When I first arrived in France, I honestly thought that my life here wouldn't be so different to my life in England. After all, there's only the Channel separating us from one another! Oh dear, oh dear, how naive I once was!
It didn't take long before the cultural differences started popping up and the one or two questions I had prepared quickly turned into hundreds and hundreds of unanswered queries. I remember wondering if I would ever get my head around all of it.
But here's the good news, I did and I lived to tell the tale! And although France and its way of life is dramatically different to the way I grew up, I have learnt to understand the country and have learnt to love both its qualities and its quirks.
So here are ten questions you ask yourself when you move to France:
1- How difficult is it to learn French?
Learning French takes time (and a lot of patience) so don't be disheartened if you're not fluent after a few months or even a year. French grammar is very difficult so taking lessons is a good start and to practice your speaking you can get a language exchange partner or simply make French friends! For more tips on becoming fluent in French, click here.
2- What on earth is a CDI?
When I arrived people kept throwing the words CDI and CDD around. I pretended I knew what they were talking about but I had absolutely no clue. Basically, a CDI is a permanent contract and is the type of contract you want to get if you move to France. This contract is iron clad (it's almost impossible to get fired, you would literally have to streak around the office to commit a "faute grave.") This is also the type of contract that you need to rent an apartment so it's very handy!
A CDD is a temporary contract that can last for a few months or a few years. The problem is the employer has to renew it every time the contract ends and they can choose not to at anytime so there is a lot less job security with a CDD.
3- To kiss or not to kiss? That is the question
The French typically greet each other with a kiss (la bise) when saying hello or goodbye. As a foreigner, it's not easy to understand when you should or shouldn't kiss someone. When you first arrive there will be a lot of awkward head ducking and hand shaking as you muddle your way through. I usually follow this rule:
- kiss new people that you are introduced to by someone you know in a friendly context (i.e. at a picnic or at a bar)
- kiss the people you know very well, close friends or family
- do not kiss colleagues or people you have not been introduced to
- do not kiss people who put out their hand (they are probably terrified Brits)
4- Should I say Bonjour?
Saying Bonjour is incredibly important in France. Back in 2010 when I wasn't a Paris veteran I would always commit this French faux-pas, especially when I was in a supermarket. In English, when we want to ask someone we don't know a question, we start with "Excuse me." When I did this in French, it went down like a lead balloon. I would say: "Excusez-moi Madame, je cherche les céréales" to which the shocked French person would reply "BONJOUR Madame." It took me a long time to realise I was being very rude and needed to say hello before asking for help. Woops!
5- Do the French really eat snails and frogs legs?
Yes, they do, but this is not all they eat. They also only eat this for certain occasions, usually if they are out for dinner or celebrating a special occasion such as Christmas or New Year. These dishes are not something French people eat every week!
6- How do the French pay taxes?
Unlike a lot of other places such as the US and the UK, France pays taxes for the year before. For example, in 2016 I was paying taxes for 2015 and so on and so forth. This system can catch people out, especially when declaring your taxes for the first time. This "income tax" has to be paid on top of the social security contributions you already paid out of your salary. Luckily, you can ask to pay your taxes in installments so that makes the situation more manageable! Just know that taxes are very high in France and it's just the way it is.
7- What should I take with me to France?
France is the kingdom of red tape so make sure you take all your legal documents with you (originals and photocopies) and passport sized photos. You should also take photocopies of key documents (e.g. passport, birth certificates, marriage certificates) of your family members. This will save you time, money and energy when you arrive in France! Here's an article we wrote that covers this topic in more depth.
8- How will I rent an apartment?
Renting an apartment as an expat is very difficult but never fear, it's not impossible! The best thing to do when you first arrive is either:
- choose to live in a colocation (with roommates) because they are a lot less picky about what documents you need to provide
- go through an English speaking agency that specializes in renting to expats such as Lodgis or Paris Attitude
- if your French level is low, use Bilingual Minds to help you navigate your way into a rental!
9- What are Carte Vitales and Mutuelles?
It took me ages to get my head around this, probably because in England we don't have the carte vitale and as the NHS is free, not many people invest in private insurance. A mutuelle is a private "top-up" health insurance, usually paid for partly by you and partly by your employer (if you have one). The carte vitale is a health insurance card that enables direct, electronic settlements with the social security system. You use it when you're settling a healthcare bill so that the social security system pays its share (usually around 70% of the costs) automatically, rather than obtaining a feuille de soins, filling it in and sending it to your health insurer for a reimbursement. If you have a mutuelle, and a fairly good one, they will cover the rest of the costs so that you will end up paying either nothing or a very small amount. Again, this depends on how good your private healthcare is. If your job doesn't offer private healthcare you can find many companies online that offer good insurance policies.
10- Will I make friends in France?
French people are often perceived by the rest of the world as being a bit rude and I'll be honest, this might be true in cities like Paris BUT not all French people behave like this! And not everyone in Paris does either. French people can be incredibly warm and welcoming, all you need to do is show them that you're making an effort to integrate. Try to speak French (they'll find it adorable even if your French is non-existent), take an interest in their culture and make the effort to get to know them.