What I like about France, what I miss about England: leaving the UK, one year on

It’s been a year since Jennie and I left England to move to Geneva Switzerland, and later to nearby France where we live now. I won’t go into the sentimental details of the ‘anniversary’ – suffice to say that there was a little reminiscing over a glass of champers last night, thinking about the year that has passed – so instead here’s a list of how French life is great and the things I miss about the UK. In no particular order…

Why I love France

Weather. It’s hotter here in the summer than the UK, there are more days filled with sunshine, and it’s relatively consistent and predictable too. Summer last year was like the feted one in 1976 in the UK, the one we think all summers should be like. Since meteo.fr is particular to my specific area, the forecast seems always to get it right. There are some indifferent days, of course, but generally it is less damp than England, less gloomy. The barbie gets more use. Conversely, when it snows, it is colder than the UK, colder but a dry cold. What this means is there is a greater range of…

Outdoor activity. In the summer you can plan days out because it’s likely you’ll get decent weather. Since we live in the countryside, more or less, we have some excellent hiking, golf, cycling, climbing, swimming… the list goes on. We have a tennis court and football ground at the end of the road. The key thing is, as the winter comes the sports only get better: when it’s snowing, we go snowboarding or snowshoeing. It’s this kind of year-round activity that is one of my most favourite things about this place.

The mountains and the water. We live in the Rhône-Alpes region, so as you might expect there are lots of mountains and there is lots of water. We live around an hour or so from some of the best Alpine locations anywhere and I can see the Salève and Jura mountain ranges from my window. We have Lakes Geneva and Annecy, which we plan to boat on soon. What’s more, we have Geneva on our doorstep, so we get to do all the city things, too – and there are the all-important opportunities for work.

Food and wine. I’ve done some independent studies* on this and, in short, food is better in my part of France than in the UK. Much better. Even local stores have local produce, lovingly laid out and presented. (There is one exception, as you’ll see.) Even the small fact that France loves whisky, as do I, seems as if it is just the right place. The aisles dedicated to cured meat and cheese found in the hypermarché should be enough to convince you of its culinary superiority; if it doesn’t, try some of the local wines from Satigny, or the Rhône, or…

Secular, liberal, republic. So far, I’ve counted the physical things, like weather and mountains. But there are political or philosophical things, too. One of the latter is the fact that France is a modern, democratic secular, liberal, republic. This generally coincides with my approach, my politics. It doesn’t mean that France is without its issues. But nor does it mean that these high ideals are completely detached from public life either. You’ll find them in bars and restaurants and in the fabric of life out here. I even found a copy of Camus’ ‘L’etranger’ at the local supermarket.

People work to live, not live to work. Shops are closed on Sunday here (some large supermarkets are open in the morning) and often closed on Monday, too. Many more close for a long lunch, between 12.00 and 14.00. It’s annoying sometimes and takes getting used to, but it illustrates how the French try to put living before working. It’s not perfect, and we’ve been affected by strikes and so on, but it’s something I can believe in (and not just because I’m lazy, either).

Before you get on the plane (or not, as the case might be) to leave it all behind, there are some downsides, at least as far as I’m concerned…

What I miss about England

Family and friends. You have to leave your family and friends behind. That is, unless you can take them with you. I’m working on the latter. You get more popular when you live in a nice place and I try to convert every member of my family who comes through the door to move out here. France isn’t a million miles away, either, and it’s only a short plane flight to go to the UK. We all do a lot of social networking stuff, too.

Newspapers. The quality of newspapers here is very high. Le Monde, Le Figaro and even the free or cheap newspapers like 20 Minutes focus on more on news, not just gossip. But since I’m still learning French, I can’t read them effortlessly, which is how I like to read a newspaper, especially at weekends. The French Paper is quite good but it doesn’t have the frequency or sheer heft of a good old weekend broadsheet, stuffed with magazines and reviews.

Marks and Spencer. There’s plenty of good shopping out here, but there’s nothing like a Marks and Sparks. It’s the corduroy, you see – the cardigan. There is one in Geneva but it sells only clothes for women and food. However, I can order online, and it’s fairly cheap at around £5 to ship to France, so all is not lost.

Curry. Despite an ongoing fervent search, I still haven’t found a convincing curry house. The curry in Geneva, even in what appear ‘authentic’ places, is adapted (read ‘made innocuously bland’) to a Swiss and French taste in the places I’ve been. It’s just as well my wife Jennie is a great cook. On a related note, you can get Marmite and baked beans (other staples) but they are often horribly expensive.

Language. It’s hard sometimes to know that everyone around you doesn’t understand what you might want to say, that you are divided by a language, even if you might share common interests and beliefs. The answer is to learn French. If you’re like me, you might find this tough. But when you get a moment of breakthrough – perhaps you listen to the radio, and understand what is being said, at least in part – it is completely rewarding and worthwhile.

I can’t say I miss UK culture – music, tv, movies – because we get them all here. Without them it would be difficult, I think. And I can’t say we’re completely immersed in French culture, either. Some of it, especially some of the pop music and comedy shows, I’m happy to leave aside for now.

If you think these lists amount to my succumbing to the temptation (common in other ex-pats, I’ve found) to criticize their home country when they leave it, then think again: I love the UK and always will. A move away from home can mean that you love it just the same, not less. I’ll be supporting England in the football World Cup. It’s just that I now have another couple of teams to shout for, too – France and Switzerland. Addition doesn’t mean dilution.

But the biggest thing I’ll take, though, is not necessarily to be found in either the UK or France and is this: we feel good because we took ourselves from our relative comfort zones and tried something new and challenging; that we developed a new confidence and broader outlook that comes with the huge upheaval of moving to a country with a different language and culture; that we’ve not just sat and thought it would be nice to move, but actually gone and done it.

It’s not that people don’t do this kind of thing every day, or that it’s particularly unusual or daring or brave. We’re none of those things. It’s just that it is unusual for us, a challenge, something that has allowed us to be different from ourselves and one we’re lucky to say has worked out wonderfully. And who could not love an area like Haute-savoie when it has the motto: ‘In tartiflette we trust!‘ This is a place I’m happy to call ‘home’.

*I mean I’ve eaten in both France and England quite a lot.

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4 thoughts on “What I like about France, what I miss about England: leaving the UK, one year on

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  3. Great Post Phil.
    We are in a similar position. We have left Ireland early Sept 2009 and moved to Switzerland. Nearly a year has passed for us now and we are going through the same process in finding out where we are, comparing the Pro’s and Con’s.
    Funny how some of your thoughts and ours can be so similiar on both topics. I envy you when you say you can call the new place “home”. We have not yet arrived at this stage.

    • Hi Marcus
      I sympathise – we were lucky in feeling like this was home so soon. I hope you both feel that way soon. I think we were very lucky in finding such a beautiful place over the border in France’s Haute-savoie. We’re fairly near Annecy and the Salève range, but can get into Geneva for work very easily too. Mind you, I miss a good pint! See you, and thanks for the comment.

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