Life Lessons from One Year in France

Montpellier, France

This Thursday will mark ten months that I’ve been living in France. Many readers have asked me questions about the experience:

  • What is life like for a Canadian living in France?
  • What is it like studying abroad?
  • How is life immersed in a non-English speaking country?

Until now, I’ve held back writing a full article, since I didn’t want to prematurely label my experiences. Now that my stay is nearing an end (I’m back in Canada in one month) I feel it’s a good time to share my thoughts.

My Thoughts on Life in the South of France

I’m hesitant to write any definite opinion about a country or its culture. Even if I avoid obvious stereotypes, I risk relying on the personal caricatures of my own interactions here. The opinion of a small-town, anglophone, blogging, vegetarian in a mostly unheard-of city in the south of France won’t be representative of everyone’s experience.

However, here are a few observations for what life has been like for me:

Everything Moves at a Slower Pace

Shops close in the afternoon. Ninety-minute lunch breaks are common. Nothing is open on Sundays. The pace of life here feels as if the intensity has been turned down. People seem to rush less, savor life a little bit more.

I enjoyed this change of pace, riding my bike or walking was better than being stuck in a car or bus all day. But this had frustrations too. We waited two weeks without electricity because the power company was in no particular rush to turn it back on.

The People Are Friendly

The French have a reputation for a lack of friendliness, especially towards English-speaking foreigners, but I noticed the opposite. Even during my ten days in Paris, people were friendly, despite this city’s notoriety for rudeness.

The culture itself seems more predisposed to friendliness. From the mandatory bis on the cheeks, to each day having strangers at my gym make the rounds and shake hands with everyone working out (something I’ve never seen in all my years exercising in Canada).

There is more hostility here towards people who refuse to speak their language than in other European countries I’ve visited. However, the stereotype that the French won’t tolerate other people speaking français poorly didn’t hold for me. Most people were polite and happy to help, so long as you put in the effort.

Dot the i’s and Cross the t’s

My one standing complaint about France and French culture is the bureaucracy. The French, from my perspective, pay far more respect to procedures than results and obeying rules than creative solutions.

It took over seven months to get my visa finalized, during which time I was (technically) not allowed to leave the country. I also had to deliberately fail a final exam, due to the bizarre consequences of missing a midterm after volcanic ash stranded my flight in Munich.

There is also less of an entrepreneurial culture in France. The emphasis for most people is to get a secure job, which is supported by the labor regulations in France. I won’t argue whether this is good or bad for everyone, simply that I lean more towards places that encourage creative individualism.

There have definitely been hiccups in my stay here in France. But on the whole, I love the country and its people, and I’ve greatly enjoyed my time here.

Life Lessons from Living a Year Abroad

It’s a bit of a cliché to say that living abroad changes your life. But cliché or not, it’s been entirely true for me. As much as the experience has given me greater confidence and certainty in what I want from life, it has opened up even more questions.

Some of the lessons I’ve gathered from this year:

Say Yes to More Choices with Unpredictable Outcomes

I’ve come to realize that the most rewarding experiences can’t be planned for in advance. They surprise or assault and you need to ride them as they hit you. The only way to have these experiences is by saying yes more often to unpredictable outcomes.

From illegal border crossings into Spain, to just by chance arriving in Lyon on the day of their biggest annual festival, I’ve had my share of unpredictable outcomes here in France.

It’s easy to say no. You’re busy, I’m busy. There are a million and a half reasons why you shouldn’t. Why you should stick with what you know and wait. But sometimes you need to say yes to questions you don’t know the answers to yet.

Be Comfortable with the Lack of Control You Have Over Life

As an ambitious person who plans and sets goals, this lesson took awhile to sink in. I like having control over my life and routines. Heck, much of this blog is premised on the idea that we can take control over our lives and steer them where we want.

However, somewhere between landing in a country not speaking the language or knowing a single person, and winding up in a candlelit apartment trying to avoid deportation while navigating an inscrutable visa application process, you get comfortable with the lack of control.

