Moving to France - how to zap the culture shock
Many people dream of making the move to France. It’s a country marinated in culture, blanketed in gorgeous natural landscapes, and famed for its exquisite cuisine. It also has an enviable work-life balance and social safety net. But moving to France involves more than just finding a house near to your favourite bistro.
Before making the move, even before you start properly planning your move, there are a number of things of which you need to be aware, things that will almost certainly give you a jolt of culture shock and for which you need to prepare.
A significant shock is housing, especially in cities, says Heather Hughes, an HR Mobility Consultant for relocation specialists AGS Movers.
“I think for a lot of families, a major difference is that in French cities, many families live in flats or apartments. Many British think of an apartment as somewhere you live in when you’re younger, when you're either flat-sharing or choosing to live in a city centre because you want to be near the nightlife. But that’s not the way it is in France. Here it's much more common for families to live centrally in large apartments, and when the kids need to get a bit of fresh air, they simply pop down to the park.”
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It’s not just the British that find it strange not to live in a house with a garden. “We met lots of American families who just didn’t understand it, either. In the US, once you get a family - you move to the suburbs. But if the French work in a city, and they have a family, they will live in the city in an apartment. So newcomers from other countries will have to adjust to this difference.”
Heather has herself experienced relocating to France, and that’s why she can empathise with AGS clients who are relocating. It's a key reason why she loves working in the relocation industry.
“Also you should beware of bureaucracy and administration,” says Heather. “The French administration system can be a bit of a challenge. It's totally different to the system in the UK.”
“When I moved here permanently in 2011, I thought I’d easily integrate into French life. I was fluent in French and I'd been to university here, so I thought it would be simple. But it wasn’t. It was much trickier than I expected. It was quite bureaucratic.”
France’s much-vaunted free healthcare system needs patience to negotiate, too, according to Heather.
“Administration-wise, France can be complex. Applying for the carte vitale (the French health insurance card that allows those who have one to have most or all of their health costs either covered or reimbursed by the state) can be frustrating and time-consuming, especially if you’re navigating the waters on your own and don’t speak fluent French. It's hard to get hold of, but once you have it, it's very efficient."
Heather and her family just after their move to France.
But there is a way to lessen culture shock, to reduce stress levels and make the process smoother. Because, according to Heather, the hardest part of moving to France is not the logistical problem of actually moving house, it’s preparing for a completely different way of life.
“When we relocated to France the planning was monumental," Heather says. "I really advise people to start planning as soon as possible. But the actual nuts and bolts of the physical move were not the things that kept me awake at night. It was all the little details, such as registering in France, sorting out healthcare, and getting our eldest child into an international school. I was also pregnant. So, that was another huge cause of anxiety. What did I need to do to register with the maternity system in France? I knew it was completely different in France. That was such a worry at first.”
And, of course, there’s the language barrier. “You really need at least a little French,” says Heather. “It’s not as if most people can't speak English, but if you went to an office, unless it was an office of a British company where most of the staff were British, the language would be French. Whereas I think you'd probably find in the Netherlands or some of the Nordic countries you could get away with not speaking the local language, that’s not true in France. I would say you really need to speak a decent, minimum level of French to really integrate in any way.”
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But, luckily, Heather had employed a relocation company to help them. “I really appreciated having a relocation specialist to help us. Obviously they packed up our house, and gave us advice on house-hunting, but it was the other stuff, the stuff that had been keeping me awake at nights, that they really helped with. For instance, with finding a school, they take your hand and say, ‘These are your options. This is where you can go. There are these international schools, or you can put your kid into a French state school. We will hold your hand, guide you, and take you through these things.’ They guided us through the whole moving process and all the fine details thereafter. And of course the relocation company also guided me through the labyrinthine process of being pregnant in France. That made such a huge difference.”
There’s been research on cultural integration and the process has been broken down into four stages.
"At first you're nervous before you go," says Heather, "and then when you get to your new home, you have this whole excitement of being there, drinking wine with locals, having fun, and you think, 'Wow, this is the best thing I've ever done in my life.'
"Then that stage ends and you start to live life normally, and it’s really difficult. Everything is new and hard. And then you’re thinking, ‘I don't know what I've done. This is awful. Everything's so difficult. Why did I do this? Because I don't know how to do any of these things that I need to do for everyday life.’ Then eventually that passes and you learn and it becomes normal again. And then, finally, you don't want to go home because you can't remember how it works in the country you came from.
"At AGS Movers, we accompany more than 85,000 families with their moving and relocation process every year. We also offer HR services, immigration and destination services to help private clients, as well as supporting employers to enable their employees to transition smoothly. AGS manages every move with professionalism, expertise and experience.”
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