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After 7 months of living in France, we though it would be timely to give an overview of our impressions of life in France. Our impressions though, should be tempered with the knowledge that we are not working while here, but are living a rather relaxed and somewhat indulgent lifestyle. Having said that, we feel that our French experience here would be enhanced by an opportunity to work, mixing with the everyday French and sharing their everyday lives. That’s not going to happen, given the visa restrictions we have.

Another caveat is that our impressions on the cost of living are going to be compared with the cost of living in our home town, Perth, Australia.  Perth is undergoing an unprecedented mining and construction boom resulting in high salaries, high demand and consequently high cost of living. The Australian dollar is at an all time high against the euro, due to the strength of the Australian economy and the weakness of the euro. It is not surprising then that we find the cost of living in France to be considerably less than in Australia.

Finally, we will also be making subjective evaluations on many aspects of life in France. The positivity or negativity of these will obviously be compared with life in Australia/Perth. Australia has some of the best lifestyle aspects in the world. It also has some of the worst.

The Good.

The People

The French we have met have been wonderful. Welcoming, polite and helpful. We really haven’t met a bad egg yet. Some service has been marginally indifferent, but overall, the French have defied their arrogant and rude tag that the northern anglosphere has applied to them. We have spent most of our time in the country, in small villages and farm areas. City people may be a bit different, but our experiences in Paris and other large centres tend to conform with our rural experience. We have trod the tourist routes and have spent a lot of time in very non-touristy areas as well. Our home for last 4 months is definitely a no-go zone for tourists. In both areas, our experience has been the same.

We find the French to be quite uniform in appearance, demeanour and behaviour. This of course is coming from our narrow exposure, as one only has to watch the news to see that is not entirely true. In Australia, there is a very wide spectrum of appearance and behaviour. Some of it refined, a lot of it ugly. We haven’t come across too much ugliness in French behaviour.

The youth tend to be reasonably well dressed, behaved and respectful, at least in small towns. Parisian suburbs may be a different story. But there is a marked absence of gangs of youths aimlessly roaming the shopping centres and streets causing mayhem and disrespect.

The Language

We find the French are eager to speak English to us (if they know any English). There has been very little hesitation on their part to hold back. We actually find it frustrating, because when we speak French they immediately detect we are not French and respond in English. Some have been very good and speak very slowly, repeating their words and correcting ours. We have put a lot of effort into learning French, having continued with lessons while here. We refuse English menus and avoid places that appear overtly anglophilic. In our first village, there were two bars, one frequented by the ex-pat English and the other by the French. We preferred the French bar.

We had a nice evening in the French bar talking to a Fabienne, a French woman who was keen to improve her English. We talked for hours in mostly franglais, but it was a valuable experience towards improving our French. We have had several evenings with native French speakers who want to improve their English. We have found this to be very valuable and a great insight into everyday French life.

However, we have notice other anglophones, who do not make any attempt to speak French, preferring to enter a shop or restaurant and immediately demand something in English. No bonjours, no merci, no s’il vous plait. Those are the bare minimum of words anglophones should learn. Expect the French to respond differently if you don’t and they do, as we have witnessed on a number of occasions.

Culture, Arts, History, Architecture

Those are clumped together as we will admit we are not the most knowledgeable and discerning critics of those fields. However we have never ceased to be amazed and awestruck by the sheer beauty and scale of French endeavours in these fields. We are starting to appreciate the depth of history behind French culture and society, seeking to learn more about it.

Food

Where do we start. France is food, food is France. We have had a wonderful time trying many traditional French cuisines. Even the supermarkets are a gastronomic experience. Our waistlines have expanded accordingly. Food is cheap, about half the cost of food in Australia. Some of the food items which are exported into Australia like Roquefort cheese and pates are considerably cheaper. Roquefort is about $30 a kilo here compared to $110 a kilo in Australia. Staple foods like bread, dairy, meat and vegetables are also very cheap.

The flavour of the food tends to be greatly enhanced compared to food in Australia. A lot of the dairy, meat and fruit and vegetables available tend to be local and seasonal, unlike Australia, which tends to be imported and cold-stored until sale. Bananas are so sweet, they taste like the banana flavoured lollies back home. Seafood is quite cheap and on par with most other meats.

