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.”

Les Fleurs de Provence

One of my favorite things about living in Provence is seeing the landscape come alive in the spring and summer with fields and fields of flowers.

Les Tulipes

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In early spring—before the chill of winter has fully left the air—it’s time to start anticipating the tulips. But you have to move quickly because they are gone in the blink of an eye. Their ephemeral beauty lasts only a week or two. But the neat rows of rainbow-colored flowers are not to be missed.

Les Coquelicots

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As the weather starts to heat up, bright flashes of red start popping up everywhere and before you know it, you come across a fat, wide, scarlet ribbon of poppies. It’s a gorgeous way to usher in the warmer temperatures and never ceases to make me happy.

La Lavande

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As spring melts into summer, the poppies start to fade away and are replaced with soft, feathery hints of purple that gradually intensify in color until you have vibrant, rolling fields of lavender.

Les Tournesols

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As the lavender starts to peak, you’ll begin to notice sunny glimpses of yellow. And then, one day, you’ll pass a field full of bright, golden orbs facing you. How can these not make you grin?!

Tell us, what are your favorite flowers of Provence?

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Welcome Home; or, Back in the USSA

One of the great pleasures of being an expat is going “home”.

You get to be a tourist in the place you are from.

A big trip back is an opportunity to catch up with friends and family, eat all the foods you miss, and (re)introduce your kids to the things you love. My daughter was 4 when we left the states, so she thinks she remembers living in the midwest, but she probably just remembers the stories we’ve told her. It’s important to me that she keep contact with her American roots, so it’s wonderful to reconnect over summer break. It’s also a terrific opportunity for me to appreciate where we come from and see it with new eyes.

Fresh Off the Plane

It takes me three airplanes to get “home”. I put it in quotations, because when I land in Kentucky it’s nearly obvious that I’m not from around here. In the south of France, I may be the most bluegrass-y person around, but when I’m around these parts, I tend to stand out in my style of dress, of speech, and of attitudes. Plus, I just don’t know the local places anymore.

Nonetheless, one thing never fails to choke me up. (This, coming from the woman who doesn’t cry at movies or books or such.) What gets me is passport control. Truly. Entering the US in DC, they have a big line for passport control. First there are self-serve kiosks for checking in; you enter your info and have a photo taken and print out a slip. Then you continue in the queue to wait for the next officer, which takes forever because you can barely stand up after the long flights and time change and the kids are cranky. Finally, he looks through it all, asks a few questions, and then…as he hands back your passport…he says, “Welcome home!” Gets me every time. For some reason, this daily gesture of the passport control officer is deeply meaningful to me. Even just talking about it chokes me up.

Fresh Eyes

Out of the airport and on to the highway…It’s been three years since my last visit in the USA and the first thing that jumps out at me is the cars–they are BIG! In Provence, my Ford Fusion is too big for me. It sits too low and is too long and isn’t the right tool for the job. Here, that same model looks fairly average. Small, even. There are SUVs and Jeeps and great big pickup trucks and luxuriously large autos everywhere. And nearly each one of them is transporting just one person.

Big Big Big!

With all those big cars, the roads also need to be BIG! Long, straight, flat, endless. The lanes are wiiiiiide, with extra shoulders on both sides and maybe even a bike lane. And streets are well-marked, which is handy. In Provence, driving two hours can feel like a strenuous sport–it’s made up of exhausting twisty turny roads going up and down big hills with nary a street sign or guard rail. It takes all your attention. Here in the midwest, you nearly don’t have to think. Smoooooth.

And the parking spots are BIG! And the lanes in the parking lots are BIG! No wonder all those shiny large cars are not yet scratched up–there is plenty of room for everyone to maneuver. Even the little cars in France are generally dinged and scratched and scuffed. Not here. All shiny and new and, well, you guessed it–BIG!IMG_5197

Let’s Eat!

Besides the transportation differences, eating out is the other big area of differences that I am noticing this trip. It is quite a different experience from dining out in Provence.

