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8 Months of Living in France

It’s hard to believe it’s been 8 months since I moved to France. Can you believe it? We arrived on 16 August and now it’s April. It’s a beautiful spring day and all the trees that looked dead a month ago have been alive with colorful blossoms and now we’re treated to an array of bright green foliage across the landscape. I have never seen such beautiful clover in my life. I had to look it up because I didn’t realize that there were varieties of clover and I discovered that we have 3 varieties of clover right in our neighborhood: red, crimson, and arrowleaf. My photo doesn’t even do it justice!

Field of clover
Typical morning view from home

It was such a hot summer day when we arrived and my main concern was the safety of our two cats who traveled from San Francisco and took two planes, stopping in Munich as our layover. They traveled in the cabin under the seats with us and troopers. They’ve settled in wonderfully. We don’t let our cats wander the streets (we’ve seen one too many unfortunate accidents) but they like to hang out on our terrace and we even bring them to our garden across the little road. 

Our apple tree

We love this house that we rent. It’s a stone house and it’s as cozy as can be. We have a sizeable bit of land just a few steps across the road from our house. The previous owners planted fig trees, an apple tree, an almond tree, and two kiwi plants. We have mint and wild strawberries, too! I will say that there is a fair amount of stinging nettle that Olivier has to mow down, so maybe we should harvest some (carefully!) and make some healthy tea. I’ve read that it’s used for controlling blood sugar and it’s good for arthritis. We might as well use what we have available to us! 

Enjoying the view from the cafe on market day in Annonay

I honestly don’t miss anything from California. I love my family and friends, of course, but I don’t miss the food or places in particular. I think of places with affection but I don’t pine for them. 

What was difficult about settling here?

Waiting for our health insurance to come through

When we arrived, we had to get private health insurance until we could apply for national health insurance. (We used AXA but there are any number of other insurance companies that you can choose from.) Olivier hadn’t lived in France for at at least 20 years so he had to start all over again. We arrived on 16 August and we registered in November. Even then, the insurance didn’t kick in until February. So it took from November to February to wait for our Carte Vitale health insurance cards to arrive. However, because we had registered in November, all doctor’s visits were already covered, so we made sure to keep all our invoices to submit to be reimbursed. When those green Carte Vitale cards arrived in the mail it felt like a miracle! It made me feel included and official. 

A side note: We also purchased “mutuelle” insurance. A “mutuelle” is a private health insurance policy that reimburses all or part of medical costs not covered by the state health insurance system known as “sécurité sociale”. Olivier took a “mutuelle” insurance policy and then individually added our daughter and me. We have to pay a monthly fee which fully covers hospitalization if needed, among other things. There are a range of plans to choose from depending on your age and what you wish to cover.

Banking, namely, transferring funds from the USA to France

Security has always been an issue in banking but with the advent of the internet and fraud on a much larger scale, it’s now a major issue like never before. We had transferred funds from France to the USA in the past and naively thought it would be a piece of cake to transfer funds from the USA to France. How wrong we were! 

We set ourselves up with one of the several companies to choose from, such as Currencies Direct or Wise. It all seemed to go swimmingly until we attempted to create a transfer.

Photo by Christine Roy on Unsplash

No longer having an American mobile network

As it turned out, our American bank blocked the transfer because we no longer had an American mobile number. We dropped it when we moved to France and thought that getting an American Skype number would suffice. Anyone can get a Skype number in any country and it could be fraudulent. This type of number is a “VOIP” number (Voice over Internet Protocol) and is a phone number that operates through an internet connection rather than via a mobile network. When you start a transfer of funds, the bank will send a code to your cell phone if you have a VOIP number you won’t receive it. Words of advice: Keep your American mobile number when moving to another country!

We ended up traveling back to California in March for a 2-week stay for several reasons, mostly business. We desperately needed to be connected to an American mobile network to make our necessary calls to American companies that would only accept non-VOIP phone calls. We decided to get an E-SIM, so now we can choose between the American phone number or French phone number when making a call. (An eSIM is digital, so you can activate a cellular plan from your carrier without needing a physical SIM.) It’s absolutely the best thing we could ever have done. We can now receive text codes from our American bank and make local California calls. Our friends and family can even call the American phone line as a local call, which makes life a lot easier.

Photo by Firmbee.com on Unsplash

Handling mail

We still get American mail because we do business in California. We thought that having our mail sent to a family member or a friend would suffice but it’s not fun to have someone sift through your mail to let you know what you have. It’s another chore for that person, too.

While we were in California, Olivier discovered “virtual mail,” and I set to work researching the various companies that offer this service such as PhysicalAddress, Anytime Mailbox, iPostal1, etc. I can’t believe that we hadn’t found this earlier! It’s a common service that expats and travelers use to get their mail from overseas. Virtual mailboxes make postal mail paperless. So now, with our virtual mailbox, our incoming mail gets sorted and scanned, and we get an email saying we’ve received a digital copy of our mail. We can access our mail from any device, anywhere. So far, it’s been amazing. We paid an annual flat fee for having the envelopes scanned (there are various plans based on how much mail you receive), which also includes having the contents scanned if requested. We pay a minimal amount if we exceed our monthly scanned content limit.

Photo by Oleksandr Gamaniuk on Unsplash

To get a virtual mailbox, you will need to fill out a USPS Form 1583 for the post office and if you are in the U.S., you can get it notarized in person, or if like us, you are already in your new country, you can get it notarized online. Our new mail service offered this service of filling out the form and getting it automatically notarized online. After filling out the online form, you get connected to a notary and have a video call. You have to present two forms of identification, such as a passport or driver’s license. It is a completely official and legitimate way to handle mail. 

Words of advice when getting a virtual mailbox: Choose an address that won’t tax the mailbox. The taxes can be a bad surprise and there are only a handful of states that won’t tax it, such as Florida, Texas, and Nevada, so you might want to choose to have your mailbox in one of those locations. Even though we have business in California, we chose to have our mail go to one of those locations and it hasn’t been a problem.

Not being able to transfer my American driver’s license to a French one

I believe there are about 18 states that allow driver’s licence reciprocity with France and California is not one of them. My California license is good for a year here but after that, I’ll be stuck without a French license. I will have to learn “le Code” and take a driving test in French to get my French driver’s license. I passed it the first time when I was 16 in California but tackling this in French is not my idea of fun. I’ve signed up with one of the many driving schools in this area and drove with a teacher so she could assess how many classes I might have to take to be ready for the test. I’m already used to driving here  (I’ve driven across England on the left-hand side of the road and mastered roundabouts, so driving in France feels like a piece of cake). It’s not the driving that gives me a feeling of dread; it’s the oral and written test. When it comes to following lots of verbal directions, I can get lost and I’m afraid to lose the meaning of the questions. Wish me luck. 

Citroen 2CV6 Special

The sleepiness of villages during winter

We don’t live in a town although the nearest one is only 10 minutes away. There’s not a lot of hustle and bustle when it’s cloudy and cold. It seems like everyone and everything goes into hibernation and staying warm is the main interest. The villages come alive when the sun is out and the weather is warm. People love to go to the market and sit at a cafe, running into friends and spending time socializing.

Sleepy village

Things that are different:

Garbage service doesn’t exist. 

You’ll see big garbage containers in various places throughout the towns. I didn’t notice them during all the years of visiting France but now we’re always keeping our eyes out for these precious receptacles. There is one large container for plastic and metal, one for glass, one for paper products, and one for garbage. I never thought I’d be hauling around bags of garbage and recycling in my trunk but it’s a part of life here. Luckily, we do have a spot right in our little neighborhood, so it’s pretty convenient.

Public Bathrooms

Toilets often don’t have seats and although I’m seeing less of them, some bathrooms might have a “Turkish toilet” which is a hole in the floor. Tip: always, always carry a little packet of tissues because the Turkish toilet types of bathrooms often have no toilet paper! 

Smoking outside the hospital

It seems like the unofficial smoking section isn’t at the local bar, but right outside the hospital doors. Each time those sliding doors swoosh open, they let in puffs of cigarette smoke for extra ambiance. The doctor even entered with his unique and rather strong scent of tobacco.

Photo by Andres Siimon on Unsplash

Not paying anything when going to the hospital

Now that we have our national health insurance, we have no copay and medication has been included. How refreshing not to be digging into the wallet for money each time we visit the hospital or the pharmacy. I haven’t gone to a doctor for myself since I came to France but I’ll be sure to share the experience.

Pharmacist on call for night emergencies

My husband recently injured himself and didn’t leave the hospital until 10:30 pm. He needed immediate medication and/or crutches at night after the pharmacies were already closed, so the hospital provided a special phone number to call. We called and were connected directly to a pharmacist who drove in her little car at night to open the pharmacy for us. I went through a special door and waited at the window while she went in the back to retrieve all the medication and crutches for Olivier. 

