Happy Anniversary

Happy Birthday to The Real Expat Life

Already? It’s been one year of chronicling our expat experiences–time to throw your hat in the air and celebrate!

TREL home


First, a big “THANK YOU!” to each and every one of our Followers, Commenters, and Sharers. We are so excited that you find our writing funny, interesting, or at least mildly entertaining. Keep those cards and letters coming! The Real Expat Life is much better with you in it.

For those who like data as much as me (Melissa), most of our visitors have been from France and the USA, and some have come from as far away as Singapore and Lithuania. In fact, we have a few frequent visitors from South Africa and New Zealand. Wow! Be sure to subscribe below to not miss out on one thrilling minute.

Best of The Real Expat Life

In honor of our one year anniversary, we thought it would be fun to recap our most popular entries. And so…without further ado…the Top 5 Real Expat Life Posts!

Runner Up: How to Humiliate Yourself

Yes, I wrote “five” and then proceed to start with the sixth. I’m like that.

This post by Emily is a close runner-up and so wonderfully captures what it’s really like to be an expat. Embarrassing! It’s also got several great tips on speaking French, which I need to go back and review–often.


#5: Driving in France

The perils of driving in France is a team effort describing some of our favorite white-knuckle aspects of getting around town and country.


#4: Gone with the Wind

This “funny only because no one got hurt” story by Dana about le Mistral is so timely–we just had crazy winds again yesterday.


#3: Living the Pipe Dream

Warning: This very witty and self-aware guest post by our dear friend Fiona is pee-in-your-pants funny. It’s also great advice on how to deal with contractors and get a project completed on time!


#2: Growing Pains

We feel for you, Meredith! In this popular post, she talks about a problem that might not be expected when you move abroad; the troubles of shopping for clothes and cars.

Small Car

#1: Worms in the Apple

And…drumroll please…the most-visited post (so far) is the one you probably don’t want to see again–Melissa’s post about the creepy-crawly side of living in Provence, illustrated with the help of Marijn’s fabulous nature photography.


So there you have it! Thank you all for livin’ the dream with us! Here’s to many more!



Driving in France: The Struggle Is Real

When you move to a new country, one of your first tests is learning how to drive in a completely different environment, with an entirely new set of rules—both official and unofficial. The learning curve can be steep and high speed—figuratively and literally!

After years of driving in France, here are the things that the writers at The Real Expat Life still struggle getting used to:

EMILY: Driving in circles on roundabouts and ringroads.

I hail from Chicago where the streets are straight and follow a grid pattern. Occasionally, you’ll come across a road that runs diagonal or follows a bit of a curve, but the vast majority run either north-south or east-west. Even the famed Chicago Loop is really more of a square with boxy, straight lines.

Not here. In France, the straight road is an anomaly. Winding, meandering roads are the norm, especially where I live in Provence. And you can literally drive in circles here. There are roundabouts everywhere. Want to get a gal from Chicago hopelessly lost? Hide all street signs, put her on roads that twist like strands of spaghetti, and then spin her around a successive series of circles.

I spent my first few months in France sweating profusely behind the wheel, yelling at my car’s navigation system, “Where on earth am I??” Anytime I had to be anywhere at a specific time, I had to leave 15 minutes earlier to accommodate getting lost. Fortunately, in France, being late is a way of life, so my complete and utter lack of direction meant that I fit in culturally right from the beginning.

Another time France will make you drive in circles is on its many ringroads. As an American, the concept of a ringroad was new to me, but to my British and Irish friends, they’re a normal thing. To the uninitiated, a ringroad is a street that encircles the old, city center. Ringroads are actually great when you’re looking for parking as you’re never that far away from any point in the city center. However, I do find them a bit disorienting and when I finally do find a parking space, I’ll often have absolutely no idea where I am in relation to where I’m trying to go. It’s a good thing I left 15 minutes early!

PIPPA: Driving on the wrong side of the road? Nah, it’s the crossings that get me.

Coming from the UK, you might think that one of the greatest causes of anxiety would be driving on the right hand side of the road instead of the left. Actually, it’s all pretty logical and if you still have a right hand drive car, you have the advantage of seeing how close you are to the scarey ditches they love having right at the edge of the road here.

