LIVING IN FRANCE: Expectations vs Reality meme
Have you ever seen those funny memes floating around the internet that use a series of images to depict preconceptions about a particular subject, occupation or expertise?
Sometimes these memes are called “expectations vs reality,” and sometimes they’re referred to as “What People Think I Do / What I Really Do.”
Whatever you call them, these funny memes are a clever way to visually highlight the difference between our imagination or expectations vs reality from different perspectives- your friends, your family, the world, yourself etc.
Surprise, that meme was the Inspiration for this article:
I wanted to write an article based on this popular meme to highlight what many people think life is like living in France, which usually involves some idyllic fantasy vs what it’s really like.
You might be interested in reading 9 reasons why France is so popular
EXPECTATIONS: What people think I do
Be honest! What would you think if someone said: “Hi, I live in France”?
Most likely, you would conjure up romanticized images of— French cobblestone streets — exquisite French food — wine — cheese — the effortlessly stylish French woman— or kissing in front of the Eiffel tower in the rain.
Part of the reason so many of us think so highly of France and the French way of life is we’ve essentially been programmed to believe “everything French is better.”
Throughout history, artists of every kind have been memorializing the French fantasy— in books, fashion, music, art, the movies and, of course, the media.
It’s been going on as far back as the 11th century – maybe longer—when practically everything French was considered high fashion among the elite of the English court, including speaking French, which showed your elite status.
Intuitively, you know France isn’t perfect, but let’s face it, most people see France through rose coloured glasses or put everything that is French on a pedestal.
In today’s day and age, this belief that all that is French is wonderful and perfect is perpetuated over and over and over again
You don’t have to believe me. A simple search on the web and you’ll find thousands of articles exaggerating positives aspects of French life and France. Most tout some secret French way of doing something the French way as if it’s a prescription for a better life.
The problem I see with this is that the shortcomings, the negatives and the real-life struggles of day to day life in France are often downplayed, omitted or glossed over, which of course, only perpetuates the “French fantasy propaganda machine.”
The poor Japanese have an even more unrealistic, overly romanticized image of Paris that teeters on being delusional which causes some Japanese tourists to experience a form of extreme culture shock called Paris syndrome,
Again, we can thank the Japanese media, especially magazines, which depict Paris as a place where people look like “matchstick-thin” models, and women dress in high fashion brands such as Louis Vuitton. (source Libération)
After almost a decade of living in France, I have yet to discover any mystical French secrets that only the French are privy to.
- There is no secret way of washing your hair like a French person.
- There are no beauty secrets to stay young that only the French possess.
- There is no French secret to staying thin.
- There is no mysterious French way to get your kids to eat anything.
Yes, certain aspects of French life are better than in other countries but there are many aspects of living in other countries that are better than France. It just depends on whom you talk to.
The cultural iceberg: You only see the tip of the iceberg
In 1976, Edward T. Hall suggested that culture was similar to an iceberg.
Only about 10% of an iceberg is visible above the waterline. The majority of the iceberg is hidden beneath the surface.
Applying his model to France, it’s easy to see why so many people fall in love with French culture. Like an iceberg, the observable characteristics that most people fall in love with, baguettes, wine, cheese, and high brow sophistication are just the tip of the iceberg, a small piece of a much larger whole.
Deep below the “water line,” is where the real France, the majority of French culture and life exists. That’s the piece you can only experience by living here, or consistently interacting with French people and French life. Something you don’t get by simply visiting France on vacation and not even living in France for 3, 6, or 12 months.
EXPECTATIONS: What my family and friends think I do in France
When you live in France, friends and family might admire you, maybe even envy you—thinking your sitting pretty in the sun, sipping wine, eating baguettes or shopping along the Champs Elesée.
What else can they think?
Most of the photos you share with them, whether it be through Facebook or email, support the “French fantasy” and the “romanticized myth” of all that is French.
I’m not implying that I purposely mislead my family, but In a way, that’s what you do in this day and age where everyone posts happy pictures on social media.
For example, I rarely share mundane or less than flattering everyday photos of my life in France. You know, the ones of me cleaning my bathroom, laid out sick on my bed with bags under my eyes or arguing with someone at the post office.
Instead, the photos I send home are usually smiling, doing happy fun activities.
Here are some past photos I’ve shared with my family.
— Smiling pictures at the beach.
—Obligatory cliché tourist photos in front of famous French monuments
—Happy cliché tourist photos of the kids
—Selfies at the Louvre in front of the Mona Lisa or Winged Victory of Samothrace
—Enjoying bike rides on a very French-looking pink bike
—Ordering room service in your Parisian hotel
EXPECTATIONS: What the French think I do
For better or for worse, French people have their own opinions about North American culture, just like you have ideas about France.
