Prior to moving to Lyon, we were warned by a French man from the north of France that Lyon and the south-east were particularly hostile to ‘incomers’. We laughed it off! We’re used to moving around, we’re used to adapting, we speak French, so… there’ll be no problem right! WRONG! Here are just a few lessons I’ve learnt in my 18 months here:
1) Opening a bank account
One of the biggest conundrums we faced when first moving to Lyon was opening a bank account. You cannot open a bank account until you have a permanent address and of course you can’t get an address without a bank account. We applied for MANY bank accounts and were rejected. We had letters of ‘attestation d’hébergement‘ (proof we were living with my parents and we could open an account using their address) but still were refused. There is often no communication informing you of your rejection and it is up to you to chase the reasoning behind it, over the phone.
Eventually, after starting work, we were able to ask Richard’s company to assist us and through their bank we were able to open a bank account with BNP but it still wasn’t an easy process and we were required to have an address to send our paperwork! Finally we had a bank account nearly three months after first arriving in France.
Although you are legally obliged to collect a bank card from the bank, the PIN will be sent by snail mail. You will also be sent a client number in a separate letter. Should you wish to then use internet banking, a separate ‘secret code’ will then be sent by snail mail too. Any change of details done online, such as new address or new mobile phone number will also require a new ‘secret code’ which will be sent via post. Expect to wait up to SEVEN days for your ‘secret codes’.
If you wish to set up transfer requests, yup, you guessed it, you’ll have to wait for another new code!!
Cancelling direct debits from your bank account is illegal in France. If you have a direct debit set up, you must cancel it with the company and just cross your fingers that they remember or do it.
2) The ‘dossier’ is the bible!!
The dossier is something that people HOARD from the moment they’re born. It comprises of everything from birth certificates to school reports, from car insurance (age 17 to current day) to electricity bills. If you stay in French people’s houses, you will soon realise that they dedicate entire shelves and bookcases to collecting these pieces of paper. The French life revolves around ‘proof’ and providing proof. It is most frustrating but you will find that you need a dossier almost everywhere you go and whatever you apply for.
3) C’est compliqué
You will hear this expression at least once in every conversation. It absolutely drives me mad!! Life is made unnecessarily complicated in France by the sheer amount of frustrating and needless bureaucracy that engulfs everything. This ranges from renting a house to playing rugby! Whilst the French themselves complain about, no one ever instigates change.
‘Ooohh, c’est compliqué’ is something you’ll hear all the time.
4) Bureaucracy may drive you mad
It took us FIFTEEN hours of queuing to register the car into our names. We still haven’t sorted out child benefit and our car insurance insist we haven’t sent our ‘dossier’ despite sending it three times. Every document you could ever possibly think of has to be sent by recorded delivery and under no circumstances should anything be emailed.
Yes, people may joke about bureaucracy in France but it really isn’t a joke. It takes up a lot of time, it costs a lot of money and whilst Lyonnaise people may complain about it they’ll never actually stand against it.
5) Buying a car
Second hand cars are extortionately expensive (more expensive than in Australia!). If you’re planning on spending a few years in France, it might be worth buying a new car on a payment scheme.
When buying a car you’ll also need to fill out lots of forms!! That should come as no surprise, so here’s a list:
- A completed certificat d’immatriculation. Form Cerfa 13750*04
- A certificat de situation administrative provided by the seller
- A certificat de cession (certificate of transfer and document of sale) from the previous owner
- The registration document of the previous owner, marked in indelible ink “Vendu le...” or “Cede le…” with the date of the sale and signature of the previous owner
- If the car is more than four years old, a Contrôle technique, no older than six months.
6) Insuring your car
I have discovered that this is notoriously difficult in fact I have encountered French people who have NEVER changed car insurers because they’re so afraid of not having the correct documentation.
We are onto our third insurer in just over a year because we cannot provide all of the necessary documentation and because of this our insurance has been cancelled. We’re now in the position where we cannot insure our car!
I’m taking a deep breath for this one!
When you buy car insurance in France you are required to provide a number of documents. These include (but isn’t limited to): driving licence of all drivers, la carte grise (this says we own the car), control technique (MOT), proof of no claims, proof of insurance for last ten years and RIB (Proof of bank account to set up direct debit). Why? I’ve no idea. We also have to provide detailed accounts of why/if we have any gaps in our insurance history.
If your dossier is accepted, you will sent a ‘contrat d’assurance’ to sign and return to them.
