NB – post written in 2010. A lot of things have changed since then, including Brexit. The principles remain the same, though.
See also my articles: Buying a house in France: 10 top tips (click here) and Eat well in France – 10 top tips (click here).
France has topped International Living magazine’s quality of life index yet again this year [written in 2010]. But while it’s a great adventure, living permanently in France is a different prospect from spending a couple of weeks on holiday here. Whether you stay for a few years or forever, some commonsense hints will help you get more out of life in France.
1. Learn the language
Even if you never speak French fluently, mastering some essential phrases will help with everyday situations. Dealing with officialdom is infinitely more difficult if you don’t understand what’s going on. If your current level is elementary, don’t expect just to absorb the language. Your vocabulary will increase, but your ability to string together more than a few words won’t. French language courses to suit all levels are available in most places. In addition, read the French papers, watch the French news and talk to your neighbours.
2. Stay warm in winter
The mellow stone house with the sparkling blue pool you saw basking in the sunshine changes character mysteriously from November to March. No one tells you this before you move in. Many parts of France, even in the south, can be freezing in the winter with nighttime temperatures often well below zero. Don’t throw away your winter woollies – you’ll need them! If your house does not have central heating, think seriously about investing in it. Depending on the type of heating you choose, there are tax breaks available, which can reduce the burden considerably.
3. Keep yourself occupied
Not much goes on during the winter in rural areas – unlike the summer months when there is usually too much to choose from. In winter, you might have to drive a long way to get to a restaurant, cinema or concert. If you don’t work, take up a hobby or occupation that keeps you busy for at least some of the time. Join a club or association, such as a choir or a walking group, which will help you to integrate and learn French.
4. Don’t spurn fellow expats
Naturally, you want to make French friends and integrate. But if your French is still basic, it will take a long time to get a social life if you restrict yourself to the locals. You’ll miss out on a lot if you give your fellow expats the cold shoulder. You don’t have to be best pals with everybody of your nationality but they can provide an entrée to a very effective mutual support network. Guard against getting drawn into expat-only cliques, though – they just reinforce the stereotype.
5. Make sure you have enough to live on
Depending on where you come from, the cost of living in rural France can be relatively cheap, but you still can’t run on fresh air. Many British people living on pension income were caught out by sterling’s slide against the euro in 2008 and have had trouble making ends meet. Allow a certain margin for the unforeseen.
6. Keep in with the taxman
If you are permanently resident in France you will need to register with the tax authorities, the Impôts. They assess you on your worldwide income. While the French themselves regard non-declaration of income as a sort of national sport, it’s best as a foreigner to stick to the rules. The declaration forms themselves, especially the one for overseas income, are difficult to figure out even if your French is good. The authorities themselves are surprisingly human and will help you complete them – after all, they have an interest in you getting it right! You can normally turn up at the local Hôtel des Impôts (tax office) during opening hours without an appointment.
7. Live with bureaucracy
French bureaucracy is legendary and its Byzantine complexity is all too real – whether you’re installing a phone line or registering in the health system. You’ll find yourself having to provide proof of address, identity, paternity and everything bar inside leg measurement to achieve the simplest administrative tasks. You will often need to provide French translations of the required documents. Keep a stock of passport-sized photos, make multiple photocopies of essential documents and guard the originals carefully. Many préfectures now have staff who can speak English, but don’t bank on it. This is yet another reason for learning the language.
8. Be nice to the builders
Local tradesmen can be infuriatingly casual. They didn’t turn up when they said they would, the estimate you asked for six months ago has never arrived or the job they started last year is still only half-finished. Throwing money at the problem is not the solution, nor is working yourself into a blind rage – on the contrary. The pace of life here is slower; people are in less of a hurry. That’s why you came. Patience is the only remedy, combined with the odd gentle reminder. Remember that one day you might urgently need a burst pipe plugged or a hole in the roof mended. Tradesmen are usually more responsive to real emergencies – which probably explains their absence when you were expecting them.
9. Learn to shop and cook with the seasons
Produce in rural French supermarkets is not as varied as you might expect. Fresh game can be almost impossible to get, except around Christmas, despite the French passion for la chasse. Certain types of fresh produce, such as asparagus or melons, are available only in season. This is not necessarily a bad thing: think how environmentally friendly it is not buying out of season strawberries that have thousands of air miles behind them. And produce eaten only in season is much more of a treat. Get to know the local dishes, which are based on seasonal produce.
10. Get out more!
France is blessed with wonderful countryside, picturesque towns and villages and varied regional cuisine and it’s steeped in history. Having moved here, it’s tempting to sit and enjoy the scenery chez vous without venturing into other parts of the country. Also, for the first few summers you might feel you are running a small hotel without the significant benefit of being paid for it. So take time out to see and enjoy France.
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I stumbled across your blog today – wow, your 10 top tips are still valid – 2020.