I’ve learned that often getting comfortable with your inability to control everything is often the best solution. Planning ahead and trying to avoid costly mistakes are important, but there are some situations where you can’t know enough to do either of those reliably, so you just need to embrace that bad things may happen.

Friendships Matter, A Lot

Probably my biggest lesson of this year was how damn important the people are in my life. That relationships are investments, and although its easy to find people to have a beer with and fill up the time, great friends who you can trust with your joys and moments of weakness are rare and take a considerable investment.

Before this year, I’d often feel like a bit of an outsider in many of the groups I was in. Not that I had been pushed away, but simply that I wasn’t central in all the connections of a particular group.

In the past, I would have blamed this on differing personalities. It just wasn’t a good fit, our interests differed too much. They were too young, too old, too unambitious or too boring.

Now it’s clear to me that the real reason there wasn’t a fit, and the real reason there has been a fit when it occurs, is because I invested the time in the relationships. Friendliness takes just the right attitude. Deeper connections take an enormous amount of continuous face time, which I had underrated in the past.

I’m Not Sure Whether I Should Travel the World or Build a Home

I’ve always prided myself on my independence. The ability to move, create a new life and new friends. I admired and glorified vagabonding lifestyles like Tim Ferriss’, Benny Lewis’ or Rolf Potts’. I hate to admit it, but I even looked down upon people who lived their entire lives in the same small town or who couldn’t cope with being alone for more than a few days.

Now I find myself in a position where those glorified lifestyles are in my grasp. If my business continues as it has been, there is no reason why I couldn’t live in a different country every year.

The funny thing is, as I gain the ability to reach those glorified lifestyles of adventure and travel, I’m not sure I want them.

Living abroad and continuous travel is expensive, but not in a monetary sense. The expense comes in the form of exhaustion from adapting to new environments. From the loneliness of having only shallow acquaintances to difficulty of saying goodbye forever to friends and places you’ve invested in.

The idea of starting a new business each year wouldn’t appeal to me, primarily because there would be so much waste. My business didn’t start paying returns in money, reputation or impact until at least a few years in. I’m questioning whether the same is true with places and people. Restarting each year may be exciting, but it might also miss all the deeper rewards.

I’m still unsure how to answer this question.

Living Abroad and the Pursuit of the Ideal Life

Overall my experience was incredible. I made hundreds of friends and some very good ones. I learned to speak my first foreign language. I traveled through nine countries and dozens of different cities. I drank a lot of wine and pastis, and met a lot of beautiful women.

Perhaps my hesitations about vagabonding as a lifestyle owe a lot to the sheer intensity of my experience here. Immensely enjoyable, but also difficult to say goodbye.

My first day in France

  • Samantha

    Hey, thanks for sharing. I’m about to go to France next week. This post helps me a lot.

  • Michele Nicholls

    As someone who also spent some formative time in France when I was young, I’m so glad you also enjoyed it!
    As they say, ‘Be careful what you wish for, cos you might get it!’ Ironic, isn’t it? Just when you can touch your dreams in reality, they lose their gloss – in my experience, life usually offers you another dream pretty soon, if you’re open to it – that’s where not being TOO much in control comes in! You can control how you deal with what happens to you, and what you put into life, but experience often changes your perceptions, and your dreams change with them. I really look forward to hearing where your life & dearms take you next!

  • Nick

    As someone who would love to live in the south of France, congrats on your year!

    And thanks for the website and your thoughts- we all appreciate your work!

  • Wendy Irene

    Being comfortable with unpredictable outcomes, and being ok with a lack of control are wonderful lessons, and open you up to some of the best experiences in life. It is great that you share what you have learned and the ways you’ve grown. I wonder where it will take you, maybe you’ll be more settled than you initially planned but your hard work and job could allow for some frequent travel or vacations? All the best!