First, you can walk in anywhere at anytime and eat anything. Almost literally. Where we are in France, there are limited hours of serving and usually only a limited selection of dishes on the menu each day. In the US, the menus are large and larger, and international flavors abound. Every town has a Chinese buffet, sushi bar, and Tex-Mex sit-down. Want breakfast at 3:30 in the afternoon? Then IHOP is for you. Or Bob Evans; even in this seemingly unusual request you have a choice.

Running Hot and Cold

It’s hard to say what you’ll notice as the next difference–the warm welcome or the cold atmosphere? There will be someone stationed at the front door whose sole purpose is to greet you and take your reservation and lead you to your table with menus in hand. Invariably, this greeter is a young lady with a smile and some kind of computer screen in front of her. In France, one is often left waiting about awkwardly, wondering if you should just grab a table or try to flag down the busy waiter. Hoping to not be shunned for not having a reservation. Or is that just me?

Either the big smile or the cold blast will hit you first. Yes, no one does climate control quite like the Americans. There may even be a pressure difference between indoor and outdoor that will make opening the door a Herculean feat. Then the arctic blast hits you. I didn’t pack nearly enough jackets and sweaters for a summer trip home. It takes the breath away. Breath you can see in the meat-locker like conditions.

What?!

Once seated and holding a multi-page menu that you are barely given enough time to read, you may notice feeling a bit overwhelmed. The music piping through the restaurant is loud. You kind of have to shout over it to converse at the table. That is, if you can get the attention of your table mates–they are more distracted by one of the fifteen television screens within immediate view, each with a different channel playing. And each one with the volume up.

The food comes quickly, there is that to be said for the American experience. You won’t go hungry and you won’t wait long for it. The dishes are BIG too, but not necessarily of the same quality one might expect in France. There are less than Michelin-starred restaurants in France, of course, but even that is above an average American quick-serve fast-casual restaurant. I recently had a tasty salad with buffalo chicken on top. Can’t get that in France–particularly when you consider that the lettuce was frozen. Crunchy ice frozen. Amazing. How is that even possible? Maybe it was sitting next to the air conditioner.

Here’s a Tip for You

Before you’ve finished eating, the bill is dropped off at the table. No long after-dinner conversation, no flagging down the server. And this leads to my final painful difference.

I have forgotten how to tip. I mean, I remember the function and that I’m supposed to, but the whole mechanism is rusty. They bring the check, I look at it. I put my card in the tray or pleather folder. Then they walk. Away. With my credit card. This didn’t used to be so strange. But now that I am used to the credit machine coming to the table side, it feels really weird. Where are you going with that? Shopping?!

They return with a plethora of paper slips. One is for you to keep, one is for the restaurant. I have signed the wrong one three times already. Now, time for some higher math. How much? 10%? 20%? 25%? In Europe, waitstaff get a living wage and healthcare and benefits and can actually survive on what they make. Not so in the US. I had to convince my Irish and French colleagues that the minimum wage for a waiter or waitress is actually $2.13, compared to the federal minimum wage of $7.25. It is a complete shame. No wonder that there are restaurants changing this model and they seem to be succeeding wildly.  Thus, in France we don’t tip as much. It isn’t as obligatory as it is in the US. And I am obviously out of practice at filling out the papers and doing the math.

Welcome home! What are your favorite and least favorite things about returning to your home country as an expat?

 

My French Kitchen

The French are world-renowned for their culinary skills. So, it’s no wonder that most French families eat the majority of their meals at home.

Considering all that delicious home-cooking, one would think that French kitchens would be optimized for both efficiency and organization. However, I have not found that to be true. I have been in many a Provençal kitchen, but French kitchen design remains baffling to me. 

Here are a few idiosyncrasies I have found in my own kitchen:

No planning for electrical outlets.

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We have only two in our kitchen. They are directly next to each other. There is only room on the counter for one electrical appliance. My husband makes toast and popcorn in the living room. The coffee maker takes priority.

Limited counter space.

