Letters from France: first impressions of our new French life

The trials and tribulations of a Canadian family's new life in France

by Bea Cińska
Published: Last Updated on
French life

The wide-eyed wonder of a first impression is a one-time deal. Pondering this fact the other day, I was kicking myself for not having started blogging about our new French life immediately when we first arrived in France. My remorse was brought on by my guilty pleasure of having binge watched Emily in Paris last week. Yeah, yeah – I know what you’re thinking and I am with you. Yes, the show might be full of exaggerated stereotypes about France as seen by Americans and is dripping with cheese (pun intended!). But it has a certain je ne sais quoi – a freshness of a new adventure. And I love fresh accounts of new experiences! They are always so fun to watch and read! 

As I was bemoaning my lack of prescience all those years ago I then remembered. Even though we did not blog at the time, we did document our experiences in various ways. Since I love writing, I wrote tons of notes to a small group of friends back in Canada over the years. Well, they were more like letters really since I seem to struggle with brevity when I am excited about something. And what could be more exhilarating than moving to a new country? 

With glee, I dug out my letters from the obscurity of private messages. Reading them now, all these years later, memories flooded back. I laughed at some of them, I felt sad at others. So much has happened in these past few years. 

I took those old messages and I corrected all my spelling mistakes and cut out the irrelevant things. But I left the thrill of discovery of our new French life. The result is a lively mish-mash of our first experiences after moving to France. A lot of them are fun but some just show the reality of living in a different country. It’s not always sunshine and butterflies. It’s just life. Life in a new country. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Without further ado, here is a collection of snippets of letters and notes to friends back home about the trials and tribulations of our new French life.

Our French life in Aix-en-Provence

Table of contents

And so our French life begins

Hello, France! Here we are, ready to learn, absorb and explore! Please be kind to our jet-lagged selves!

First steps in France

Hi Friends!!! I wanted to give you a quick update about what’s been going on with us since we got here. We basically have been taking care of formalities since day one. Which means a lot of learning of new rules and some running around. However, everyone has been super nice and helpful and things are moving forward. 

We move into our French apartment

We have our apartment. It’s in a 17th century building, but has had things added to it including a recent reno in the last few decades (yep – that is considered recent in Europe!). It’s one of the coolest accommodations we’ve ever lived in. The town itself was set up more than a 100 years BC by a Roman consul, so we’re living in a two thousand plus year old town! There will be lots to discover for sure. 

Tomette tiles in Aix-en-Provence

Feeling fancy on the French Riviera

Since I last talked to you we managed to go on a three-day holiday to Monaco / Monte Carlo with my brother and his girlfriend. It was very nice, super fancy and expensive. Didn’t run into James Bond unfortunately – maybe next time! On the way there we saw signs to turn off the highway to St Tropez, Cannes and Nice. We’ll need to visit those soon!

Kas cried when they didn’t let his six-year old self into the Monte Carlo casino. I mean, he was dressed to kill and all in his fancy suit. Luckily an ice cream assuaged all hurt feelings.

We signed up kiddo for school in France

We managed to sign Kas up for school today. The French school system is completely different from the Canadian one. Maternelle (Kindergarten) is three years long, starts at three years of age and ends at age five. At six years of age kids start elementary school and the equivalent of our grade 1 is called CP or Cours Preparatoire. So that’s where Kas will be this year. We got him on the meal program or “cantine” and we do have to pay for it, however, it’s relatively inexpensive. There is no school on Wednesday afternoons, and normally French kids do an extracurricular activity at that time. Everything is super close, K’s school is going to be half a kilometre from our place.

School in France

Aix-en-Provence is filled with creative types

People we spend the most time with lately are K’s best friend’s mom J from the States, she’s mid 40s but has been living in France since her early 20s. Her ex is French. We see him a lot too as he’s involved in his son’s life. Both are artists – mostly musicians, but J started painting last year and boy, is she good at it. Pete made the mistake of telling her I painted too, which clearly is nothing like her art. Then we have A, our English friend whose daughter goes to school with Kas. A is an aspiring writer. I tell you, there’s so many artists here, successful or aspiring, I am starting to feel like I should take up something artistic.

