Emily is an expat mum from the UK. She moved to Lyon three years ago with her husband who is of French origin but had never been to France before, and their two daughters. Between her remote parliamentary job and freelance journalism, Emily has a fulfilling family life. Emily shares her feelings about living in France with Expat.com.
I originally come from London but, at the start of 2014, moved to live just outside Lyon with my husband and two children. The move was about improving our quality of family life; about escaping the London hamster wheel for a time; and about ...
Hi Emily, where are you from and what brought you to France?
I am 37 years old, married and with two daughters of primary school age. We live just outside Lyon. Before moving to France I worked full time in the UK Parliament. Nowadays, I do a mixture of things: I still have some parliamentary work at a distance, but I am also a freelance journalist and I am writing a novel in my spare time.
We moved to France because my husband is half French, had never lived in France and wanted to explore that side of his identity. We also wanted to be able to speak French fluently and knew that it would be much easier for the children to do this when they were still young. So much for our motivation, we managed to make the move when my husband got a job in Lyon. We have been here for over three years now.
What is the process for a British expat to move to France?
We were fortunate to have the assistance of a relocation agency – a service provided by my husband's work. This was long before Brexit, so, as European citizens, we did not give a second thought to the idea of working in another European country. Even with help, though, we had a heavy administrative burden. Our social security cards, which are necessary for healthcare, took a while to come through and it takes time to set up bank accounts, etc.
What has surprised you the most about living in France?
We were most surprised by how difficult it was to meet other parents at the school gate. In the UK, new parents were pounced upon as soon as they arrived. Here we felt almost ignored at first. It took a good few months of strenuous efforts to become accepted into the local community. Now that it has happened we feel very cherished, but it wasn't immediately obvious to us that it would happen at all.
How is accommodation in France, and what type is available for expats?
We moved to France at the very end of a year, during what is known as the "winter truce". At this time, landlords are unable to evict tenants – even if they do not pay – because of the cold. This makes it quite difficult to find new rental properties as not many French people would consider the winter to be an appropriate time to move. We ended up renting a house that was far too big for us just because there was very little else available on the market at the time. Without the relocation agent we would have found it even more difficult.
Rental properties in France can be quite offputting as they can be in a very poor state of repair, and it is not unusual to view them in a filthy state. However, as a tenant, you have a right not only to clean the place up, as you would have in the UK, but also to improve it as you see fit. So if you don't like the colour of the walls you can change it. If you have money to burn, you can even replace the kitchen or the bathroom with your landlord's permission.
What are the local labor market's features?
Unless you speak good French, it is very difficult to get a regular job in France. However, the English language is a huge advantage, as many people are desperate to improve their English skills. So, if you are willing to work as a teacher or translator, or someone who provides a bridge between a French workplace and an English-speaking one, you will soon find work.
If you are not teaching you will find that, in France, you need a specific qualification to do a specific sort of work. For example, it is no use trying to set up as a gardener if you do not have the right background.
How do you find the lifestyle in France?
We love the French lifestyle. There is much more time taken for eating, holidays and family life. My husband works long hours, but nobody raises an eyebrow when he leaves work in time to come home and eat supper with us – which was not the case in the UK. He took two weeks off for a summer holiday last year and his colleagues were astonished that he had not taken three.
There are downsides of course. If you want to buy something at lunchtime you will probably be frustrated as shopkeepers, too, take their lunch breaks seriously. In August, unless you live in a very touristy area, you may find that everything shuts down. And if you want to eat on the fly you may go hungry as eating whilst doing anything else is frowned upon.
Have you been able to adapt to the French society?
When we moved we took the view that it was fundamental to our wellbeing that we integrate into French life. At the outset, we took a very strict view of this. We tried to have only very minimal contact with other British people and took any opportunity we could find to make French friends and to speak French. We sent our children to the local school so that they could also speak French and make local friends and we adapted their daily rhythm quite drastically – in the UK they ate their tea at 5.30 pm and were in bed at 7, but as soon as we moved here they have a snack at 4.30 pm, supper at 7 pm (with us) and bed at 8.
We thought that we were fairly proficient at French before we moved but it was definitely a case of “the more you know, the more you know you don't know”. I was deeply frustrated throughout my first year because I could not express my feelings properly and often remained silent in conversations where I'd previously have been leading the charge (I think everyone who knew me was relieved that I was quiet for once). However, we have all worked really hard, and just the other day I caught myself cracking jokes in French without thinking about them beforehand, which shows that the effort has paid off.
Our children were fortunate in that our eldest had been doing intensive French after school for over a year – and so could understand very well even if she didn't utter a word for the first few weeks. Our youngest had been in a French school for nearly two years and so could already speak the language. More difficult than the language was the culture at school, which is very old-fashioned – lots of rote-learning and much less creativity.
How is the everyday life for you in Lyon?
Our everyday life is pretty busy – it's like living back in the UK but with added sunshine and longer lunch breaks. We are lucky enough to live in a beautiful house with spectacular views over Lyon. Each morning when we get up it is a real pleasure to open up the shutters and look at the view – it makes us feel as if we are on holiday even when we are working hard.
