On today’s episode Annie answers a question someone asked on the Join Us in France Closed Group on Facebook that generated a lot of conversation.
The question was: “Where would you settle in France for a month? My husband and I are planning on a month in September in France to "live like locals". We both can stay connected to work via computer and plan to have our mornings and afternoons free to roam the town/area. We like markets, museums, gardens and cafe life. We won't have a car. I'd love any suggestions! Thank you.”
Sounds like a nice plan, doesn’t it? There are a lot of things to consider, let’s talk about it!
Where to Settle in France for a Month?
So, where would you go if you could spend a month in France to live like locals? Most of us French people stay where family is or where work takes us. But as a temporary resident you won’t have job or family constraints. You’re free to go anywhere you like! So what are some things you need to consider?
#1 Internet Access
This person says they need internet access. More and more places in France have good DSL, but some places have it better than others. Big cities are better off. For example I live 15 minutes from the Toulouse belt route, but we’re still on average DSL speeds, my village won’t get upgraded for another full year. It’s fast enough to work from home, but I am envious with the speed my daughter gets in her studio downtown Toulouse!
So, you’ll need to consider internet speed. For that I recommend a site called Ariase where on the top right it says “Ma commune”, you enter a zip code and it cranks away and it gives you the details on download, upload, latency, best internet provider (because we actually have a choice between several providers in France), etc. That site is great but all in French.
I’ll put a link in the show notes to another site that’s not as helpful because it won’t let you enter a zip code, but it’s in English! https://www.broadbandspeedchecker.co.uk/isp-directory/France.html
#2 Do you speak French?
This obviously leads me to my second point. If you don’t speak French at all you really need to stick to cities where people are used to English speakers. If I tried to go about my business in English in my village the conversations would be really short and I’d get a lot of stares. I wouldn’t call that a good experience.
There are areas in France where people are used to English speakers moving in, even in villages under 1,000 inhabitants, but that’s not the rule. So, if you want a village and your French is not great, look at the Dordogne or Provence.
Otherwise, any large city over 100,000 will have lots of English speakers, it won’t be so strange if your French is limited.
#3 Will you have a car?
This person says they won’t have a car. That limits things again. Some regions have outstanding bus service, even going to villages, Provence is one of them, but some regions only offer basic bus service. You’re going to need to research that because it changes a lot from place to place and these buses are usually run by the department, they all have all sorts of funky names, so google is your friend.
But no matter how good the service is, getting around by regional bus is SLOOOOOW. There’s going to be a few buses each day taking folks to the bigger city. These bus services are designed for 2 types of populations:
Teens who can’t drive yet and older women usually who never learned to drive and once their husbands stops driving or passes away they are stuck. I am not kidding, this happens a lot in France. They don’t mind taking the bus at 8AM to go into the city and taking the bus home at 6PM. They’ll go see a specialist, then visit a friend or family member, maybe a little shopping, and the day is done.
I talked to a lady the other day in the waiting room for my eye doctor. This lady lives in the boonies about an hour drive from Toulouse. She could drive, she has a car, but she took the bus because she didn’t want to park in Toulouse.
OK, to me that’s silly because the parking lot right underneath the doctor’s office had a lot of spaces and cost me 4€ for 2 hours! I bet she paid more for the bus. But she doesn’t like driving in the big city, so that’s that.
So, she took one bus in her village first thing in the morning, then another bus from a slightly bigger town, then once she got to Toulouse she took the tram and the metro. She left her house at 8 for an appointment at 11:30 and she got there all frazzled, late as she saw it (but the doctor was running late so it didn’t matter) and she really wanted to tell everyone in the waiting room about it!
That’s a huge limitation of choosing a village when the car is not an option in my book. But if you don’t mind, why not?
But if you’re going to choose a city of 100,000 or more it’s probably smart not to have a car. However, back to the original poster, who doesn’t want a car, I would make sure there’s somewhere you can rent a car for the day, you never know what you’ll want to do, being able to rent a car is a big plus. In other words, don’t go to a village like mine or even the town of 5,000 next to me where you cannot rent a car. Closest place I can rent a car is the Toulouse train station, which takes an hour to get to by bus. You need to consider that.
#4 What did the Join Us in France community have to say about this?
Many people spoke up who actually spend a month or more in France. Several people mentioned the Loire Valley (Angers or Tours) even without a car, Provence (Nice or Aix) also without a car, Lyon, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Dordogne, Montpellier, Perpignan, even Vannes in Brittany. Not so many votes for Paris, that surprised me. But most of the people who answered didn’t specify if they had access to a car or not, and that changes everything.
#5 Annie’s Recommendations
How much do you want to do every day?
I think it depends on how much you want to do outside of normal daily activities like shopping, cooking, etc. If you want more to do than you could possibly get to in a month, I recommend Paris. You could live there for a year, go out to a different venue every day, and still not see it all. By venue I mean somewhere you need to buy a ticket. A theater, a concert, a museum, a festival, an event.
If you choose a city like Toulouse or Bordeaux the number of venues is a lot more limited than in Paris. You’ll probably have enough to do an outing 2 or 3 times a week, and you’ll see most of the big hits in a month. The bigger the city, the more venues will be available to you.
In my village they have a few band and majorettes events a year. A couple of village meals a year, people playing pétanque outside when the weather is good. When I walked by recently there were more women and men playing pétanque which really surprised me! There’s the fitness class once a week (and it’s HARD!) and the board game afternoon for the retirees. English class too once a week, but no French class because you know, it’s just French people here. If you want French classes you need to go to a bigger city where they actually have Alliance Française or even free classes for newcomers.
But if what you like to do is go to a park or a café, take a long walk, watch the world go by, take a bus into the city every few days, you can have that anywhere in France, even villages, so long as you pick the right one.