Yesterday we hired a babysitter, Delphine, a psychology student. She’ll start tomorrow, so we can go out on dates or go to poetry readings put on by our new friends … 😉

I think I can get used to this French life …

Eating too much cheese and baguettes in France

Do you remember Eat Pray Love? I feel like I have been living the Eat chapter since I got here. It’s hard not to. The cheeses, the baguettes, the wine!  If you are what you eat then I am a lot of stinky cheese and bread. Haha! Needless to say, the 4-Hour Body will have to be reinstituted, and very soon, or this will end badly.

French cheeses at a farmers market in Aix

Culture shock in France

It’s not like we didn’t know about life in France being very different from life in Canada. For goodness’ sake, we did part of our growing up in Europe! But still adjusting to live with these changes was not easy. But it was definitely a lot of fun!

Everything is tiny!

Hi Friends!!! I have a funny update. Everything is super tiny in France! Or maybe it’s just in the historical centre of Aix-en-Provence where we live. Apartments are small compared to the giant houses in Canada. Streets are super narrow. So narrow that a city bus is more like a van. And the garbage truck looks like a toy. And it still barely fits on the narrow streets of the town centre! 

We were having lunch yesterday in a tiny sandwicherie. There were two tables set out outside so we squeezed around one of them. But we had to get a third chair and I ended up sitting on the actual street which was like three metres wide, haha! And then a tiny garbage truck was driving by and I had to fold my chair, get off the street and flatten myself against the wall so that it could drive by without turning me into a pancake. I lived to tell the tale!

Everything is tiny in France!

Everyone smokes in France

Everyone smokes in France. Or so it seems. We feel enveloped by clouds of cigarette smoke and it’s disturbing. This grey haze brings back memories of my Polish grandfather smoking like a chimney. I am reminded of my English teacher in high school in Spain smoking during class directly into my face. And of the smoke clouds in the bars in Canada when I turned 18. And of Vegas casinos. Since all those years ago, I have not experienced public smoking. But it is alive and well in France! It feels like we just went back 20 years in time just by getting on a plane and flying half across the world. This will be tough to get used to.

Learning Franglish

There is one thing we weren’t expecting and that is how many English words the French stick into their daily life. Not that these words always make sense. Besides the usual suspects, we have strange words that come from English but the French have bastardized them to make them their own. One restaurant proudly displays a sign on their front window proclaiming that they provide “exciting fooding”. Yep, apparently fooding is a thing

Then there is Pain & Snack. Are both words in English? Or just the second one? Pain in French means bread but I have a dreary feeling that before I get a sandwich, pain will be inflicted upon me. Pass! I will never set foot in that establishment!

Then there is a dry cleaner’s shop called Must Pressing. Must you really?? These two words do not go together!!!! Please, stop!!! I cannot take it anymore! Grammatical errors have a funny way of sticking in my head and haunting me at night!

These are just a few examples of strange Franglish in France. Now I understand why Quebec is so protective of the purity of the French language. So many things could go wrong if you start introducing foreign words without really knowing what they mean.

Don’t miss lunch!

Last Sunday we went for a hike. On the way back we were starving seeing as it was already after 2 PM. We saw a pizzeria off to the side of the road with a gorgeous backdrop of a mountain called Sainte-Victoire. 

We parked. The parking lot was empty. Since this restaurant was in the middle of nowhere we did not find that strange. We walked in, saw a table of people and waited to be seated. Instead the people at the only occupied table turned and glared at us. Finally someone said: “Qu’est ce que vous voulez? C’est fermé!” (What do you want? It’s closed!) Right! These were staff having their lunch after working tirelessly for the past few hours.

We sheepishly walked back to our car and drove home with rumbling stomachs. Lesson learned! Eat when everyone else is eating. This is a very important part of French life!

Here’s the moral of the story. The French stick to their meal times like their lives depend on it. If you miss the lunch window which is between noon and 2 PM, you are on your own. I guess that is how they keep their waistlines so trim!

French lifestyle

Crime fighting, French-style

Do you know what a Twizy is? I didn’t either until yesterday when I observed an undercover French policeman (I hope he was a policeman!) arrest a young man splayed out over one. 

We were just innocently having a nice meal in one of the cute little cafes in Place des Augustins when out of nowhere we noticed a commotion in one of the side streets. Literally two metres from where we were sitting! At first I thought it was horseplay by two friends. One was pushing the other onto this tiny vehicle which looked like a giant stroller. I later found out it was actually a tiny electric Renault car. 

Well, it was all very peculiar until one of them handcuffed the other overtop that ridiculous looking vehicle. When we realized what was going on we exploded in laughter at the absurdity of what was happening next to us. I mean, I get it, an arrest is not funny. What was funny was how subdued it all was and overtop that tiny ridiculous vehicle! It was like a French comedy! Completely opposite of the big tough American cop, guns blazing, everyone knows he’s the boss! OK, I may have watched too many Hollywood movies. Guilty!

Kas starts school in France and the strange kid pick-up ritual

On Tuesday Kas started school. There are a few poignant differences at first glance, without even mentioning the meals they get. I think for me, the weirdest is the drop off and pick up of kids. Basically parents and kids gather on the street in front of the school which is so narrow nothing can drive by once parents and kids block it off. Then the kids penetrate through a tiny doorway (which takes forever since maybe two of them might be able to fit at once). Once the kids are all in, they lock up the school. 

At pick up it’s even crazier. They ask the kids to stick out their head through the tiny doorway to check if they can see their mom or dad. One at a time. Then they’re allowed to go. But if they don’t see their parents, they go back in and the next head pops out. You can see how lengthy and ridiculous this becomes. You could stand there for half an hour waiting for your kid’s head to show up. Maybe because we live in the old historical centre that we have this experience. Maybe in newer areas they have better designed schools. Regardless, this has been super funny to watch. Like an anthropological study of an unfamiliar tribe …

Even cookies have their own festivals in France

This weekend is a very important festival here in Aix. It’s celebrating the local delicacy called callison which is a pastry, a cookie really. They’re going to be giving it out for free so you know what we’ll be doing this weekend.

France loves Quebec

Also, we found some interesting things out. So France loves Quebec. So much so, that if you are a Quebecer, you can get health care coverage here in France and they welcome you with open arms. I think the French secretly think Quebec is part of France! Even with our EU passports from other countries we can’t get health coverage that easily. We can still do it but it is much easier for Quebecers. The French love Quebec that much! 

When a French person hears we’re from Canada, they ask “Are you from Quebec?” When we say no, that we’re from Manitoba, they get a little disappointed because they have never heard of it. But once we tell them Manitoba has the fourth largest francophone population in Canada and polar bears they nod in admiration. 

a plaque to Quebec in Aix-en-Provence

The “crazy flour man”

The most famous and beloved baker in this town (yes, the French love their bakers) is from Quebec. His bakery is called Le Farinoman Fou. The French love him. But his bread is different so maybe that’s why. The man even blogs about bread and life in general. We’ve never actually met him because he apparently loves to work nights (a baker’s trait I am afraid). However, we’ve heard about him around town before we ever set foot in his bakery. He’s like an elusive enigma. Is he even real? 

First, I don’t recall who told us we had to try his bread. Then, when we were signing Kas up for school, the clerk guy at the mayor’s office, who at first said we were missing some info and needed this or other, as soon as he heard we were from Canada, he decided to be helpful. He said: “You must go meet my friend le farinoman, “the flour man”. Tell him, so and so says hi. We do yoga together.” Haha! 

Then, I hurt my back and went to see an osteopath. When he found out I was from Canada, he said, “my friend and patient is from Canada, le farinoman”. So funny! He’s like a hero in Aix-en-Provence, everyone name-drops when it comes to this local celebrity baker!

Living in France

I met a French Superwoman

I’ve been meeting new people, a lot of French women, through a language exchange website and through an English bookstore here in town. We meet one on one at least once a week to exchange English and French conversation. 

One woman I’ve met has intrigued me. I have never met any woman like her that I can think of. She is 49, a single mother of a young adult daughter. She is dainty and elegant and well-spoken. But, her professional and personal life are a contrast to her appearance. 

She works for the military police, has three masters degrees – in psychology, ergonomics and human resources. On top of that, she owns a consulting company that trains pilots in stressful situations, like near-crash and crash. In fact, she just did a week in the Alps running a training session with a bunch of pilots, pretending they crashed and they had to build shelter from what was available in order to survive while waiting for help. 