Nope, I find it’s the proliferation and location of pedestrian crossings that can catch you out. In the UK, our highways are highly regulated to maximise safety (i.e. we assume that drivers and pedestrians alike are all numptys and need nanny with us at all times), so all pedestrian crossings have belisha beacons (stripey poles topped with yellow lights) or traffic lights to forewarn the driver. They also have to be a certain distance from junctions, roundabouts etc, to avoid cars backing up to places with limited visibility. Here, however, you can be merrily looping around a roundabout, confident in your right of way over approaching vehicles, but suddenly need to halt on the roundabout as someone crosses at a turn off point a car or so ahead of you. You just hope the Speedy Gonzalez driving a foot from your bumper has fast enough reactions to brake when you do.  You might also be driving on a bright sunny day (and I mean bright, with no British soft cloud filter) and either the brightness or a contrasting shadow masks the faded white stripes on the road until you’re virtually on top of them.

No wonder pedestrians seem much more wary here at crossings–a lot of cars seem oblivious to them. In the UK, a pedestrian always has priority. My advice as a driver: you need to be equally wary (once you’ve clocked where the crossings are), even if you end up with a staring stand-off with a pedestrian while crawling towards the crossing at 2km/h trying to judge who’s going over the crossing first (they are usually not as numptyish as us Brits and recognise their vulnerability, so either stop or wave you on, impatiently, of course).

MEREDITH: Narrow “two-way” roads

I look at driving in France as a real-time video game I play in my car. Whether I’m yeilding to the right, dodging cars parked on the road (with or without hazard lights), stopping suddenly for hidden pedestrians, or navigating narrow roads, it’s always an adventure. It feels a bit like this…

I often find myself laughing as I wind my way down a “two-way” lane as wide as the one-way streets at home. However, I must say I am impressed with the French ability to share the road.

Near my home, there is a shortcut I often take to avoid the traffic of the village center. This street is clearly not wide enough for two cars to pass side by side unless one of the drivers chooses a strategic spot where the road is slightly wider and hugs the edge so the other car can gingerly pass by. Sometimes, you have to pull in your side mirror so you don’t bump the other car with it.

There’s no roadrage, no annoyance at the inconvenience of having to slow down. Instead, the drivers wave. A small act of solidarity that says, “Thanks for making room. See you around.”

Bad Form!

By David Ricketts

The French are a passionate people. They’re passionate about their food. They’re passionate about their wine. They’re passionate about their sport, their fashion, their politics. They’re even passionate about passion. But there is one French passion which stands above them all—paperwork.

To a Frenchman, if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth filling in a bunch of forms first.

We began our relationship with French bureaucracy before we even arrived in France. Our first task was enroling our children in school. Per child, this required twenty pages of academic enrolment forms, eight pages for registration with the school canteen, and three passport-sized photographs. Another four pages to enrol the family into the parent organisation and we were done. I noted, with relief, the clause that stated that I was required to notify the school should any of the information I had provided change. At least I knew I wasn’t going to have to repeat the process. However, toward the end of the school year, my children arrived home with the same forms so that we could start all over again.

This process has repeated itself year after year but, to be fair, the forms and the process have improved. They now arrive with much of the information pre-filled in. I am merely required to note any errors. I look forward to correcting those same errors each year.

But it’s not just ex-patriots who suffer at the hands of French bureaucracy.

A friend, a Frenchman who presumably should have known better, had been living in the United States and had moved to Germany before finally settling in his native France. With the move, he imported a car. His pride and joy—a Ford Mustang!

Now the Germans are sticklers for the law, and they have some very strict rules governing what is and is not allowed on their roads. Upon arriving in Germany, he embarked on a few months of filling in forms and performing various emissions tests before the car was finally deemed acceptable. He assumed that the process of moving the car to neighbouring France a few years later would be straightforward. He was wrong!

By crossing the border, he committed himself to a two-year journey down a serious paper trail.

He began by submitting forms in person at the village Mairie (the seat of the town mayor). Next, he submitted and resubmitted forms to the regional authority’s office – a good hour’s drive away. Then, he submitted forms by post to various national government agencies.

Finally, he travelled 500 miles to Paris where he submitted the dossier of forms, permits, and certificates which he had collected during his quest. This final step would provide him with the registration documents he craved. He waited for his number to be called and presented his bundle of paperwork to the clerk.

The clerk quietly checked page after pedantic page. Slowly, ever so slowly, the clerk became more and more animated. By the time he had checked the last document, he was hopping about with excitement. What, my friend enquired, was the matter? The clerk excitedly informed him that no one had ever gotten this far and, that by issuing this permit, he would become the first person in the office ever to have done so. This, the clerk proudly announced, would earn him a promotion!

Photo by Helloquence

Living the Pipe Dream

By Fiona

Well, hello there! I am not a newbie to the expat life but am certainly a newbie to living in France. And what a wonderful time we’re having here! Highly recommend it. But…you may want to brush up on your conversational skills after reading this little ditty.

