Starting your life in France

If you are one of the lucky ones moving to France, then this post is for you. The four-year anniversary of our move here will be coming up in November. I can’t believe how quickly time has gone by and how much I have learned (and am still learning).

Living in a smaller town has its positive and negative aspects. The French culture here in our town is very different from what I experienced in Montpellier; French culture differs from region to region – just as in South Africa, where the regions are so markedly different in terms of dialect and traditions that you can’t really compare them. The French make fun of each other’s accents and they have different food preferences in different regions, but when it comes to socialising, the general population does it the same way. I guess we have more in common with the French than we thought.

Here is a story of a friend of mine who just moved to Grenoble. Her insight made me realise that I have forgotten how hard it was in the beginning. For the first two weeks after our arrival we stayed in a hotel with French staff, French television and French breakfast (espressos, the worst plain yogurt and of course chocolatey baked goods and Nutella). I was too scared to explore the town, for fear of getting lost. For a newlywed, this was a horrifying thought – who was going to help me??
Her story is quite similar to mine, except that she had the additional challenge of taking care of her three boys as well.

“When we just arrived at the airport, the kids were tired and they didn’t want to drive with a strange man (one of the coaches) and mom in the car, so Francois was thrown in at the deep end and had to start driving straightaway. It sounds easy enough, but the car was an SUV left-hand drive, and the French drive on the right side of the road. We had quite a laugh, because every time he needed to change gears he would reach with his left hand into the door! Driving was something that I had to get used to, but it got better the more I drove. I soon realised that in France you can park over two parking bays if you like, you can park sideways, you can drive in the middle of the lane if you want … It seems like no one cares, and if they do, they just honk and drive past you, but they don’t scream at you or stare at you in a funny or angry way.

My first challenge was obviously the language. Most people don’t speak English, and I eventually found a few stores with store assistants who could speak some English.
My second challenge was trying to find all the essentials for our house. A local store called “BUT” came to our rescue. They have reasonably-priced furniture and appliances. Our first purchases were some essential appliances and furniture, a Nespresso machine (my husband won’t survive without coffee 😊) and an ironing machine. We were fortunate enough to receive two boxes full of cutlery and cleaning products from a couple who stayed in Grenoble previously and moved back to SA. I could use the products they left, and only had to buy new ones when those were finished.

I knew most things for the house could be found in BUT, IKEA, ALINÉA, and MAISON DU MONDE. But … Ikea is a huge store, and if you can’t speak the language, you can’t ask for help! So we walked up and down all the aisles, trying to figure out what was where on the shelf, and then bought the things as we found it.
It’s easier to buy fresh produce, because you can see exactly what you are buying, but my first trip to the shop took me one and a half hours just to Google-translate every label, in an effort to find out whether I was buying flour or bread mix; salt or sugar?

I have learned that in Grenoble you don’t go to a one-stop shop for everything you need. L’eclerc is amazing and they have a huge variety of just about everything, quite like Game in South Africa; whereas Carrefour is similar to our Checkers or Pick N Pay. The French have “The Bio Shop”, where you can find all the organic products you need, cleaning products, fruit and vegetables, meat, honey, flour, etc. Go Sport is somewhat like Sportsman’s Warehouse, and Maison du Monde is much like a Weatherlys and Corricraft, and they sell beautiful French furniture and decor.

The first advice I would give to someone moving to Grenoble, is to learn the language. It will take time, but at least start with it.

Always carry a shopping bag with you. Most stores don’t give you a bag, but you can buy them in store.

Always have a 2-euro coin or a plastic token with you when going to the supermarket. You cannot use a trolley without it. Tokens are free and are available at the information desk in supermarkets.

Wear comfortable shoes. I bought flip flops for myself and for the kids at Go Sport.
Online shopping is great if you cannot find what you are looking for in the stores. Amazon is very reliable and very quick to deliver.

There are no petrol attendants at the petrol stations. You have to fill up your tank yourself, and the instructions on the machine are in French. The first time we filled up our car, we paid with a South African bank card, but double the amount was deducted from our account. I was horrified, but after 3 days the error was corrected and the excess amount was paid back into our account.

Get a French cell phone number as soon as possible. The internet is much cheaper there than in South Africa, and you will need it for Google maps. We make most of our phone calls through WhatsApp, but calls to a French number in France is free.
Open a French bank account. We got a bank account from HSBC, who does business in English, which is convenient when we do internet banking, etc.

Always have some form of cash on you, because you will have to pay for certain parking areas. Some parking can also be paid with a bank card instead of coins.
The one thing that MOST helped me find my feet, was making friends with someone who had lived here before. It makes all the difference if you know where to go to find what you are looking for.

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