#1 is so true, I’ve found on my trips to France those who haven’t taken this advice are still struggling. #4 is extremely good advice and links to #1, why move to another country it you just want to stay with your own tribe ?
I hope you are well and still enjoying life wherever you are.
Best wishes, Patricia (Australia, but hoping to move to France ….)
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Hi Patricia, thanks for commenting. I’m still here in France in the same house after 23 years, actually, and still blogging after more than 10 years! Hopefully, these tips are still valid today, although things have changed in other ways (Brexit, for example). Good luck with your plans to move to France.
All the best, Vanessa
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Just found your blog! It’s wonderful to hear of your appreciation of our wonderful countryside- I live by the Aveyron in the Penne commune. I can walk from my door in spectacular countryside (1 hour, 2 hours…….5 days), swim in the river, gather wood from the river and walnuts, wild asparagus, wild leeks, wild strawberries, plums from the countryside…Lots going on, summer and winter. In summer we have professional light opera in Bruniquel, reggae in Montricoux and jazz in Vaour. In winter I go country dancing with a group of women, visit the cinema (5€) and enjoy my wood fire. Cost of living is less than the UK even with the disaster of Brexit leading to low exchange rates (that reflects the things I do, it may be different for others). My friends and neighbours are from France, Holland and the U.K. They range from the retired like myself to young families. Love the blog and love the Tarn.
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Thank you for your comment, Gaynor. You’ve gone back a long way to find this post – one I wrote some years ago! The countryside around Penne is wonderful, with the Aveyron on one side and the Forêt de Grésigne on the other. I love that drive from Saint-Antonin along the road that used to be a railway line.
We will have lived here for 20 years next month and I would find it hard, if not impossible, to go back to the UK now. There’s certainly more going on in the winter here now than there was when we first arrived.
Thank you for your kind words about the blog and also for following it.
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Hi Vanessa, thanks for your blog, it’s fantastic and usefull for me, especially now!
I am Italian, 29 years old, and after studying and working in Media in Barcelona, Bristol and Rome I have to take a very difficult decision: my partner has been relocated near Toulouse and, as I am contemplating the idea of moving, I am gathering information.
What would be your first advice? It is a realistic possibility (learning French & find a job)? Or should I give up ?
Thank you in advance for your advice,
Hi Amanda, thank you for your kind comments about my blog. I’m pleased you find it useful.
I’ll reply to your questions by email in a day or so if that’s OK, since it will take up too much space here.
how informative. its a great tip to anyone who wishes to stay long in france. may you had the best days to write.
Thank you for your comment. I’m glad you found this useful and thank you for your good wishes.
Hi Nessa, another really great blog article. I think I’d put your number 2 at the top of my list after this last winter. We only just had enough wood to get us through! And as for your walnut wine recipe, I will certainly be trying that this year. We are surrounded by abandoned houses and gardens, nearly all with walnut trees so we have a large and, even better, free supply.
Keep enjoying France!
Yours in blogging,
Hi Stephanie, and many thanks for your comment. The blogging rate at this end has been a bit slow over the past couple of weeks owing to a major computer system failure at the end of last week – hopefully now sorted out. Yes, you’re quite right, after last winter number 2 tip is probably the top one. I hope the walnut wine recipe works out if you try it. Do let me have any feedback on it since it’s only by trying these things that they get improved. I will try it myself this year.
Best of blogging, Nessa
Just read the Quality of Life article:
“…village homes for less than $100,000 (74,000€)—and classic three-course lunches for $14 (10.36€) ….”
We can compete with that and our local national health hospital is the most modern in Europe which is why Microsoft research centre is coming to town…
Hi Rob. As I said in the last response, these things are subjective and I don’t doubt that where you live there are lots of advantages. International Living is aimed mostly at American expats, who perhaps want different things from us Brits.
Hi Vanessa, I was surprised to see France top – well done and great tips. But I don’t think I would swop our Spanish weather with you or cost of living! Loads of French here last year on holidays. See you around W.A.
Hi Rob. France has been top of that particular index for the past 5 years. By the way, I have nothing to do with it, I just quote it in my post. These things are subjective. I have to admit that I’ve never been to Spain (shock, horror) despite living only three hours’ drive away. I’ll get there one day…
This is really helpful! I’ll second your first tip, even though I’m not living in France yet (maybe, someday!). The French will literally fall in love with you if you speak French. They are quite enthusiastic about it. It’s just an observation based on the very few ocassions I visited France.
Spot on. It makes a huge difference if you try to speak French, even if you don’t get it quite right. I still get things wrong and get funny looks, but French is a very precise language and less flexible than English in that respect. Our French friends are very forbearing – our French must really grate on them, but they’re too kind to show it.
Tina gave me the address of your blog page. It’s wonderful to read and I laugh a lot.
I hope all is well with you and Per.
Hi, Bittan. It’s good to hear from you. I’m pleased you like my blog. It’s a very long time since we last saw you. I hope you’re well. Love, Vanessa