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Moving to France – how to zap the culture shock

Many people dream of making the move to France. It’s a country marinated in culture, blanketed in gorgeous natural landscapes, and famed for its exquisite cuisine. It also has an enviable work-life balance and social safety net. But moving to France involves more than just finding a house near to your favourite bistro.

Moving to France - how to zap the culture shock
Heather, now, and in 2011 after her family's move to France

Before making the move, even before you start properly planning your move, there are a number of things of which you need to be aware, things that will almost certainly give you a jolt of culture shock and for which you need to prepare.

A significant shock is housing, especially in cities, says Heather Hughes, an HR Mobility Consultant for relocation specialists AGS Movers.

“I think for a lot of families, a major difference is that in French cities, many families live in flats or apartments. Many British think of an apartment as somewhere you live in when you’re younger, when you’re either flat-sharing or choosing to live in a city centre because you want to be near the nightlife. But that’s not the way it is in France. Here it’s much more common for families to live centrally in large apartments, and when the kids need to get a bit of fresh air, they simply pop down to the park.”

Take the pain out of your move to France. Plan your relocation with AGS Movers

It’s not just the British that find it strange not to live in a house with a garden. “We met lots of American families who just didn’t understand it, either. In the US, once you get a family – you move to the suburbs. But if the French work in a city, and they have a family, they will live in the city in an apartment. So newcomers from other countries will have to adjust to this difference.”

Heather has herself experienced relocating to France, and that’s why she can empathise with AGS clients who are relocating. It’s a key reason why she loves working in the relocation industry.

“Also you should beware of bureaucracy and administration,” says Heather. “The French administration system can be a bit of a challenge. It’s totally different to the system in the UK.”

“When I moved here permanently in 2011, I thought I’d easily integrate into French life. I was fluent in French and I’d been to university here, so I thought it would be simple. But it wasn’t. It was much trickier than I expected. It was quite bureaucratic.”  

France’s much-vaunted free healthcare system needs patience to negotiate, too, according to Heather.

“Administration-wise, France can be complex. Applying for the carte vitale (the French health insurance card that allows those who have one to have most or all of their health costs either covered or reimbursed by the state) can be frustrating and time-consuming, especially if you’re navigating the waters on your own and don’t speak fluent French. It’s hard to get hold of, but once you have it, it’s very efficient.”

Heather and her family just after their move to France.

But there is a way to lessen culture shock, to reduce stress levels and make the process smoother. Because, according to Heather, the hardest part of moving to France is not the logistical problem of actually moving house, it’s preparing for a completely different way of life.

“When we relocated to France the planning was monumental,” Heather says. “I really advise people to start planning as soon as possible. But the actual nuts and bolts of the physical move were not the things that kept me awake at night. It was all the little details, such as registering in France, sorting out healthcare, and getting our eldest child into an international school. I was also pregnant. So, that was another huge cause of anxiety. What did I need to do to register with the maternity system in France? I knew it was completely different in France. That was such a worry at first.”

And, of course, there’s the language barrier. “You really need at least a little French,” says Heather. “It’s not as if most people can’t speak English, but if you went to an office, unless it was an office of a British company where most of the staff were British, the language would be French. Whereas I think you’d probably find in the Netherlands or some of the Nordic countries you could get away with not speaking the local language, that’s not true in France. I would say you really need to speak a decent, minimum level of French to really integrate in any way.”

Zap that culture shock by planning your move to France with AGS Movers. Get a quote here

But, luckily, Heather had employed a relocation company to help them. “I really appreciated having a relocation specialist to help us. Obviously they packed up our house, and gave us advice on house-hunting, but it was the other stuff, the stuff that had been keeping me awake at nights, that they really helped with. For instance, with finding a school, they take your hand and say, ‘These are your options. This is where you can go. There are these international schools, or you can put your kid into a French state school. We will hold your hand, guide you, and take you through these things.’ They guided us through the whole moving process and all the fine details thereafter. And of course the relocation company also guided me through the labyrinthine process of being pregnant in France. That made such a huge difference.”

There’s been research on cultural integration and the process has been broken down into four stages.

“At first you’re nervous before you go,” says Heather, “and then when you get to your new home, you have this whole excitement of being there, drinking wine with locals, having fun, and you think, ‘Wow, this is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.’

“Then that stage ends and you start to live life normally, and it’s really difficult. Everything is new and hard. And then you’re thinking, ‘I don’t know what I’ve done. This is awful. Everything’s so difficult. Why did I do this? Because I don’t know how to do any of these things that I need to do for everyday life.’ Then eventually that passes and you learn and it becomes normal again. And then, finally, you don’t want to go home because you can’t remember how it works in the country you came from.