French supermarkets are loaded with packaged, processed foods and ready to eat meals. Chocolate features dominantly in a lot of the packaged foods. Chocolate flavoured Philadelphia cheese anyone? Those who like their coco-pops for breakfast will be awestruck by the sheer range of chocolate breakfast cereals available here.  It was a bit disappointing as it destroyed the image we had of the French being food aficionados. While the supermarkets are bursting with junk, at least the fast food industry is kept off the streets. Unlike Australia where on every corner there is a MacDonalds, KFC, HJ, Red Rooster, Nandos, Pizza Hut etc, the fast food places are more discreet. They are there, but generally on the outskirt of larger towns and highways, and thankfully not in villages. They are in the towns too, but they are not in your face.

We don’t understand Starbucks. There are a lot of them here, mostly filled with young people. They could be local and like all young people around the world, flock to “popular” places like these. But there is a fair share of older people, a lot with cameras around their necks. Why? There is an abundance of real coffee on the streets in the cafes. We haven’t figured that one out.  The same goes for MacDonalds.

The French look healthy. There does not seem to be the extent of obesity that there is in Australia. There are fat French, but they are far and few. In Paris, the only fat people are the tourists. Despite their love of supermarket junk, they must have healthy diets. The Mediterranean diet must have a lot going for it. French also have very small portion sizes, eat slowly and at a table and don’t snack between meals. I guess that has a lot to do with it too. You could probably eat anything you want with that regime.

One of our staple meals has become a baguette, a slab of pate de compagne, a wheel of cheese and a bottle of wine, all for less than $15. Not too good on the waistline, but very delicious none-the-less. We have done a lot of home cooking, cooking many traditional French dishes. Boeuf bourguignon with real bourguignon wine, French beef and French baguette is a classic.

We have had quite a few restaurant meals, many exceptional meals and a few very average. The very average meals tend to be in tourist heavy areas and dish up basic, but relatively cheap dishes using cheap cuts of meat. Servings tend to be small and are plated up simply and sparsely. There are no platters of 300g steaks, with a ton of chips, a field of salad vegetables, inedible garnish and smothered in litres of salad dressing here.  A ‘menu formule” or “prix menu” is common in restaurants. It is a fixed menu consisting of a limited choice of entre, main and/or dessert. It is usually cheaper to have the menu than to have the items chosen separately from “la carte”. Apparently the tax on these fixed meals is less than that on single dishes. Usually we choose a menu with either an entre and main or main and dessert. Two courses are usually sufficient. We tend to get away with a two-course meal with coffee and a bottle of wine for around 50E ($60).

Some of the more upmarket restaurants we have been to have been very good. They also offer the fixed menus, but tend to offer more courses and fancier cuisine. One we went to recently started with a glass of sparkling wine, a plate of hors d’oeuvres, an amuse bouche, entre, main, cheese plate, dessert, coffee with little tasty sweet treats and a bottle of wine. All for only 96E ($115) for two. It was delicious and way too much.

Prices for wining and dining in Paris are about par with Perth prices, possibly slightly less. Which is pretty sad for Perth.

Cheese, cheese and more cheese. What else can I say? C’est magnifique!

Wine (and alcohol)

In our first 3 months we lived in a wine village in Languedoc. Wine is why it exists and wine was all around us. Very nice wine, very cheap. We drank way too much in those first 3 months. Wine is about a third the cost of comparable wine in Australia. The quality of the wine is as good as Australian wine. We know a lot about Australian wines and have tasted many, so we consider ourselves to be good judges of the quality of Australian wines. We have yet to taste a french wine better than the better Australian wines. We are sure they exist, but we probably wouldn’t want to pay the price.

Beer is very cheap here. About a third of Australian prices. Pints of beer in a bar range from about 4.50E ($5.40) to 10E ($12 – in Paris), but mostly around the 5E mark. In the supermarkets you can pick up 24 cans of local beer for around 12E ($14.00). Even cheaper if you opt for the generic supermarket brands.

Purchasing alcohol is very easy. It is sold in most retail outlets that sell food, including butchers. In our small village of 1500 people, there were no less than 14 outlets selling alcohol. The number of bars in French towns seems inordinate compared to Australian towns, but there are no big boozy barns holding 500+ aggressive drunks under one roof. Most bars hold a max of 50 people resulting in a more subdued and pleasant experience. Take note Australian alcohol cops.

Public displays of drunkenness are rare. As the local butcher is allowed to sell alcohol, I doubt there is the bureaucratic jungle that Australian small bar aspirants have to go through.