Where do I start? Well, I suppose I could be described as a woman on a mission. My family arrived in France in 2016 and started off in a rental. Although the house was great, I was looking to buy a French dream house that could hold all of our stuff (which was sitting lonely and unloved in a storage unit in Southampton in the UK). After viewing 20 or so houses, I was lucky enough to stumble upon a beautiful and quirky French house that met all of our criteria, except for one thing: a pool. Fortunately, there was a perfect place for the pool—a piece of gravel driveway with incredible views looking over Les Alpes.

Not one to hang around—and to my poor husband’s horror—I was quickly on the case to start getting quotes to build a brand-new swimming pool. After plying my husband with the local fruits (wine), we signed on the dotted line in October to have our dream pool. It was hard to contain my excitement, as I was soon to be Captain Birds Eye in charge of my first swimming pool build! We opted for the pool, as it was a great price, but then after adding more and more tiles and a fully fitted and functional summer house with a kitchen, shower room, and loo—well, let’s just say a lot of wine was consumed to keep hubby sharing my vision!!!

So, the big day approaches. It’s a cold, icy, and quite frankly bloody freezing day in January when the digger splutters and chokes its way up the driveway. A weathered chap named Norm jumps out of the digger and comes to talk with me. It turns out he only speaks French and not a drop of English—hummm this is going to be fun! Needless to say, Norm becomes my BFF over the next four month period along with his co-worker Jean-Luc.

I really feel for these poor men as I must have looked like an over-excited puppy barking the odd French word here and there with wild gesturing of my arms and legs to explain the positioning of the pool and other technical swimming pool buzz words.

So, the pool build is quite basic, and Norm is adept at building pools as mine is one of 24 he has to build this year in the local area. I can honestly say I have never seen a person work so hard, on his own and doing it all himself. An incredible individual and so skilled!


Once the pool was built, we then got onto discussions about the pool house. After having returned from the school run with a plume of fake ostrich feathers up my nose from my decadent winter cape, I’m greeted by Norm and his dutiful, talented plumber/electrician Daniel.

So, translated into English from the original French, he says something like this:

Norm: “Hello lovely, amazing lady from Wales. I need to discuss the layout of the pool house with you as we will need to dig up the garden and put in three facilities for the water, waste (poo), and electricity for you to be able to have the kitchen, loo, and shower functioning.”

Bear in mind this is all in French, a language I’m still learning. In my shaky French, I start describing my husband’s random drawing of what we need. As I start to explain that we will need three modes of outflow, I get stuck on the word “pipe.” I think to myself, “Well, I’ll just say ‘pipe’ in a French accent, which would sound like ‘peep.’ That’s bound to work!”

So, I start jabbering away about how many “peeps” I need, where I want them, the size of them, the flow, the diameter, the angle and the cost, etc. I’m met with silence, so ask, “Do you understand?” They reply “yes” and nothing more.

Feeling like I have accomplished the world, I stride on back into the house thinking, “God, my French is so good. I can now communicate with building contractors. I’m nearly fluent!”

A week passes by and I meet my beautiful and amazing French/English friend Cara for a coffee. She casually asks me, “How’s the pool building going?” I reply, “Really well, it’s a lot easier than I thought it would be!”

I started to explain about the “pipe” question and how I didn’t know the word and just improvised with “peep.” At this point my friend’s nose disappears into her café allongé, and she literally starts snorting the coffee through her nose.

“What’s wrong with you?” I ask.

“Oh my god,” she giggles. “Pipe (pronounced ‘peep’ in French) means a blow job!”

I was literally dumbfounded at the thought of how many blow jobs I had offered. I had even offered to use my seven-year-old daughter’s etch-a-sketch to draw the positioning of the “peeps” for them.

Feeling a little queasy, I asked my friend what is the effing word for a “pipe.” Apparently, it’s “tuyau,” which could not be more different from “peep” if you tried. And to top it off, it’s a really hard word to say.

Anyhoo, I leave the coffee shop and get into my car thinking, “Holy moly, how embarrassing!” But like the good, strong Welsh warrior I am, I will overcome this little fly in the ointment. I practise the word “tuyau” over and over again.

When I arrive at the house, Norm and Daniel are there beavering away. I think to myself, “It’s now or never.” I swagger over and start talking about the tuyau. At this point, their mouths start to twitch as they realise that I now understand my massive faux pas. Blow jobs are officially off the menu!

People often ask me, “How on earth did you get your pool built so quickly?”

“Well,” I reply, “throw in the odd ‘peep’ here and there and you’ll be amazed!!”

Lesson learnt: Never give up and never be embarrassed to speak your new language. Yes, you will make mistakes, but who cares—there is always wine!



Header photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash