How living abroad in Italy years ago prepared me for life in France NOW

February 29, 2012

Even in 2012, many restaurants in France still close for the midday break or -- like long-standing Chez Fernand in Samois-sur-Seine -- are only open Wednesday through Sunday.

Even in 2012, many restaurants in France still close for the midday break or -- like long-standing Chez Fernand in Samois-sur-Seine -- are only open Wednesday through Sunday.

When you move abroad from the United States—and even when you move to an equally developed country—the adjustments you need to make in daily life are huge. That’s not to say that they’re BAD; they’re not. They’re just different. You might not find the same cough drop brands at the local pharmacist; out in the villages, you’re not likely to find a walk-ins-are-welcome manicure salon. But obviously, you’ve decided small changes like these are worth making in order to live the life you have now.

As I go about my daily routine, I’m finding that many of the experiences I have here in the lovely village of Samois-sur-Seine, in the surrounding towns, and 40 minutes away in Paris are nearly identical to ones I faced in Florence, Italy, when I lived there back in 2004 and 2005. Thank goodness this time around, I feel much more prepared to tackle the inevitable challenges that crop up on a daily basis. As anyone living abroad can attest, it’s during your first experience that you learn to juggle the truly unfamiliar until it becomes comfortable.

Both France and Italy are enormously popular with visitors around the world, in no small part thanks to the often slower, more tranquil—and dare I say “human”—quality of life you’ll find in both countries. Living in both countries has helped me realize that it’s neither necessary—nor at all healthy—to live a frantic, running-in-circles existence. That it really is possible to savor a meal without simultaneously reading, paying bills and taking notes for the next interview. And that it’s as important to accept a neighbor’s impromptu invitation to drop by for dinner or drinks as it is to crank out the next deadline assignment.

But tranquility comes at a price—especially for those of us used to 24-hour supermarkets, the-customer-is-always-right service, and same-day everything. When you’re an urban girl living in downtown Chicago, somewhere in Manhattan or perhaps in über-modern Montreal condos, the world is on-call, waiting to meet your every need. In cities and towns throughout France and Italy, not so much—but that’s OK. Here are several ways that my first expatriate stint readied me for the second time around in France: 

  • Making the most of that midday break. It’s often tough for Americans to get used to the concept of stores, restaurants, and businesses shutting down in the middle of the day—or not being open at ALL on Sundays, which often is the only day many of us have to run errands. But you know, I kinda like this close-mid-afternoon-and-on-Sunday thing. For one, it helps you remember that the people working at the dry cleaners, serving your food at a brasserie or bistro, and baking your bread at the nearby boulangerie are real people with real lives. They like to eat lunch, just like you do. And on Sundays, they’d rather be spending time with their families than dealing with you and your fellow customers. That’s civilizing—and fair.
Don't DARE be in a hurry when going to La Poste or other businesses in France (or Italy). Life happens when it does ... and you learn to get used to it!

Don't DARE be in a hurry when going to La Poste or other businesses in France (or Italy). Life happens when it does ... and you learn to get used to it!

  • Patience, please. As long as you remember that EVERYTHING takes longer to do than you think, you save yourself much frustration and stress. That quick trip to the post office? Not likely. Either the person ahead of you is handling some complicated transaction—or more likely in MY case—I’m lost halfway through mine because my French comprehension isn’t quite there. (This is why before I leave home, I consult my trusty French dictionary and/or grammar books for key terms that I’ll need to use at La Poste, at the mobile phone store, or at the shoe repair shop. Unfortunately, these aren’t the words you generally learn in once-a-week French classes back in the States.) You’re better off doubling the amount of time you expect an errand will take—and while you wait, pull out that French grammar book and take advantage of the free time.
  • Better plan ahead. Let’s face it, folks—the United States is a procrastinator’s dream. So you forgot to take that dress for tonight’s cocktail party to the dry cleaners’ last week? No worries—drop it off before 9 a.m.; get it back by 4. Need new heels put on those fierce stilettos? Sure thing—you’ll get them back in 10 minutes AND while you wait. Going to a networking event but forgot to take enough business cards? Just e-mail the file to a print shop and they’ll have them printed up the same day. Life does NOT work like that here. If you get lucky, you might get your goods back by the end of the week IF you show up Monday morning. But it’s hardly the end of the world. If nothing else, it just forces you to get organized and take care of business Monday through Saturday if you really need something done.
  • Be engaged—and be seductive. That doesn’t mean you go around throwing yourself at the postman or the guy at the butcher shop. But even in 2012 in both Italy and France, customers still actively engage with the people serving them. I’ve always found that a genuine smile goes a long way—especially when you don’t yet speak the language well. In Florence, if I walked past the corner café, phone shop or the cleaners, I’d wave and briefly chat or exchange pleasantries (in broken Italian, mind you), because it’s simply uncivilized not to do it. And once I’m out and about more in France and get to know business owners, I’ll do the same. What a nice habit to develop, especially when you live and work alone as I do. It’s all about making a human connection. No one’s explained this better than Elaine Sciolino, the Paris correspondent and long-time Paris bureau chief of The New York Times, in her provocative book La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life, believing that seduction is “the ever-present subtext for how the French relate to one another.” As she writes in a chapter called “Make Friends with Your Butcher,” “… there should be pleasure in the process of getting something done, whether it is being served a steak frites or buying a cell phone.” Indeed.
Ahhh ... the pleasant Vicolo del Canneto, a narrow street where I lived when in Florence. It's here that this Type A Capricorn finally learned to appreciate slowing down (well, at least in theory!).