  • RJ Weiss

    Funny timing. My wife and I were just talking about relocating to a foreign country for a few months. France is her #1 option right now. I on the other hand, I have France pretty stereo typed even though I haven’t been there.

    This post opened me up just a little to where I would know consider moving there for a few months.

  • Dave

    I read “Vagabonding” 5 years ago, and I still think about it everyday; it has undoubtedly changed my life. I think the dilemma between building home and traveling can be involved with building a home that is easy to let be, freeing yourself to travel. Also, finding friends or partners with the same thirst for travel. If I found a girl that thought travel was as important as I do, that would be amazing.

  • Jim Greenwood

    Hi Scott,
    YES to your lessons learned (learning). You hit on so many important subjects. Thanks for sharing.
    Have continued fun,

  • Jack Bennett

    These two points are big ones for me. I seem to keep learning them over and over 🙂

    Say Yes to More Choices with Unpredictable Outcomes
    Be Comfortable with the Lack of Control You Have Over Life

    My experiences with (shorter-term) global travel created a fantasy of being a “rich homeless person”but you make a great point that the reality of a full-time vagabonding lifestyle has its costs as well. I don’t think there’s an easy answer, but it’s an important question to ask for all of us who see extended world travel in our futures

  • Scott Dinsmore

    Awesome learnings Scott. I could not agree more. Living in another culture and among another language is one of the most life enhancing things someone can do. I spent 5 months living with a family in Sevilla, Spain that didn’t speak a lick of English. I fell so in love with their simplicity and the importance they place on the present moment, that within 18 months I was back in Sevilla, where I decided to move for another year to attend more real like therapy ;). I also taught a little English and was a weekend tour guide throughout Spain, Morocco and Portugal to fill some time…

    I will forever be a better person because of it.

    The best thing about a trip like that is it ensures that there will be another one coming up. Next stop for me is Italy for a year with my soon to be wife.

    To the road less traveled,

  • AHA

    , to each day having strangers at my gym make the rounds and shake hands with everyone working out

    WTF? If that happened in Sweden, people would call the cops or the loony bin 😀

  • Preeti @ Heart and Mind

    I have traveled once to Paris and I found that people were friendly. As long as making an effort to speak bit french, they tried to help.

    I lived in Asia (India) and life is slow there too, shops, stores closes in afternoon and everyone naps, even adults. 🙂 I like that. Although more modern western life is changing it fast there, I prefer slower life so much.
    As to stop and smelling roses around.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Chrissy Scivicque – Eat Your C

    Oh, you make me miss my time spent traveling! I studied abroad in college (um…ten years ago…scary!) and almost every weekend I spent visiting a new city or country and meeting new people. Sadly, it dawned on me the other day that I haven’t been out of the US since I got back from studying abroad!! Except for one short trip to Ottawa, I have literally been such a home body.

    I’m starting to get the travel itch again though. And reading about your experiences has only made that grow. I love that feeling of exploration and discovery. Your analysis seemed to mirror my experiences so much. It’s exhausting but life-changing. I can’t wait to see where your adventures take you in the future!

  • ivan

    great post Scott…I first got the travel bug in 2005 by studying abroad also but in Prague..then when I graduated In 2006 I moved back..I can relate to many of your questions…as I am still grappling with some…every year since then I have done a 180…I went from day trading in free lancing and being a beach bumb in costa rica…to now teaching English in an orphanage in South Korea..everything I thought I wanted to pursue while I was in University has gotten turned upside down….I am also working on making my online business being fully sustainable by the time I am done with South Korea…I am not sure where I am headed…there are many ups and downs in the vagabond lifestyle…but you learn to enjoy the process and you grow immensely as well…I wish you luck on the next phase of your life…let me know if you come to asia anytime soon….

  • Lisbet

    Wonderful post. I studied French in college, but never made it overseas to visit France. I still would love to do so…sounds like you made some great discoveries and had some great experiences.