On top of that, she is a volunteer fire-fighter. And she bought an apartment last year and has been renovating it with her own bare hands. And she looks ten year younger than 49. I can’t believe she is real. I think I am in love! 

No time to read now? Pin it for later!

Where is David Guetta?

Something crazy cool happened yesterday. Pete and I went on a date to a winery.  I bought a groupon in December as a Christmas present for Pete and we finally got to go to this winery 15 minutes out of town. Anyways, there was not much choice left in when we could go, so we had to go yesterday for a 10:30 AM tour and tasting. Never too early for wine I guess! Anyways, we were a small group of seven people, one older couple and some single 50+ guy, us and another couple that looked more or less our age. 

We asked them to recommend a restaurant for lunch after dousing ourselves with wine in the morning. Instead of recommending one, they said they would love to have lunch with us. So they took us to this super cute French restaurant in the nearby town of Tholonet. 

We talked. They proceeded to tell us their life stories. Then they gave us some sightseeing advice. And then the guy invited us to his upcoming birthday party which will take place on Tuesday right by our place. He then told us that he’s a DJ of some renown here in France, and he still DJs once a week and only in this place by our apartment. Then he said that he knows David Guetta who apparently happens to live in Eguilles, which is 20 minutes away from us. So, of course, we were like: “Yeah, we’ll go to your birthday party … and erm … will David Guetta be in attendance??”  

Anyways, we’re trying to arrange babysitting so we can go to this thing on Tuesday. And to top it off, he paid for our lunch, even after we said we would pay, he said, “No, I have to pay because I invited you”. Interesting!

In France, you don’t have to run away to join the circus

Kas goes to judo twice a week and piano lessons once a week outside of school. But as of last month, every Tuesday, the school buses them to a circus, where they learn acrobatic gymnastics. Yep, circus training is part of the elementary school curriculum in France! And starting this Thursday for the rest of the school year, they have mandatory swimming lessons once a week. One less thing we have to pay for. 

Balloons in Aix-en-Provence

Adjusting to our new French life

Eventually you have to learn how to live with the differences. It can be both exhilarating and frustrating at times. But we tackle our French life with enthusiasm!

Making our first new friends in France

Things have been good so far. This week was quite a whirlwind of new experiences. On the first day of school, a mother walked up to me and said in English in an American accent: “I heard you speaking English, are you American?” and so it began. She introduced us to an English mother, who in turn invited me to coffee with the French moms the next morning. 

Yesterday, Pete and I were walking down the street after dropping Kas off and we ran into one of the moms I met at coffee on Wednesday. She said: “Come for coffee now, we’re meeting other people right now.” (yes, it sounded like an order!). So off we went for coffee and we met some of the same moms and some new ones. Including one mom who is Canadian of Polish descent who is married to a man from England (where Pete was born), so of course we all got quite excited about the connections.  

At this coffee gathering, one French mom whom I had met two days earlier, said she was going to NYC for three months and she’s having a little bye-bye soirée and she invited us. So last night we attended our first party. Kids were invited too. She hired a babysitter and kids went upstairs while adults stayed on the lower level. It was so lovely, we met even more people. One of them was an English fashion photographer, a super funny guy. We also met a Spanish woman from Valencia so I was able to chat in Spanish with her. We met a super amazing French woman with Algerian roots.  She was so beautiful and had the most amazing stories to tell about her life.

Life in Aix-en-Provence

Learning French is a must

My French sucks. I need to find a coffee buddy who wants to exchange English convo for French. It’s quite common in this town, there’s tons of Americans and Brits, professors, students, and so on.

I need to practice French a lot more so I can integrate better into local life. I guess, I feel like I am caught in purgatory, not quite wholeheartedly in heaven yet. But there’s gotta be a transition period. And I’ve gone through these before, once in Spain and once in Canada. My French transition has been the easiest by far in many ways. It has its own unique difficulties, and really others would call them blessings. But I like to pick everything apart and analyze it and question it. Just my crazy nature, I guess. 🙂

Frustrated with my slowly progressing French, I signed myself up for a two-week French course. I was in it the last two weeks of March, every morning for three and a half hours. Plus we had some social events in the evenings. It was great. I met a lot of cool people from all over the world and a variety of backgrounds. Made some new friends out of it too. 