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We have an entire wall that is empty. No counters AND no electrical outlets. There is room for a counter, but the owners chose not to install a permanent one. I can see holes in the wall where at some point in time, something resembling a counter existed in this space.

No appliances.

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When you rent or buy a home in France, the previous tenant or owner takes their appliances and light fixtures with them. No refrigerator, no dishwasher, not even a washing machine. Nothing but some cabinets and a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. Sometimes they even take the counters (see above).

No lighting.

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I cook by the equivalent of candlelight. I could bring in a lamp, but again no counters. Maybe I’ll invest in a floor lamp. Oh wait–I don’t have enough outlets to plug one in!

Self defrosting refrigerators are not the norm.

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I didn’t realize this when I bought mine. It took me a year to figure out why my freezer had so much ice built up. I can remember my mom defrosting the fridge in the 1970s but never pictured myself doing the same. Not the mention my freezer is the size of a large shoe box. Our American visitors quickly realize there will be no ice in their beverages and our kids have gotten used to drinking room temperature water and even juice or soda if they’re at a party.

These inconveniences are minor when I consider all the wonderful things about living in Provence.  The culture and experiences we are exposed to, the wonderful friends we have made and the laid back lifestyle make it all worth while. I wouldn’t have these views back in Florida:

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15 Signs You’re an Expat

#1  Your social media feeds are filled with posts in multiple languages. You are able to figure out most of what’s happening via context; you rely on Google Translate for the rest.

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Photo by NeONBRAND

#2  It takes you a good five minutes to answer the question: “Where are you from?” Do you mean where I was born, where I was raised, or where I live now?

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Photo by Ben White

#3  You root for multiple teams in the Olympics and World Cup. But what do you do when they play each other??!

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Photo by Thomas Serer

#4  The speed at which you’re able to mentally convert different currencies is your new party trick.

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Photo by freestocks.org

#5  You own far fewer things than most people your age, but almost each item comes with its own story and memory.

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Photo by Kari Shea

#6  What would be simple errands in your home country become major accomplishments in your adopted homeland. 

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Photo by Kelsey Chance

#7  You try to hide how sad it makes you when your friends and family no longer expect you to attend weddings, holidays, reunions, and other major milestones.

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Photo by Jade Masri

#8  Your expat friends have become your surrogate family. They watch your kids for you, celebrate your birthday, invite you over for holidays, and listen to you vent over a glass of wine.

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Photo by The Real Expat Life

#9  Your passport is always up-to-date and readily accessible.

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Photo by Francesca Tirico

#10  You have strong opinions about Skype vs. FaceTime vs. WhatsApp.

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Photo by William Iven

#11  Nothing embarrasses you anymore. New country, new language, new culture—being an expat is a humbling experience and little humiliations are daily occurrences. Now you laugh it all off.

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Photo by Isaiah McClean

#12  You find yourself eating food that would have turned your stomach before.

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Photo by Luke Brugger

#13  Your weather app is a travel log of all the places you’ve visited over the past year.

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Photo by The Real Expat Life

#14  You watch your nieces and nephews grow up through pictures.

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Photo by The Real Expat Life

#15  You know that any friend who visits you more than once is a friend for life.

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Photo by The Real Expat Life

 

Header image by Luca Baggio on Unsplash

The Delivery Man…You’ve Got a Package

The weather had turned cold and so had my feet. Our things had arrived at the port in Marseille, but as we didn’t have a permanent home yet, there was nowhere for things to be delivered. As a result, we were making do with the things we brought with us on the plane.

We arrived in August, so my supplies included a light jacket or two (for brisk summer evenings), short-sleeved shirts and various summer-type shoes. But this was October—frosty-window-scraping season.

Lest you have forgotten, I am 6-foot-tall, Amazon goddess with feet sized to match. Shopping at my local department store wasn’t exactly an option…unless I wanted to look like I was wearing my children’s clothing. So, I got online and shopped in the UK where I was able to procure a pair of perfectly impeccable knee-high boots to cover my exposed toes. Delivery would take a week. So, I battened down the hatches, put on an extra pair of socks and waited for D-livery day.

