Should we stay or should we go?
Facing the challenges of expat life – Living in Bordeaux, France by American Mom in Bordeaux
We moved here in October 2011 with a one year plan that quickly turned into a 2 year plan. This was definitely an adventure move. Uprooting ourselves from our beautiful, thriving upstate NY life and moving ourselves all the way across the ocean to France was huge. New country, new culture, new language – everything would change.
Yes, my husband is French and we had always spoken of doing a sabbatical year at some point in France or a French-speaking country to give our girls a chance to become bilingual and get to know the other side of their heritage. So when the opportunity presented itself it was hard to say no.
But, for me being the American I never looked at our move beyond the 2 year plan. We would be going back. I didn’t have to totally say goodbye as we would be returning. It was hard enough to say “See you in a while – a year or two”. We had spent 13 years in Saratoga Springs and 5 years prior just North of there in the Adirondack Mountains – but Saratoga & Albany were “our cities” when we needed things. Almost 20 years of building our adult and family life.
That was how I felt when we moved here – maximum two years and that’s it!
But then this past winter we were faced with the decision of staying and making my husband’s job here permanent or returning back to the Saratoga area, where my husband could resume his previous job. (He had been able to take up to a 2 year leave of absence).
To stay or not to stay?
I will say – this was not an easy decision and one that took much reflection. I share this reflection to help others understand some of our reasons.
I know many families have their own unique situations – but I also share these reasons, as I have had many inquiries from people who are interested in making a similar move abroad so maybe this will help others too. Again, I do stress everyone’s situation is unique (this is our story).
Just to also clarify we are living on the Euro (so we do not convert our salary or expenses back into US dollars) as my husband’s job is also with a French company. We also gain all the benefits of living in a socialized country (i.e. healthcare, family allocation).
By staying here in France our girls can remain bilingual. They go to French schools, speak in French with their friends and interact fluently with their French relatives. We still speak English at home. We watch TV in English, read books in English & French. It’s a split existence – and often are dinner conversations turn a bit into “Franglais”. There are many other expat families here who have children similar to my girls – who speak English & French. They enjoy these friendships along with their traditional French friends.
English classes in French schools are started in 2nd grade. So, they get 2-3 hours a week of English studying. By the time they enter 6th grade – they are getting 4-5 hours a week of English instruction. Some schools even have advanced English sections beginning in 6th grade to encourage those students who are very proficient in English. This support further allows the kids to continue to be bilingual both in speaking and writing. We also happen to be living in an area of France that has some very good schools. No education program is perfect, but so far we are pleased with the educational programs here.
The world is in many ways becoming smaller, more global and economically more interdependent. To speak a second language or even a third language is a gift. Additionally, by staying here and allowing the kids to remain solidly bilingual – it gives them more choices for Universities both here in France & back in the US. The cost of higher education is also more manageable here in France. Not to say I don’t dream about my daughters attending my Alma mater or enjoying that ‘American college life’ as I knew it, but this gives them more choices. Yes, US schools are still a possibility but they may choose to start here and then do graduate school in the States. Again, in these days and times of hefty student loans and students leaving school with huge debts, this becomes a way for us to manage these costs.
More diversity – world perspective
Here we live daily in two languages – two cultures. We have our American culture and the world around us is French. Depending on what we are doing, we are either speaking or listening to French or English. Now, that might seem confusing to some but it works for us. We have French cable TV, enjoy the French shows but we also stream English/American movies and TV through our Internet TV and computers, so we have a choice. The News, as reported by French newscasters or even the British BBC, has a different perspective than the American but we have easy access to both.
It’s important to us to raise global kids and due to our bi-cultural background – bilingual kids. I know for my older girls, they will always see themselves as American first but gaining new insights and a different perspective for the last two years has given them a new awareness to life. Here they go to school with kids who have varied backgrounds; yes, French, but some are also of North African descent or other backgrounds. They seem more sensitive to the world around them. I’m not saying one is better than the other, I’m just saying for us, it works here.
Way of life
One of the things I love about living in South-western France is the way of life. The pace is just slower here. No one seems to be constantly rushing around to get things done. People walk slower, take their time doing things and enjoy good conversation over a cup of coffee. I remember noticing when I first moved here that my walking pace was so much faster than others. You don’t see people rushing from place to place with a coffee cup in their hand. (By the way, I loved enjoying a good cup of coffee that way!) If you are eating lunch at a restaurant, count on at least an hour, maybe more.
As a family, there is less stress, a calmness in just enjoying the moment. It’s a simpler life here. We have our technology, but we live on less. We don’t feel the same need here to have as much ‘stuff’. Life in France is just a bit simpler.
Not the same pressures to have the latest thing or several of them. I do have to add that my girls are fashion divas and somehow my oldest seems to know and want to follow the latest trends. But what I do see here is that some trends are styles, not necessarily ‘top’ or designer brands – other trends are top brands but not all the time. I felt like in the States everything that was ‘cool’ where we lived was Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, Aeropostale, Uggs and it all seemed to cost way too much. But we bought it anyway. As a parent it is always a struggle to want your children to fit in and feel accepted by others but at the same time watch the pocket book.