Cost of Living.

We find France to be cheap. Our English friends complain that it is expensive (or getting more expensive). Food, alcohol, entertainment, housing and transport tend to be much cheaper than Australia. Electrical goods and clothing are about the same, although computers, cameras, iPods etc are more expensive. Petrol is very expensive at around $1.90 a litre. We have been very impressed by the price of cycling clothing and have bought up big and will do the same before we come back home. Typically cycling clothing is about a quarter of Australian prices, even cheaper in the sales.

Twice a year the French hold sales (January and July) which are fantastic, well worth the wait.

Driving

Well they drive on the right, so they have got it arse-about anyway. Surprisingly, it didn’t take long to get adjusted to driving on the right and the thought of driving on the left now seems very alien. French drivers are generally good drivers. They are very well behaved on motorways, keeping right when travelling slowly, allowing faster drivers to pass on the left. This is almost without exception. It is chalk and cheese compared to the undisciplined and selfish drivers on Perth freeways and highways. Being able to legally travel 130kmh on a motorway is a big plus, not that our car can sustain that speed for too long.

The French do have an obsessive compulsion to overtake though. It doesn’t matter if you are going over the speed limit of not, they do not like to be behind another car and will overtake whenever the opportunity presents itself (or not, in some cases). They will hang centimetres from your rear, waiting for the moment to over take you and then settle at a speed that is not much faster than what they were travelling before they overtook. They don’t overtake and then go slower though, that would be rude!

4WDs, SUVs or the lack of them rather is very welcome. Unlike Perth where every second vehicle is a gigantic beast full of mums, shopping and kids, they can only be found out on the farms. Small cars rule. No utes, no Commondores, no burn-outs, no hoons. There also seems to be little or no road rage, as delays and obstacles are just taken in stride.

Traffic lights are small and discreet. Care has to be taken when approaching them, as it is not always obvious if they are green or red. Quality of roads vary considerable. Quiet country roads tend to be of a very low standard, motorways are excellent and city roads are very variable. It seems every major city in France is undergoing some major roadworks at the moment, causing huge traffic congestion.

Public Transport

Public transport is excellent. We have made good use of trains, planes, automobiles, boats, buses, subways, taxis and bikes while here. It is very easy and reasonably cheap to get from one part of France to another quickly. Being a small country, densely populated (relative to Australia) helps a lot in that respect. But apart from Paris, Perth is much bigger than any other French city and its public transport system lags behind much smaller cities. Most mid-size French cities have, or are developing a tram system (similar to Melbourne’s).

The TGV (high speed train) is incredible. We have travelled to and from Le Mans to Paris several times. In about an hour we cover the 250km route.

While in Paris, we tried the Velibs, the community bike hire system. For 8E ($9) we had unlimited access to the bikes for a week. We booked online, received a PIN and then was able to use a bike from any of the 100’s of bike stations around Paris. It was a quick and cheap way to get around Paris. I doubt such a scheme would succeed in Perth, given the propensity of Perth youth to smash anything of value left in a public place.

Cycling

One of the attractions of spending time in France was to cycle through many parts of France and to see the Tour de france first hand. Cycling in France is a mixed bag. It almost qualifies for the “Bad” section of this blog.

What annoys us immensely about cycling at home is the attitude of Australian drivers to cyclist. Basically it sucks. There is an element, who without fear, will deliberately attempt to run you off the road. At the best, most drivers regard cyclists as a nuisance and show little care or respect to them. What is good about cycling in Perth, is the first class network of sealed cycling paths. You can get to almost anywhere in Perth without spending too much time in the traffic. The weather also helps as you can cycle year round without too much discomfort.

France is the complete opposite to Australia for cycling. Cyclists are just another road user here. Drivers approach with care and give ample room when overtaking. We have only been “honked” once here. That was a multiple daily occurrence back in Australia. We actually think the only reason we got honked here was that the driver was late for a local wedding that we rode past a few minutes later!

However the network of safe sealed cycle ways is limited. There are some in most cities, but only extend for a few hundred metres at the most, then, your unceremoniously dumped into heavy traffic. There are unsealed cycleways in the country, but they are unsuitable for road bikes (and for more conventional fat wheel bikes in some areas). What did put cycling in the “good” book is the plethora of quiet country roads that mesh the country side. On these roads, we can ride for kilometres without any cars crossing our path, even though they can be pretty rough and bumpy at times. The area we currently live in is quite hilly, so we have been getting a good workout. Unfortunately we have not done anywhere near the number of kilometres we would normally do at home. Despite the amount of time we have available to cycle, the weather has simply been too bad here in the north.

