I’m a 51-year old American expat living in Chambery in the French Alps.
I moved here in 2008 to marry my fiancé, now husband, who is a French citizen. We met when I was vacationing in Provence on a train to Avignon. After a 2.5 year long distance relationship between Chambery and Los Angeles, I moved to France at the age of 49.
It was a very difficult decision since I left behind a city I loved and lived in for 26 years, dear friends, a thriving consulting business, a lovely home, and a six-figure income. Additionally, I never had an interest in France or spent any time there so I didn’t understand the culture. I had lived in Italy for three years and vacationed there for 20 years so I was oriented towards the Italian culture. Surprisingly, these two cultures are almost the opposite of each other so I had more culture shock than I expected to have.What challenges did you face during the move?
They have been numerous. Since my industry (nonprofit fundraising and consulting) doesn’t exist in France, I’ve been struggling to find a way to recreate myself professionally. I have a French Alps Tour business (www.french-alps-tours.com), a photo blog (www.france-and-beyond-photoblog.com) and a video diary of my observations and travels at www.american-in-france.com. These are still start-ups without income but you have to start somewhere! Since I work 50 hour weeks, take care of and cook for a family of four, travel to the US for business and personal reasons three times a year, and live in a small city with no affordable French classes, finding the time to find community, to learn French, and to have a social life has been extremely challenging. I have also been amazed at the huge cultural differences between France and America, which are not apparent until you live here. They have added to an interesting marriage as well.
Can you tell us something about your property?
My husband owns his house so I just moved into it. It’s a 3-bedroom, 2 bath, 2-story home on the border of Chambery and Barberaz, a small town. Chambery is a city of about 60,000 people so quite small compared to Los Angeles. I go to Grenoble and Lyon when I have time for shopping, French classes, expat meetings, things to do, and festivals since Chambery doesn’t really offer much of this.
What is the property market like at the moment?
As far as I can tell, it’s healthy. I think prices have come down a little but I find the homes and condos very expensive given the low salaries in France.
Are you employed or self-employed? What challenges did you face in either finding employment or running your own business?
I still have two of my contracts in Los Angeles but I think they will end this year or next so I’m trying to find a new way to earn an income. For 20 years I’ve been either the CEO or the Owner/Consultant of my agencies so working a low level/low paying job is not really an option for me, especially since my French is at survival level. I also have no skills at teaching (which seems to be the only job for English-speaking expats in the area). So right now my goal is to make a livable income by piecing together numerous entrepreneurial ventures. The new auto-entrepreneur status for self-employed people is a HUGE help since it keeps your expenses and taxes low (low for France anyway).
Are there many other expats in your area?
In Chambery and its sister cities I’ve only met 6 expats, three of whom are here for only two years. Grenoble and Lyon have large numbers of expats but they are about a 2-hour commute away so finding the time to get there is challenging. Evening events are especially hard since the trains don’t run late and the Chambery buses stop running at 7pm, meaning I have to take expensive taxi rides home. Grenoble actually has the second largest American population in France (next to Paris) because of all the industry there – they transfer a lot of Americans into the corporations for 2-3 year contracts.
What is your relationship like with the locals?
The French Alps region, especially the small towns and cities, is interesting in that the people can be quite cold, reserved and closed. I find each region different. For instance, I think the cities near water like the Cote d’Azur and Brittany are more open and warm and friendly. the bigger cities like Lyon, Marseilles, Nice etc are used to foreigners and tourists so they have adjusted and even appreciate the income they bring to the area. Smaller cities are more closed and less tolerant of foreigners, in my experience.
I do appreciate that in France policies, laws, benefits are oriented towards the good of the middle class, whereas in the U.S. they seem to be oriented towards the benefit of the rich and corporations. You get great, almost free medical care here, benefits in time of need, public services such as buses, metros, trains, and people don’t sue each other like in the U.S.
What do you like about life where you are?
The scenery is stunning. We motorbike in the summers in the mountains and it takes my breath away to see the landscapes. Cities like Lyon, Annecy, Aix les Bains, Vienne and others are worth seeing and there are some exceptional festivals to attend too, such as Lyons Fete des Luminations in December. It’s 3 hours to Paris, two hours to Italy and Switzerland, and 5 hours to the Cote d’Azur so the location is good. If you’re a skier or a hiker, you won’t find a better place to do that than here. Chambery is a pretty town with lovely ironworks and Trompe L’oeil paintings everywhere. It is a slow-paced life and the traffic is nothing compared to Los Angeles!
Getting around the area is fairly easy with the excellent train system. Fortunately, I ride trains in France at 90% discount since my husband drives TGVs. In fact, I travel all over France by train and take videos of my travels and observations of the French life and put it on my blog: www.american-in-france.com
What do you dislike about your expat life?
The isolation, always feeling ‘out-of-place’ and disoriented, the ‘making an income’ struggles (which I hear a lot from my expat friends), culture shock, and trying to learn a foreign language at 51 years old with few resources and little time.
What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?
First, don’t romanticize how your life will be in your new country. Be realistic and be prepared. Every expat I’ve spoken to so far has had a difficult first year or two. It’s just part of the process. It’s easier if you come with your spouse versus adjusting to the new life plus the new relationship with all the intercultural challenges too.
Learn as much of the language as you can before coming, and if you don’t have to work, get into as many classes as possible, as soon as possible.
If you have a choice, I would live near a big city where you can find other expats and a support group or at least in a touristy region like Provence, Brittany or the Cote d’Azur where you’ll find international folks and communities.
There is a grieving process that you go through when you arrive which is normal, so the faster you can find friends and expats who can support you through the adjustments the better.
If you have to find work here then be prepared that you will probably find fewer opportunities, lower pay, and higher taxes. The best scenario is to come with an income or at least a business you can do from anywhere. The new auto-entrepreneur status is wonderful and if you want to sell or provide services yourself, then this is definitely the way to go since you only pay taxes and social charges on your profits (between 13%-24%).
I’ve also used Twitter to connect with other expats and even met a group of bloggers for lunch in Paris last month. So think creatively and outside the box to solve the problems you’ll face as a new expat, but also take lots of time to ‘enjoy the moment’ and immerse yourself in the new culture and life, especially the things that are unique to your new country. This is particularly important if you’re only there for a few years for business or an extended vacation. Time will go quickly.
What are your plans for the future?
My main focus currently is on finding an income doing something that I enjoy and maintaining my self-employment status. Once I have that, I hope to do more traveling with my husband who retires next year (at 50 years old!) My goal is also to spend several months a year in the U.S. so I can see my friends and family more. And of course, I have to find a way to learn French, at least at a conversational level. That is key to living in France – otherwise you will be isolated, won’t be able to take care of yourself or manage the bureaucracy, and will be socially crippled without it. Those are all very big goals so that’s as much as I can put on my plate for now.