The COVID-19 pandemic made us all re-examine our priorities, but my fuse was already lit and hissing well before my 2020 confinement in Charlotte.
In 2021, I cannonballed into the deep end of change. I quit my job, adopted a dog, and reserved a writing retreat in a dreamy French chateau. Over the next several months, my impulsive one-week escape evolved into a complete life makeover. Two and a half years later, living in Aix-en-Provence has been the most joyful period of my life.
My journey culminated this summer with a French diploma, a visa renewal and a surprise twist! I formally made a lifetime commitment to France — and my new husband — in the form of wedding vows.
Nearly every aspect of my French experience has one-upped my hopeful expectations. From the inspiring writing retreat that sparked it all, to the incredible instructors at the Alliance Française, to simple daily strolls through bustling markets, Napoleon-era plazas and nearby castle-crowned villages. My own practically perfect wedding day was so special because it happened here.
It’s not all lavender fields and fairy tales. Pretty much nothing has gone according to plan.
France has earned its reputation for onerous bureaucratic inefficiencies, high taxes and low wages. Aix’s popularity means untouchable real estate prices. The bliss, the stress, the catch-22’s. It’s all true and then some. C’est la vie, and for me, it’s the best life yet.
Thinking of moving abroad? Here’s what I wish I’d known.
Let go of the notion there is a singular correct answer or path. This was perhaps the most transformational lesson for me. There is no gold-medal visa type or “best” place to live. There are only personal preferences and variations to consider. Here are a few things to keep in mind, however:
Every French procedure, restriction and grammar rule (all 72 billion of them) has an exception. Each department has different regulations. Answers begin with “It depends,” and end with, “On the contrary...” (Unless you’re asking where to find the best baguette. In Aix, it’s Hat’s Boulangerie.)
You cannot work as a digital nomad, freelancer or work as a remote employee for an American company in France unless you are granted a specific work visa before you arrive.
Other popular European and Latin American countries have more flexible work and tax regulations. Working on French soil = paying French taxes. Plus, American citizens still have to file U.S. taxes every year, regardless of where they live and work. (There is an agreement between France and the US to avoid double-payment for all but the highest earners.)
Don’t trust Google, ChatGPT, Facebook groups or charming expat writers (ahem) for important answers, although all of these can be super helpful when accurate. Rules change frequently and arbitrarily.
A student visa can be a great option at any age — if you time it right. European public universities cost a fraction of their American counterparts, even after France recently began adding on hefty fees for non-EU residents.
I waffled between various working visa options, wasting time and money on non-viable business plans and a disappointing “hand-holder” service, before realizing I could polish up my rusty language skills, gain confidence and get a closer look at local university programs before launching a new career.
Plus, earning a masters degree in France creates a shortcut to naturalization eligibility, and you can legally work (up to half time) during your studies. Bingo!
Your great (or terrible) credit score and driving record means nothing in France. I had to go to three banks before opening a checking account, on the condition that I wouldn’t deposit “too much American money.” I secured an apartment only after offering a French garant (co-signer) and six months’ rent up front.
And, now that my one-year International license has expired, after 34 years of impeccable driving, I have to start from scratch.
Here’s a tip: Look into residency rules in South Carolina or one of the other 17 states that offer license reciprocity before you come, and thank me later.
Order a new birth certificate, and double check it for mistakes before you go. I’ve been battling for my Carte Vitale (free healthcare ID card) for over a year. Despite sending a notarized statement, a corrected copy of my birth certificate, a second copy of my passport (because they misplaced the first file) and umpteen written and verbal requests, they can’t figure out how to put a space in my last name. Even so, the French healthcare system generally puts America to shame.
Anything you ship overseas will cost twice as much as it’s worth and take twice as long as you think. Unless you’ve got a container of priceless heirlooms, it’s time to let go and start fresh. Shipping and postal logistics are a headache, and horror stories abound of absurd fees on mailed parcels. I used UPackWeShip for a few trunks of non-urgent un-part-with-ables.
You will be learning French your whole life. After a year of immersive fluency studies, on top of a solid foundation, I still struggle with basic administrative tasks like phone calls, writing emails and completing the ubiquitous forms. Technically, you don’t need to speak French to live here. I’ve met people getting by on a few key words and translator apps, but they can’t capture the cultural nuances and quirks of the French language.
Lastly, what worked for me — as a kid-free, air-conditioning averse, introverted, omnivore francophile — does not apply to all. I encourage anyone who’s pondering a similar move to start their research early, visit and talk with as many locals and professionals as possible, double their budget and keep an open mind. Even the worst moments make for good stories in the end.
Hear more about Jenny’s French adventures on her blog at https://hexagon-home.com.