Do you or someone you know idolize French culture or have a romanticized vision of France? Here’s a look at what it’s really like living in France. Unfortunately, reality seldom measures up to the picture-perfect image we fall in love with. I should know.
EXPECTATIONS VS REALITY: Meme about living in France
Be honest! If someone told you that they lived in France, what would you think?
Most likely, you would conjure up romanticized images of— cobblestone streets — exquisite French food, wine, and cheese — stylish French women— or kissing in front of the
I drank the blue, white and Red French Kool-Aid too.
Before moving to France, I put France on a pedestal, thinking everything French was superior and imagined what life would be like based on some fantasy.
It’s a little like imagining what your first “real job” might be like before you graduate from university. Then you start the job and realize it’s not at all as great or glamorous as you thought it would be.
There’s good news and bad news.
- The bad news is that many of these romanticized images of France are greatly exaggerated. Believing them can lead to culture shock.
- The good news is once you move past the fantasy and adjust your expectations, life in France suddenly gets better. That’s where this article comes in.
EXPECTATIONS: What people think I do- Life In France
I wanted to write this article because I feel like people rarely talk about what it’s really like living in France. They glorify or exaggerate the positives and gloss over the less-than-rosy things about living in France.
I got the idea after seeing a meme called “Expectations vs. Reality.” These clever memes use a series of images to highlight the difference between what we think about a particular subject vs. reality from different perspectives (your friends, family, the world, and yourself)
I organized this article based on the meme, and just for the hell of it, I made an “expectations vs. reality” meme about living in France with my personal photos (see image below).
Our favourite French fantasy: Why do people think everything French is better?
Intuitively, you know France isn’t perfect, but let’s face it: most people see France through rose-coloured glasses and put everything French on a pedestal.
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.”
This one-sided way of thinking has been happening since at least the 11th century when the elite of the English court considered speaking French and dressing in French high fashion to show your elite status.
Romanticized views of French culture have also been perpetrated by artists of every kind who have immortalized the French fantasy— in books, fashion, music, art, the movies and, of course, the media.
Romanticized views of French culture have also been perpetrated by artists of every kind who have immortalized the French fantasy— in books, fashion, French songs, art, the movies and, of course, the media.
Selling “the French” fantasy is big business.
If you do a quick search on the internet, you’ll find article after article about some secret way of doing something only the French are privy to, as if it’s a prescription for a better life. There are also an endless amount of articles that exaggerate the positive aspects of French life and France.
Meanwhile, many of 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.”
You might be interested in reading 13 French Stereotypes and Cliches the French are Sick of Hearing (explained).
REALITY: What I really do living in France
Now that I’ve lived here for almost a decade with my family, 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 back in 2011.
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 staying 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.
By undercutting the French fantasy,4 Parisian women poke fun at the French stereotypes of the “Parisienne” and give honest beauty and lifestyle tips, recipes, and fashion dos and don’ts. Hillarious book!
Believing the French Fantasy and Stereotypes can result in culture shock.
It’s normal to experience a bit of culture shock when you visit a place like France. However, buying into the overly romanticized vision of what France and French culture are about can lead to extreme culture shock. The more disillusioned you are the more severe the culture shock.
For example, some Japanese and Chinese tourists who visit Paris for the first time have been known to experience an extreme form of culture shock called Paris syndrome.
Because for years, they’ve been exposed to overly romanticized ideas about France through media, magazines and movies like “Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amelie Poulain.” They arrive expecting to see smartly dressed, matchstick-thin models dressed in Louis Vuitton, smelling like Coco
Instead, they discover a side of Paris that doesn’t live up to their romantic expectations: dirty streets, pickpockets, dog poop, indifferent waiters, rude service, and people dressed in
A refreshing and absorbing story about Miki, a Japanese girl who fulfils her lifelong dream to go to Paris, a city she has been obsessed with since childhood. As the others in her tour group look on in horror, the signs of a rare condition begin to manifest themselves – a condition known as "Paris Syndrome", which the author does a great job describing. You can't help but empathize with poor Miki.
I wrote an article you might be interested in reading: Should I Move To France? 99 Useful Things Nobody Tells You About Living In France.
EXPECTATIONS: What my family and friends think I do while living in France
When you live in France, friends and family might admire you, maybe even envy you—thinking you’re 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 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 standing for hours at the French prefecture to renew our visas, grocery shopping at Auchan, a French grocery store that isn’t so nice, or the dirty, less than flattering photos of France.