French flag

Thumbs up for the French school system

I love the French school system, I have to admit. A lot of other Anglo moms and some French moms are complaining a lot about it. Mostly about how much homework there is, etc. But honestly K’s homework in grade 2 takes anywhere between 15 minutes – 45 minutes (depending on how cranky he gets doing it). 

The homework is mostly learning how to spell 20 words per week in perfect calligraphy which the teacher dictates each Monday to see if the kids learned the words the week before. There’s math twice a week in a big workbook. There’s a big variety in math, but calculations in your head are a big deal for the French. They’re tested on that twice a week. Plus this year they’re learning more advanced geometry, with measuring angles using drafting triangles, protractors, drawing perfect circles with a compass. 

Kas loves math. If you ask him what he likes best at school, he’ll tell you “math and running”. Haha! And his entire class is made up of kids who passed last year’s audition process in order to get music education by professors from the Music Conservatory in Aix-en-Provence right in their school. 

And this year, we are taking full advantage of half school Wednesdays by having all of K’s weekday extra-curricular activities on Wed afternoons. This way, his evenings are completely his own every weekday and there’s more consistency with bed time, etc. But my favourite thing in the school system is the two weeks off every six weeks. It lends itself beautifully to our traveling lifestyle.

A new French apartment: finding beauty in imperfections

I’ve been meaning to write to you for a while, but I am finally getting to it now. Our biggest news is that we moved a month ago. The apartment you see posted on Facebook was the one we rented when we got here. It was beautiful but had several flaws. It did not have any outdoor space, it got very little sun and the floor had not been replaced since it was built centuries ago and there were slopes in the floor and sometimes we would trip on a slightly raised tile. Well, mostly me. Haha! 

The French love these floors and they never throw out these original hexagonal floor tiles, they keep on reusing them, which I think is awesome. Anyways, we moved only one street over. We’re still in the historical centre, but the building was actually built in this century, but made to look “old” in order to blend it with surrounding architecture. We now have a balcony – YAY!!!! And we finally have straight floors – YIPPEE!!!! We have a bathtub – WOOHOO!!!! A walk-in closet finished with wood and a built in mirror – UNHEARD OF IN EUROPE!!!

This apartment seems a bit smaller than the last (maybe because the ceilings are a regular height). It still has two bedrooms but only one bathroom. And most importantly, the bathroom is now in the bathroom as opposed to in the bedrooms as was the case in our last place … That was odd and mildly disturbing. 

Our balcony looks onto a beautiful large courtyard full of trees and shrubs and people’s little patios. There’s probably eight buildings in total looking onto this courtyard. Each one different, built in a different century, heights of buildings are different, windows at different heights. The buildings are all attached, it’s quite a beautiful mish mash.

Our French apartment

Trouble in paradise: cracks appear in our French life

Our North-American licence plate gets stolen

Something funny happened. Now that our Canadian car finally arrived in Europe, we’ve been searching for a parking spot. It’s really tough to find one and they can be very expensive. Some of them are 500 euros a month. I don’t know if they’re covered in gold flecks or what, I don’t know who has that money to waste on a spot. 

While searching for one close by and reasonably priced, we’ve been parking on a street near this nice park. And some “collector” has stolen our front licence plate. I guess a North American licence plate sticks out like a sore thumb here. Then the other day, someone tried to rip off the back one. They tried so hard they bent it in half almost. We reported it to the police. Apparently it happens a lot to foreign plates. 

In Europe, it’s apparently illegal to have your license plate screwed in. Here they use a special nail gun to affix it. Anyways, it looks like now we can have the missing one replaced locally with our old numbers but on a European looking plate. So bizarre. I won’t believe it until I see it. We’re trying to register our car here but we need to do a bureaucratic song and dance first which might take some time before we can manage to do so.

Trying to get things done in France takes patience

The last few days things started to get better. Our apartment has finally received its move-in cleaning. A month after we moved in! Better late than never! It took a day and a half to clean a place less than a thousand square feet by a team of four. That’s right. I guess a 17th century place not cleaned since the 18th century takes that long to clean, haha! Our landlord paid for it. He also paid for a new couch (the old one was permeated with cigarette smoke). 