7) Roundabouts confuse them, reversing can be a no-go!
Driving in Lyon is HOSTILE. Some of the worst I’ve encountered in the world. Even Tunisian and Italian driving was better!!
Do not expect them to indicate; if they do it tends to mean they’ll just pull out. Safe stopping distance doesn’t exist and tail-gating is really common. When approaching a roundabout, just because a car is in the left hand lane doesn’t mean it’s actually turning left. It could go right and carve you up. If a car is indicating right, it could go left.
Do not cross the road if a car is approaching. Locals tend to use their cars as battering rams. If you’re cycling you might expect to be deliberately rammed!! There is even less respect for cyclists than pedestrians.
Parking in Lyon is dreadful. Too many cars and not enough parking spaces. Due to this the standard of parking is also dreadful. Cars will force themselves into spots that are too small and in the process damage two other cars. It is blatantly obvious they have caused the damage but they will shout and pontificate that it wasn’t them – that is if they are challenged.
I’m not even going to start on reversing lol.
8) Conditioned to conform
From birth the French are conditioned to conform. It is thoroughly depressing to watch. It starts at ‘Ecole Maternelle’ where up to the age of SIX children are expected to have a sleep in the afternoons for an hour!! This is not negotiable by the way.
Aside from Paris, which is like a totally different country in comparison to France, people are encouraged to behave like sheep. I have yet to see a French emo or someone with dyed green hair. Looking different just doesn’t happen and isn’t encouraged. Earlier this year I shaved off half the side of my hair and dyed the stubble pink. You would have thought I was a martian with people stopping in the middle of the supermarket to stare at me (with their mouths wide open).
Playing it Safe should be the moto for living here in France. It’s very boring and really quite oppressive. You mustn’t dare to be different!! So follow the rules or else, yeh…
9) People fall into two categories; dominant or weak
The Lyonnaise appear to fall into two categories of people; either dominant or weak. Speaking to other expats they confirm they suspicions of this and suggest that unless you’re one of these categories you do not fall into their ‘rules’ and will confuse them.
If you’re of the weaker variety, you can expect to be shouted at. You must always ask your friends’ opinions and once done so, you must adhere to the advice you’ve been given. Are you confused yet? Yes, so was I. Apparently this is the way friendships work here. They cannot understand, if you’re facing a dilemma, why you wouldn’t consult your friends and follow their suggestions.
Independence is a sin and freethinking is not encouraged.
10) The Lyonaise are superior (and hostile)!
From an early age children in France are told that their language is the hardest in the world to learn, that their education system is the best in the world and when they have conquered both (Baccalaureate) they are superior to… well, everything!
It is therefore of no surprise that their egos enter the room before they do and that no matter how right you are, you’ll always be wrong.
I have given up arguing with the man from ‘La poste’ that my parcels are not wrapped correctly or Bouygues Telecom that really they should process my request to upgrade my phone plan on the day I requested it, rather than 20 days later. The conversation always goes ‘Well, let me tell you Mrs P how it works here’. It’s at this point I sigh and roll my eyes.
There are some exceptions to this rule however! Women aged over 70 tend to be friendly and smiley. I’ve had some nice conversations in supermarkets with women over 70. Adults aged between 20 and 30 years seem to be less French and more open to change and difference.
11) For this reason, your French will always be terrible
As a tourist you will be complimented on your French. This is because as a tourist you serve a purpose. Your purpose as a tourist is to come, compliment them on how wonderful their stagnating country is, pay lots of money for mediocre food, line the pockets of vineyard owners and then LEAVE. You see, as a tourist you’re of no threat and the French can carry on feeling superior however if you choose to live here, it will change.
Your French will never be good enough regardless of how much they complimented you as a tourist. Oh the irony! They will pull faces as you speak, pretending they cannot possibly understand anything you’re saying and then rudely insist on either speaking English or finding somebody to translate.
If you have a particularly foreign sounding surname and even if you spell it our for them in perfect French, they may take umbridge at you and yes, they may even laugh in your face! More frustratingly is when they hang up on you, telling you that you cannot possibly have that surname because it doesn’t make sense.
Expect no mercy and if you’re of coloured skin or look the slightest bit Arabic they might not even bother hearing you.
12) Life happens at a slower rate
No electricity? No internet? No home? No rush…. It is all part of their plan to be in control.
Don’t expect them to care or even do anything about it. It could be fixed in 3 weeks. Alternatively you could still be waiting 3 months later. My parents had no internet for THREE months and now it has been reinstated the company cannot reimburse them in one lump sum, no they must do it in monthly payments of 7.80 euros.. or something, because those are the rules!