Instead, the photos I post online for my friends and family are usually smiling and doing happy, fun activities.
Here are some happy photos I’ve shared with my family and friends.
— Smiling pictures at a French beach when we lived in Provence.
—Obligatory cliché tourist photos in front of famous French monuments
—Corny tourist photos of the kids (this is an old photo of my boys). They’re adults now.
—Selfies at the Louvre in front of the Winged Victory of Samothrace
—Enjoying bike rides on a very French-looking pink bike outdoors in an open square in Montpellier
—Ordering room service in a Parisian hotel
EXPECTATIONS: What the French think I do
For better or 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 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 played continuously 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 when the controversial President Trump was elected, who isn’t very highly regarded in France. He’s not!
American stereotypes the French believe (that are not very flattering.)
Americans have the exact opposite problems that the French do. Where France and French life are overly romanticized, the focus on American culture is continually negative. To be fair, it’s not just American culture that is viewed negatively, but French views on American culture are the most glaring.
- Americans eat a lot of McDonald’s(or fast food).
- Everyone is fat in America.
- The food portions are too big in America. (This is probably true)
- Americans are loud, very loud
- Americans all carry guns (this seems crazy to French people)
- 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: This is a common concern for many French people, especially when the local news reported all the school shootings happening across the US.
- Americans are obsessed with consumerism.
- Americans like to buy in bulk from stores like Costco. An idea that is horrifying to a lot of French people.
- Many French people even hate Halloween (mostly because they think it’s an American invention)
REALITY: Falling for the French fantasy can happen to anyone, even experienced travellers:
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 who you talk to.
I’ve lived in several countries including, (Tokyo, Japan) (Taipei, Taiwan), (Udon Thani, Thailand), (Montreal, Canada) and (California, USA). I’ve also visited over 25 different countries. My mother is from Thailand, I was born in Thailand, and my father is French Canadian.
I’m not saying this to show off but to make a point.
Even someone like me, who has lived abroad several times and thrives in different cultures, can fall victim to the “French Fantasy.”
What’s even more annoying is I visited France twice before moving to France and did a lot of research about living in France. As I stated earlier, much of the information out there is misleading, touting the superiority of France and French culture.
THE CULTURAL ICEBERG: Falling in love with only the tip of the French iceberg
In my defence, and to anyone else who believes the French fantasy, it’s not our fault.
It’s best explained by the cultural iceberg, a concept that implies that culture is similar to an iceberg first suggested by Edward T. Hall in 1976
Edward T. Hall’s Iceberg Model Of Culture: and France
Like an iceberg where 10% (the tip) is visible to the casual observer above the waterline, the majority of the iceberg (culture) is hidden beneath the surface, out of sight, ignored or misunderstood.
Applying Hall’s Iceberg Model Of Culture to France, it’s easy to see why so many people fall in love with French culture.
Like an iceberg, the characteristics that most people see above the water (the 10%) -Paris, baguettes, wine, cheese, and high-brow sophistication are just the tip of the iceberg, a small piece of a much larger whole. People sometimes make assumptions about French culture solely based on the 10% without understanding what lies below the “water line,” where most French culture and life exist.
That’s the piece you can only experience by living here or actively interacting with French people, participating in French culture, and sharing French values and beliefs. You can’t do that by merely visiting France on vacation or reading about France.
Even living in France for one year only exposes a part of that iceberg.
My experiences in the first 12 months of living in France were very different after having lived here with my husband and three children for over a decade. The honeymoon stage is over, and now I see the whole iceberg below the waterline. It doesn’t mean I think France is horrible; it just means I have a more realistic, well-rounded view of France.
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?
For a long time, I was ashamed and embarrassed to say anything negative about aspects of my life in France because of the reaction or comments people would make. I’m not the only one who feels this way. It’s a common problem for some people who have chosen to uproot and move to France.
Francophiles are the worst offenders:
There are so many people in this world that have a strong attachment to the idea that French culture is perfect or that France is this wonderful country where French unicorns poop baguettes and cheese. As if it’s the holy grail to happiness compared to where they live.
These particular Francophiles (lovers of all things French) are super judgy, condescending or pretentious. They focus on the positives and can’t accept that French culture might have some negative aspects.