We were complaining a lot, I don’t think the French are used to such demanding tenants, haha! Oh well. Now our place is starting to feel more like a home.

Rrefraction photo Aix-en-Provence

No one bullies my baby!

There have been some bad times. Kas was being bullied at school for about a week and a half by a girl from an older class. She was being both verbally and physically abusive towards him and his new BFF, an American boy. We had to write a letter to the school. They took care of it and all is good now. It really took the wind from under my wings. No one hurts my baby! Because of that, and some other stuff, we had a couple of bad weeks. Mostly Kas and I. I live vicariously through him.

Being sick in a foreign country is scary

Hi Friends! Just wanted to let you know that I’ve been missing you a lot. We’re going through a scary time right now. Pete has severe bronchitis that landed him in emergency two days ago because of breathing problems. He’s on a bunch of meds and I am taking care of him. We’ve barely slept the last two nights. Our new friends have been very helpful with Kas. 

I attended my first demonstration in France

That was scary. What happened in Paris with the Charlie Hebdo publication. Once I heard Aix-en-Provence was organizing a demonstration in solidarity with Paris and all of France, I knew I had to go. What a powerful feeling! Je suis Charlie.

Charlie Hebdo demonstration Aix-en-Provence

Union strikes are part of French life

Wow! I knew about the frequency and magnitude of French union strikes but I had no idea how disruptive they could be to citizens’ lives. Of course, the French take them in stride because it is a sacred right of all French people to strike and demand their rights. How have we been affected so far? For us it has mostly had to do with school life. If the cantine staff are striking then Kas doesn’t get to eat a warm French lunch. Or if the teachers are striking, there is no school. But it sucks a lot when your train or flight gets cancelled although luckily we’ve not yet had to travel during a general strike.

Kiddo has problems at school

Kas just went through a tough time again. We knew he obviously needed some time to adjust but we did not realize how affected he really was. His behaviour has been uncharacteristically bad at school. Apparently he was misbehaving so badly during a school outing last week, that his teacher banned him from another school trip this week. This is very much unlike his normal self.

Anyways, long story short, during a heart-to-heart with Kas last week, he told me he was mad at us for selling our house in Winnipeg and how are we ever going to get it back. He also thought Pete was going to die from bronchitis and was scared. He had never seen his dad so weak and helpless. It was heart-breaking. 

My resilient little kid

Kas is normally very happy and social and a leader. But here he’s had to figure out what’s going on from scratch with learning a new language and culture. So basically, last week was K’s lowest low in his life so far. I think he needed that. Since then, we ask the teacher every day how his day went and she is very pleased with him. And it makes him happy to hear her say that about him.

She also said she finds him very intelligent and that he is making fantastic progress in French. In fact, he can actually read better in French than in English at this point in time. When I told Kas what she said about him being smart, he thought I was making it up. That’s how low his self-esteem has gotten. But at the same time, since that conversation with the teacher last week, he seems to have changed overnight. Back to his usual good behaviour and being happy. 

What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger

For the first time in a long time Kas said he had the “best day ever” after coming home from school yesterday (he’s had several best days ever so far in his life, haha). Incidentally, this was the day his class went to the movies and he was banned because of last week. While they were gone, they put him with kids in a grade higher for a few hours. The kids were having an English lesson and the teacher asked Kas if he wanted to talk about Christmas in Canada. He loves being the centre of attention so he went to the front of the class and taught the older kids about Canadian Christmas. And they sang carols in English. He was very happy. So basically something negative has turned into something positive.

First lockdown in France: what is happening?

Friends! Hope you’re all doing okay with everything that’s been going on.

We’re under a full lockdown here in France. We can’t leave home without special papers or we face a €135 fine. We have only five reasons for being able to go outside:

  • work
  • medical reasons
  • groceries
  • help others
  • exercise (not in a group) or walking pets

Missing home: I begin to miss Canada

Dear Friends!

Overall, I love being here in France. But my heart and mind seem to still mostly be in frozen Winnipeg. Why wouldn’t they? You guys are there! It takes years to cultivate deep friendships and it’s definitely hard not having you guys close by. The other two ladies I hang out with are great, but they’re not you guys. 