Some develop opinions through experience, either from travelling to the US or by meeting an American in France. But many, maybe even most French people formulate their ideas about Americans and American culture without having done either because:
American culture is everywhere in France:
- MUSIC: American music is constantly played on the radio.
- MOVIES: Hollywood movies are usually the main features in movie theatres in France.
- TV: Cult American TV shows like Friends, The big bang theory and more current series are all dubbed into French for the French audience, and they love it. Or at least my French friends do.
- POLITICS & NEWS: Even American politics seem to be on everyone’s mind in France, especially since the controversial President Trump was elected, who is not very highly regarded in France. He’s not!
Unfortunately, many American stereotypes are not very flattering.
- Americans eat a lot of McDonald’s (or fast-food).
- Americans are Fat
- American food portions are enormous
- Americans are loud, very loud
- Americans all carry guns
- Americans suck at geography
- Americans are materialistic
- American flags are everywhere in the US (or Americans are patriotic to a fault)
- Americans live in McMansions
- The United States is unsafe: On more than one occasion, I’ve had a French person ask me if it was safe to travel to the U.S. This is a common concern for many French people, especially with all the school shootings that have been happening in the US.
- Americans are obsessed with consumerism and like to buy in bulk from stores like Costco. An idea which is horrifying to a lot of French people.
- It’s unsafe to travel to America!
REALITY: What I think I do and What I really do
Before moving to France, like so many people, I drank the French Koolaid. What I mean to say is, like so many people, I believed the hype. I put France on a pedestal thinking everything was superior- the food, the clothes, the customs. I even had this perfect little image in my head of what a French person looked like and how they behaved.
Now that I’ve lived here for almost a decade with my husband and three children, I can say with all honesty that my life in France is a far cry from the “idealized French life” my starry-eyed-self imagined I would have back in 2011.
Before you get your panties in a bunch, I AM NOT SAYING FRANCE IS A HORRIBLE PLACE. Life is what you make of it, right?
I’ve worked hard for the right to live in France, and I’m thrilled to say that I am happy living in France “now.” Why else would I have lived here so long— since 2011— or created an entire website, this site, dedicated to France and all things French?
I am saying that before actually living here in France, before experiencing life for myself, I had an image of what my life would look like based on a fantasy. Based on the tip of the iceberg, which was only 10 percent of what actually makes up French culture and life.
We all do it at one point in our lives- overestimate the potential or imagine how things might be based on some fantasy. I remember landing my first “real” job after finishing university. I was so excited.
Then I actually did the job, and it was not at all how I imagined. It was still good jut not as glamorous as I thought it was going to be. That’s kind of how I felt about France in the beginning. I pumped it up to be something bigger and better than it was.
I’m not Naive:
You might think I’m naive for buying into the whole “France is better” mentality, and some people have said as much. Here’s the thing, though.
I’ve lived in several countries including, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Montreal, and California. I’ve travelled to over 25 different countries. My mother is from Thailand (I was born in Thailand, and my father is French Canadian).
You would think that someone who has lived and travelled to so many places, who truly loves experiencing different cultures, would know better. Even more, confounding was that I visited France a couple of times before moving to France and did extensive research. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, the majority of information out there touts the superiority of France. So I believed the loudest voices. It’s what I wanted to belive and the easiest thing to convince myself this was the right choice.
I actually felt ashamed and embarrassed by the fact that I put France so high up on a pedestal. The worse part about feeling this way or being in this situation is you can’t openly talk about these feelings with people who are not in your position and here’s why…
Why I felt ashamed about telling people I didn’t immediately love living in France?
Have you ever tried to tell someone that the thing they love and admire is not all it’s cracked up to be? Sometimes they take it well, but sometimes they don’t. When it comes to France, many people have a strong attachment to the idea that living in France is this wonderful unicorn country. As if it’s the holy grail to happiness compared to where they live. Not everyone, but there is a reason why we call them Francophiles.
Some Francophiles are the worst:
I’m just going to say it. Francophiles can be super judgy. NOT ALL FRANCOPHILES, but many.
I’ve seen this happen over and over again, and it’s happened to me.
If you make any mention of something negative about France, someone goes nuts on you, and if I’m going to be frank, sometimes they are downright mean, which says more about them than it does about me.
My favourite comment is “if you don’t like it, go back to where you came from” or “I’ll trade places with you any time,” or “you’re naive. You should have done your research before moving there. ”
I eventually became very guarded about my feelings. I didn’t want to be attacked and insulted by random people. So I commiserated in private with other people about certain aspects of French life, many of whom were French.
One of those French friends told me something that changed the way I think. He said, French people, can be their biggest critics. They have revolutions, strikes and protests when they don’t like certain aspects of French life or the French system. Do we tell them to go back to where they come from?
