Coming home to France: Yes, I can.
There are days when I still don’t realize I will soon be France-based again, after 23 years in the United States. There are days when I wonder how challenging it will be to go through the administrative hurdles; how I will react when I have to deal once again with the French Administration (it does not have the best reputation, in case you have not heard.) There are days I wonder where I will end up, once I start looking for a rental apartment in Paris, or in another French city in the spring; what my new life will be like; what I will do for a living; who my friends will be. So many questions, and for now, at least, so few answers. Such is the lot, I understand, of people who decided to take a leap of faith and bet on themselves and their ability to handle a major transition. To make things even more interesting, I will be doing this on my own, calling all the shots, patting myself in the back for the triumphs, and taking responsibility for the mistakes. It is both scary and exciting; and I would not have it otherwise. I have thought about this transition for a while, long before it became a reality. As years went by, it became a goal, the plan that kept me going in challenging times. Through it all, I could not discuss this with many people, even if talked about it (“When I am back in Europe, I will…) My family and a few close friends listened patiently. I never quite knew if they believed I would actually go through with it. I am guessing, based on reactions when I announced my big news in the fall, many didn’t. After all, why would I leave the United States, a comfortable life, a life fully lived that took so many years to build, a career and a salary, friendships, and an American-born son, now a college student, who will not follow me once I relocate? Why? I am still asked that question, by friends or strangers, out of genuine interest, out of curiosity, too. I have come to realize many people are attached to the idea of certainty, for themselves, and others. Why am I coming home, to France? There are several reasons, of course; but lately, I have found it easier to reply: “Because I did not like my life, and I decided to change it.” People assume at that point I am done with the United States, and could not take it any longer in the land of Uncle Sam. They are wrong. I am fortunate to be a dual citizen, and I don’t exclude the possibility of returning stateside, one day, if I am in need of a new life once again. America has been with me for more than three decades. One does not just turn the page on 35 years of memories and experiences. There are aspects of my life in the US I won’t miss, from the most obvious to the not-so-obvious (I won’t list them here, as many are often discussed at parties and in social media.) Yet I know I will not be enjoying all aspects of French life either. From where I stand, I am at an advantage because I know France. I have always stayed in touch with my homeland. I am fully aware of her many qualities, as well as her shortcomings. France, to this native, who has visited and played here for years as a tourist, is not Disneyland. It’s… France; and I plan to focus on her good sides.
As a former cross-cultural trainer, I am also prepared (as much as one can be,) for the process of repatriation, that is widely recognized as a lot more challenging than expatriation. With the exception of my family and aging parents who are thrilled I will be living closer to them, nobody is waiting for me; and many people may not be interested in hearing about my American life, or what I have done for the last two decades. In the US, I was somewhat exotic, thanks in part, to my French accent (and my insistence on affirming my European identity.) In France, I will just be one native among many. I need to be ok with that. I will, however, surround myself with people who understand what my life has been like, expats in France, or former French expats. I started exchanging with them a while ago and created new friendships in the process. There are also many online resources to help set expectations, like this portal.
Coming home to France: Planning the move
Recently, readers have asked me to share information about the relocation process. Who knows? Some tips may come in handy, should you decide to embark on a similar adventure. I am not an expert at international transitions. I have only done this twice, after all. I do know myself and am experienced at project management. First step: collecting and analyzing information, and doing your homework, is essential. From what I have experienced so far, patience, flexibility and a solid sense of humor are key (Don’t underestimate patience and a sense of humor: You will not believe some of the comments or questions you will get when you break the news!) Also, life, like merde, happens. There will be surprises along the way, not all good ones. In the fall, I took care of half the logistical part of the relocation project, selling, donating, sorting out my possessions, so I would be able to downsize drastically in anticipation of the diminutive French apartment I will soon land. If you are a hoarder, or are slow at decision-making (Test: how long does it take you to order à la carte at the restaurant?) I’d tackle this part early on. If you are fully paying for the move, as I am, you’d be well advised to travel lightly. I will be selling all my American furniture at the beginning of the year. “Won’t you miss all these things once they are gone?” I don’t think so. I am happy to know they will be going to people, or friends, who will enjoy and use them. Full disclosure: My very favorite possessions will be taking the long trip with me, even if it is not convenient (Why, after all, would you bring a foldable Fermob bistro set when your chances of landing an apartment with a balcony in France are non existent? Yet, I am about to do just that.) To get my life over to France, I have been looking at transportation companies, like Crown Relocation (Your belongings travel via cargo ship; you can share a container with other people and get charged based on used space.) I am also considering a shipping company that came highly recommended, Send My Bag (boxes or suitcases travel quickly, door to door, via air, and you get charged based on weight.) I will make a final decision early next year once I have packed all my boxes (fewer than 10 at my last count.) Important papers (check document retention policies first,) will travel in a carry-on with me. I have already scanned quite a bit; and shredded even more. Once you arrive, you may not have a place to live yet. There are ways to store your belongings affordably in private spaces (cellars, garages,) that people lease out month by month. This network helps you locate them all over France. Fortunately for me, my parents have recently cleared out part of the cellar in their building’s basement. Most of my boxes should fit there when they arrive.