If you even mention something disparaging about French culture, they go nuts. I’ve seen people online who will attack the country they think the other person comes from, all in defence of French culture.
My favourite comments are
- “if you don’t like it, go back to where you came from,”
- “I’ll trade places with you any time,”
- “You’re naive. You should have done your research before moving there. ”
Nobody enjoys having their views and feelings attacked, insulted or invalidated. It just takes a few of these comments to make you second-guess yourself or bury your emotions and your experiences.
Luckily, I have friends here in France with whom I can commiserate in private, including my French friends who complain the most about French culture, believe it or not.
One of those French friends told me something that made me feel better about complaining about life in France.
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?
Who are these vicious Francophiles?
If you take a step back and look at the people who make these judgy, rude, knee-jerk remarks, it’s clear, at least to me, that their comments say more about them than it does about me. Although I can’t prove it, my theory is they probably fall into one of these categories.
- They’ve never lived abroad, let alone in France.
- They may have travelled to France on vacation and fell in love with that vacation/holiday version of France.
- They lived in France for 3, 6, or 12 months and had a great time in France. These folks won’t have the same experience as someone who has lived in France for a decade or more, set roots and raised children.
- They visited France and lived the high life, experiencing what only the wealthy can afford, not what the average French person goes through.
- Some ex-pats (especially older retirees) live in their ex-pat bubble, don’t speak the language, and don’t interact with French people. These expat communities exist all over the world; it’s like a country within a country.
- Some people don’t like to hear anything negative about France because they take it as an attack on their personal belief system. These are the ones who are the nastiest and really annoy me.
Want To Move To France? Here are some tips that can help you thrive
If you dream of living in France long term, go for it, but take off those rose-coloured glasses and set realistic expectations. It makes life in France less disappointing.
By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.
Money, Money, Money:
If you want a better quality of life, France can be wonderful.
If you have enough savings in the bank and can prove it, you can apply for a one-year long-stay visa and enjoy France to your heart’s content.
However, if you need to make a living in France, you’ll need to find a job. Unfortunately, foreigners often have difficulty finding employment in France —sometimes due to a low-level understanding of the French language.
Non-EU citizens like Americans and Canadians (and now the UK)
Speaking French doesn’t guarantee you’ll find a good-paying job in your field.
First, you have to create your French resume and find a company willing to sponsor your work visa, but to do that, the company has to prove to the French higher-ups that you’re not stealing a job from an EU or French citizen. If you are a citizen of an EU country, you don’t have to worry about visas and have the right to work and live in France as if you were a French citizen.
What’s your purpose?
People want to move to France for different reasons, and your happiness will depend greatly on where you choose to live in France.
My friend Diane, over at OuiInFrance.com, who lives in France with her French husband and adorable dog, reminded me that “people who come to retire in France will have a drastically different experience than those of us who need to earn a living and aren’t 70 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
Location, Location, Location:
- If you’re young and single and want an active social life, don’t move to a small town where everything closes after 8 p.m.
- Moving to Paris is not a good place to live if you don’t like big cities, dirty streets and tons of tourists all year round.
- Don’t move to Marseille to experience the classic movie version of France. Marseille 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 a strong influence on 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 differently, speak multiple languages and have different customs than other parts of France.
Language, Language, Language:
Learning French is a must.
If you don’t speak the language, are you okay with NOT having meaningful or deep conversations with the people around you?
Even if you learn French, it’ll take years to get your conversation level high enough so that you can express yourself as eloquently as you can in your mother tongue.
Read the GOOD and BAD things about France and living in France:
It’s fun to fantasize and daydream about the positives but read the negatives and read about the struggles of people already living in France.
Preparing will help you get a more rounded and realistic view of France and all it has to offer.
Here are a few articles that don’t tout the superiority of all things French.
- Why I hate Paris
- How to Sell a Billion-Dollar Myth Like a French Girl
- France judged one of the hardest countries in the world for foreigners to settle in
- 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 idealizing French women
- Stop idolizing France! 10 Years Later, what it’s like living in France meme
- 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
- The thin, white lie: challenging the ‘French women’ stereotype
Don’t think it won’t happen to you
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve lived abroad in several countries, visited France before moving here, did my research and travelled extensively, and I still fell for the French myth.
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’ll never fully understand and appreciate French culture for what it is.
Bon courage friend
All opinions and experiences expressed in this article are my own
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