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Elena Hebert, Lyon, France

Who are you?  

My name is Elena Hebert; I am passionate about helping adults learn foreign languages even with their busy lives.

Where, when and why did you move abroad?

I am twice an expat. The first time I moved abroad was when I was 19, from Russia to the US to study. It was a tough move because I didn’t speak the language, I was on my own, and I had no idea what I was doing. I lived there for 17 years, got married, had two kids, and then my husband and I decided to move to France in 2022.

What challenges did you face during the move?

At first, everything was very exciting. Culturally, we had to make a lot of adjustments, and one of the first tests was a flood in our apartment while we were on vacation. We came back to mould, and most of our technology and documents got ruined in the flood. The challenge was that neither of us is French and we had no idea where to even go with such an issue. The owner of the apartment was not very responsive and there was nobody to help us. This was a huge test, and we were almost ready to pack up and go back to the familiar life. From there, nothing seemed that scary anymore.

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Did you need to obtain a visa, residency permit or work permit? What was the process like?

Luckily, my husband is an Italian citizen even though the only words in Italian that he knows are pizza and birra. His great grandparents immigrated from Italy to the US, and he was able to claim his citizenship through that line.

How does the cost of living compare with your previous country?

The cost of living is lower, partially because we consciously chose it. Even though we live in the centre of Lyon, we made the choice to only have the things we use regularly. We use public transportation, which is significantly cheaper than owning a car, and we live in a smaller space than we did in the US. Unlike in the US, we travel a lot more around Europe, so that part of the living costs went up significantly. The cost of food is about the same as in the US.

Is it easy to open and use an account with a local bank?

No, this is one of the expat pains in France. You go in circles with the bank, landlord, and everything in between. We had to open several temporary bank accounts to get us going before we were able to find a bank that would deal with foreigners. Definitely not an easy one.

How did you find somewhere to live?

We used an agency that specializes in helping expats find a home. They made all the appointments for us and negotiated the rental agreement. In France, they require a French guarantor to even consider someone as a renter. Given that we are not French, we didn’t have anyone to step in as a guarantor for us, and it was quite an adventure to find a way. Luckily, my husband found another agency that works as an insurance company; we pay a monthly fee and they guarantee our contract to the landlord.

Are there many other expats in your area?

Yes, Lyon is a big city with a significant amount of international people living here. We recently found a wonderful spot for English-speaking expats to meet and stay in touch with our culture; it’s called ACL – American Club of Lyon. We have events such as Thanksgiving, Halloween, Easter egg hunt, etc. I am also a member of a few other organizations for expats, some are more professional, and some are more social.

What is your relationship like with the locals?

I find them very friendly. Personally, I have not had any issues with the locals in social settings. Parents at my kids’ school are very friendly and we socialize any time we see each other. I also made several friends by participating in a group for French ladies that get together for various activities every month. Everyone is always very fun and friendly with me.

What do you like about life where you are?

Oh, there are a lot of things I love about Lyon! I love the proximity to everything from my apartment, the cafe culture, the pastries, events, architecture … There are so many wonderful things about Lyon!

What do you dislike about your expat life?

At first, I disliked being out of my comfort zone. I was very set in my ways in the US and had everything figured out. With the move abroad I lost all of that predictability, and it was very uncomfortable at first. At some point it was so uncomfortable that I felt regret moving from everything I knew. With time I realized that it’s all in my head, in my attitude, in the way I see the situation, and if I want to feel good, I should change my focus. I did some reflecting and changed my mindset, the way I perceived this new life, and things started brightening up.

What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?

It is what we came here for – a slower pace of life. People take long lunch breaks, long walks along the river in the evening, kids are off school on Wednesdays so that they can rest in the middle of the week, no businesses are open on a Sunday because, well, everyone needs to rest on Sunday. This is what we were looking for and it was one of the biggest differences for us; we are still getting used to it.

What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?

Definitely prepare your move if you want as little stress as possible. My husband and I divided our responsibilities – he took care of the paperwork, and I did what I do best – I studied French so that at least one of us hits the ground running with all the in-person admin work. I have my own method to learn languages; French is my 4th language, so I already knew what I was doing. In fact, I have an online course for those who want to learn my method as well.

What are your plans for the future?

Originally, the plan was to stay in France until our son made it through middle school, and then, when he needs to move up, we would make a decision on what we are doing next. After two years in France, we are getting close to that point and will have to decide whether we are staying longer, going back, or moving somewhere else. It’s up in the air for now.