French streets are less about order and more like a way to wind around existing landmarks while potentially passing through practical places. As a result, even if your street is only a little bit off the beaten path, delivery drivers (those champions of freight distribution) armed with the latest GPS technology will still need directions. It’s very common place to get a phone call asking for advice on how to navigate your village in order to get to you.

I knew this call was coming. I was prepared. After consulting Google translate and a few French-proficient friends, I had written out what I thought was a simple explanation of how to get to my house from several directions…just in case.

When the phone rang from an “Unknown caller” my heart started to pound and my palms to sweat.

Just breathe. You got this. Just tell him where you are and it will be fine.

The conversation started off normally with him explaining he was with such and such delivery company, and he would be arriving momentarily. Next came the moment I had been waiting for: “How do I get to your house?”

As I stumbled through my explanation, the conversation took an unexpected turn…

“Wait,” he demanded. “You’re not French. Where are you from?”

“I’m American,” I replied.

He reacted by launching into a quick string of words I didn’t understand. However, through the gobbledegook, I managed to get the gist of his energetic monologue…come have coffee with me and I’ll give you your package.

I was a little shocked and told him, no thank you.

He was not to be put off so easily and asked again.

Again I said, no. Honestly, I couldn’t say much more.

He continued his impractical petition. In the end, I just hung up and called a friend.

I explained the situation to her and asked if she could intervene on my behalf with this half-witted Romeo holding my boots for ransom. She agreed, took his phone number, and hung up.

I paced the floor, hoping that this boot delivery debacle could somehow be settled.

It wasn’t long until she called back, but the news was not what I expected.

She told me that the guy just wanted to meet an American, and that he thinks it’s not a big deal and that he won’t give me my package unless I do it. She suggested we call her husband and have him negotiate the release of my ransomed goods.

He agreed and, posing as my disgruntled husband, demanded Romeo meet him at the village square and hand over the cargo. Romeo agreed but never showed.

At this point, we were a little skeptical about this existence of the purloined packaged. Perhaps we had been the victim of some elaborate expat scam. It wouldn’t be the first time someone had tried to pull a fast one on a poor sap unfamiliar with the local culture and language.

We needed backup, so we contacted the security department of the company he worked for. They did some digging and discovered the delivery company was legitimate, and that the package, although real, had been sent back as undeliverable.

I felt incredulous, shocked, stunned. Did that really just happen. And what about my shoes?

However, as there was nothing I could do about it, I put on another pair of socks. A few days later I sat, trying to come up with Plan C.

Delivery might be a problem. I mean, what if the same guy has to deliver the package on round two. Will we be back to square one?

While thus pontificating, the doorbell rang.

I cautiously opened the door. I wasn’t expecting anyone.

Standing there was a young man holding a brown box that looked like it could contain a pair of size 44, knee-high boots.

I eyed him skeptically–one eyebrow lifted as if to say, “Are you the guy?”

If he was, he did an excellent job of playing dumb. Not an anxious glance or embarrassed blush.

Whatever, I was just happy to have my shoes!

The real expat life.

Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel

O Tile Floors! A Lament for Broken Things

In southern France, tile floors rule the day. Relegated to kitchens and bathrooms in the U.S., tile is the flooring of choice in my adopted homeland.

And they certainly are practical. They are easy to clean, remain cool on hot summer days, and are able to withstand an incredible level of abuseall very important qualities when you have a house full of energetic children.

But, oh, the broken things! With tile floors, nothing survives a fall.

Countless wineglasses, plates, mugs, and fragile trinkets have fallen victim to tile’s unforgiving nature. When we first moved into our current house, I was surveying our new, teeny, tiny French kitchen and exclaimed to my husband, “There’s no way all our dishes are going to fit in herewe need less stuff!”

Be careful what you wish for.

