Ira and his wife have traveled the lower 48, Mexico and the Caribbean, but when they visited Europe they fell in love with the South of France. So they bought a holiday house and visited once or twice a year. In the spring of 2013 they found a little house suitable for permanent retirement in a village called Quarante. Now a full-time resident of France, we asked Ira which things caught them by surprise when embarking on their new vie française.
“You’re thinking of spending some time in France, either buying a holiday home or moving over full time. You’ve read a few books. You’ve bookmarked a few websites. You’re proud of yourself. You are well prepared.
Things that you need to know in order to live your life, do not appear in any guidebook. But saddle up, friends. I’m here to fill in the blanks.
1. They bake great bread here in France. Abundant variety. Baguettes warm every morning in every town. The breakfast croissants and pain au chocolat are buttery/flaky wonderful. Specialty loaves abound and each deserves serious consideration. But it’s what you won’t find that’s frustrating. You won’t find a decent bagel. You won’t find even a half-decent bagel. (They say bagel bakeries have opened in Paris. I can offer no proof.) You won’t find a properly cheap, squishy hot dog roll in which to put the Nathan’s hot dog that you won’t find here, either. So be prepared. Once your delight at all of the new breads that you have at your disposal has waned, you’ll be left with a longing for that loaf of Wonder Bread that you thought that you could do without.
2. While we’re on the subject of food, Americans can say good-bye to roast beef. French beef is not feedlot beef, at least not in the well-marbled, juicy, and tender sense to which Americans are accustomed. It’s chewy and not cut for roasting. Cooked hams for holidays? Nowhere to be found. Whole turkeys? Only for Christmas. Our Thanksgiving turkey has to be special ordered and costs the equivalent of $6.00 a pound or so. But believe it or not, there are compensations. The lamb tastes like lamb should taste. The pork tastes like pork should taste. BACON! And there’s duck confit, duck breast seared on the grill, and for those who can live with the backstories, foie gras from heaven and veal in all of its incarnations. Did I mention BACON!
3. OK. Enough about food. Lets talk about right angles. You know what right angles are. They are the angles at which walls meet other walls, floors, and ceilings. Except in France. Oh, I suppose that new builds are squared up. But who wants a new build in an historic village with a 1,000 year-old church? You want history. You want stone. And stone walls seldom meet tile floors at right angles. And stone walls bulge at such odd angles that putting up a shelf can be a real adventure. In fact, just drilling into a stone wall to set one hook to hang a picture can lead to disaster. So if you do buy a stone house, buy a really good drill with a percussion setting. If you don’t know what that means, don’t buy a stone house. If you do know what a percussion setting is, here’s another tip. When you’re drilling into that stone wall, through paint and plaster and God knows what else, start up your vacuum cleaner and hold the wand under the hole as you are drilling it. The vacuum will suck up the dust and you won’t have a mess to clean up.
4. Aspirin is a prescription drug in France. You heard me. You need to see a doctor and get a prescription to buy aspirin in France*. Every time family comes to visit us from the States, we have them bring a big bottle. Lactaid, too. I once asked a pharmacist how the French deal with being lactose intolerant. She said,”They don’t eat cheese.” Word. Make a list of the OTC and prescription drugs that you require to get through the day, vitamins and supplements included, then find out if they are readily available, or available at all, before heading for this side of the Pond.
5. Quality clothing and shoes are expensive in France. Very expensive. While living in the States, I did most of my clothes shopping online on sites like LL Bean and Cabela’s. So now, when I need jeans or mocs, I have them sent to a family member to bring over when they next visit. (Are you detecting the trend? Turn family members into shipping agents. There’s a rationale that might just convince them. If they bring you stuff from the States in their luggage, they’ll have room to take back presents when they head for home.) But there’s also a French answer for the discerning shopper. Nationwide, pre-planned, deep discount sales. In 2017, winter clothing will go on sale from January 11 through February 21. No foolin’. It’s on the national calendar. All stores, everywhere. 30% – 50% discounts are the norm. 70% discounts are not uncommon as the sales wind down. Stores are not allowed to bring in stock specifically for the sales so you get the stuff that they normally keep in stock. (Wink, wink…) Summer sales run in June and July. That’s when I buy $40 sandals for $18. And we all wear sandals here. Please, no socks…
6. Quick takes:
- Bring more than one pair of really good walking shoes. If you’re not walking lots, whether in the cities or the countryside. you’re not making the most of it. Great walking tours and walking trails everywhere. Take advantage.
- Sort out your electronics. Find out about SIM cards for your phone. Make certain that your chargers work on the more robust European voltage. And one size does not fit all. British plugs are different from French. Don’t think you’ll find adapters and chargers after you get here. You won’t.
- Wine can cost anywhere from the equivalent of $1.50 to $100 a bottle and more. Forget the price. Try them all. Ask questions. Buy what you like best and can afford. We seldom pay more than $10 a bottle for wine to serve to company and we’ve had some true connoisseurs at our table, enjoying every sip.
- Oil changes for your car cost $80 – $100. There are no discount, in-and-out, cheap alternatives. Do it yourself or pay the freight.
- Finally, don’t listen to advice. It’s France. Experience it for yourself. There’s no place quite like it.”
*Renestance note: you don’t need a prescription to buy aspirin or other OTC medicines, only if you want it reimbursed by the French public health system, but they cost very little even if you pay the full price out of pocket.
Ira relishes the opportunity to provide uncensored insights on cooking, on France, on motor scooter mechanics, politics and religion, and whatever else comes to mind. You can read more on his blog France, Food, Scooters and More (www.southfranceamerican.com).