For my husband, work is very similar to the way it was in the UK. The big difference is food – he eats his lunch each day with his colleagues instead of at his desk, which means that they get to know each other as a team. He is also home in time to eat supper with the rest of us in the evening – at first we found it odd to eat an evening meal with the children every day but as we all got used to it we came to appreciate the time to share our experiences of the day and to chat about all sorts of things. The kids are even beginning to eat a wider variety of foods too.
The children notice that school is a more concentrated experience here – the school day is longer (but two days a week they have a half day) and there is much more homework. However, they get long lunch breaks (and can leave the school to eat with their families if logistics permit this) and even longer holidays. The big difference for them is that after school they can be out in the fresh air – the warmer climate really helps.
For me life is very different in France because here I work freelance, which means that I am at home all the time and am the only person responsible for my income. This can be fairly stressful, not least because of the French love of paperwork but on balance it enables me to live a much less encumbered and happier life. I also get to potter down to the local markets for food shops during the day, which is still such a joy. I don't think the novelty of that will ever wear off.
What is your opinion on the cost of living in Lyon?
Overall we find the cost of living in Lyon is lower than it was for us in the UK. This is in large part due to the French tax system – married couples can share their tax bill between each other and their children, which, depending on your circumstances and the extent to which you share money, can be a big benefit. The way that tax is organised means that although we earn less in France than we did in the UK we have more disposable income.
Rent and mortgages are much cheaper here in Lyon than they were in London. We notice this particularly now that we have a mortgage because the rates in France are fantastic, and hold good for the duration of the loan (so the interest in our case is fixed for 20 years, instead of for 2, as it would be in the UK). However, there are many bolt-on costs that you need to beware of – council tax, land tax, expensive home insurance, etc., so you need to make sure you have taken these into account when you are calculating your overheads. In summary, though, we live in a much bigger house here in Lyon than we could ever have afforded in South-east England and our mortgage is about 2/3 what it was in London.
Food for the weekly shop is generally a bit more expensive in France but the quality is much better for the money that you spend. We choose do to a lot of shopping at the market – fruits and vegetables are cheaper there, but meat and cheese are noticeably more expensive. We don't mind, though, because we eat so well on it and we like to support local producers where we can. In the supermarket, prices are higher, though. Eating out, on the other hand, is much cheaper in Lyon than in London. We can have an incredible 3-course meal for 30 Euros per head. For the same meal in London we would be paying £50.
Utilities and services are more expensive here than they were in the UK. However, if you need childcare it is heavily subsidised and therefore much cheaper in France. Some of it is free!
Whether or not you find it easy to live in Lyon will depend on your employment status. Many expats are on expat deals – which means that they are paid their UK salary and given support with their accommodation costs. This makes living in Lyon a very lucrative prospect. My husband is over here on a local (French) contract but we still find that we are better off.
How do you spend your free time?
As a family we like to hang out at home, enjoying our house and garden with friends. There are lots of walks that we can do from our front door so – although we are just 20 minutes from the centre of Lyon – we feel as if we are in the middle of the countryside.
Lyon is really well situated for the rest of France. We go skiing in winter because the mountains are only two hours away. In the summer we can be at a beach within three hours.
We also really enjoy the cultural life that Lyon has to offer. I play the 'cello in a couple of orchestras and ensembles, my husband sings in a choir and we like to go to concerts, the theatre and the ballet as a family. There are loads of museums for rainy days. And we all love to eat out – in Lyon there is plenty of choice of good food.
What do you think about the local cuisine? What are your favorite dishes?
I'm not a huge fan of traditional Lyonnais cooking which is very heavy and contains lots of offal. I am, however, partial to a saucisson brioché (essentially a French sausage roll) and there is one boulangerie-patisserie where I could happily eat every cake they have on offer. We all really enjoy the amazing range of cheeses that you can get here and the summer fruit is wonderful when it is in season.
What is your favorite thing about France?
I love the emphasis that the French insist on placing on family life. No matter how busy you are, meal times and holidays are considered to be of fundamental importance.
What do you miss the most about your home country?
I miss my friends and family, and I miss the British sense of humour. My French friends all love to laugh but they are not as dry as I am, nor as irreverent.
What has motivated you to write your blog “Lost in Lyon”?
I started writing my blog as a way of keeping in touch with friends back home (I found that Facebook posts were a bit limiting). It was also a sort of therapy because I write in (what is, I hope) a funny way about things that I have found difficult or strange in French life. Making people laugh about my experiences put them into perspective and made me realise how fortunate I am. The blog has since put me in touch with a whole network of people who know what I am talking about and it is good to know that I am not alone.
Could you give us some tips that soon-to-be-expatriates in France will benefit from?
Since we arrived, we have seen lots of people arrive after us. Those who have found it easier have had a really open mind. By this I mean that they have been willing to adapt their lives, their expectations and their ambitions to France and not sought to carry on living their previous lives in a different context. The people who have come with a whole set of requirements have really struggled to come to terms with their new lives. I know people whose children can never have playdates with their French classmates, for example, because they still eat at English mealtimes, which are incompatible with the French timetable.
We were fortunate when we came in that we wanted just to have a new experience, so we took it as it came (which is not at all typical of us). Moving to a new country presents plenty of challenges but at least we were not fighting battles we did not need to fight.
What are your plans for the future?
I would like to keep writing and maybe to use my blog as a springboard for a bigger project. We are happy in France for the time being, so have no immediate plans to return to the UK.