I’ve asked my friend Nina to share her experience as a dutch expat in France.
Hi Nina! Could you please present yourself to the readers of Comme une Française?
Hi I’m Nina, I’m 29 and I come from the Netherlands.
Tell us about your experience in France
I arrived in the summer of 2007 in France. I moved to the “banlieue” in the south of Paris. I have a French partner (from Paris) since finding a job in the Netherlands was difficult and he could get a Job in Paris, we decided to move. In Paris I learned to speak French a lot better. After 9 months I got a part-time job at a company that runs websites. I tried to find a job in cognitive ergonomics since I have a master’s degree in cognitive psychology, but without speaking French fluently and without any experience that was not possible right away.
After 5 months my “CDD” contract finished and I could get a fulltime contract, but I didn’t find the job interesting enough and decided to work for myself. I asked myself: what could I do and more important what would I like to do? I love doing something creative and I also love working with animals. Since working with animals seemed a bit risky at the time (it’s not easy to make money in this sector), I decided to do something creative: graphic design and websites. I loved to design the websites in Photoshop, but I didn’t really enjoy the programming part, and 80% of the time that was what I was doing.
When we moved to Grenoble I decided this was the perfect time for change, new city, new environment, new job! This time I choose the other option, animals. Since I’m passionate about dogs, dog behaviour and human behaviour I wanted to become a dog behaviourist. The first year I walked some dogs, but since I wanted to be certified and to be sure to know all the terms in French, I decided to followed a course on dog behaviour in order to be a certified dog behaviourist. After finishing the course, I subscribed as an “auto entrepreneur”. I made my own website, that saved me lots of money and a few months later I started working.
Now, one year later I’m still independent and I don’t regret making the choice to work with dogs and their owners. I’m happy with the results; I work with both French and English speaking clients. At the moment I’m making theory courses on dog behaviour, I still train dogs, do consultations if there is a behaviour problem and I offer cat-sitting services. It’s not always easy, and the fact that I have to do everything in French, or in English (both not my mother tongue) does not make it easier.
How was your arrival?
Arriving in France was at first quite natural to me. I already knew Paris since my partner comes from Paris. I travelled for 3 years every 3 weeks to Paris to see him, so living there now did not shock me. I already knew the culture etc. I was a bit disappointed however that in such a big international city, getting a job without speaking fluently French was so hard..
The image I had of France before moving to France was not any different than afterwards. But the image I had before I met my partner was different; I found French people a bit arrogant. Stubborn that they don’t speak English and a bit distant, somehow it’s harder to get contact with French people than with English for example. I do realise that a lot has to do with language. And I also do know now that they really just do not speak English and if they do they often are not sure enough of their skills to actually speak it so they continue in French.
The culture is a bit different as well, that creates a bit of distance too. But if you just try to speak French, to understand their culture you’ll see the French are actually very nice! More polite than in Holland I think, but also less direct. They might not say what they think, they stay polite, that’s the only thing I like less about the French. Ah, and paperwork. Somehow they seem really to take their time, can be a bit frustrating..
Did you speak French when you arrived?
I spoke a bit French before I arrived (I knew my partner for 4,5 years before moving to France). I could understand the most important basic conversations, but speaking was difficult for me. I did not take lessons. I decided to speak French to my partner (we always spoke English) as much as possible, I watched French TV with English or Dutch subtitles, and I bought a grammar book that I only finished for 1/4th..
I did not feel ok speaking French in the beginning because I didn’t want to be perceived as “foreigner”. I wanted to integrate, to speak like the French and if possible without accent. I think it’s different if your partner is not French. I came to my partners “world” and I didn’t want to be different than the others I guess.
I don’t know when (after 9 months?) but at some point I realized making mistakes was not that bad at the same time I was beginning to be able to speak French without having to stop and think and I was able to understand more complicated discussions. I got confidence and from that point on I began speaking French everywhere and I was not afraid anymore to say something in public. What helped me most was probably the decision to switch conversations from English to French with my partner.
What is the most important thing you’ve learnt since you moved?
The most important thing that I learned is of course the language. Without speaking French, life is a lot harder in France (I believe). As soon as you speak French, the distance you feel with the French as a foreigner nearly disappears. You feel more accepted, you understand them better and it allows you to integrate (French sport clubs, French friends) etc. I also learned that even if you make mistakes, or have an accent, the French do not approach you any different than a French person. They might be even more interested in you in fact!!
What is still difficult for you?
What I find still difficult (but I do it anyway) is calling in French. I don’t like the fact that I can’t see the person I’m calling; I can’t see his expression, his reaction. I’m also afraid sometimes that I won’t be able to understand the person (when the phone line is bad or when they speak very soft I really need to concentrate!) or that the person on the phone will take me less serious because I have an accent or make mistakes.. I know it’s not true, I do speak fluently French, but I’m used to speak and write Dutch without mistakes, I adapt my Dutch to the person I’m speaking with (using more or less difficult sentences, words). I can’t do that in French yet, that can be frustrating, especially on the phone when you want to make a good impression.
What do you miss from your country?
What I miss most from the Netherlands is the language! Even now I do speak/write fluently French it is sooo much easier in Dutch. I can make better constructed sentences, and write a whole lot faster!
In the beginning I missed several types of food (chocolate sprinkles, peanut butter, tacos etc). But since a few years supermarkets start to sell more “exotic” kind of foods such as sushi, Mexican food so that’s great! For other things I found a good equivalent in France now. I imported a big bottle of mayonnaise (for with the French fries) from the Netherlands since I find the French mayonnaise a bit sour, I also didn’t find the chocolate sprinkles in France yet and I still miss the not sweetened bread in the supermarket.
What do you prefer in France compared to your country?
People are more polite here, the person in front of you keeps the door open in shops for example.. I like the diversity of the country, in Grenoble for example: beautiful nature, waterfalls etc. And the aperitif, I love this habit!! People spend more time on food (dinner) here as well, especially when you’re invited somewhere!
How do you see the future?
I don’t know where I’ll be in the future. Me and my partner are not really future planners. We know that we don’t want to live in an apartment forever, but If we will be in France, in Holland or another country.. I don’t know. We do like Grenoble and its environment a lot. That it’s flat reminds me of Holland, I can take my bike everywhere, and I also like the medium size of the city (everything is nearby!). So probably we’ll stay here a bit more.
Could you give 3 advices to women who have just moved to France?
Three advices for women that move to France:
- learn the language
- join a club (sports, something creative)
- don’t be afraid to make mistakes and be open to the French culture, you’ll see you will be integrated before you know it!