I love the food here and I don’t just mean those delicious French recipes. I love all the fresh vegetables and fruit that I can buy at the markets. I love the fact that France does not allow GMO foods in the country. Even pre-prepared foods from the supermarkets taste better here – not as much salt. They don’t use as many colorants either. We, of course, live near the ocean so seafood is fresher. Meats and poultry bought locally from the markets are not as costly as it was to buy the same quality locally in Saratoga. It’s not cheap, but it is fresh and local. Often people say food costs more in France. I agree some items do cost more but other items cost less, so it sort of balances out. I love that it’s so easy to provide healthy meals here. So much of the socializing in France is around food; families sitting around tables enjoying food and just talking. I remember even doing that as a 16 year old exchange student with French friends. It’s beautiful to watch my children begin to do the same thing with friends and family here.
Finally, for my husband, there are some career opportunities that are new and different in his field here. He’s excited by this prospect and feels it’s a place where he can make a difference. It’s a change for him, but sometimes change is good.
Another part that works for us here is that we can live on one salary. Yes, we have to budget, watch the funds but it’s do-able. There is a calmness in our household to have me at home. I feel very privileged to be able to be home with the kids.
I have always enjoyed working and part of my identity was what I did for a living. This has been the hardest adjustment for me – to re-invent myself, to re-look at who I am and what I want to do for this next phase of my life. I never imagined I would have this opportunity when I looked at my life even 5 years ago. After being here for a couple years, I’m ready to look at working part-time, working around the kid’s schedules. It’s a choice and it’s exciting. A choice that I get by staying here. We knew that if we moved back to the States, then we would both have to work full time.
What about support?
People sometimes ask me “Don’t you miss home?” Yes, I do. Yes, I miss seeing my family more often. That’s the downside, that’s the tough part, no doubt about it. Yes, I miss my buddies back home, my dear friends – the people I could turn to for anything… but in these days and times we have stayed in touch, we email, we chat, we Skype… we are connected but it’s just different.
We have made friends here, both French families and other expat families like ourselves. We enjoy both types of friendships. Yes, culturally it’s taken more time to make and develop the French friendships, but they are evolving and for that I am grateful. We also have English-speaking friends that I have met through a Women’s Club here in Bordeaux. This club is made up of International women who all speak English – they come from all different backgrounds. This network has been wonderful for us as we have developed some very special friendships this way. But there is a connection here that is comforting at the same time; other families who understand what we are going through adjusting to a new culture, other families who have done the same thing, other families who have children who also speak French & English. There is a common bond that is very strong and developing. Yes, there are families and friends who are only here for 2-3 years, but there are others who are like us have chosen to stay. But that happens in the States, too. When we were in Saratoga, we experienced several family friends who relocated due to job opportunities that came along.
Living in Bordeaux
Certainly this area is very attractive also and makes living here even more special. Bordeaux is a beautiful city – a place that has seen a resurgence in the past 10 years. It is not the city it was 25 years ago. It’s friendly, inviting, clean and wonderful place to live and explore. Bordeaux has some of the best schools and education establishments in France. It is a place full of history and actually boosts the second highest number of National monuments in France, second to Paris.
Bordeaux has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site. It is surrounded by wine country, located 45 minutes to an hour from Ocean beaches, only a three hour train ride to Paris, and three hours from the Pyrenees Mountains and the border of Spain. We also enjoy a temperate climate and wonderfully warm Mediterranean temperatures during the summer. Location-wise it’s also easy to travel to other places in Europe and even Africa. I’m excited by the opportunities to do more traveling from this side of the ocean.
All of that being said, it’s pretty easy to live here. But as an expat, there are always pros and cons to adjusting to another culture. There are certainly days I can get very frustrated with French logic or systems but we have to look bigger and broader and use these examples to gain new insights.
So yes, I do miss my family and friends a lot! Family is very important to me. But we as a nuclear family, the five of us, needed to make a decision for us. Does it work for us, living here? Are we all comfortable and enjoying day to day life here? Does this lifestyle embrace who we are and how we want to raise our children? We even asked the children how they felt about staying and they were very comfortable with the idea.
As hard as it is to realize that this means we physically see my extended family less, we also knew that with modern technology staying in communication is much easier than it was even 15 years ago. We love inexpensive phone calls, Skype, Facebook and so many other ways to be able to share our life with friends and family. It’s not the same as seeing them several times a year but it helps. We also plan to visit the States every couple of years as we did with our French family when we lived in the States. It’s also fun to have family and friends visit us here – fun to share something new and different!
Choosing to live so far away from family and great friends has not been an easy choice. I think there are many life decisions that couples/families have to make that take a lot of thought. Often, we don’t know what opportunities lie ahead for us, so when one presents itself we have to keep an open mind, open heart and know that whatever we decide things will work out fine.
We are excited about this new chapter of our life and we look forward to embracing new opportunities and challenges along the way as we continue our life in France.
Published with kind permission via American Mom in Bordeaux – Blending Cultures: Choosing the Expat Life – Living in Bordeaux, France.