Coming home to France: Finding a place to live
I have been warned. A lot. In a competitive real estate market like Paris, many landlords are picky when choosing a tenant. The law, in France, always favors the tenant, so it’s important a landlord selects well in case of an eviction. Add to that a shortage of long term rentals in cities popular with French and foreign visitors (like Paris) where many apartments are snatched up by investors who put them on the profitable short-term rental market. While house-hunting, being French will not help me at all. In fact, being a former French expat may play against me: I will not have the type of paperwork French landlords are fond of (a permanent work contract, several months’ worth of pay stubs.) Even if my parents offered to act as my guarantors (an exciting prospect for someone in my age group!) I am not guaranteed to come across as a valuable applicant in a big pile of applications. There are ways around this, most of which are costly, (renting furnished apartments owned by foreign landlords who may be less demanding in terms of paperwork, hiring a real estate broker or a relocation company to help with house hunting and the preparation of the dossier, securing a coveted property through word-of-mouth if you are lucky to have an extended personal network.) I do not even need to mention how high rents can be in downtown Paris where everyone wants to live! On the bright side, compared to many of my fellow Americans, often accustomed to sprawling estates in suburbia, I am ahead of the game: I have already lived in big cities in France; have downsized twice since my divorce five years ago, and lived successfully in a 270 sq foot studio for two years during my Parisian years. If you are considering relocating to France, do not underestimate the attitude adjustment it will take for you (and your family) to get used to living full time in such cramped quarters with inadequate storage. Aussie expat in Paris Oliver Gee, of The Earful Tower fame, recently ran an interesting podcast episode on this topic.
Relocating to France: What’s next?
I still have a few things on my to-do list during my French vacation this month. Being an American citizen, my French and American income will be subject to U.S. income tax even as I live in France. I should not pay twice, thanks to a treaty between the two countries. But Uncle Sam will be watching my every move. Each year, I will have to file two separate income tax declarations, a time-consuming and costly process, much decried by American expats around the world. I plan to find a Paris-based international tax specialist who will help me navigate through this. On another note, I have been paying through the nose in the US for Health Insurance through Cobra since I left my job in September. By the end of December, I will happily re-enter the French healthcare system. I had to wait three months because I am not currently working, and provide a list of documents to reinstate my rights. Universal healthcare is available to anyone residing in France for more than three months with the intention to spend more than 183 days a year in the country, whether they are currently employed or not. You can learn more about this topic from this excellent website. Vive la France !
It’s time to wrap this up for now. Don’t get fooled by this story: I am moving through this transition with my eyes wide open, and a methodical approach. Yet, there is no hesitation, no afterthought. I am looking forward to being through with all the relocation steps and starting a new life in my old country. Coming home to France means I will be enjoying more quality time with my family, and getting reacquainted with Paris, Lyon, and other great locales I have only been able to visit briefly during my American years. I have a lot of catching up to do with Europe. For now, here in France, life continues as usual, peaceful at times, a bit more hectic lately. This is France. This, too, shall pass. France has changed, yet France is still familiar. Keep visiting. It will delight and surprise you, the way it continues to delight and surprise me. I know I am enjoying the ride!
Bonnes Fêtes ! Happy Holidays!
One last thing: This French Girl may be “taking France,” yet she needs to finance all the delicious viennoiseries she is enjoying on her way to the train station in the morning! If you have not yet visited my Holiday Bazaar, please stop by. There are many fun, unique, affordable French-themed gifts there for you, or your favorite francophile. Merci! — Véronique (FGIS)