Discovering Virginia, US, through French eyes

Expat interviews
  • Mitra in the US
    © Mitra
Published on 2018-03-16 at 11:00
Mitra is a French national who moved with her husband and children to Blacksburg, Virginia. She tells about her new life in the US, the cultural differences between her home country and the American way, and how she's adapting to her new life.

Hi Mitra, please introduce yourself. Where are you from, what are you doing in Blacksburg, Virginia, and what were you doing before you arrived?

I am a French mom of 4. We lived in Lille (France) for more than 13 years before moving to Blacksburg, VA in August 2017. In France I was a psychologist. Initially I graduated from a French “Grande Ecole” of engineering, but after a few years working as a team manager, I decided to go back to university to obtain a Psychology degree. I combined my full time job and this project until I graduated in 2010. After that I progressively switched to the private practice of psychology. Before moving to Virginia, we spent one year in 2014 in Baltimore, MD, where I was involved in various medical units and I discovered new methods like mindfulness. I have also started a blog in 2014 about the cultural differences between the US and France, and multiculturalism in general. We enjoyed this stay on the East Coast a lot, so we decided to create an opportunity to come back later more permanently.

What brought you to VA, USA? How long have you been in the country?

I moved with my family from Lille to Blacksburg, VA in August 2017. My husband had a job offer at Virginia Tech as a professor.

© Mitra

What is the process of moving to the US?

As my husband had a position here in the US, he was sponsored by his employer for the visa, and our children and I accompanied him as his “dependents”, and that's how we were able to move to the US.

What is your favorite thing about the US, and what is your least favorite thing?

We lived in Baltimore, Maryland for one year in 2014, so we were already a little bit familiar with the everyday life in the US. But I must say that there are some big differences even between Maryland and Virginia. Here in Blacksburg what we like a lot is the small town pace of life. It is very normal to see wildlife here and you don't have to worry about the traffic! The weather is another thing we like here: compared to Lille, there are much more sunny days, even if it's pretty cold during winter. What we like less globally in the US is the issue of firearms and mass shootings (which terrifies me). There are a lot of unusual things to get used to, but it's a matter of time.

How would you describe Virginia and the US in one sentence?

This one is not easy! Virginians are very proud of being the home state of 8 US presidents and one of the most important founding State of the United States. So maybe Virginia could be described as a State between history and modernity. As for the US, it is the country of liberty (with certain limits), for better or for worse. You are free to live, dress, pray, and be who you want. But you are also free to carry firearms and pay as few taxes as possible.

What has surprised you the most about Virginia and the US?

The most surprising thing for me in the US was the fact that the States are so different from each other. Every State has its own laws and rules. In France we are used to seeing the US as one big country, as if all the different parts of it were consistent and similar. But a lot of everyday life issues are different from one State to another and from one place to another. For example when we arrived here in Virginia for legal and administrative matters we used to say “but this was different in Maryland” and the answer was always the same “you are in Virginia, every State is different”.

How is today's expat job market in Virginia and the US?

There are 2 different parts in Virginia: the areas near the East Coast and especially near Washington DC are very dependent on the Capital and very thriving. And the western part of Virginia is more rural, and therefore there are different types of sectors and career paths. Blacksburg is like an island in the middle of the rural part, mostly driven by Virginia Tech.

How easy or difficult it is to find accommodation in Blacksburg, VA and what type of accommodation is available for expats?

You can find pretty much everything in terms of accommodation here in Blacksburg and its neighbors Christiansburg and Radford. There are excellent public schools here and we have very good health providers as well.

What are the biggest holidays in the US?

In my experience Americans love celebrations, and there are a lot of them. Thanksgiving is obviously a huge one but Christmas is also very important. A month ago we had Valentine's Day, and schools celebrated it as the day of friendship, and kids brought “valentines” (wish cards, candies, etc.) for their classmates. Easter, Memorial day, 4th of July, and Labor Day are all popular celebrations as well. And it's very easy to go out to celebrate events and other holidays such as Chinese New Year or St Patrick.

What is some essential etiquette in the US?

For me the most important etiquette is to never complain. This is a big difference with France! Americans smile a lot, and are very polite and respectful. If they deeply disagree with you, most of the time they just keep quiet or ignore you!

How do you find the lifestyle in the US?

Casual, busy, over-connected, and easy-taking. Casual because most people don't worry a lot about what they wear or what they eat (ordering food on a take-away basis is so much more usual here than in France). Busy because they work a lot and are expected (by their employers) to work a lot. Over-connected because when you send an email (to a contractor or even to your child's teacher), most of the time you get an answer within a day or even within an hour, during weekdays as well as weekends. Easy-taking because they love having fun and they are very resilient in troubled times.

© Mitra

How is the transportation system in Virginia? How do you move around?

In our area you need your own transport, especially with 4 kids! But some people move around by cycling or by public transportation. And school buses pick up and drop kids off every school day, which is very convenient for parents.

How is everyday life for you in Virginia?

After our arrival in August, we had to organize our new life and adjust to a completely new environment. As my husband started work almost immediately, I have been in charge of most of the administrative issues, organization of the activities for the children, and the daily help I had to provide to my 9 year old and 6 year old sons regarding their homework. Now after 6 months we are starting to get used to our new life and the kids are more independent, so I have more time to think about my own activities and relax.

