It has been a year since my last post in this series (LINK TO PART 3), and I thought I would bring you up to date on our expat experience. (LINK PART 1, LINK PART 2)
We are currently living in Lyon and are between our second and third long-stay visitor visas (carte sejour). I say between, because our second visa expired in October and our appointment to renew (made last June) is in February. The government agency responsible for visas is swamped due to Brexit and other factors, so everything is backed-up. Our appointment notice serves as an automatic visa extension until our new one is approved.
We have also applied to enter the social security and health care systems. Once we receive our health card (Carte Vitale), we will have full access. You can qualify for the system after living here for a few months (LINK), but it took us a while before we applied. Fortunately, we have not had any health issues to speak of in the interim.
Since we were in France for more than 183 days in 2019, we will have to file a tax return for this year. We have no French income (we can’t work in France with our current visas), but we will have to file anyway, which is fine with us as we plan to stay here indefinitely. We do pay taxes on our apartment and VAT taxes already.
I am still struggling with my French and I remain at the transactional level; I can do most transactions pretty well, but I cannot have a conversation with a French speaker. I continue to listen to French lessons online and via my iPhone and attend some practice sessions such as a weekly coffee in French sponsored by the American Club of Lyon (LINK).
The American Club has become one of our social hubs, and we meet both expats and French people who may have lived or studied in the US for a time. There is a coffee in English on Tuesdays and in French on Thursdays, plus regular happy hours, special events, and holiday gatherings for Thanksgiving and the 4th of July. There are about 2-300 active members of the club.
Another social hub is Internations (LINK), an international organization with groups in most cities around the world. They sponsor monthly meet-and-greets at cafes and other locations and have smaller affinity groups which vary by location. Membership consists mostly of expats and visitors, with a few locals who want to meet people from other countries.
Dorianne is playing a lot of chamber music here. One of the reasons we chose Lyon was because of the vibrant amateur chamber music community here. She plays in several orchestras, a few smaller groups, and participates in stages, or trainings, both locally and internationally. This community has become a third social hub for us.
Our building and local neighborhood have become a fourth social hub. There is an annual fête des voisins (neighbors’ party) in our building, and naturally we see our neighbors during the day as we enter and leave the building. Our street has hosted a street party where the street was closed off and the businesses provided food and drinks for everyone. And, we see the local shop owners almost daily as we make our local purchases of food, wine and such.
Our cave (storage area) in the basement of the building is growing as we make wine purchases at the local caves (wine shops) and at various wine festivals and tastings during the year. Wine is like food here, and I find that there is less conversation about wine during meals than in California. The wine is simply part of the experience and you talk about other things. Lyon has an excellent selection of French wines in restaurants and stores. International wines are a bit harder to find, and I have only found one place with good US wines – the Franklin Steakhouse (LINK), which features US beef and Napa Valley wines. The owner, Eric, is a former cooper in Napa and still features some of the wines of the winemakers he made barrels for. There are good Italian restaurants with good Italian wines, etc., but this is a city surrounded by wine regions and which specializes in French wines.
The French rarely talk about work or money; they like to talk about family, culture, and philosophy – and politics. My French, as noted above, is not good enough yet to go deeply into these topics. It takes a good knowledge of French to be part of the conversation and to be fully accepted here. So, I will keep studying.
I will say that I have not had the experience of rudeness which some American report when visiting France. I do have some thoughts on the topic. One issue is that France is not a tipping culture. French servers are professionals who receive a living wage and benefits even at the smallest cafés. This means a couple of things – the servers do not hover and check on you every five minutes; they do not try to up-sell you to raise the bill. The servers are not ignoring you; they are letting you enjoy your meal. In fine restaurants, the service will be a bit more solicitous, but again, they are not trying to raise your bill to get a larger tip. Also, the table is yours for the evening and one is expected to linger over dinner; meals are not rushed. When you want the check (l’addition) you will have to signal the server, and you may pay at the counter in many cafés and bouchons (Lyonnaise bistros). The menu price includes taxes and there is no need to tip – although we often leave a euro or two for good service.
Another way to be treated well is to at least attempt to use French when making a purchase in a store or asking for directions. Many French people speak little or no English, or they are embarrassed that their English isn’t better, so they hesitate to speak it. But when some Americans (including some expats) make no effort to speak French, and act affronted if a French person does not speak English, then it is me who gets embarrassed.
Finally, I find that while Americans tend to be like dogs – outgoing, friendly, and often boisterous, the French are often more like cats – you have to let them come to you. They shake hands when meeting someone for the first time, then the kisses begin (the number and pattern vary by region) – but you either do not touch or barely touch the other person. And no hugging. When you understand this, you will give French people the opportunity to warm up to you and you will see how warm and friendly they can be. As I said, we have experienced numerous acts of kindness and not had a single negative experience in two years of living here and in multiple trips here previously.
Assuming that all goes well with our visa renewals in February, we will be remaining here for most of the year. Our intention is to apply for either permanent residency (like a Green Card) or French citizenship (dual) when we have been here for five years (which would be July 2022. And did I mention how great the trains are?
Copyright 2019 – Jim Lockard