“At AGS Movers, we accompany more than 85,000 families with their moving and relocation process every year. We also offer HR services, immigration and destination services to help private clients, as well as supporting employers to enable their employees to transition smoothly. AGS manages every move with professionalism, expertise and experience.”

Make your relocation much less stressful by contacting AGS Movers

Member comments

  1. “The prescription will be fulfilled by a pharmacy and must be paid for; the little price stickers (vignettes) from each medicine should then be stuck on the Feuille de Soins, which is a reimbursement form for medical expenses. It’s all so gloriously complicated.” Not once you are in the system (Ameli). I haven’t had to do the sticker thing you describe for more than 20 years.
    And if you haven’t lived in the UK for 10 years you’ll be shocked by the petty-fogging bureaucracy that now exists. It’s (much) worse than France, because no matter the pleadings in your individual case, or the insanity of the demand, you will get zero flexibility. So change the record, change the stereotype, UK is now much more painfully bureaucratic.
    Vive la France!

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DEPRESSION

Moving to Denmark: The emotional challenges faced by mixed-culture couples

If you are living in a new culture or are in a relationship that crosses between cultures, you might be facing challenges you've not met before. But there are plenty of ways to tackle them, writes our guest columnist Hanne-Berit Hahnemann.

Moving to Denmark: The emotional challenges faced by mixed-culture couples
File photo: Christian Als / Ritzau Scanpix

It’s hard enough being a couple in a world loaded with responsibilities and stressors about children, finances, work, family obligations, etc. As a therapist, I often see couples of mixed cultures who have to withstand the difficulties of one or both adjusting to a new life with numerous challenges, such as having to create new social networks, learning a new language, and adjusting to new cultural norms.

The many small social cues that we become so accustomed to we take for granted, until we find ourselves in a new culture where the rules are completely different. When we are thrust into new cultural situations, we often misread the signals. For instance, small talk is generally much less prevalent in Denmark than in the U.S. This we may perceive as people being inaccessible and unfriendly.

It is similar within the “mixed couple”. Couples with partners from different countries can find themselves struggling with some of the same issues inside their relationship.

Different native languages within a couple can limit the couple’s deeper understanding of each other. The feelings of alienation or being “other” in a different culture can be transferred to the relationship and feed misunderstanding and a lack of connection.

Consider – for instance – the ongoing effects on the couple which differs significantly on levels of independence-interdependence.

One aspect of interdependence is an assumption that our partner should understand and react to our needs without being asked. A more independent person, on the other hand, may assume that the only reasonable way of behaving is to clearly communicate your needs, and to then negotiate around how to get these needs met.

Such a combination of traits can often cause confusion and disappointment when you feel unheard or misunderstood. We tend to expect our partners to at least hear us, to at least try to understand what we are communicating.

In my practice, I often see that such frustrations can lead to anger and judgment of the other.

Over time, cultural differences can wear on a couple in ways that are quite unique to the mixed couples’ situation. Even slight differences in beliefs can cause couples to repeatedly argue over apparently mundane things, like who does the dishes or who picks up the kids from daycare. Or less mundane disagreements, such as those related to religious and spiritual beliefs. Culture influences us in ways we often are quite unaware of.

Upside

There is a significant upside to these difficulties, however. Much like living abroad, living with a partner from a different culture can help you open yourself up to new possibilities and a deeper understanding and appreciation of others. Mixed culture couples must discover that the set of rules they learned growing up is just one of many.

The effort and mutual respect it takes to successfully make room for the other person’s values is often rewarded with a closer and deeper relationship that can better withstand life’s trials and tribulations.

It does require work to get there. You must be willing to look both at yourself and your partner with openness to the differences and a willingness to explore. As an expat, perhaps you already have these qualities?

If you and your partner struggle with cultural differences, here are some things you can do. Being as aware of the conflicts as possible is really useful. Only when you have identified the problem can you do something about it. This means becoming aware of your own values, as well as your partners.

I often give couples the following homework: Set aside at least one hour a week to spend together without distractions. During this hour, you are to practice listening to the other without judgment or disagreement. So, you can ask questions, you can repeat and you can reflect. This means asking questions to explore and deepen your understanding, not to voice your judgment or disagreement. Repeat what the person said, but in your own words, then wait for them to respond and add more to their message. Finally, reflect on what the other person has expressed, and see if you can express this reflection without judgment or condescension.

It takes practice and effort, but with time you can begin to change the way you communicate!

Hanne-Berit Hahnemann has a Master's degree in clinical counselling with a supervisory license from Cleveland State University and many years of experience in private practice in the United States. As an expat herself, she specialises in internationals and the challenges that come with moving to another country. She sees clients at the MacFarlane Psychology Group, a Copenhagen practice offering psychotherapy in English.

 

READ ALSO: Why moving to Denmark can cause feelings of loneliness – and what you can do to feel better

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