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

Gratitude

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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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!

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#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.

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#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.

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

 

 

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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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

Playing With Fire

“For heating, there’s a proper English stove,” our new landlord proclaimed proudly. “We had to order it special from the UK.”

This ought to be interesting.

“It takes a little bit of planning, but if you figure things out right you can close the flue when you go bed and still have hot coals in the morning,” he continued.

“I’m sure we’ll manage,” my husband, Mike, observed. “I’ve done a lot of camping.”

With those words of confidence, we were on our own.

Welcome to the 1800s.

We moved in at the end of November, Thanksgiving Day to be precise. We were just grateful to have a house. As it was warm on moving day, we didn’t really think much about heating until the sun went down.

However, by that time, it would have taken too much effort to clear a path to the fireplace, so we bundled up in scarves and coats, ate a Thanksgiving Dinner of breakfast cereal and headed to bed.

The next morning was brisk, but we were hard at work so it wasn’t until that evening that we decided to try our hand at making fire. Cavemen did it. How hard could it be?

In addition to the logs in the woodpile, we had procured kindling, fire-starter cubes and a lighter with a long neck–all the tools needed to start a hearth-warming blaze. Unfortunately, instead of a blazing inferno, we started with a house full of smoke. Once the fire got going, it still took an hour to heat the house.

I had always associated a fireplace with leisure. The crackling of a fire creating an ambiance of comfort and coziness. It was the sound of the holidays, snow days, and romantic getaways. Now all I wanted was a source of continuous heat that didn’t make my hair smell like a campfire or the smoke alarm go off.

We didn’t get the hang of things until the spring. When the next fall arrived, we started regularly smoking-out the house again…until Mike discovered the right combination of flue levers and firestarter. (For those interested, he found that he had to start a small fire first to warm the chimney so the smoke would rise up instead of into the house.) Now we had a warmer house and fewer smokey evenings. During the day, I just always wore a coat.

You may wonder why we didn’t install some kind of electric-heating system. The fact of the matter is, we had two wall-mounted electric radiators near the fireplace. However, the cost of electricity is so high, we had been warned not to use them unless we wanted to pay through the nose.

Good thing Provencal winters are mild.

The real expat life.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao

Check Please

Having lived in the U.S. my entire life before relocating to France, I am often struck by how much Americans prize efficiency and how quick we are to embrace new technologies to speed up and smooth out everyday activities. Uber, Apple Pay, Grubhub, Task Rabbit…the list goes on.

In France–especially in the more rural areas–change often comes at a slower pace. Stores and government buildings here still shut down for two hours at lunchtime. And you can forget last-minute grocery runs on a Sunday afternoon–everything is closed.

Paperwork tends to be an onerous process here as well. Even the French roll their eyes at the mountain of paperwork that accompanies any activity. For instance, registering my kids for school requires filling out 20 sheets of handwritten paperwork each and every year (for each kid). I haven’t experienced hand cramp this bad since my days at university!

But one could argue that this slower pace of life can have its charms. Who couldn’t benefit from easing off the accelerator every now and again? And once you get used to how things are done here, you’d be surprised at how quickly you adapt.

However, there is one thing that I have never quite gotten used to in my three years in France. For me, one of the most mystifying practices of the French is their penchant for writing checks. Since the mid-90s, I had only written a handful of checks. That is, until I moved to Provence. Here, it is required for nearly all day-to-day business. In fact, many people still use them in the grocery store, which takes forever. (How I wish the French would adopt the American practice of stocking the checkout line with trashy magazines to help pass the time!)

One recent day in particular summed up how prohibitive my life is when I don’t have my checkbook handy.

“Honey,” I called out to my husband as he was getting ready to leave for work. “Please leave the checkbook for me. I may need it for the fuel delivery–their credit card reader doesn’t always work.”

The fuel is what our boiler runs on and without it, we have no heat or hot water. The bank only awarded us one checkbook when we opened our French account and asking for a second one was too arduous (again with the paperwork). A few hours later I realize the checkbook is nowhere to be found. This should be interesting.

A knock at the door. It’s not the fuel delivery. It’s the mail lady. Whew! At least I don’t need my checkbook for the mail, right?

“I have two packages for you,” she explains in French. “This one you need to sign for and this one requires that you pay a customs duty and tax.”

Ok, this is a first. The post office is charging us €74 on a package teeming with Christmas gifts from a well-intentioned relative in the U.S.

I don’t have enough cash in my wallet. “Can I pay by credit card?” I ask hopefully. 

“No, but a check works.”

Of course it does. So, as my checkbook is M.I.A., there will be no package of Christmas joy for my children today.

After an hour (and a few tears) of muddling through French homework with the kids, the fuel man makes his appearance and promptly gets to work. As he wraps up the job, he hands me the paperwork. I present my credit card. He explains that his machine is defunct. Merde. What the heck do I do now? He can’t syphon the fuel out of the tank. Fortunately, he’s lovely about my predicament and tells me I can stop by office to pay the bill the following day. Phew!

I decide that will be hubby’s job. Followed, of course, by a trip to the post office to pick up our hostage Christmas package.