Things I Didn’t Know When I Moved to France: Part 2 the Negatives

Winter - one of the things they don't tell you about

Winter – one of the things they don’t tell you about

Thanks to everyone who commented on Part 1, the Positives. They added to my list of unexpected pleasures, including: the (comparatively) empty roads; the variety of regional produce and recipes; the friendly interaction with neighbours and rural French people’s lack of concern with outward show; and the fact that dogs are welcome in restaurants.

Now for the minuses. To be even handed, I restricted myself to five positives in the previous post and five negatives in this one. And, it’s worth bearing in mind that few things are exclusively positive or negative. Also, these are things I wish I’d known, so in some cases it’s my fault for not informing myself.

#1 That it can be very cold here in the winter

Nobody – and certainly not estate agents – tells you how cold the winters can be in inland France, even in the south. We were lulled into a false sense of security by our first winter, which was unusually mild, although we didn’t know it then. We have experienced temperatures approaching minus 20°C. I’m not suggesting this is the norm, but the thermometer can drop to well below zero. We’ve often been snowed in at the end of our steep lane.

These stone houses are beguilingly beautiful when you see them on a sunny spring day, as we did. But nothing prepares you for the heating bill: we pay far more on heating here than we ever did in England.

However, I do like the changing seasons, although I could wish that recent springs hadn’t been quite so gloomy.

#2 That you can eat badly in France

Sadly, this is true. There are plenty of small, family-run restaurants that provide a well-cooked meal offering good value for money (especially at lunchtime). And I can remember certain lovely meals, such as one we enjoyed in Burgundy more than 20 years ago.

But we have also had indifferent meals and some that were downright bad. Incidents that stand out in my memory are:

  • A plate of calf’s liver in a restaurant in Montauban. It was overcooked and gristly and the accompanying sauce was inedibly salty. The veg had been cooked to destruction.
  • A disgusting soupe au fromage in a café in Albi. Not only was it tepid but the cheese had congealed into an inedible gunk.
  • A very disappointing meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant. The food wasn’t actually bad but the portions were so tiny that we thought we’d strayed into a health farm by mistake. My starter was devoid of the girolles it was supposed to contain.

#3 That French is a very difficult language to master and the regional accent is impossible

I learned French at school for about seven years, so I thought I’d get by when we moved here. But it didn’t equip me at all for everyday living. We were never taught the colloquial phrases that French people use (tomber dans les pommes – fall into the apples. Hello? Meaning: to faint).

This, of course, says more about how French is taught in English schools than it does about the language. But the grammar is hard and the French themselves are often foxed by it. It took four years of classes and a lot of effort before I became proficient.

The other thing we were unprepared for was the regional accent. No received pronunciation here. It’s a thick, soupy, rapidly-delivered dialect. An ‘e’ is placed at the end of many words that don’t actually have one. ‘Vin’ becomes ‘veng-er’; ‘demain’ = ‘demeng-er’. While this has a certain charm, it doesn’t make communication easy. Our neighbour is still virtually unintelligible to us.

#4 That we will never have broadband where we live

The Internet was in its infancy in 1997. However, even then, we were unable to have an ADSL line that would have made dial-up faster. The reason: too far from the telephone exchange. And that is still the case, meaning that we have a ropey satellite connection with a dish. Fibre-optic cables? Dream on.

So we can’t have any of these Internet/phone/TV packages that are now available. People are astonished that we can’t use Skype or that it takes half an hour to download a computer programme. And the system balks if I try to send an email attachment of more than 1MB. The connection is probably better in Outer Mongolia.

#5 That customer service is so poor

Naturally, there are exceptions, and we’ve received some excellent service. However, our overall impression is that the customer in France is usually a nuisance and never right.

Shops rarely have a brochure that you can take away to study before committing yourself. Either something you ordered never arrives (or was never ordered) or they don’t bother to tell you when it has. And try complaining or taking something back.

A few examples:

  • The dress shop whose staff were all over me when I entered. I handed over a money-off voucher, which they omitted to deduct from my purchase. When I pointed this out, they said, “We can’t cancel your credit card transaction and redo it. Choose something else to the value of the voucher.” They lost interest. They also lost a customer.
  • The shop where the SF ordered some wine glasses and watched them write down the order. We heard nothing and went in. They denied all knowledge of the order and insultingly suggested that the SF’s memory was at fault.
  • The maçon whose labourers botched part of the job. He examined it, said he’d attend to it – and never came back.