Photo by Martino Pietropoli on Unsplash

The back story: My husband Olivier recently fractured his tibia near the knee (not a full break). He went for a “short, casual motorcycle ride” before lunch. He loves going off-road and doing enduro motorcycling, a popular sport around these parts. We have light, airy woods around here and it seemed fine, as he’s done it countless times. I got a call from him about 40 minutes later, saying that he needed a little help. I walked through the woods to the main dirt path to find him on the ground with his broken motorcycle and two neighbors watching over him. Olivier had been practicing making little jumps necessary to learn to get over rocks, and he lost control. It wasn’t a huge accident but he fell and the bike landed on his leg. They called an ambulance and not one, but two, arrived – one from our village and one from the town! The one from the town came first, so they were on the job. One of the neighbors had a big van with him, so he loaded Olivier’s bike and I directed him to our garage nearby. (Thank goodness for the kindness of neighbors!) He drove me back to the scene and I gave the emergency crew Olivier’s medical information. Off he went to the hospital while I waited for his phone call. 

Enduro Motorcycles

Hours later, Olivier called. The emergency hospital was very busy when he arrived, so they sat him in the corridor. Ever patient and not wanting to rush the staff on account of himself, he sat there for three hours until he notified a staff member that he needed to use the bathroom. They hadn’t realized that he hadn’t been seen all that time (I would not have been as quiet as my husband). Once he was finally seen by a doctor, things rolled on amazingly. We have been incredibly impressed by the care he has received. A nurse comes to our house daily and gives him an anticoagulant shot to ensure that he has no blood clots. He went for a follow-up X-ray to make sure the bone was healing correctly. He will have a special scan in a few weeks to view his muscles and ligaments and make sure that he won’t require surgery. He will then have physical therapy once he is ready for it. All in all, the care has been really impressive.

No mailboxes

You’ll have to go to the post office to mail something and postage is more expensive than in the USA. Luckily, so much is digital nowadays, so we mostly just go once in a while to mail packages.

Photo by Eder Pozo Pérez on Unsplash

Random châteaux

Castles are a common sight throughout Europe and France is no exception. There are numerous small châteaux scattered throughout the region. Most are privately owned as they are still inhabited by aristocratic families. 

Another random chateau

Dental floss is rare

Be sure to pack plenty of dental floss or consider ordering some from Amazon, as it might be a bit challenging to find it in local supermarkets. Interestingly, a friend from Switzerland shared that their dentist views flossing differently, advising not to do it, whereas in the USA it is a staple of dental care.

Kebab and Pizza

France has kebab restaurants that usually offer “tacos” which aren’t what we think of as tacos. Sometimes they look more like a burrito or pressed pocket bread sandwich with Middle Eastern filling. It’s a very typical type of fast food in France. Mexi Kebab is a franchise, but most kebab restaurants seem to offer “tacos”.

Speaking of fast food, toppings can be very French and very regional. Take the “escargot pizza” or the very regional “caillette pizza” (an Ardèchoise meatball), or the “raviole pizza”, which is also a very regional type of small ravioli. Menus courtesy of Pizza Pat in Quintenas!

Social security

Social security numbers are assigned with the Carte Vitale and are only attached to health insurance. It has nothing to do with employment as in the United States.

Traveling

We can travel to places that feel so different, just an hour or two away (such as charming Alixan, featured photo of this post) or Annecy, featured below. There is such a variety of history and culture in Europe and the adventure has just begun. By the time I finished this post, the weather turned wintery and we’ve got a week of rain. It’s still beautiful and green with plenty of spring blossoms. I’m looking forward to the bright, clear skies and warm weather, so we can get out again and enjoy!

Beautiful Annecy
Gwyneth, feeling like her artist self again

Art

Lastly, one great thing about moving to France and a big difference is that I’m doing art again. My degree is in illustration and although I practiced it when our daughter was a toddler, it became too challenging for me to manage and I started to lose that side of myself. My life has recently calmed down in some ways. A phone call with a cousin who is also an artist prompted me to bring my art supplies out from the storage room. A simple question posed to me, “Are you doing any art?” really helped to make me restart my heart and my head. Am I doing art? Can I? What would I do after all these years? Who am I now? Well, I stopped overthinking it and started sketching and found I wanted to go straight to painting. The fun stuff. I listen to music or podcasts to get out of my own way and just create without overthinking or worrying and setting my own limitations on my art. Thank you, France (and the wisdom that can come from getting older). Just do it.