13) Renting property
Renting a house in Lyon has been the most frustrating and demeaning experience of our lives. It’s been so bad I just don’t know where to start.
Lyon housing is expensive. It’s also pretty terrible however due to housing shortages landlords have no inclination to better their properties. The French are also eternally grateful for even getting on the housing ladder (even rental) that they will NEVER complain. This is because in order to move into a rental, you are required to put the equivalent of three months rent down in advance. This comprises; one month rent, one month deposit and the estate agent fees.
Many houses don’t come with kitchens; you have to provide your own. Some might not come with any lights or light fittings and you will be responsible for those. The electrical wiring will no doubt be terrible, as it has been in all of the houses we’ve ever frequented! You may have a wall with eight light switches on it. One may work or none of them will. This is normal lol.
Never trust the Regie. Regie is another word for immobilier or estate agent. They may pretend to be your friend, in the beginning, but if you’re foreign they will undoubtedly rip you off. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at Google and how many people have had their bonds stolen from them.
Photograph everything. Never rely on word of mouth. If something is agreed verbally, ALWAYS email afterwards with an exchange of what has occurred and always keep a copy of the email. remember how I said the ‘dossier’ was GOD. This is where it will help save your arse. Print those emails and hoard them like your life depends on it.
The process of having a bond removed from you is very easy. So easy, they don’t even have to give you notice they’ve taken it or provide proof. The process of trying to retrieve your bond is VERY difficult and time consuming. It requires lots of letters giving warnings and threats, all sent by registered post. These letters MUST follow a guideline, so best print one from the internet and amend it.
14) Education is bleak
Our experience of schools has been strict, uncompromising and hostile and I will endeavour to explain why in a not too long winded way!
Children, like in many other countries, start the education process at the age of three. However unlike the wonderfully bright, colourful and welcoming nurseries/pre-schools/kindies we’ve been used to, we found ecolle maternelle to be drab, uninteresting, uninspiring and lacking in any creativity necessary for children’s brains.
Registering your child for ecolle maternelle is easy IF your child is aged 5-6 because it is compulsory for the Mairie to provide a place. If your child is younger s/he may be placed on a wait list. Ecolle maternelle is split into three age groups: petit section for 3-4 yr olds, moyen section for 4-5 yr olds and grand section for 5-6 yr olds. The school my youngest daughter attended had mixed classes of the top two age groups – goodness knows why – and she hated it. There was virtually no arts or crafts, she did painting once in five months, testing was frequent and naps in the afternoon were ENFORCED! Every child, even those aged SIX, was forced to have a nap in the afternoon…. If they stayed for the afternoon session. One way of circumnavigating this is to remove your child for lunch and not take them back in the afternoon.
Depending on the ecolle maternelle, you may or may not be allowed past the gate and your presence in the classroom (which is full of rows of desks) is not required!!
Primary School: Registering your child for primary school is relatively easy. You will need to make an appointment with the Dept of Education at the local mairie (town hall) and provide documentation such as a the child’s birth certificate, proof of address, a medical certificate saying they’re ‘apt for school’ (some schools waive this) and vaccination information. They’ll ask you to provide stuff like the ‘carnet de santé’ – which foreigners are NOT allocated. They know this but for some reason they still ask for it.
Primary schools do not allow parents inside the school gates. This was our biggest shock. The child is left at the gates and from that moment on, the teacher (who has a job for life regardless of ability or personality) is in control and the child will know his/her place. Parents are NOT allowed to volunteer in schools, parents are even discouraged from helping their children with their homework on the basis that they will “confuse the child”, the teacher’s word is final and if your child is struggling it is just tough shit! No attempt will be made to help your child integrate and if he/she is lonely then they should change, learn French quicker or just get used to it. If your child is crying they will probably be ignored.
Grammar is highly prioritised over everything, rote learning is favoured highly, there is no art or anything creative and no sport. All children must learn to write in EXACTLY the same way and with a fountain pen. Teachers teach exactly what the Dept of Education sends them – no more, no less. It is common place for teachers to humiliate children by shouting, ridiculing or ripping out work and throwing it in the bin. The curriculum is not fun and small children will spend extended periods of time, sitting down and being quiet.