The Bad

Dog Poo

Aargh, dog shit everywhere. The French love their dogs, taking them everywhere, shopping, restaurants, bars and on holidays. Consequently there is dog shit everywhere also. Some towns are encouraging the use of doggie poo bags, but the French are slow learners. They don’t seem to have any problems walking off after their mutt has deposited a huge pile of steaming, stinking excreta outside someone’s front door (as it happened to us).

We are still getting used to dogs in restaurants. Good news for dog lovers, not sure for others. However, even the dogs here seem well behaved.

Opening Hours

Between 12 noon and 2pm, France closes, especially in the rural areas. Everybody closes shop and goes home for a long lunch. Only the larger supermarkets and restaurants remain open and are usually full of non-french, wondering where all the French are. We have been caught out many times, inconvenient, but you get use to it.

Public holidays are another thing. There are many public holidays in France and everything shuts for the day. Everything. You can’t even get a bottle of milk. In larger cities there is a bit of life, but not much. Sundays are a similar story, Mondays are not much better either. Bricomarche, the French equivalent of Bunnings is also shut. How are you expected to DIY on a Sunday?

Internet

As much as Australia’s internet capabilities are maligned back home, its generally fairly good compared to France’s. Given that France is small and densely populated, internet access is a bit hit and miss (as well as 3G coverage). We had good reliable fast internet in our village in the south of France, but here in the north it is unreliable and marginally faster than dial-up. Our Paris apartment was advertised with high speed cable internet, but it was quite slow (4Mb). Contrary to popular belief there is not widespread free internet access in major cities. Many cafes and bars have free access, but they are not common.

The use of the web by French businesses and organisations lags that of the anglosphere. While you can purchase and book a lot online, there is not the variety that we have come to expect. Some restaurants have online reservation systems, but they don’t reply.

The Ugly

Smoking

One if the big negatives of France is smoking. It seems 2 out 3 French people smoke. Smoking was recently banned inside restaurants, but is still allowed in outside dining areas and inside bars. You cannot go into a crowded area without smoke being blown towards your face and dining outside at the streetside tables (which we prefer to do when the weather is good)  means you are sitting with the smokers. Inside bars, it seems 9 out of 10 are smokers. A night in a French bar leaves you smelling like an ashtray. Cigarettes are cheap and there does not seem to be any major health initiative in place to discourage smoking.

Weather

We put weather in the ugly section, because this year it has been ugly. We have been to France before and experienced beautiful weather, but this year France (and most of Europe) recorded one of the coldest Februarys ever. Similarly, this spring has been one of the wettest in 200 years in France, and it hasn’t helped that we had (inadvertently) selected one of the wettest places in France to spend spring and summer (200 rainy days a year!).

Coming from Perth which has over 300 sunny days a year, an average winter maximum temperature of 18*C and a summer that extends from November to April with months of continuous 30+*C heat, French weather is ghastly. In the south however, it is much more pleasant, not unlike Perth. For that reason, we have cancelled our other bookings in the north and heading back to the south, where we will remain for the remainder of our time in France. We had better weather in January down south than we have here in summer.

And…

We love France. We love the French people, their society, culture and customs. Could we live here? Put the weather aside and the answer is yes (provided we had ready access to our family). With the weather, I doubt we could go through too many years when summer doesn’t arrive (like this year). We would probably take more care with our location if we wanted to live here, but down south was almost unbearably cold in February, and that was one of the warmest areas in France.

We have become disillusioned and disappointed with Australian society. It has developed into a selfish and low-brow society where your success is measured in how big your TV is or how iridescent your ute is. Being in France has been a breath of fresh air. It is a society that places great value on its history, culture and traditions. It celebrates the arts and the intellectual. People are polite and treat each other with consideration. Sport stars and celebrities are on a lower peg (at least that is evident to us). Probably if we were more ingrained in society (ie working and speaking fluent French) our viewpoint may not be so rose coloured, but from what we have observed, it is a society that suits us very well.

However we can’t live here indefinitely and we will return to Australia in due course. Being here has already taught us a lot. A lot about what is actually important in life, about possessions and the ability to live simply. Fortunately, we still have a lot more time left here to learn more.

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