So I changed my tune and my thinking.
What I’ve learned over the years is that many of those judgy know-it-alls who said I was naive for believing the hype about France or who told me to go back to where I came from don’t have the same experiences.
- Some have never lived abroad, let alone in France.
- Some have travelled a little or been to France only on vacation.
- Some come to France for 3 or 6 months, which is entirely different than living here with your family for nearly a decade.
- Some are incredibly wealthy and live the high life. The rich always live differently.
- Some expats (especially older retirees) live in their expat bubble, never really experiencing real French life, which is fine. Maybe they’re living life like a vacation and have no empathy for anyone else.
- Some people simply don’t like to hear anything negative about France whatsoever.
- Some take it personally. As if criticizing some aspect of French life is like a personal attack on their personal belief system. These are the ones who are the nastiest. ADVICE TO YOU: Adjust your expectations vs reality:
By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.
Things to consider or research before moving to France.
If you’re dreaming of moving abroad, France is a good, no, it’s a GREAT place to live as long as you take off the rose coloured glasses and set realistic expectations.
My friend Diane, over at OuiInFrance.com, who lives in France with her French husband and an adorable dog, reminded me that “people who come to retire in France will have a majorly different experience than those of us who need to earn a living and aren’t 60 years old”.
If you’re a regular person like me, not a wealthy jet setter, life is just life in France. Don’t try to chase or achieve what I like to call the French unicorn dream of baguettes and wicker baskets you see in the movies.
Easier said than done, so here are some tips.
Money, Money, Money:
If you want a better quality of life, France can be wonderful. If you have enough savings in the bank, you can apply for a long-stay visa (good for one year) and enjoy France to your heart’s content.
If, however, you need to make a living, you’ll need to find a job in France. Unfortunately, foreigners often have a hard time finding employment in France —mainly due to a low-level understanding of the French language.
For non-EU citizens like Americans and Canadians, even if you do speak the language, you’re not guaranteed to find a well-paying job in your field.
You’ll have to find a company willing to sponsor your work visa, but to do that, they’ll have to prove to the French higher-ups that you’re not stealing a job from an EU or French citizen. If you’re a citizen of an EU country, you don’t have to worry about visas and have the right to work and live in France.
Location, Location, Location:
People want to move to France for different reasons, and your happiness will depend greatly on where you choose to live in France.
- If you’re young and single and want an active social life, don’t move to a town where everything closes after 8 pm.
- If you’re not a city person, Paris is probably a bad idea.
- If you want a truly classic French experience, don’t move to Marseille, which has one of the largest populations of immigrants in all of France.
- The south of France has a very different feel than the North of France. Similar to how the East coast has a different vibe than the West coast of the United States.
- Moving closer to a border town will have strong influences of that other country. Strasbourg borders Germany and has German influences. Menton borders Italy and has strong Italian influences, etc. etc..Often the people in these border towns speak multiple languages and have different customs than other parts of France.
Language, Language, Language:
If you don’t speak the language, are you ok with NOT having meaningful or deep conversations with the people around you?
Even if you do learn French, it’s going to take years to get your level of comprehension and conversation up to the point where you’ll be able to express yourself as you do in your mother tongue.
This was a real issue we didn’t anticipate. Although I spoke French already, thanks to my French Canadian side of the family, my husband didn’t speak any French. He would often get bored at social gatherings because everyone around him spoke French very fast. This impacted his experience significantly in France.
Read the GOOD and BAD things about France:
It’s fun to fantasize and daydream about the positives but read the negatives too. Read about the struggles of people already living in France.
Preparing will help you get a more rounded and realistic view of France.
Here are a few articles I found which don’t tout the superiority of all things French.
- Why I hate Paris
- IT ISN’T ALL WINE, CHEESE AND EIFFEL TOWERS
- I Wanted To Love Paris, But It Didn’t Love Me
- Paris Sucks: The truth about being a Paris expat & living in Paris
- The dark side of expat life in France (and where to turn for help)
- Why it is time to stop idealising French women
- 20 Things I hate about living in France
- Why I was bored living in France and how I beat it
- 99 Useful Things Nobody Tells You About Moving To France But should know
- THE AWFUL TYRANNY OF “THE FRENCH WOMAN” MYTH
Don’t think it won’t happen to you
Don’t think just because you visited France a few times or lived abroad elsewhere that you won’t fall victim to the French fantasy. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve lived abroad and have travelled extensively, but the French myth is strong and pervasive.
Andi, if it can happen to me, it can happen to you. If it doesn’t, then you are among the few, not the many.
And finally. You can do all the research in the world, but until you live here consistently and integrate into French culture, you will never fully understand and appreciate French culture for what it is.
Bon courage mes amis.
All opinions and experiences expressed in this article are my own.