Life here is different. It keeps you on your toes. I like it that way. Some things I could probably do away with but I guess they are necessary to appreciate the simple things in life. Pete’s illness was so unexpected and crazy and scary. Being alone in a new country where my language skills are not great, with a challenge like that, was freaky. I am so thankful for our new friends. Without them, I don’t know what I’d do. It has made me appreciate more what my parents went through moving first to Spain then to Canada with three kids. How scary that must have been for them? And now I also have an appreciation for people who take care of sick relatives for prolonged periods of time. I did it for ten days and had enough.

I visit Canada after a year in France

How are you all? Let me begin by saying that my visit to Winnipeg this past September has been the highlight of my autumn. I had the greatest time. And I am so thankful to have you guys as my friends. I’m already starting to miss you all again so I’ve decided to do another update.

Living in Europe for the past year has been exciting and different. And I don’t just mean the traveling that’s so easily accessible and affordable unlike in Canada. Everything is so different, sometimes beautiful, sometimes annoying and sometimes downright ugly. I do have to admit, I am still going through a culture shock over here. It’s funny, because I was born on this continent and I spent the first 16 years of my life here. 

In Europe, you could drive for an hour or two and end up in a completely different culture with people speaking a different language. So to me, living here is very different as compared to the Europe I grew up in. Not to mention that was over 20 years ago. I think, personally, the biggest part of adjusting for me is how people relate to each other. They are polite and helpful, but not warm and inviting like Canadians. Not right away anyways. They take their time to let you into their lives properly. I do need my close friendships and of course those take years to foster. So I miss you guys.  

But we love our French life!

It may not all be sunshine and rainbows but we love our new French life!

And then things get better

Things are good. Kas is thriving at school. Still not fluent in French but pretty good. His accent is amazing. He can read very nicely (not necessarily understanding all that he’s reading). From what I hear, he’s the best at math in his class. Thank you, Montessori school in Winnipeg! He now plays with French kids as well. Before he was glued to his American/French best friend. 

My “French-Canadian” husband totally fits in France

Pete’s doing very well. He totally fits in. His French is great, his Acadian accent is beloved by many here. He’s like the Australian guy in North America LOL. Top that with his Mediterranean colouring and he’s a shoo-in. He can even argue like a Frenchman. Yes, it’s quite OK to yell here to get things done. Definitely not considered rude. In fact, you might get yelled at by someone you know well and the next moment it’s like nothing happened and you’re friendly again. Spain, where I did part of my growing up, is similar but I can’t get used to it. Pete has made some friends of his own and we share a lot of other friends of course.

Junior high school in France

I’ve got some awesome news! We just found out Kas passed his entrance exam into an English program at a local junior high. It’s the only public junior high school or collège with an English international program in town. There’s lots of competition to get in. We’re so proud of him. He worked so hard the last few months. It wasn’t easy as he’s never really done school in English before. The program has some subjects in English but most are in French. The kids come out fully bilingual and often come in that way too but not necessarily. Yay for Kas!

College Mignet Aix-en-Provence

We love living in Aix-en-Provence!

So, long story short, we love it here. Yes, there are so many things wrong (or different) in France but honestly the good outweighs the bad (or different). No place is perfect I guess. We are not sure how long we’ll stay here but for now, we’re enjoying it. There’s a certain charm to Aix-en-Provence. This is the only city I’ve ever lived in that when I come back I actually say: “This town is more beautiful or has more to offer than the place we just visited”.

What I especially love about being here, besides the look and feel of the town (cute and cozy and happening all at the same time) is its size and walkability. It takes about five minutes to walk Kas to school. Fifteen minutes away from our doorstep by car, we have the best hiking including small mountain climbing. In September, we discovered a fantastic beach. Most in the area are tiny but this one is not only bigger but surrounded by rocky cliffs, upon one of which sits a beautiful tiny ancient chapel. And the colour of the water in the Mediterranean is surreal. And Marseille is amazing with its North African flair, the people and the food. 

Our French life in Aix-en-Provence

Final Word: Years later, we are still in France

What was supposed to be a temporary stay in France has turned into a continuing adventure. How long will we stay here? Will we ever return to Canada? Only time will tell.