I could give you many more examples, but you get the picture.

So, living in France is not unalloyed pleasure. But, then, nowhere on the planet is perfect. On balance, it was a good move for us and it has broadened our horizons and enriched our lives.

You might also like:

My French isn’t that bad, then
Eat well in France: 10 top tips
Broadband Blues
Customer service in France 

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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37 Responses to Things I Didn’t Know When I Moved to France: Part 2 the Negatives

  1. Pingback: 19 Years in France | Life on La Lune

  2. Pingback: 10 Reasons to be Proud of France? | Life on La Lune

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  4. pfornari says:

    Great post, Vanessa. Just taking a couple of points: we have eaten surprisingly badly in France, but in Belgium, which is our ‘home base’ (says she, between Bangladesh and Ghana!) we have rarely been disappointed by a meal out, and the portions are often huge! But the customer service…my Flemish friend and I call it the ‘Mais Madame’ syndrome. You wonder who is doing who a favour when you go into a Brussels shop and are greeted with a stony stare. Or worse. I once went in and asked to see a skisuit that was hanging in the window, ‘Mais madame,’ the saleswoman said, looking at me lazily. ‘C’est très cher!’ Needless to say, she didn’t get my custom.

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      I thought it was only French shop saleswomen who had the monopoly on superciliousness! Obviously not. I was once asked, on emerging from a changing room, if I was as slim as I thought I was.

      Like

  5. It is very refreshing to see an article about France that confronts the realities of actually living here. Thank you.

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      Thank you. After 17 years, the rosy glow has worn off a bit, although I do love living here. I hope you also read Part 1 on the positives. I wanted to be balanced about it.

      Like

  6. amelie88 says:

    Customer service is a religion here in the States. Americans take customer service to an absurd level so you get used to getting what you want almost instantly. This is great for us, but does little to prepare us when we move abroad and expect customer service to be like it is at home. I had a terrible experience in Spain trying to set up Internet with Orange, it was so bad. Finally canceled the service to go with Jazztel which was a cheaper option. And when I studied abroad in 2008 in Malaga, my host family didn’t have any Internet at all! She finally got it installed when my program agreed to foot the bill for her. But I was Internet-less for a good 2 months.

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      I’m sure there’s a balance to be struck when it comes to customer service. The customer isn’t always right. But, in France, it seems to me that the customer is rarely right. So they have something to learn from the US model, without perhaps taking things to quite the absurd extreme.

      Like

      • lizgyooll says:

        Good heavens, i must have been very lucky so far as I find the customer service excellent in France … maybe it’s just in the little corner of France we find ourselves in. I am finding it much better, on the whole, than in today’s Tuscany and I can’t say about the UK, as I’ve been away so long.

        Like

      • nessafrance says:

        Like you, I have been away from the UK too long to be able to comment with any authority on customer service there. I suspect small, local shops in France are better than large ones – although I have come across exceptions. And maybe Italy is even worse!

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  7. MarinaSofia says:

    I think you are being quite fair and reasonable – I do sometimes hear expats moaning about every little thing which is different from home (and probably just as bad at home, if they were honest). I would also add the impenetrable Byzantine bureaucracy and paperwork: everything in writing, in triplicate, signing on every single page, really complicated language etc. I kept thinking my French wasn’t up to scratch and apologising to the tax office or other places for having to ask for additional explanations, but they blithely said: ‘Oh, no, everyone has troubles with this!’
    Which kind of begs the question: why not make it simpler in the first place?

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      Agree about the bureaucracy – and your closing question. Although that’s one of the things I did have an inkling about when we moved here. Actually, we’ve found the tax office remarkably helpful since our tax affairs are particularly complicated. Even they have problems working it out!

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  8. Mark Gregory says:

    Vanessa you can get satellite delivered Internet service nowadays that is more expensive than a fixed line but is still affordable if you need to use it for business and don’t download heavy video files etc. Try http://www.uktelecom.net/products/satellite_broadband/

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      Yes, we do already have a satellite connection with French supplier Nordnet. The dial-up I mentioned was when we first moved here. We are not very satisfied with Nordnet and are thinking of changing but then you have to buy all the kit again. Thanks for the link, which we will look into.