ICT is not taught in primary schools and not encouraged by teachers – or certainly not the three schools our three children attended. When we first attended our eight year old son’s class induction, we were informed by the teacher that she did not allow any electronics in her classroom and that as parents we should ban them at home. She said “I immediately know the children who are allowed screen time because their behaviour in the classroom is not appropriate“. The word of the teacher here is final and I was shocked to see many parents nodding their heads and agreeing with her!!
Uniformed learning is key to the French system; a child from the south of France will be studying exactly the same thing at approximately the same time as his or her counterpart in the north of France.
Lunch is taken seriously and is a two hour affair comprising of two courses. Of course being vegan is just fussiness and they won’t accommodate such requests unless accompanied by a Dr’s letter. This is fine if your child has an actual illness that requires a specific diet however I have yet to find a Dr who will sign us a letter about veganism. This meant our children couldn’t have lunch in school and required me collecting them and feeding them at home.
Registering a child for secondary school is a little more complex. First you must ring the school, explain that your child is foreign at which point they’ll probably say ‘Ooh c’est compliqué’ and give you a number to ring for ‘a test’. Said child CANNOT start school without this test as they cannot possibly know what class to put the child in. Yeh, go figure!! The test is frequently held miles away from the actual school you want the child to attend and is just another opportunity for them to belittle you and prove that the child is not capable within their complex education system and that said child will have to be moved down a year and attend a special school (often the one the testers teach at). This is bullshit and it’s all financially motivated. It may take weeks to sit the test and it’ll definitely take weeks to have a decision. In the end, after many arguments and shouting matches and after two letters of complaint, our eldest child was finally allocated a place (in the correct age group) at our local school. She did however start over a month after term had started.
One of our daughter’s complaints about school was that it was very boring. Although one class of art is taught per week, it was very prescribed, not relevant to children/teenagers and not at all interesting. Physical Education is taught but this comprises of either frisbee, cross county or gymnastics. Humiliation is high from both teachers and other pupils and bullying is almost encouraged by teachers. Foreign children should learn their place and belittling them is clearly the way to achieve it.
Subjects are intensely taught, not fun or engaging and there is always a right answer. Discussion and debate are frowned upon and this creates a life-long need to be told the ‘right answer’. Homework becomes a very serious affair and tests are rampant. The marking is mechanically oppressive. Marking is out of 20, 10 is a pass and 14 is a good grade. 20 is virtually non-existent except for maths. Test marks become a parental obsession and repeating a year is common. About 30% of children will repeat a year.
Secondary school children are NOT allowed to leave the school grounds without the permission of their parents. You’d have thought this would be difficult to manage however French schools have found an effective way! Yes, they build ten foot high perimeter fences with one gate AND employ a man whose sole job it is to police the gate. Students are given a day-to-day book (carnet de correspondence) to carry around with them which also details their exact timetable for the year, has a photo of the student on it and also has the parents details and whether permission has been granted. Before leaving, students present this book to ‘the gate man’ and he allows them out.
I have found schools in Lyon to be the most unwelcoming, cold (literally freezing) and heartless places. Many secondary schools do not have heating, are built with grey concrete and look like prisons. Everything I have learnt about psychology and children’s learning is juxtaposed by the French model. It is very sad to see. It is of little wonder that most young people’s aspirations revolve around leaving France. They are curtailed and micro-controlled at every opportunity.
I guess this is the subject which is going to cause most friction and I’m going to be very honest. I do not like French parenting. I have found that it varies from one extreme to another; grossly neglectful and indulgent in the early years to totally micromanaged and punitive from primary onwards. Children are expected to behave like mini adults – frequently seen but never heard. Children do not speak out of turn, they do not get dirty and they certainly do not throw food. If you’re interested in understanding more, I suggest you read ‘French children don’t throw food – Pamlea Druckerman’.
I don’t necessarily agree with her views, in fact I am sick of the book being thrown at me by Lyonnaise people as a triumphant example of how wonderful they are, however it does go some way to explaining French parenting. It does nothing but highlight my views that French society is akin to sheep; being exactly the same!
If I was to write a book now about my experience of French parenting, I would probably entitle it ‘French children never get dirty’.
16) Overly medicalised
The over-medicalisation of people doesn’t just relate to Lyon but to the entirety of France. The moment you are ill, you are expected to see a doctor and get a sick note. Bizarre, right!? What genuinely ill person wants to go and sit in a Dr’s surgery and get a sick note? Well, that’s what you have to do otherwise you won’t get paid for missing work. Yup, the first day you’re ill from work you are expected to provide a sick note.
