A Year in France, and 10 Things I Have Learned Along the Way

It is finally summer here in Montpellier, and we have been out of confinement for nearly eight weeks. It has been interesting adapting to our new normal since the coronavirus pandemic hit and turned the world upside down. So far, France seems to have things under control. But we all know that could change at any minute. Still, I am grateful overall for the way this country and its leadership responded to the health crisis, and because most of the citizens obeyed orders, we are enjoying a little bit of freedom again. And I am continuing my ongoing education on what it means to be a Houstonian living in the south of France.

With all that time inside my house, I began reflecting upon the major observations I’ve made now that it’s been nearly a year since my family relocated. {How has it already been a year?} Despite being stuck in one place for nearly two of those months, I believe I’ve had enough experiences to list out the top ten things I have learned thus far about integrating into the French life and culture.

1. Taking a more laid-back approach on parenting never hurt anyone. Also, being a sexy mom is a nice aspiration.

When I look around and see how French mothers interact with their children, there seems to be a sort of mutual respect there that usually prevents things like temper tantrums and impatience on the part of the child. Most families appear to enjoy spending time with each other, and regardless of age, they are really quiet compared to my family! We definitely stand out, and I often find myself embarrassed here when I never used to feel that way. It’s like the spotlight is on us because we are speaking English, we are loud, and my kids are super needy and/or complaining all the time.

Because I wanted to figure out how to be a little less conspicuous, I decided to read a book by Pamela Drukerman {an American journalist raising her family in Paris}, called French Children Don’t Throw Food. She did a lot of field work trying to understand how French parents operate. There were a lot of take-aways from it, but the overall conclusion was that they tend to give their children a specific framework, or cadre, of ground rules that must never be broken – but inside that framework, they give their children lots of autonomy to make their own choices. Once this foundation is set, the parents are ultimately able to relax because they have full confidence in their children’s capabilities.

French parents also don’t make parenthood their entire world {I’m not saying we Americans do either, but it is definitely a big part of what defines me}. They see a vital need to have a life of their own outside of the parenting sphere, including lots of adult time away from the kids, and keeping up with, and constantly improving their outer appearance {hence, all the sexy mamas here!}.

2. Listening to French flow out of the mouths of my children is quite surreal.

I will never forget the day I was making dinner in the kitchen, and my kids were playing near me on the floor. All of the sudden, I noticed that the words coming out of my son’s mouth were not English. His French accent was spot-on, and it was if he had always spoken French when he played independently. I stood there staring at him in amazement, thinking, “Wow, that took no time at all.” I knew that by bringing my family here, we would all learn French, and that my kids would likely become bilingual. What I didn’t realize was just how fast that could happen for a child, and also, how wonderful it would feel for such a gift to come so naturally to them.

During our two-month confinement, and despite the fact that I was homeschooling most of the kids’ lessons in French {let’s not get into that…} I started to worry that they were losing their French. I had to essentially translate all the directions, and help them write in French everything that they wanted to say. They were taking two steps back and I didn’t like what I was seeing. Fortunately, school opened back up for the last 6 weeks, and everything came flooding back for them.

3. Alcoholic beverages are not only part of every meal, but also part of the culture.

When I say every meal, that means breakfast too. Well, not for everybody. But if you pass a little café in the morning, you are sure to find men and women sitting at a table with a tiny little glass of what appears to be brandy {or a liquor of that variety}, along with an espresso, and of course, a croissant.

From apertifs to digestifs, there are so many options to choose from, often with very visually enticing colors. I have tried several times to have a glass of wine at lunch, because that is how it is done here. But I usually just want to crawl into bed after that and sleep it off! The French tend to counter the wine with a shot of espresso while eating their dessert, and it essentially reverses the effect that the wine has on them, but that obviously takes some practice.

With my profound love for wine, I knew that moving to France would only intensify that relationship. I once read that if you drank a new wine each night, it would take eight years to drink your way through France! There are more than 200 indigenous wine varieties in this county and 307 official wine label names {not including the thousands of independent wineries}, and when you add in all the types of wines under each label, we are talking almost 3,000 different wines. Wine is literally everywhere, and it is considered an everyday drink. A glass of wine is often less expensive {especially if it’s a local appellation} than a soft drink or bottle of sparkling water. Access to so much delicious, inexpensive, local wine, is hands-down one of my favorite things about living here.

