Cynthia Caughey Annet never dreamed about living in France. In fact, she’s an Italophile, having studied in Italy as a college student, vacationed there for 20 years and lived there from 1998–2000. But as fate would have it, she fell in love with a Frenchman in 2005 who she met during a train ride in Provence. After 2.5 years of a long-distance relationship between Los Angeles and Chambery, she sold her house, ended her thriving and successful consulting business, and dragged her poor cats to Chambery at the ripe old age of 49 (her that is, not her cats). Cynthia runs www.french-alps-tours.com
Read more about the country in the Expat Arrivals expat guide to France, or read more expat experiences in France.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I grew up in Southwest Florida but lived the last 26 years in Los Angeles before moving to the French Alps.
Q: Where are you living now?
A: Barberaz France – a suburb of Chambery
Q: How long have you lived here?
A: 20 months
Q: Did you move with a spouse/children?
Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: I moved to marry my fiancé, now husband, a French citizen. It was a difficult decision because I owned a lovely home, had a thriving business as a consultant, and had a six-figure income. Plus, I’m a warm-weather gal. I’m a non-profit fundraising consultant and was able to keep a couple of small contracts for now, but I know they’ll end in a year or two, so I have to find a way to recreate myself professionally pretty quickly. One of the things I’ve started is a unique tour of the French Alps which takes folks to all my favourite cities, landscapes, tastings, and activities in the region.
About the French Alps
Q: What do you enjoy most about living in France, how’s the quality of life?
A: Chambery is a lovely, charming city, but a bit small for me (60K people) after living in Los Angeles. It is more liveable in that things are slower-paced and quiet, and the traffic is nothing compared to LA. It’s lower stress and calmer living. The French Alps region has landscapes and towns that are absolutely stunning and the cities of Lyon, Vienne, Annecy and Chamonix are filled with things to see and do. And if you like to motorbike or hike, this is the best place to do it.
Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home?
A: In Chambery, there are no international, expat, or English-speaking communities, only a few Americans, and it’s a fairly closed, reserved, provincial town so a bit difficult to integrate or find friends. Also, there's no nightlife, the buses stop at 7pm, and there's little to do unless you are a hiker or winter sports fan, so I head over to Grenoble or Lyon (about an hour by train) for festivals, shopping, expat meetings, good or ethnic restaurants. Fortunately, I ride trains in France at 90 percent discount since my husband drives TGVs, so taking trains is not a problem. In fact, I travel all over France by train and take videos of my travels and observations of the French life and put it on my blog.
Q: Is the city safe?
A: The town is very safe, and I never worry about my safety.
Q: Which are the best places/suburbs to live in the city as an expat?
A: It really depends on what you like. There are lovely mountain and valley small towns all around Chambery if you like the country, mountain or vineyard life. But the downtown Chambery area, which is fairly small, is also a very liveable place if you want something more city-oriented.
Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation in France?
A: Everything I’ve seen is well maintained and quite liveable, but I find the housing very expensive here – almost the same as Grenoble or Lyon – especially given it’s not really a city with a lot of jobs or industry. Apparently, it’s a very rich city though.
Q: What’s the cost of living in France compared to America? What is cheap or expensive in particular?
A: Well, I still get paid with dollars, which makes everything 35% more expensive. For me, it seems to be very expensive given what the salaries are here. Los Angeles’s housing is terribly expensive, but the salaries are much higher than here so it evens out a little. If I was being paid in euros I would think that restaurants were about the same as in LA but since that’s not the case, I find eating out expensive. Buying things is quite expensive too, especially shoes! Even my US friends who visit me talk about how everything is so expensive, so I buy my stuff back in the US and bring it here. Public transportation is cheap and efficient, and I use it constantly.
Q: What are the locals like; do you mix mainly with other expats?
A: I find the folks in Lyon and Grenoble and other bigger cities more open, warm, and friendly and more tolerant of my terrible French, than in Chambery. Since big cities have more internationals and expats, the locals learn to accept and interact with them and even appreciate the money they bring to the economy. Chambery is not a tourist city, so it’s a different dynamic here.
Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends?
A: I have one American expat friend in Aix les Bains, a sister city, and one lovely French friend in Chambery who helped me through the first year. I’ve also met one other American who recently moved to Chambery. Otherwise, I head over the Grenoble for the English-speaking Association, Open House, and also for my French classes since I can’t afford the ones in Chambery.
About working in France
Q: Did you have a problem getting a work visa/permit?
A: No, no problem since it’s automatic when you marry a French citizen. Lots of paperwork however.
Q: What’s the economic climate like in France; is there plenty of work?
A: There’s not much industry here but not high unemployment either. Unfortunately, there’s no work for expats with a poor level of French, unless you’re willing to teach English for not a lot of money. And France doesn’t even have the industry I spent the last 30 years in, so that’s not an option anywhere in the country. So you really have to get creative when it comes to making a living.
Q: How does the work culture differ from home?
A: I don’t know first-hand. I only hear stories from listening to other expats, and apparently it’s very different from the US.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare?
A: I only just got on the healthcare system, which I did by signing up for the new auto-entrepreneur self-employment status, so I have limited experience so far. My doctors and dentist, who are in Grenoble, have been excellent and very affordable. I pay about 15 percent of what I would have had to pay in the US without insurance.
Q: Is there any other advice you like to offer new expat arrivals?
A: Well, first, every expat I’ve spoken to so far has had a difficult first year or two. It’s just part of the process. It’s easier if you come with your spouse versus adjusting to the new life plus the new relationship with all the intercultural challenges too.
Learn as much of the language as you can before coming, and if you don’t have to work, get into as many classes as possible, as soon as possible. If you have a choice, I would live near a big city where you can find other expats and a support group or at least in a touristy region like Provence, Brittany or the Cote d’Azur where you’ll find international folks and communities. There is a grieving process that you go through when you arrive which is normal, so the faster you can find friends and expats who can support you through the adjustments the better.
If you have to find work here then be prepared that you will probably find fewer opportunities, lower pay, and higher taxes. The new auto-entrepreneur status is wonderful, and if you want to sell or provide services yourself, then this is definitely the way to go since you only pay taxes and social charges on your profits. I’ve also used Twitter to connect with other expats and even met a group of bloggers for lunch in Paris last month. So think creatively and outside the box to solve the problems you’ll face as a new expat, but also take lots of time to ‘enjoy the moment’ and immerse yourself in the new culture and life, especially the things that are unique to your new country, especially if you’re only there for a few years. Time will go quickly.
~ Interviewed January 2010