      Like

  9. lizgyooll says:

    Excellent.
    Personally, I am very happy to take the rough with the smooth, and I find that the weather in the Aveyron is a very similar pattern to Tuscany where I’ve been living for the past thirty years. I quite like bundling up in the winter and the Tuscan summers of late have become far too hot for me. People are very nice and very welcoming where we are in France and I’m enjoying cooking at home anew, because the local produce is so delicious. No complaints really on my part 🙂

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    • nessafrance says:

      Agreed. As I said, nowhere is perfect. I do like the changing seasons but wasn’t aware it can get quite so cold. These are things I didn’t know and perhaps should have acquainted myself with better before coming. Not that it would have made a difference to the decision.

      Like

      • lizgyooll says:

        Actually, re-reading this as I pass it on to my husband, we were extremely lucky as the “hameau” where we live, happened to have just put in fast fibre-optics (or something like that) so we have an amazingly fast line. I thought this was the case in the whole of France!

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      • nessafrance says:

        Alas, no. I don’t know what the criteria are for installing these lines but I can’t see us being anywhere near the top of the list – or even ON the list. Just waiting for 4G mobile connection here, which might give us the possibility to connect with the internet that way.

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  10. I couldn’t see any circumstances that would persuade me to move back to England either Keith, until one just came up and I’m doing it (with a bit of a heavy heart it has to be said). I live in the Finistère, so no freezing temperatures here, but a fair share of monumental storms coming in off the sea. Before that I lived in the Beauce (Eure-et-Loir), where temperatures often dropped to minus 20 in winter, and the local accent, even though I have spoken French since infancy, was totally incomprehensible for about a year (I just nodded yesses and nos and hoped that some of them were à propos).
    As for broadband, I am returning to rural Dorset, where broadband is very slow, and there is virtually no mobile signal at all! Unbelievable. I have had some momentously awful meals in France too, talk about “se foutre de la gueule du monde”, and I agree totally that customer service is a disgrace.
    But actually, it’s hard to find other negatives, apart from the five you mention…

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      I daresay there are parts of the UK where broadband is just a dream, too. And I’m sure I would find plenty to complain about if I moved back to the UK, which I hope I never have to.

      Like

  11. susancarey says:

    The negatives offer so many chances for humour! Do you now have the regional accent yourselves? The slow internet must be so annoying. My sister and her husband have similar problems in rural Herefordshire.
    Amsterdam does poor customer service very well too! Only last week I read on the menu of a recently opened restaurant: ‘We do our best to serve you well but sometimes it’s difficult because it gets very busy.’ Talk about hedging your bets. I waited 15 minutes for coffee and had a grumpy old woman attack on the waiter so don’t think I’ll be going back there again!

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      Actually, a local did tell us a while ago that we had picked up the regional accent. And I do find myself saying ‘demeng’ – but without the e on the end that they all add.

      We’ve also experienced poor service everywhere but I think the French do it particularly well.

      Like

  12. Steph P says:

    A great couple of posts, especially interesting as we’re thinking of moving to Europe (or back to the continent, as in my case).

    I’m currently studying French again (first time since college), so I can feel your pain about the language. Mind you, being a translator still didn’t prepare me for many English colloquialisms when I first came here… 😉 As for customer service, steer clear of Edinburgh’s Princes & George Streets!
    Fun & games!

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      I’ve got to grips with the language reasonably well now, but it’s taken a long time. Actually, I found shop assistants in Princes and George Streets quite friendly on the occasions I’ve been in Edinburgh – despite being a Sassenach. Just the luck of the draw, I suppose.

      Like

  13. Yes, agree with all that Vanessa. You made me chuckle when you said “but the portions were so tiny that we thought we’d strayed into a health farm by mistake”. We had the worst service I have ever witnessed in my whole life in a restaurant last sunday (mothers day). So incredible that we just laughed hysterically, and will probably go back just for the entertainment aspect 😉

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      Public holidays, like Easter, or celebrations like Mother’s Day, tend not to be good times to eat out. We have also experienced some eye-wateringly bad service on those days – so we stay in!

      Like

  14. Thanks for putting this up Vanessa. A friend of mine said that none of us moved to France to be in Utopia – how true! I agree with all your points, although we have been lucky enough to get a Wi Max broadband service where we are, at long last!
    I relate most (sadly) to your point about eating badly in France. I cannot decide whether it is a gradual decline, or that my rose tinted specs are making me beleive that it was “better” before we moved here. The “menu du jour” in the smaller run places can be dire, and I have seen the advent of “theme” restos where pretty much everything is whipped from the freezer and popped into the microwave, save the salad garnish!
    As a family we have hugely reduced the amount we eat out now, for this very reason.
    I find it so sad, especially as entertaining at home is such a pleasure due to the fact that we can all enjoy the wonderful produce France has to offer us.