One little tidbit I learned while I was taking my French course:: in the past {not so much anymore}, parents used to give their children a tiny amount of wine to drink at dinner in order to introduce the taste of it into their general palate. Wine is such an integral part of life here, that the French didn’t ever not know how it tasted!

4. Learning French is one of the hardest challenges I have ever set out to accomplish.

If you know me, then you know I have a love for foreign languages {and cultures for that matter} and because I am fascinated by them, I work hard to learn them somewhat quickly. I can speak Spanish, and a little bit of Hebrew. But French, that is another story! In October, I began taking an intensive French course at a school in the historic center of Montpellier. I went every day for three hours. I began to see some similarities to Spanish, but the whole speaking thing was entirely different.

There is so much subtlety when speaking this language. So many silent letters. So many different words that have the same meaning. So many words that sound almost exactly the same that have a different meaning. And so much grammar, that truly matters when you are speaking to another person, because speaking proper French is a sign of respect.

It is overwhelming, and my brain would physically ache after three intense hours of listening to it and attempting to speak it each day. After about five months, I reached an intermediary level of French and decided I had learned all I needed to know to “get by” while living here. I also knew that by living in France, some if it would just “come to me,” which I am beginning to experience now. Many friends assume that I must be fluent in French by now. I wish I could say I was! I have a long way to go, and I’m not sure I will ever get there before it’s time to turn back around to Houston. But I am trying, and even though it’s super freaking hard, I have enjoyed learning it.

5. If you’re lucky, your landlords will cook meals for your family.

I’m not really sure anyone else in France has a set-up like us, and I know that we basically hit the jackpot. We live in the back of a row of three houses in the countryside of our village, and our landlords live in the first house. They are an adorable French couple, about our parents’ age, and they are so much more than landlords. They talk to us whenever we cross paths and ask us about our family in Houston. If we have a problem with something in our house, they are almost immediate to come look at the situation and help solve it. The landlady, Rosalie, has made us at least five dinners sporadically throughout the year. She also buys bonbons {candy} for my kids at every major holiday. My favorite gesture was when she brought over homemade bread fresh out of the oven, with homemade olive tapenade just in time for lunch. Of course, that was one of the times I decided to break out a glass of wine.

6. You must embrace all the carbs and dairy, otherwise, there is no point in living here.

Trust me, I have tried to not eat bread and go easy on the cheese. But ultimately, I lose every time. Not because I am craving it, but because those are often the primary foods available to eat if I am not at home. Even salads come with a generous side of fresh baguette, and the salad itself is always topped with lots of cheese, and likely breaded chicken.

On any given day, you will see pedestrians walking around holding a minimum of two fresh baguettes in their hands. They purchase them daily and eat them in one go {probably with family or friends}. They don’t eat store-bought packaged loaves of bread {like I still do}. And cheese is the perfect “finishing touch” to any meal. There are fromageries everywhere, and the amounts and varieties offered are mind-boggling. In my local supermarket, there are at least two aisles dedicated to the sale of cheese alone.

These are just a few dietary staples here, and to avoid them is not only pointless, but causing you to miss out on what it means to eat well in France. There are other ways to cut calories and work on your figure {well, apparently there is because there are tons of beautiful, slim ladies here, but I have yet to discover how they do it!}.

7. Without a doubt, there will always be an illness within the family on a consistent and rotating basis for the entirety of the first year.

No one tells you this when you move to a new country. You might anticipate some illness due to lack of sleep/adjusting to a new time zone, and also potentially from the climate change. But not until after we got here, did we hear about the new “super bugs” you are more susceptible to in a foreign country. That was news to me. In just under two months, I caught such a bad virus {not COVID!} I ended up in the hospital, and it took me over a week to recover.

Both of my kids, who maybe had five ear infections their entire lives, proceeded to get round after round of them. They would either go away and then come right back, or they possibly never fully went away. Our family physician saw one of us on a weekly basis, and I was constantly standing in line at the pharmacy waiting to fill a prescription.

