I met Mary a couple of years ago and we quickly became friends. I appreciate her down to earth approach to life and love the fact she always gets my dry sense of humor! Priceless! We live in the same area and frequently exchange about our experience in France. Having Mary in my panel of interviewees was interesting as she doesn’t hide it can be complicated to live in France. I wanted to know more and understand what it actually was like when you speak little French. I sat down with Mary in a typical French café mid-January 2017 and we had a good discussion whilst enjoying a café crème and a croissant!
Mary, tell us a bit about you!
I am a 33-year old British woman born and raised in Cambridge. I’ve been living in France since August 2013. I have 4 small children who take up 99,99% of my time and an Australian husband whom I met via a dance team. We were representing England and competing across Europe and the UK. Some of our friends are still dancing, but we’re out of that world now. I refer to myself as a former dancer because I haven’t done any proper dancing since 2010.
Is this your first experience abroad?
Did you embark on the expat adventure on your own, as a couple or as a family?
We had 2 kids and I was pregnant with number 3.
Did you ever think you’d be living abroad one day?
Before meeting my husband, no. But then it was kind of part of the bargain with getting married. He is Australian and likes to travel and see the world. By the time we met he already travelled to and lived in lots of different places so it was always on the cards.
How did you prepare for your move to France?
Not well enough! I think whatever you prepare for, the reality will be different from what you expected.
The week we received the offer to move to France is the week we found out about being pregnant with number 3! Looking back it is all kind of a blur. From March (offer) until August (moving time) I never properly let it sink in. I was always hoping something would come up and we wouldn’t have to move. I was going through the motions of sorting out everything, kind of closing off our life in Cambridge. Our eldest was down to start school and I didn’t tell the school she wouldn’t be taking her spot until we were in France. I kept a foot in both countries for as long as possible, just in case. I think that was detrimental to feeling like it was real and getting set up.
How did you research the area?
School was a priority. My husband had spoken to his future colleagues and had worked out were they lived. We realized if we wanted a bilingual international school there were 3 options: Chantilly, Paris or the West side of Paris. With the last option the commute would be 2 hours each way for my husband, which would have killed him as he was used to 15 minutes by bike. I didn’t want him to not be around that much. The center of Paris for me was not really an option with 2 small children and one on the way. Then there was Chantilly. We crazy dashed over here in June 2013, we’d got a place ready with the school. We drove over, went to see the school, drove along one of the main roads of Chantilly and said “OK, that’s where we are living, we need to find a house”.
We arrived in France in August so nothing got done: everyone was on holiday, “les vacances” (in French), everything was shut and it looked like a ghost town. We stayed one week in a B&B which was lovely, like a holiday. It didn’t feel real and to a degree it still kind of doesn’t because of how close we are to being able to go back to England and of how many Anglophone people are around. It’s not as bad as an expat bubble could be in other countries but we don’t live “in” France. We sometimes have to live “in French”, very badly, but we are a step removed from the reality of being here because there’s always been a ticking clock. The assignment being 3 to 5 years, there is this idea, in the back of my mind, that as it is temporary it doesn’t matter if we don’t do everything properly.
Do you speak French?
No, I don’t. There are things now that are automatic for me to say in French. I understand a lot but that gets me in trouble: I miss nuances, if people are talking quickly or mumbling I can’t compute it at all. If it’s a heavy accent I won’t understand. I am much like a frustrated toddler when they then try to communicate: it sounds great in my head, I know what I want to say, but because of lack of practice and of being exposed to it constantly it doesn’t come out right or I get the wrong word or the tense is wrong!
In your opinion, what facilitated your move in terms of settling in?
The number of incredibly generous, giving and caring people we’ve met in this area helped a lot. Chantilly is a very special place in that regards: its expat community hinders some people from assimilating in France but it is completely outweighed by the number of times it helps people. Living somewhere is not only about knowing the language but also knowing the procedure. Even if I spoke French fluently, sometimes you just need someone to tell you how it works. People do look after each other so much in this area.
Any experience related to cultural differences that surprised you?
There are probably so many little ones it’s hard to pick one that stands out. On a very frivolous note, I am struggling with queuing! My very British sense can’t cope with how people just keep shoving in front of you. I am also having trouble with the little respect people show pedestrians and linked with that their driving! Dog mess and smoking is also something I struggle with. Dogs just pooping everywhere. That must sound really stereotypical: driving, smoking, dogs. But the smoking…
Do you consider yourself an expat?
