5 things I learned living in France

In 2008, I sold and gave away my stuff, put my personal effects in storage, packed a bag and took off for Europe as a gift to myself for my birthday.While traveling, I eventually met a French woman and settled on the southern coast of France. From the days I was young, I was always fascinated with the idea of living in France. I lived there for close to three years while launching a small brick & mortar.

Looking back, I am able to clearly see that there were some important lessons I learned from my time there.

Take time to enjoy the food you eat. The meal is a sacred time in which one can put aside the worries and responsibilities of the day and concentrate on the joy of food and drink.. For the most part, people in France have lunches that usually last an hour and a half. Many will leave their work to return home (if they live close by) to have lunch. They eat with friends and family, catch up on gossip, current events and personal crisis, all while eating slowly and enjoying a glass or two of wine. This is the part of the day that they vehemently commit to because this has been the way that communities, from small villages to larger cities, have remained more intact throughout the centuries. News was spread and talked about by the citizens and it allowed a person to remove the label of their job and be an individual with thoughts, opinions and an outlet for the passion one should feel for life.

Enjoying the food there was also made easy by the fact that many people still maintain a garden of vegetables or in the least, a bed of herbs. Gardening, or more precisely, ones ability to grow and feed themselves and their families is a right many cherish and respect. The ability to feed your family, to provide sustenance from the ground is in inherent trait that has been lost in many parts of the Western world. Each day, small villages fill up every morning with local growers, fisherman or butchers, and other purveyors  of food products, flowers and the such. They don’t get rich but they provide for themselves AND are respected as an integral part of the community. No one looks down on them or thinks they are anything less. And this activity is looked upon as a welcome flavor or color if you will to the beauty of  life. Since I’ve returned from there, I have not even come close to tasting the true taste of tomatoes, cheeses, meats and fruits as I did there. Whenever me and my GF at the time would visit her family, meals were a drawn out feast of flavor and rich fun times even with the language barrier. While growing up, my mother had a garden and fed us primarily from that source and I hated having to weed the garden constantly. Now, as an adult, I look forward to the time when I can get a small piece of land and grow my own food and kill my own meat.

Sophistication and class are relative. The French are often portrayed as sophisticated and classy (especially Parisians and Lyonese) BUT the French in general are no more worldly than anyone else. They have their own versions of ‘redneck’ people too. While one can argue that the education curriculum in France has possibly a less watered down version of history and many everyday people have a more comprehensive understanding on modern history and art- politically and socially- their view of the world is tempered by a nationalistic view not unlike what we as Americans have been brought up to possess as well.

But reading and curiosity are still very important and France especially has taken to task large conglomerates that have tried to imprint the superstore model on French soil while leaving the family owned and operated bookstores, art stores, cafes, and niche boutiques left to try and compete against the ‘lowest cost’ brain frame that consumers seem to only think with. Some are willing to forgo the engagement of a knowledgable person (or artisan) who can actually speak with and direct a consumer to make the right purchase, many others still see the natural interaction as imperative to the social fabric of the community.

They have slums and low income areas just like America. We tend to think and picture Paris and the surrounding areas from what we see in films like Amelie or Midnight in Paris. That only represents a small portion of Paris, where the well-to-do reside in Paris proper.

The French culture is made up of different influences the over 2,ooo years of  Western civilization. The topography and beauty of the country is simply incredible with a vast history of 2k years of Roman rule (the remnants of that still seen today) and other conquering nations who have passed through.Their culture has a richness that comes from being a colonial power AND by having been ruled by others. My take on this is that in life, the things that one can adopt into ones own life are instigated by influences of other cultures. The style and sexiness of Italian design, the work ethic and straightforwardness  of Germans ( who by the way have an excellent sense of humor…you just have to get to know them), the French love of food and art, the passion of dance and music in Spain, the fighting spirit of the Portuguese and other influences from Africa and the Middle East. All these remnants can be found in French culture today.

Socialism is dying. Socialism may have worked in theory three generations ago but it can’t be sustained in this present day and age. For one, the population has exploded since the mid part of the last century. There are simply too many people for the state to carry. Had France been a leader in the industrial revolution or technology, they may have been able to maintain the income/job protections and social programs that were put into place in order that no one be left too far behind. But the down side is that very few are incentivized to break out of their comfort zone. Many are happy with just enough so that they have a roof over their heads, food on the table, public transportation to get around and a little hash to smoke. While they do approach life as “I work to live” instead of “I live to work” ( which is commendable and authentic in a way) they are also the worst at customer service and attentiveness. The idea that one would go out of their way to serve the client is reserved for the people who work in the most affluent areas in the country. With that said, the mindset is “after I’m off work, it’s my life now.”  Too many immigrants are coming from Africa and after learning how to take advantage (cheating) of the system, many do not work as they  live 5-8 people to a flat and each one is receiving a stipend from the government. Pool that money together and one can live very cheaply while having money in their pocket to eat and drink. The assurances of yesteryear cannot be delivered today in the changing dynamics that move markets up and down. This is why it is so important for men to realize that the current state of America will  make “job security” impossible and the reliance on Uncle Sam for “help” a poor choice for any self respecting individual. You need to learn to do for yourself, go out and get what YOU want and not to be a slave to the banking/government/corporation/pharmaceutical cartel that is NOW.