France is slow-paced compared to anywhere in the US
As a side note, nothing happens quickly in France. Just keep that in mind if you want to live more like a local. Businesses aren’t open 24/7, if something breaks and you need it fixed, it might take a while. You won’t find the same staples in the grocery stores you find in America. Don’t go crazy looking for that one product you can’t live without, bring it with you or you’ll drive yourself nuts.
If you want fast pace, go to Paris, but even that will feel slower than your normal pace of life in the US. Your calendar won’t be full, you’ll need to find things to stay busy.
You won’t shop as much because unless you’re in Paris or in a big city because shopping in France is not that exciting. French people shop for things they need, Americans shop for fun.
You’ll often meet people in France who have a TV that’s 20 years old and it wouldn’t even occur to them to upgrade until it stops working. It’s not that they couldn’t pay for a new TV, it’s that they don’t feel the need for a new TV. Consumerism is not a big thing in France. Advertisers try, but people aren’t going for it.
French people find interest somewhere else. In cultural events, in great meals, in lovely walks in old city centers, spending time with family and friends, reading books. So, be prepared for a change in the normal pace of life.
Places I wish I could spend time in
There are areas of France I’d really like to explore in a leisurely way. I get to go to Paris enough already, but that one is a given. Visiting Paris when you can take the time is wonderful. Sure, Paris is too busy and noisy for my taste and I don’t think I could live there full time because I really enjoy my calm village, but there is so much to do and see in Paris!
Provence would also be tempting. I’d probably pick a town like Villefranche sur Mer because there’s great public transportation system, plenty to see in nearby towns, I love to walk by the sea, I could rent a car for a day if I needed it, they’ve got plenty of concerts, plays, festivals going on. And I could do that any time of year because the weather is pleasant on the Mediterranean coast with the occasional storm of course.
I haven’t spent enough time in Strasbourg either. The city itself is lovely, lots to see nearby (although you’d probably want to rent a car to get to nearby villages), plenty of cultural activities. I’d go in the summer months because winter can be miserable there and I am not fond of cold and wet.
Lyon would also be on my list. It’s a big city with a ton going on, if you’d like to explore the Alps it can’t be beat. And plenty of cultural events, festivals, museums, that sort of thing. Not as much as Paris, but lots.
Bordeaux would be nice; I’ve been there several times but never long enough to really get to know the city. And if you’re interested in wine it’s perfect, you could go to a different winery every day!
Burgundy and Dijon would also be good, I really don’t know the area well at all, but I’m sure I’d enjoy it for a month.
La Rochelle is wonderful, it doesn’t have a great reputation for nice weather, but if you go in the summer months it’s great. Same with Vannes in Brittany and Bayeux in Normandy. Nice mid-size cities with plenty to visit around. But I think you’d need a car quite a bit. Probably not every day, but often enough.
A place I’d get a kick out of is Corsica. Totally different from mainland France, and plenty to discover. I speak French, I’m not too bad at Italian, I’d probably get by. But that’s a hiking and birding destination as I see it. I’m not sure how it is for cultural events.
I haven’t mentioned the Dordogne because I already get to go there easily from Toulouse, but it’s really nice. I’d want a car in the Dordogne because there are a lot of chateaux and pre-historical sites to visit that you can’t get to without a car.
Loire Valley would be fine too, for history buffs it’s great, but you’d need to read up on all these French Kings and who built what and who betrayed whom, all that. It’s a bit flat for my taste, but bucolic. Can it be done without a car? The lady in the group says yes. I haven’t tried it. But keep the option to rent a car for the day open for sure.
Then close to Spain you have Perpignan and Bayonne. Great places to explore! Again, probably best with a car or at least the occasional rental.
And I won’t talk about Toulouse because that’s where I live already and it’s AMAZING, but the Rodez area is one where I wouldn’t mind spending a month exploring all around, but I wouldn’t try to do it without a car.
#6 How to decide?
So, where do you choose between all of those? It sounds like I’m saying most places in France would be nice, right? Yes, that’s a fact, most of France is wonderful. We’ve got our fair share of uninteresting dormitory cities around Paris, I’d stay away from those personally.
Maybe you let local gastronomy inform your decision. Or maybe where you can find the best rental with a great view. Is there a festival or even going on in one of those places the month you can do this? Those things matter!
And you might as well take a French class while you’re here for a month. Is that a possibility?
And to conclude, people who are considering moving to France definitely need to do this. Come for a month, rent an apartment and live there. Do it again another time, try a few areas. Local culture is strong in many of these places. Maybe you’ll love it, maybe it won’t suit you. And you won’t know until you try it. But the good news is that it’s easy to come to France for a month, rent a place and see how it goes.
Pay attention to the basic stuff like internet access, the availability of car rental companies and French classes if you’d like to do that. But otherwise France has cafés and restaurants and parks and the lovely lifestyle all over. I wouldn’t recommend a tiny village under 1,000 unless that’s something you’re certain you want. Villages can be quirky and really boring. I keep myself busy enough that I don’t ever notice that my village is boring, but it is.
We also have some not-so-desirable neighborhoods in big cities of course, isn’t that true all over the world? But there are ways to eliminate those with a bit of research. Facebook groups are a great resource for that.
I do recommend that you come spend a month in France. I’ve had some patrons ask me to narrow things down for them and I’m happy doing that. But it’s fine to go with your gut feeling too. If you’ve been listening to this podcast a while by now you have a feel for what different parts of France are like. Decide on a few things that matter most to you and go for it!
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Discussed in this Episode
- Villefranche sur Mer
- La Rochelle
- The Dordogne
- Loire Valley