Not two hours later, one of my twins managed to knock over a set of wineglasses that was waiting to find its place in a cabinet. Seven wineglasses hit the ground, exploding in every direction as small shards of glass ricocheted off the hard, slick floors. We were finding pieces of glass for weeks afterward.

Since that fateful day, many of our other possessions have met an early demise at the hands of our tile floors. As April is National Poetry Month in the U.S., I was inspired to honor all my many, many broken things with the following lament:


Lament for Broken Things

Cups, plates and other things of glass
Tumble to the floor en masse.
Horror as I see my platter—
Used for dinners long since passed—
Hit the tile, rupture, shatter.

F**k you, tile! I curse, I weep.
O the mess I must now sweep!
Tile! Why so unforgiving??
Fragile I sow, broken I reap.
Here’s to minimalist living!


Hope you enjoyed my little bit of verse! As Oscar Wilde once said, “All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic.”

Happy National Poetry Month!

Gone with the Wind

Provence is known for its strong winds, which have been dubbed by the locals or perhaps meteorologists as le mistral.” For this Florida girl, gale force winds = hurricanes. The first night in our new home in France, I was jolted from a restless slumber by powerful gusts of winds rattling the shutters. In my foggy, jet lagged state of mind, I wondered what we had gotten ourselves into by moving to such an inhospitable far-off land. Was it like this every night? There had been no severe weather warnings issued. What was going on?  I soon understood why all the houses in the south of France have wooden or metal shutters. Why didn’t we Floridians think of that?

As time wore on, I became accustomed to the crazy mistral winds and learned to ignore them or just go with the flow if I had to be outside during an occurrence. Until today….

It had been a particularly gusty day. Fortunately, it was a Wednesday so the kids were home from school and we didn’t have to venture out. Hubby happened to be home sick from work as well. He had gone upstairs to open the shutters to let the Provençal sun shine in. My normally even-tempered husband began hollering loudly for me to come look at something. I knew immediately that something was amiss.

The large metal shed in our backyard had blown completely off its foundation. All of the contents housed in the shed were left behind, exposed to the elements—our bicycles, moving boxes, sleds, and even a dresser the landlord left behind.

The shed had been picked up by the wind, blown up and over the house and smashed to the ground landing upside down. It looked like a scene from The Wizard of Oz. I was expecting to see the munchkins peek around the corner asking if it was safe to come out. I had spent my early childhood in Kansas, if fact, but had never seen anything the likes of what I was witnessing currently in my own backyard. I wanted to click my heels three times and return to a time where our shed was perfectly intact and right side up.

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Our elderly French neighbors dashed outside in a panic. The wife had the phone up to her ear and was yelling that she was calling the pompier (French firemen). I stayed safely inside with the kids until the winds calmed enough for me to secure our garden furniture, which I had been watching  travel across the yard in the direction the mistral was blowing.

Hubby was able to convince the neighbor that we didn’t require the pompier and that we had the situation under control. We unearthed some heavy scaffolding that had been abandoned after the construction of our house and were able to hoist it on top of the shed to keep it from traveling further afield. I was concerned that our errant shed would continue blowing into the olive grove adjacent to our property and land on some poor farmer’s crop down the road.

I am convinced we provide our lovely neighbors with hours of entertaining stories for their weekly geriatric apéro (French happy hour). From the time we accidentally flooded the cistern under the house, causing a small river to stream down our gravel road, to the time an industrial sized spool landed on our car. (Read about it here) We seem to find ways to shock and awe the prim and proper locals without even trying.

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

An Expat’s Guide to Serving the British Cuppa

EMILY: As an American living in France, I’ve been introduced to the thriving expat community that resides here in Provence. I am lucky to have developed friendships with people from all over the world, including several lovely and wonderful folks from the UK.

Recently, a friend from Scotland came over. It was a crisp day and I had just put the kettle on for a cup of tea. I asked if she would also like a cup. Alas, as a green tea drinker, all I had stocked in my cupboard was an array of green teas and an errant bag or two of chamomile.