Do you know what made us move to Aix-en-Provence in the first place? It was a book. Yep. A novel entitled “Ysabel” by the Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay. It’s a fantasy novel so when we were reading it and were mesmerized by the description of the town, I thought they were just a figment of the author’s imagination. But then we discovered this place was real. And since we’re crazy and daring, we decided to spend some time living there. 

And so we planned our biggest digital nomad escape to date: our French life adventure! We packed our bags and armed with our EU passports (we are lucky to have both been born in Europe), having sold most of our earthly possessions in Canada, we made the move. Without ever having visited Aix-en-Provence before. It was all based on our trust of Mr Kay’s writing. And we weren’t disappointed. The gap year turned into many years of fabulous third-culture experiences. And we are still here in the south of France loving every minute of it. The good, the bad and everything in between.

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Our French life in Aix-en-Provence

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18 comments

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Nina January 18, 2022 - 4:29 pm

When I first moved to Italy and then to Germany I was similarly shocked at how small everything was. What do you mean my apartment is just wide enough for me to spread my arms?? Where’s the giant fridge and laundry?? :p

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Bea Cińska
Bea Cińska January 19, 2022 - 4:20 pm

Haha! Exactly right on the money!!

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Nina January 11, 2022 - 2:23 pm

I love learning about Franglish! I never knew they spoke with some English too.

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Bea Cińska
Bea Cińska January 12, 2022 - 2:06 pm

I was shocked how many English words had snuck into French!

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Piotr January 10, 2022 - 3:50 pm

Wow! What can I say? This is a fantastic article! Having moved countries and continents myself, I appreciate the accuracy of the picture you painted of the French life. I especially enjoyed reading about the various aspects of living in a foreign country that you described.

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Bea Cińska
Bea Cińska January 11, 2022 - 12:04 pm

Thank you so much! I am glad you enjoyed the long read. 🙂

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Malin Razali January 9, 2022 - 2:26 am

Beautiful! What a thorough description of what’s is like living in France! Sounds like a very interesting French adventure..

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Bea Cińska
Bea Cińska January 9, 2022 - 8:51 am

We are having a great time, still years later. Moving to France was probably the best thing we’ve ever done. 🙂

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Paula Martinelli January 8, 2022 - 11:06 pm

I love your letters – and being lived in a different part of the world myself, I feel you. I love the fact that everything in France is tiny..haha…I felt the same way when I moved to England, then I moved to the USA and I felt that everything was huge. Thanks for sharing your honest review of living in France, I worked in France for many years, and I feel that it was my second home for a while.

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Bea Cińska
Bea Cińska January 9, 2022 - 7:28 am

Haha, thank you, Paula! Every time I go back for a visit in Canada, everything feels uncommonly huge. We’ve not been back since the start of the pandemic so I feel like our next visit will be especially jarring.

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Mayi January 8, 2022 - 10:33 pm

Haha… I had fun reading this. As a Parisian who moved to London, I have the opposite yet similar impressions of the UK. You hit the nail on the head when you mentioned Quebec being the protector of proper French. It’s true, people don’t care in France, and we use lots of “English” the wrong way: baby foot, talkie-walkie, pressing…

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Bea Cińska
Bea Cińska January 9, 2022 - 7:31 am

Haha! Yes, thank you for the reminder! Baby-foot, etc!!! There are so many English words that have snuck into French, I find some French people don’t even realize they are English words!

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Hailey | The Restless Adventurer January 8, 2022 - 5:36 pm

I loved all the photos in this post! Living in France looks amazing.

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Bea Cińska
Bea Cińska January 9, 2022 - 7:34 am

Thanks, Hailey! It definitely is an adventure!

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Cristina January 8, 2022 - 4:37 pm

I found your article interesting to read! I am also an ex-pat, and I can relate to some of the things you said. Learning the language is definitely a must. I would love to experience the French life one day 🙂

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Bea Cińska
Bea Cińska January 9, 2022 - 7:32 am

Yes, for sure! I am still working hard at polishing my French all these years later.

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Terri January 8, 2022 - 4:26 pm

I absolutely love this anthology of past letters sent to friends and family. Brilliant!

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Bea Cińska
Bea Cińska January 9, 2022 - 7:33 am

Thank you, Terri! I couldn’t if I wanted to recreate the genuine surprise of the newness of first arriving in France. Hence the dug out letters from the past.

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