier that includes salary and other personal information in order to be considered. These background checks are the result of generous French laws that give renters egregious rights.

It gets complicated, but trust me on this.

So, if you plan to rent before you buy, be ready to share loads of personal information with your potential landlord such as recent pay slips for the last three-to-six months; a current employment contract; a letter from your employer confirming your job title, salary and contract length; a tax return for the most recent tax year.

It’s the little things that drive you crazy

Okay, France is a great place to live, but there are lots of little things that will drive you crazy. Check out the following rant, and remember, you have been forewarned.

SCENARIO 1:

Paying bills in person is a challenge, especially in the countryside.

The post office (where you can pay bills) is closed on Monday, Wednesday and open half day on blah blah blah. Saturday morning lines in town are loooong.

TIP: Learn French so you can pay your bills online.

SCENARIO 2:

I have heard horror stories about banks not wanting to give Americans accounts (or cancel them without warning).

TIP: Your technically supposed to have a French bank to get your bills in your name.

SCENARIO 3:

And getting people to show up to do home renovations? Forget it. I know folks who are on a 5-year waiting list to get roof work done.

TIP: If the job is big and expensive and if you are well connected, your chance of workers showing up is higher.

(Okay, I’m done. Whew, that felt good. 🙂

NAYSAYERS: I am sure there are folks who will disagree with me. They will say the got their phone line connected using a foreign account and they will also tell me that their workers show up bright-eyed and ready to work at the appointed hour. Hey, you guys out there: can I have your contact list, please? But be ready, I plan to share it with the world.

Living in a foreign language ‘ain’t always easy.’

Along with the bubbly wine, you get the stinky cheese (you just have to decide if you really like what is being served).

Yes, there are expats who don’t learn the language – and all my French neighbors complain about them. They say to me: “Learn French!” Non-French speakers are invited to the big parties (where I am used as the translator). But for those more personal salon style gatherings, non-French speakers just don’t make the cut. It is just too hard for them to manage conversation about art, culture, politics; you name it.

They’re itinerant in the eyes of the locals.

Not being able to communicate can affect more than just ones social life. Many isolated expats are out of touch with civic and political issues. For example, on a recent outing, the subject turned to wind versus nuclear power. Both industries are vying to dominate our area. Had I not understood the discussion, I would never have known the implications for my community, me personally and future property speculation.

I know it sucks, but take a class, get the app and learn some French for chrissake.

Wikipedia

Stock up on those iodine pills

Unlike the rest of Europe, that uses wind, oil and/or coal-burning plants, France is powered by atoms. Nuke is both pollution free (except for the spent radioactive fuel) and relatively cheap. The downside is, you’ll be living next to nuclear power plant pretty much anywhere in France. The current nuke count is 56 in France, second only to the United States, which has 94.

But remember, France is roughly the size of Texas (if you added Switzerland in beside it). In Thionville, France, where we rent a townhouse, the city issues free iodine pills to the citizens in case of a meltdown (iodine blocks the absorption of radioactive iodine reducing risk of contracting thyroid cancer).

There is a French saying: En tout pays, il y a une lieue de mauvais chemin, which loosely translates to “there will be bumps in the smoothest road.” But in the end, I never wanted to feel like Meg Ryan in the 1995 film “French Kiss” when she says, “I realized that I spent most of my adult life trying to protect myself from exactly this situation. And you can’t do it. There’s no home safe enough, no relationship secure enough. You’re setting yourself up for an even bigger fall.” 

It’s better to just go for it and live the life you have always dreamed of having. Or as the French would say, “Fait ta vie.”

–––––

Read more about Alice’s expat life here.

Read more about France here in Dispatches’ archives.

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Alice Verberne is a contributing writer for Dispatches Europe. She has worked in print journalism and magazine production in the United States and Europe throughout her career. She currently resides in one of the Petites Cités de Charactère de France (a small city of character) where she enjoys chatting with visitors and adventuring with locals.

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