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      I agree that nowhere is perfect and I daresay I’d find the UK insupportable now. It’s a pity that the standard of restaurants seems to have gone down. Our experience is that, just as we find a good one, it closes down – which seems paradoxical, but maybe they try too hard and don’t cut the corners that other places do.

      Like

  15. Osyth says:

    I’ve enjoyed both these pieces, Vanessa … my good bits include roads, dogs and laid back people but of course I live in under-populated Cantal so I appreciate I am spoiled. Bad bits … less than a year in would be few and far between but the moment when we visited the restaurant we had booked for our Wedding Breakfast (booking made and menus discussed and Madame witnessed writing it in all in her book in November 2012) 6 weeks before the day, to be greeted by tumbleweed, total lack of recognition and an indication that we were making our story up to cause the same Madame problems led us to hold the event elsewhere. Given that we do live in under-populated Cantal, this might have been an even bigger catastrophe as there are very few restaurants within a 30 km radius who can cope with a party of 30. My blood pressure has since recovered!

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      Sorry to hear about your experience – especially for such an important event. Of course, living in France is like living anywhere – there are good bits and bad bits. Some things, like the winter weather, were a surprise to me, but that’s the sort of thing one should find out before moving. Not that any of these points would make me feel like moving back to the UK.

      Like

  16. CORRIGENDA
    Summer temperature 40°C, not 49°C.
    End of point 2 – as true, not at strue.
    Language – in “le vang souffle”, vang rhymes with bang

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      Thank you! It’s very considerate of you to make the corrections.
      The place where we live has the record temperatures for Tarn-et-Garonne: minus 28C in the winter and plus 43C in the summer. Quite a difference.

      Like

  17. With you again, Vanessa. My eight years in the Auvergne tells me:
    1; Winter. Our immobilière told us (and still tells people) that it rarely rains in the Combrailles – the foothills of the Massif central – and that its is so green because of a multitude of springs! Our neighbour told us that a hot summer will touch 49°C, a cold winter -20°C. He did not lie, the immobilière did.
    2. We don’t eat out much, so can’t comment. Traditionally, auvergnats sold their best meat at market, and ate what was left. Regional delicacies are things like tripe, andouillettes, pigs trotters and offal of the kind we used to eat in the 50s. We have noticed that the shopping basket of average auvergnate housewife makes the widely held belief that the French eat well about at strue as the statement that French women don’t get fat!
    3. Language. Isn’t it interesting that many French people will not understand you if you say “bouche de noël” instead of “bûche de noël”, yet expect you to understand that “le vang souffle” means ” le vent souffle”. My daughter in Paris says we shouldn’t take French lessons here, because we’ll end up talking like farmers!
    4. Broadband. We are 3km from the small exchange, and get 6mbps download, so can’t complain, though fibre is about as likely to reach us as are mains gas and drainage. Mobile signal is not bad (outside the house or in the attic conversion), but 4G? Nah. H+/G+? Nah. 3G? Maybe, on a very good day. EDGE? Yes – but what’s the point of that?
    5. Customer service. Example. My Livebox was hit by a static burst. I have no land line, only IP phone. Went to the Orange store, 35Km away. They said I should go home, plug it in, then call in so a technician could test the line and give me a ticket number. “Can’t call, because the Livebox is dead.” “Call from your mobile.” “No signal in the house.” “Call from outside then, when the technician asks, go back in so you can tell him which lights are on.” I ended up buying a Livebox from Auchan.

    Do I regret moving to France? Not a bit. Am I happier here than in UK? You bet I am. Would I move back to UK? I can’t currently see any circumstances under which I would want to do that..

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    • nessafrance says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Keith. I am very jealous of your download speed! So many things have to be done via the internet these days that having a not very fast satellite connection is a pain. Even uploading photos for my blog requires patience beyond my limited reserves.

      However, like you, I wouldn’t move back to England and don’t regret moving here. It might be useful for people who are moving here with a rosy-tinted view, though, to realise that there are some surprises – and forewarned is forearmed.

      Like

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