The sexes know their roles. Interestingly enough, there is little animosity between the sexes there. The natural (and sex driven) interaction between sexes is understood as being what it is and they are okay with that. They allow themselves to fall in love and to hate the other with equal passion, depending on circumstances. Affairs are common BUT you do not throw them in the face of your wife or girlfriend. There seems to be an understanding of the “gray” area that humans are constantly passing through in their lives and relationships; they understand (or accept) that everything can’t be black and white. They accept that life is complex, difficult and that life without love is not worth living. The women dress like women and the men dress like men. The men will be quick to fight for their honor or their family honor ( it is surprising to me how quickly a Frenchmen will throw down) but they also know that a disagreement in philosophy or politics or whatever is not grounds for ending a friendship. They will scream at each other without coming to blows and after having cooled down, will drink a Pastis together and cheer to each others good health.

When I arrived there, my libido woke up again after tapering for years in the States. Oh….and French beaches. Need I say more?

There are a few more things I observed while living there that I offer:

Bureaucracy in France is somewhat stifling for people who want to move there and start a new chapter in their lives. If you do not speak the language and understand with the level of a 12 year old, you will have a very hard time getting things done.

There is an  unhealthy reliance on tourism dollars. Many villages can only sustain themselves on the income from tourists during the summer season. They are leveraged very dangerously to the health of the global economy.

The Atlantic coast is a most wild and beautiful place worth seeing and vacationing there at least once in your lifetime during the summer (or winter). Surfers should definitely check it out.

Parisians can be snotty but that’s because they’re Parisians. Some view the people who live in the south as country bumpkins. The south view Parisians as elitists. They are both right. It’s not much different than how New Yorkers view the rest of the U.S.

If you make an effort to speak french, they will be forgiving and help you with your diction. If you expect them to speak English, you will have a difficult time indeed.

The wine is simply the best in the world. While many believe Bordeaux produces the best wine, many other regions make great wine. The Languedoc region is lesser known but still produces excellent wines at lower prices.

I strenuously suggest you visit France once in your lifetime for a two week period or longer. Fly into Paris, visit the north and make a circuitous route towards the west, along the Atlantic Coast and then south towards Nice and then north again. I love that country for all of its beauty and ills. I have not felt as connected there as with any other place I’ve visited. I still need to visit the Nordic  and surrounding countries and a bit of the Eastern European Baltic region and I’m open to finding another place that has inspired me as much as France. Until then, I hope my sharing of my little insight will drive you to want to visit this great country.

I’m interested in hearing from others who have found their own “France”. Where is the one place you absolutely felt like you would like to stay a long time?

3 comments on “5 things I learned living in France

  1. I can only assume that Paris is similar to other western cities and including the U.S. I work at a small business and we actually have a small garden and we get most of our meat from a local farmer. It really is nice to know where your food came from.

  2. I am from Hungary and I live in Vienna, Austria. I like a lot of things here, it seems that things are often organized from a practical viewpoint setting ideology aside. For example the healthcare system works so that every doctor can decide which insurance they accept, whether they accept the governmental insurance (actually municipal, city: WGKK), the social security or they want the client to have a private one. On the other hand, having the governmental insurance is mandatory for employees, I am not sure about entrepreneurs, generally not mandatory if you are unemployed but you can buy it cheap. So I guess from the viewpoint of doctor and the entrepreneur this is a capitalist system, in the sense that they have choice and if a doctor wants to try to make extra money by taking only private insurance, he can. But there are many, many doctors who accept the governmental insurance so the “greedy” ones must be able to offer something truly special like speaking many foreign languages or else nobody goes to them. From the viewpoint of the employee, you have the security of a “socialist” system, your insurance is certain and mandatory, and you always find enough doctors who accept them.

    This is not a bad combination, is it?

    I have only one problem with Vienna: the whole culture is… unmanly. Do you know what I mean? It’s like everybody is very formal, reserved, really really trying hard to not be loud, not disturb others, and while this is nice I also yearn for people who just live wilder, you know, bomb the bass music from their car extra loud like we often do in Budapest. In other words, this reservedness also means people seem afraid and low energy, just not motivated, just not having that “bite”.

    Like most Eastern Europeans I am a much more “red blooded” type and kind of feel not entirely fitting in. This is mostly Vienna, but I think pretty much every German speaking place is reserved and low-energy and not quite manly, as far as I know?

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