Do you feel that you have adapted to your new life?

We are in the process of adapting. We have the feeling that adjusting was easier in Baltimore, maybe because we knew there was an end to our experience (it was just for one year). But when you have the feeling that you are basically here for the rest of your life (unless you decide to move somewhere else), it's easier to get overwhelmed and frustrated with the cultural differences and challenges. I think this time the adjustment is deeper and also slower.

What do you do in your free time?

When it gets warm, hiking, biking and sightseeing are some of our favorite things. During winter, attending music performances or watching a movie (at home or at the movie theatre) are some of our favorite activities.

Are there activities for people who enjoy nightlife?

To be honest I don't know! There are lots of restaurants and there is also a big art and music center called Moss Art Center here in Blacksburg where we enjoy seeing a performance from time to time. However, I don't know if there are lots of nightclubs.

© Mitra

What new habits have you developed in the US?

There are a couple of them: buying coffee all the time, going for dinner at a restaurant at 6:30 pm, playing a big part in our kids' school life and projects when required, or preparing kids and ourselves lunchboxes every day. But we try to avoid snacking too much, and perfer to have a big proper meal at lunch. And we are not yet football fans!

And what old habits have you quit?

Drinking lots of expressos! You can find expressos at Starbucks or Panera but personally I have switched to American coffee. Eating baguettes is another habit i've quit. There is a French bakery in Blacksburg and you can also find quite good baguettes both in the frozen goods aisle at the grocery store (from French industrial bakeries) and in places like Panera but we usually eat baguettes only during weekends now. During weekdays it's easier and quicker to toast American or Italian bread. Also, we've stopped going to restaurants “late” (aka after 7 pm). Now we usually arrive between 6:30 pm and 6:45 pm and we are done by 8pm - 8:30 pm. Regarding shopping, we no longer wander; malls are huge and less convenient than small European stores that are close to each other, so either we go to specific stores only or we order online.

What is your opinion on the cost of living in Virginia? For instance, how much does a bus ticket, a beer, and a loaf of bread cost?

It's not easy to compare the cost of living between France and here. It depends on every item. I think pretty much everything is more expensive in the US (and for example in Virginia) than in France. Life is for sure even more expensive in big US cities. The only thing which is less expensive is clothing. And grocery shopping may be less expensive than in France but if you are looking for organic and “quality” food, it's more expensive.

What is something that you would like to do in the US but haven't had the opportunity to do yet?

We used to travel a lot to the US prior to moving here, and we have visited a lot of different parts of the United States. We have been to the East Coast and West Coast, the Midwest, and even Hawaii. There are still some places we haven't visited as tourists but what we were interested in was to experience everyday life here in the US. And we are in the process of doing so!

Share your most memorable experience in the US.

This is not exactly a memorable experience but this is what has surprised me most since we moved here to Blacksburg: the healthcare expenses. There are no rules and it looks like every healthcare provider chooses to set his own price. And sometimes it makes no sense! For example my son had a speech therapy evaluation session and I saw on our health insurance online that it cost more than $1000! And it was for one single session that lasted only one hour! Luckily our insurance paid for most of it.

If you could do the move to the US all over, what would you do differently?

So far there is nothing we would do differently!

What do you think of the local cuisine? What are your favorite dishes?

There are so many different communities in the US and you can easily have access to different restaurants serving different types of food: Mexican, Chinese, Indian, Italian, etc. Maybe steaks and burgers would be called most typical local dishes? You can find very savory burgers and steaks here. Actually I like most of the meals you can eat here. What I like less is their patisserie. I am fond of neither red velvet cakes nor cupcakes. The only dessert I like here is cheesecake. French patisserie is what I miss the most (and what I bake more and more for my family!)

What do you miss the most about France?

Typically some kind of foods (see above).

Have you had a moment where you almost felt like leaving the US? How did you overcome that? What kept you there?

Even if we knew the US quite well before moving here to Blacksburg, things have sometimes been very challenging. In France we think that as two western countries, the US and France would have similar ways of life, but this is not true. When we get upset about something here it's usually because we try to do things our usual French way. The best way to overcome this is to let go! That is of course, easier said than done! But in order to adjust you have to accept not being in control.

Can you give some useful tips that soon-to-be expatriates in the US might benefit from.

Do your best to prepare your expatriation from abroad, prior to moving. But once you are here in the US, take it easy! Things may go wrong at times, and you are less in control because you are still learning and discovering everything. But when it happens, let it go! And enjoy the experience.

If you had to advise an expat on five items to bring with them to the US, what would they be?

If you're bringing electrical devices, bring your adaptors! Don't forget your kids' immunization records and have them translated to English. No need to bring furniture or even most of your clothes. You can find everything here and it's so expensive to pay a moving company (we did it because we wanted to feel at home here).

What are your plans for the future?

We have no established plan. As my husband is hired here permanently we can (and we may) stay permanently. But we don't like to feel as if we have no choice! So we really want to give ourselves a chance to fully enjoy living here. If at some point we miss France too much, we may move back!

What is one thing that you will take with you from the US?

The optimism and energy. And the way they take it easy.

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Thank you,
The Editorial Team.

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