Ahhh ... the pleasant Vicolo del Canneto, a narrow street where I lived when in Florence. It's here that this Type A Capricorn finally learned to appreciate slowing down (well, at least in theory!).

  • Learning the language. In my younger days, I was a much quicker study when it came to figuring out foreign languages like Spanish, which I studied in elementary and high school and at university. I took several language courses before moving to Italy, but none of it seemed very helpful once I landed on the ground in Florence (a city where you can easily speak English much of the time because of ever-present tourists). Still, I struggled through it. Found kind-hearted Italians who’d let me practice with them. And s-l-o-w-l-y, eventually, the impasse broke and it all started to make sense. It still does—so much so that I’d feel comfortable traveling solo through Italian regions where I’d be unlikely to run into English speakers. With much more study and actual TALKING, I know I’ll someday get a grasp of le français and will no longer have to plan out conversations minutes before speaking. Still, you should have seen my glee when discovering yesterday that the shoe repair man at a nearby cordonnerie was actually Italian! We instantly switched from French to italiano, allowing me to comfortably chat and build instant camaraderie with this friendly signore.  

If these Italian-French experiences can remind me to slow down, savor life and not just speed through on auto-pilot—regardless of where I decide to call home—they’re lessons worth learning.

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17 Comments Leave a Comment

  • 1. Sharon Sanders  |  February 29, 2012 at 10:54 am

    Ahhhhhh. Love your anecdote about the Italian shoe repairman. Also adore the midday break. My theory? It doubles your life span by giving you two days in one.

  • 2. Kelly E. Carter  |  February 29, 2012 at 11:14 am

    I chuckled reading this as I multi-tasked, eating a bowl of steel cut oatmeal, getting dressed and reading all at the same time. We need to slow down! Life isn’t going anywhere. But we will miss out if we don’t stop and enjoy it. Thanks for the reminder.

  • 3. Lori  |  February 29, 2012 at 11:20 am

    Hi Maureen,

    I will be visiting Spain and Italy in June; can you share one of your daily challenges?



  • 4. Susan Spencer  |  February 29, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    My shop, Bridie’s Irish Faire, is located on the central Oregon coast, but previously was located in a suburban town, where I built quite an Irish community just because my customers wanted to learn to dance and speak Irish Gaelic, and I hosted many in-store “educational” events about different aspects of Irish culture. For quite a while after moving my shop, life as a shopkeeper just didn’t feel the same, was not as enjoyable, and it took me quite some time to figure out what had changed. Before, I had customers who had become friends coming into the shop, now I have strangers crossing my threshhold all day long, because Bridie’s is located in a tourist destination. No more chats about children and grandchildren, and the folks back home in Ireland, now it’s about where to have lunch! Locals are finally starting to make themselves known and I really enjoy a chat about life, so cherish those relationships you are creating with your local merchants, you mean a lot to us!

  • 5. antoinette  |  February 29, 2012 at 3:20 pm

    i just love this article! its as if i was there by the pics and not on my lunch break in Dallas! im so glad i came across your blog.i dream of living(1st traveling abroad) and your articles place me there.if only for the time it takes me to read.thanks for sharing.

  • 6. Vonnie (socialitedreams)  |  February 29, 2012 at 3:38 pm

    awesome read! it’s always great to see the living abroad experience broken down

  • 7. Sharon  |  February 29, 2012 at 7:13 pm

    One of the things I like about Europe are the Siestas! While in Florence in 2009, I could not wait for my mid-day nap. I wish we had siestas here in US.