France has the highest consumption of antibiotics in Europe and we have heard stories from other ex-pats where the French will demand antiobiotics on the first day that they’re ill.
You are also expected to acquire a medical certificate for your child to attend school and sports clubs. Why, you might ask? I’m not sure lol but if your child wants to attend an after-school sports club, s/he MUST have this certificate.
17) Ballet is damaging for under 6’s.
Under 6’s are NOT allowed to do ballet in Lyon. Why? Apparently it’s damaging. Even though our daughter did ballet at 3, she wasn’t allowed to pursue it here until she had left ecolle maternelle.
18) Racism is high in Lyon
As I’m sure you’re aware over the recent news of the burkini, racism in France is HUGE! It’s much more overt than it used to be and it’s institutional throughout.
I have witnessed unprovoked French people spitting at Arabic women, I’ve seen unprovoked verbal abuse from the French towards Arabic families with young children but most frequently, I see French men humiliate young teenage girls who wear some form of traditional clothing. This could be anything from long sleeved tops to long skirts, not necessarily the hijab or the al-almira. It is awful to watch and I have frequently called out men for being racist in supermarkets and shopping malls. I am of the belief that their behaviour is deliberately intimidating and humiliating and that it needs to be challenged.
There are many graffiti signs throughout Lyon saying “Chassons les islamistes” (hunt the Islamists) which remain on walls. Too frequently in France nothing is challenged, so it is all the more important to bring change.
Racism is institutional in France. By this I mean that it extends to Government agencies from local mairies to prefactures and the gendarmes/police. It is is horrible to witness!
19) Policing is brutal
French police resort to violence very quickly and often unprovoked. It is horrendous to see.
Lyon hosted Euro 2016 recently and there was frequently tear gas used, unnecessarily, and when children and families were present. I am not denying there wasn’t trouble however French police do nothing but provoke.
20) Being a vegan is hard
If you’re interested in what it’s like to be a vegan in Lyon visit this post however I will say that being a food conscious vegan here is incredibly difficult. Supermarkets are getting better, for example they’ll sell almond or rice milks but frequently they have added sugar and e-numbers. I have had to wait two weeks before finding cashew nuts that haven’t been grilled or salted and finding xylitol was a never until September 2016! Coconut oil it starting to be sold in a select few supermarkets but again they’re small jars and expensive.
Yes, there are magasins bio (organic shops) however they’re very expensive and frequently located out of town. It can be hit and miss as to what products you find. Choice is frequently limited and oh, did I mention they were expensive?
I find that awareness around food in France is low, meat and dairy consumption is very high and animal cruelty is high. Restaurants frequently never offer a vegetarian option and are reluctant to change.
21) NO entrepreneurial culture
France (according to France) was recently awarded ‘best entrepreneurial’ country. I forget which French newspaper I read that in because my eyes were already rolling in disgust. Being independent is a personality flaw here so of course setting up your own business is incredibly challenging.
What I have found is that people tend to be more willing to buy established but smaller businesses.
22) La Poste
Snail mail is pretty terrible here. It is quicker for me to have a private courier deliver something from England than it is to use French mail from Paris.
Next day delivery does not exist and theft is high!! It is best to use private couriers than La Poste if you want your item to actually arrive.
If your name is not printed legibly on your post box, your item will be returned. Letter boxes in front doors are banned here. Instead your mail box should be one pre-approved by La Poste and should be located at the front of house, on the road. It should be between 80cm-150cm high and should not require ‘le facteur‘ (postman) to get off his bike.
Internet is very hit and miss in Lyon. You can get fibre in some areas BUT only if cables have been laid. We discovered that according to the maps, we should be able to get fibre but of course no cables had been laid in our areas. We were also limited by choice as only two companies provided phone and internet in our area.
24) People are still frightened of the internet
When my husband told me this I have to confess that I laughed. I said to him ‘but these are people close to retirement right?’. Nope! People in their 30s and 40s!
My husband has been tasked with digitilising his company. His aim is to get each department on LinkedIn. You would have thought this was easy, after all those of us in the digital world have been using LinkedIn for, what, 5 years? But no! He tells me that people in his company are so frightened of using LinkedIn that they won’t use their real names and won’t post updates.
So, what does all this mean? Am I suggesting that you shouldn’t come and live in France? No! Not at all. This post was written as a means to spread awareness that life in France isn’t all vineyards and olives. No amount of research can prepare you for life in another country but I hope that this post goes some way to highlighting some of the problems we have encountered.