When I revealed this fact, Sal’s face immediately fell. “Oh yes,” she sighed, “I forgot I’m in an American house. Next time I see you, I’ll give you some tea I brought back from the UK.”

After disappointing my Scottish friend with my lack of proper tea, I surveyed my other British friends as to the best tea to have on hand and how to serve “a proper cup.”

To save anyone else from suffering the embarrassment of my faux pas when hosting a British friend for an afternoon, I’ve asked fellow expat and UK native Pippa to guide us non-Brits on how to serve a proper cup of tea.

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The authors, Pippa and Emily, enjoy a cuppa together.

PIPPAWhen I moved to France from England, I discovered that the British cuppa occupies only one corner of a massive tea field, and an invitation for a cup of tea did not guarantee a drink with which I had any familiarity.

So, for the sake and well-being of all the Brits craving their cuppa abroad, I have assembled a list of the fundamentals for serving a British friend a proper cup of tea:

THE TEA

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In the UK, the offer of a cup of tea usually means only one thing: a hot, brown, milky drink. No need to identify it, but sometimes you might be asked, “India or China?” or “Is PG okay?” The former refers to Assam, Darjeeling, Earl Grey, or Lapsang Souchong; the latter to a blend (PG Tips in this case). Everyone has their favourite blend: Yorkshire Tea, PG Tips, Typhoo, etc. As long as you have one of these in the cupboard, you’re safe.

THE WATER

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The water should be freshly boiled and poured over the bag or an infuser with loose tea. Do not dunk your bag in the water—dunking is for biscuits. Science says about 96°C is perfect, so there!

THE POT

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If making a pot (God bless you!), you should warm it first with boiling water. You don’t want to mess with the temperature!

THE CUP

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Seriously, tea tastes different whether it is in a china, glass, metal, plastic, or cardboard cup. Of course, needs must, but I’m sure it’s obvious which works best with the British cuppa.

THE TECHNIQUE

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Leave for a minimum of 30 seconds. I’ve found three minutes is quite nice. I’ve just finished a cuppa that stewed for eight minutes, but I have a weakness for “builders tea” (strong and sweet enough to stand the spoon up in it and put hairs on your chest—pardon the imagery).

Important Note: Do not squeeze the bag to speed up the process! It makes the tea more bitter. You can swirl it if you want. Carefully.

THE MILK

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I was always taught that best practice is milk first. A member of my family once had tea with Prince Charles (oo, get us) and confirms that even he’s a “Miffy.” This avoids staining or scalding the cup and it means you do not have to stir if you don’t take sugar.

However, this has to go by the wayside if making tea from one bag in a cup. You can’t put milk on a bag! So, it is only relevant to tea made in a pot. And no, I’m not going to bother asking whether you should add milk or not! We are talking about the British cuppa here—you only omit milk if you have an upset tummy or are a student.

THE SUGAR

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If you take sugar, like me, and ignore the dentist, boring old white sugar is the best. Sorry, but brown sugar, caster sugar (sucre en poudre), fake carcinogenic sweeteners, etc. do not taste the same as white granulated sugar (sucre crystal).

THE BISCUITS

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Biscuits are a necessity for the full experience. There are so many to choose from and every Brit has their favourite (Hobnobs, Bourbons, Custard Creams, Jammy dodgers, Digestives, etc). My favourite: Rich Teas, to dunk. Some consider dunking bad manners, but why else do such bland biscuits exist? Normally you don’t want anything too fancy disintegrating in your cup, but each to their own, I say. Just remember to provide a teaspoon.

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So, there you have it. I’m sure opinions on such a fundamental topic will vary and, of course, adapt your tea-making for your own needs and those of your guest. And please don’t stop initiating us in the wonderful, alternative global pantheon of hot beverages—new experiences are all part of living abroad after all. But I don’t think you can underestimate the magical effect of a good British cuppa on a Brit abroad: the instant relaxation and warm mushy feelings of gratitude and friendship.

Hmm, after all that, I think it’s time to put the kettle on.