  • 8. Tyra  |  March 1, 2012 at 2:57 pm

    Great article! As I read this entry, my iphone began playing Estelle’s latest album and pumping her song ‘It’s a wonderful life’. I think its fitting to say you seem to be living through that song. As I head to my 4th presentation of the week, I think to myself I can’t wait until I’m sitting back in a little cafe in Paris taking in the world again.

  • 9. Lia  |  March 1, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    Love following along on your adventure while having my own. I’m living in Northern Italy and I completely agree with you, patience is a prerequisite of living in Italy or France, organized is MORE than a “theory” and language comes oh so slooowly, but such a thrill when you get it right! The initial discomfort one feels is so WORTH IT when you’re standing out on your “balcone” admiring that breathtakingly gorgeous view and soaking up the sun! It’s been over a year that I’m here and yes it has been incredibly hard getting used to a completely new way of life and breaking that fast paced USA rhythm, but the payback is great, it still seems like a dream that I’ll wake up from saying “Did that really happen?”
    Can’t wait for your next post, GO GIRL GO!

  • 10. Chloe  |  March 2, 2012 at 9:36 am

    This is so cool, I want to study abroad. I’m blessed that my school offers that program. But you’re living abroad. You inspire me to learn italian and French. I took french in highschool Junior year. and spanish since I was seven. I heard if you can speak spanish you can speak Italian. But french I need to practice. I’ll be going to mango languages. Have a super awsome time And I would love to see MORE PICTURES THANKS.
    Be Blessed.

  • 11. Janet  |  March 4, 2012 at 5:37 am

    Hi All. I really enjoyed reading this piece. It’s nice to see so many inspiring stories.

    I’m a Londoner born and raised although I’m of African descent and I moved to Rome, Italy last year April and was working there in the telecoms sector. I met very few black sisters.

    I recently had to move to Siena for work in January and I would love to meet other women and learn and share in our overall experiences, but make friends.

    Cheers, Janet

  • 12. Felicia Shelton  |  March 4, 2012 at 2:16 pm

    I really love the way you go into detail and describe the everydayness(so not a word) of living in another culture. I do appreciate the fact that Sundays and especially Mondays here in Paris are quite CLOSED and slower paced. Those beautiful stores and galleries I love so much are run by real people with real lives and family and friends that need them much more than I do. Everybody deserves to live life at a livable pace. Great post!

  • 13. Antoinette  |  March 7, 2012 at 2:05 am

    I am so glad to hear that your pace has sloooowed a bit. I have mastered a slower pace here in Thailand and hoping to not return to a quick turnstall life when I head back to the states in a few months.

    I’ve already begun to renew my mind about handling my life differently so that I do not get caught in the race again. Hoping to return to my beloved Thailand by years end.

  • 14. Carmel  |  March 9, 2012 at 10:04 am

    Hi Maureen-

    I was excited to see that you’d made a new post. Since my first European excursion during the 2011 holiday season I have been in LOVE with the culture. Returning home everyone asked what I enjoyed most about my travel, my reply almost always has been “the simplicity, non-rushing & family oriented lifestyle.” I loved the fact that everyone took their time. I must say that eating an early dinner while in Paris was a bit nerve wrecking for myself & friends, as we didn’t understand why everything took soooo long, until we looked around and realized that the Parisians actually conversated over meals and savored the food. I currently live in the Washington, DC metro area and of course things are rush-rush-rush. I so can’t wait for the day (January 2014) that I move to Paris – until then I’ll vicariously live through your experience :-)

    Question….have you found a hair salon there yet? When I was there I did not see many hair salons for women of color exclusively, let alone one for natural hair.

  • 15. Felicia Shelton  |  March 16, 2012 at 2:46 am

    I know that you may be busy but please keep us all updated about your life and experiences here in France. I hope that we get to meet up when you’re in Paris one of these fine days and the days are getting quite fine in Paris. Sun is out this morning in full force! Wishing you a great weekend!


  • 16. Lin  |  March 16, 2012 at 10:36 pm

    Re your recent postings about hair care, I’m not sure if you know about, but it is a great site with info on caring for natural hair. Great info for anyone a few miles or thousands of miles away from their local stylist. I learned from you about dbl twist extensions. Never know they existed. You may decide to do the BC and say good bye to extensions.

    I first read your articles when you where living in Italy and writing for the Sun Times here, in Chicago and found you again by reading TCW.

  • 17. Melodie K.  |  March 27, 2012 at 10:07 am

    Thank you for confirming that the sweet and slow life is still very much alive in France!

    The closing of shops for the midday meal was a time I always looked forward to in Spain. Time spent sharing good food and conversation with friends.

    Even in a large city like Madrid (or Paris), there is a calm that you don’t find in most New York City neighborhoods.

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