  • Jon G

    The dilemma between traveling long term and settling down is a tough one. Being in my early 20s, I may just travel for a year or two and explore many different area of the the U.S., Europe, and Asia and then settle down in an area that suits me best. By doing this in your early 20s, you don’t have any regrets about settling in too quickly, but can begin reaping the benefits of investing in close friends in your area by 24 or 25.

    Food for thought for all the people in my age group. 🙂

  • Travis W-B

    “The idea of starting a new business each year wouldn’t appeal to me, primarily because there would be so much waste. My business didn’t start paying returns in money, reputation or impact until at least a few years in. I’m questioning whether the same is true with places and people. Restarting each year may be exciting, but it might also miss all the deeper rewards.”

    Wonderful, wise reflections. There is a reason I have been reading this blog for a year and a half.

  • Natasha

    Build a home or travel the world? I’ve been facing that question head-on recently. I spent the fall 2009 semester studying abroad in Rome, returned to Massachusetts for school in the spring, and now I’m teaching in Kenya for the summer. It’s been an exciting year. I’ve grown and changed a lot, challenged myself, acquired more foreign language skills, and even got to spend ten days in France. I learned many of the same lessons that you’ve shared while living abroad, but learning them for myself instead of just reading about it means that I’ve internalized and can apply living more slowly, taking risks, and so on.

    Now I’m heading into my senior year of college, and I’m planning two years of world travel or working near home before I go to graduate school. How to decide? Of all the inconveniences of travel, having to build new connections and struggle to keep up with old ones is the greatest deterrent to forming a life like this. Yes, it makes me more creative and outgoing, some of the time. Other times, it makes me withdraw into myself. I’m confronting my deepest fears and desires, and I think I’m getting closer to finding an answer for myself. But relationships do require work, and there are limits to the reasonable social connections that a person can make. Last fall I was bonding with people who I may never talk to, much less see, again. Was that a wasted investment, or have I gained personally from loving and losing friends and near-family? Technically I believe the latter, but it’s hard to convince myself of that sometimes.

  • Urs

    I’m building a home for world travels 😛

  • Rebecca J. Faught

    Great post! I’m still living in limbo between staying in the U.S. (not as preferable) and trying to find a job in a place I love (difficult, but do-able).

    After four years abroad (three in Japan, one in France), I found that you are correct in that it really is the people that make life the utmost experience it can be. “Living abroad and continuous travel is expensive, but not in a monetary sense. The expense comes in the form of exhaustion from adapting to new environments.”

    I also feel that one of the expenses is the amount of energy it takes to continually forge new friendships, but at the same time it is extremely rewarding as you just never know who you will meet along the way. That being said, I always think of the movie “Yes Man” with Jim Carrey.

    Keep an open heart and life will give you unexpected riches.

  • Thu

    Hi Scott
    I’m a subscriber to your blog but have never commented before. While I found many of your posts helpful and thought-provoking, I found them a tad technical and academic. This post and “Is Being Rich Important for Living the Ideal Life?” however are really brilliant with points that many can relate to. As you once wrote about blogging, this is what many readers love to see on your blog.
    Keep up the great work

  • Katia

    what you said about France is very true (I’m french). Now I’m living in London and I see the differences. I’m glad that you liked your life in France. I still read your blog when I have time, keep writing! Thanks

  • Todd H

    Hi Scott,

    As fellow Canadians who recently started a year in France I found your posts on France especially helpful. We’ve certainly come to some similar conclusions with respect to the pace and have come to appreciate it rather than resent it.

    Looking forward to lots of great experiences, new friends and maybe even a few glasses of fine wine!


  • Rahul

    Hey scott, I would recommend a complete vagabond life, there are so many things to learn & most important you have the freedom.

  • Yeoni Lyla Kim

    Totally agree! I have been travelling Australia for almost 2 years to figure out what to do but still nothing specific came up. Just still wondering should I keep travelling or try to settle down like other people.