I read a very interesting article recently about a woman saying that referring to yourself as an expat almost gives you this automatic supremacy. You’re an immigrant, you’re not an expat. Lots of people are talking about that especially with all that is going on at the moment in Europe. If you are white and educated and you move to another country, you’re an expat. Whether it’s a long-term, indefinite or short-term contract. If you add any color to your skin and you are educated and you move for a job, or looking for work, you’re often called an immigrant. That being said, I’ll always refer to myself as an expat because that’s what we are called by the company, our friends and the circle we live in. But it is an interesting conversation to have as to what the difference between the two is.
What role do social medias play in your life if any and mostly, how do they impact your expatriation?
Vital!! (Laughs). I am very active on social medias. I have the utmost respect for anybody that managed to do the expat gig before the rise of the internet and today’s level of communication, being able to speak to your loved ones at anytime of the day. Think of the telephone cards you had to pay for or going to an internet café, sending emails when you could, it wasn’t as constant communication as now. On one hand, thanks to social media, I’ve been able to stay and feel connected to my sisters who I am very closed to. On the other hand, I think social media makes it easier to hide, to not assimilate and gives the experience a feeling of temporary. Plus you can still buy everything you want online in UK shops if it’s not available in France!
How often do you go back to the UK?
Minimum 4 times a year as going on the Eurotunnel is so easy: it’s 2h15 from my house to Calais, 35 minutes on the tunnel and then depending on the traffic on the other side we can be in Cambridge in 2h max. Plus it is so cheap to get 6 people on the tunnel, everybody in the car and luggage in the roof box. It doesn’t feel like a big trip. Going to England is also “quicker” as we save the hour (laughs). We have a big family; there is always a birthday party or something to celebrate so it is good to be able to go back home so easily.
What do people say when you tell them you come from England?
Recently there is more talk about the Brexit. I usually say Cambridge to which most people who have been there say “oh it’s so pretty”.
Is the Brexit a well-discussed topic amongst the Brits in the area?
Yes. Most people were heartbroken. It taught my husband and I a bit about some people we thought we knew when we found out about their opinion on the subject. I won’t lie, it changed some friendships. People can have different political views for sure but when you think you know a person and you find out you don’t it can have a lasting effect on friendship.
Did moving away change your views on your home country?
With what’s happened since we moved: yes, my views have changed significantly! It’s dawning on me now that the place we left changed. It is pretty heart breaking. Nobody knows what the impact of the Brexit will be. You can do nothing but kind of sit back and watch from afar and that feels very odd. Up until June of last year I would have gone back in a minute. But now I would be more cautious about saying for certain that that’s what we should do next.
What do you like most about France?
The people we’ve met, and seriously good “éclair au café” (French pastry).
I get to spend a day in the place you call home. Where am I? Where would you bring your visitors and what would you like them to discover?
Cambridge: its colleges, its river and punting on the river Cam. It is called a city because of the colleges and proximity to London but it is tiny. You can walk anywhere in 30 minutes. When in Cambridge you have to take a stroll around the city, see Kings College, the chapel, the Fitzwilliam museum and the green areas. Sit down at Fitzbillies, eat a cinnamon sticky bun and drink a cup of tea. If you have time, go down to Grantchester Village for a pick nick. Since Kate and William became the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the city has been incredibly busy by times: international tourists have heard the name and want to go. Cambridge is very international so the offer in terms of cuisine is huge and authentic. I miss it.
Would you recommend living abroad?
As with all things in life, timing is everything. It depends on your situation, the time and the place. I think often people see it romanticized. And the practicality is very different from the reality. Doing the more expat assignment thing, doing the hopping from 2-3 years assignment to 2-3 years assignment is farther suited to either single professionals or couples who work for the same company. It is a very enriching thing for kids to learn different languages and experience different cultures but when you are hopping around from place to place it is far too easy to not properly learn about different cultures. You end up not really living in the country ‘in in in’ the country; especially when you have international private schools involved.
Having children when coming here I wasn’t fully able to throw myself into the experience. I fear that it boils down to the fact that a lot of what France/Paris is renowned for is somewhat wasted on me. The wine, the cheeses, the restaurants, and the museums… they are things that are (or have been) either impossible or difficult to enjoy due to being vegetarian, pregnant/breastfeeding or stuck without trustworthy childcare for the four little ones.
A big positive to the assignment is that it’s brought my husband and I together more as a team. The amount of holiday and the culture for having time away from work is great for family life! This as well as having the chance to meet some lovely new friends.
Fundamentally I think that for the right person/couple/family France is a great place to live and settle, but for me/us it just doesn’t have the right fit longer term.
Mary, thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions and being part of this interview series.
If you are an expat or once were and would be interested in being featured in an interview, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me, either via the below comment section or through my about page where you will find my e-mail address.