We had other strange illnesses along the way, such as my son breaking out in hives all over his body {the cause is still a mystery}. My daughter ended up with so much mucous and fluid in her head, that we had to flush it all out with a two-month treatment plan! Confinement was almost a blessing in disguise for all of us to just let our immune systems strengthen. Now that it’s been a year, I am crossing my fingers we can all remain healthy for the foreseeable future.

8. Almost all the close friends you make will be either other expats, or not of French origin.

This is not to say that the French are rude and don’t want to be-friend you. It’s a phenomenon that I learned back in 2007, when I lived in Spain for six months. Essentially, the locals have grown up and lived in the same town their entire lives, and they remain in the same circle of friends they have had from the time they were babies. In the end, they don’t have the need to make new friends {unless they move away}, but they will be perfectly nice and happy to help you with anything if you just ask.

I also believe that if we didn’t have a language barrier between us, I would be hanging out with several of the French mothers of my children’s friends, because they seem so warm and fun. In the meantime, I have been fortunate enough to find some very lovely English-speaking friends from countries including England, Canada, India, Russia and, ironically, Spain. I am so very thankful for them, and they have made all the difference for me during this time away from our family and friends back home.

9. You could drive 10 minutes down the road, and be in complete awe of a new, beautiful backdrop.

I tell my kids all the time to look out the window while we are driving and to relish all the beauty, because the truth is, they will probably never live in a more beautiful place the rest of their lives! I can’t even begin to put into words the beauty of this country. It takes my breath away every day. There is so much green and so much color – new flowering trees and bushes and plants that bloom with every season.

Observing the life-cycle of the grapevines in the vineyards in front of my house has been one of my greatest unexpected, and most fascinating joys. Every little village seems to have its own character. Several of the buildings have stood erect for hundreds of years, emanating through their stone walls tales from the past of history, love, hard work and pride of country.

Every time we take a driving trip, we see signs for the next town, with a reason to stop and discover what it has to offer. It is impossible to see it all, but we are doing our very best to see as much as we possibly can while we are here. {You can follow our adventures on Instagram @ebfeinstein}. My husband and I often say things like, “Wow, I can’t believe we live here!” After a whole year, it’s still hard to believe that this is our life right now. We almost have to pinch ourselves to convince our brains that this is not a dream.

10. Slowing down the pace of life is good for your soul.

Perhaps more than any other culture, the French really know how to enjoy life. One expression used very frequently here is “profiter!” It essentially means, “make the most of it.” Yes they work hard, and yes, they have obligations to fulfill. But when it is time to relax, they do it better than most.

Picture three-hour lunches, sitting outdoors, lots of talking and catching up, always a bottle of wine involved, always something deliciously sweet involved, and most importantly, no need to be anywhere else. This happens every day – not just weekends and holidays {although, you better believe they take advantage of those times too!}.

Being one with nature is a huge part of life here. Everyone goes outside. They often find a beautiful body of water in which to bathe, or do water sports. They bring a “pique-nique” with them and find a nice, cozy spot to plop down and remain there for the entire day.

More than ever before, I physically stop and smell the flowers. I take long walks in my gorgeous village with my family and my dog. My family eats most of our meals outside in the backyard. I stop and stare at the most stunning sunsets against a backdrop I will never tire of seeing.

Naturally, since I am American, I still lead a busy life. And there are still many times that I am running around frantically while I notice others doing life the opposite way. However, I have definitely begun to gravitate towards slowing down, and practice living life the French way whenever I possibly can. Life is short. Why not profiter?

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Originally from Denver, Colorado, Emily moved to Sugar Land, Texas as a young girl. She studied journalism and psychology at UT Austin, and has experience in newspaper reporting, technical writing, and freelance writing. When she can, she works on writing her first-ever book. Somehow, Emily randomly ends up living abroad for short stints of time. In 2007, while attempting to heal a broken heart, she moved to Bilbao, Spain, and completed a six-month work-study program. Despite swearing off serious relationships, her husband, Oren, swooped in shortly after her return. They struggled with infertility, but were ultimately rewarded with their two precious children, Mayer {June 2013} and Juliet {April 2015}. In 2019, Emily’s family relocated to Montpellier, France, for Oren’s job. They managed to learn the language, forever spoiled their taste buds, and saw some really beautiful things. Now back in Houston, they are eating all the Tex-Mex and enjoying family.


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