What did you really struggle with or struggle to understand / grasp / get your head round?

Morning campers! I need some help please - planning future features…

When you first arrived in France or were moving and you were still wet behind the ears and generally clueless (!), what did you really struggle with or struggle to understand / grasp / get your head round? Healthcare? Opening hours ? Social etiquette? Socialising?

All and any thoughts welcome please :slight_smile: :slight_smile:


Not sure this really falls into what you are looking for, but might give some context for you.
We came thinking we had chosen a part of France where there were few English (being snobbish about it all!) In fact English contacts in the early days were our godsend.
We bought a house that had been a maison secondaire and an English couple acted as gardeners / caretakers for the previous owners. This couple were fantastic in helping us get through those early days. The wife came to the meeting with the notaire, went with us to EDF, Orange, the water company to set up our contracts, explained about CPAM and healthcare and was an enormous help through those early months - I sense there are people on here doing the same in their local communities.
We also were given a flyer by our estate agent about a local “incomers” welcome group in town, which met once a month. Some of the members were from the UK and this group has given us some of our closest / strongest friendships. It was also an invaluable source of general info in the early days, where to go for a good doctor /car service / plumber / etc etc.
Going back 13 years, I also found a large and very active English forum which was invaluable when I had a panic with one of our dogs over a weekend. He had a history of very complicated health issues and in those first weeks I could not have explained all to a French vet, so I was desperate for a vet who spoke English and the forum gave me an answer. She came, on a Sunday, complete with two small boys whom we flung in the pool, and she sorted out our dog (and me, and has been our loved vet ever since).
We also struggled in the early days to find someone to give us French lessons and then bumped into a casual (French) acquaintance in town who recommended the teacher (of English) in her son’s school. I met her for afternoon tea and cake and discovered someone who has a life-long love of the UK, she became not only our French teacher but also a dear friend.
For us, the early days passed so much more easily than they might have done through networks such as this one. I learnt to be less snobby about English contacts and friendships here! I also learnt that help of the most marvellous kind can come from unexpected places, one just has to ask - even in bad French!


Like Sue, we tried to avoid English people because the ones we already knew only ever related to other Brits, didn’t speak French, and had their own sub-culture. The information I gained from them about things that I struggled with (registering with CPAM, trying to get residency, finding a GP, improving my French, what to do about my car) was largely incorrect and I had to learn the hard way, on my own (partner still in UK). I didn’t find any useful forums (SF was a relatively recent discovery) and it was only when talking to local shopkeepers etc (so kind!) that I found out what to do. That and the government websites of course.
There is so much in French culture that is different from the UK and most of the assumptions I arrived with were wrong. The importance of Associations in the local structure, for example, took me quite a while to find out.
Who to consult for what - notaire?, mairie? I’d never crossed tthe thershold of our local council offices in the UK and had no idea how important it was to be a regular visitor to the Mairie so they knew who I was.
There are SO many things. I have only just started… sorry…


No opening on Mondays. Caught us out every time.
Finding a good doctor, we are in an area where there is a shortage of MTs and many are now retiring.
Our first MT had and still has no computer and works alone. That we found really strange and it wouldn’t be allowed in UK.


Healthcare, specifically:

  • being unable to order repeat prescriptions online;
  • having to arrange blood tests, x-rays etc etc oneself instead of the surgery taking care of it;
  • pharmacy only giving out 1 months supply of some medication in spite of having a 3 month prescription;
  • being here for 2 years before finding out about long-term illnesses (ALD affection de longue).

Tradesmen – finding decent reliable tradesmen.

Plants - finding out the hard (expensive) way that what grows well in the UK, does not necessarily thrive here (Charente).


The language:
Vanessa did French at school, I did German so she was streets ahead of me on the verbs (even though her days as a Grammar school girl are long over).
I learnt very early on not to be too English and snub correction. I used to go to the local bakery and in my (extremely) poor French would ask for une pain un baguette :roll_eyes:
After a few visits asking incorrectly, the serveuse, when no-one else was in the shop, corrected me - and I’ve remembered it ever since.
It’s a continual learning process and most of the day I have French TV on in the background… so perhaps subliminally I’m getting educated - just like any child learns a language, by listening. (as my old gran said, it’s why you have two ears and one mouth!).


Etiquette. When invited to a birthday party, dinner etc, don’t arrive at the stated time if you don’t want to be awkwardly alone with the hosts for a good length of time. Whether to take a present and what it should be. How to use vous/tu. Faire la bise : left or right first?

Local language. Understand that ‘normalement’ means “probably/possibly/maybe not” and that “pas terrible” actually means “terrible” (I think). Try to speak with the local accent so that one’s neighbour may understand you, up to a point at least. Worked example : senk = five, chieng = dog, cheng = oak tree, sang = one hundred. Therefore senk-sang-veng = 520. Un enorme cheng de senk mètres is a big tree, not an enormous hound to be avoided! It took us years to find out.

Knowing how to make a formal complaint or to send an important communication to a company or the administration (and to get a response) by sending mail “recommandé avec avis de réception”.


Mothers are very good at correcting one’s mistakes. They do it almost automatically. Children too can be helpful.

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And the need to know the answer before asking the question.
Nobody being prepared to admit making mistakes…from the woman at the Tresor Public, right down to some obnoxious bellend at France Telecom…with Credit Agricole in the middle, but later conceding they’d been less than helpful.
Apart from that, the English are mostly worth avoiding in this area, except for a child’s-sized handful…just my opinion based on personal experience.
Health care excellent, once the right GP had been found.
Apart from that, the hardest thing has been to interpret different shrugs that mean different things.


1 When we first came to France back in 1981 we were both smokers. Waking up on a Sunday morning after a Saturday night socialising and discovering we’d no fags and the only tabac open on a Sunday was 5km away at Grenoble railway station.

2 At the beginning of '83 I had a car accident, nothing too serious but it involved a couple of nights in hospital. A couple of days after I got home I felt fine and trotted off to work and got thrown out of the place and told not to return until my “compulsory” three weeks off sick was up :slightly_smiling_face:


+1 Fleur. Etiquette and words to be cautious when hearing like the “Normalement” you mention. Cultural no-no’s like never directly challenge a functionary even when they’re blatantly wrong…you have to find another way. Still learning!

Also to know which things to beware of that can suddenly get very costly. Such as dental treatment, the massive growth of speed traps in France, beware a particular major road may be 80kph limit not 90kph with no sign to tell you.

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Navigating healthcare was troublesome. We had had a second home in Paris for many years previously, plus have been a regular visited since I was 3 month old, so some of the day to day stuff, language, socialising etc was fine.

But actually abandoning my beloved NHS and moving my healthcare here was huge. And complicated. I had existing conditions needing regular prescriptions that GPs/MTs are not allowed to prescribe, plus other monitoring and testing. So couldn’t risk a gap in healthcare. Tell that to CPAM! I think PUMA has probably changed everything, thank goodness. We had to do a lot of planning to work out exactly what we needed to do…so booking specialist appointments before I actually left the NHS as time lags so long.

This was also pre-forums, hand holding services and the like. But I actually think this was good in the long run as we had to ask local people and really find out how things worked.


Having to say “Bonjour” to everybody. I was often embarrassed in shops - I would approach somebody and ask where the flour was to be answered with “Bonjour, à votre gauche etc”
The income tax forms.
Being prepared to spend much more on food than in England.
Queuing for longer in supermarkets, usually while people wrote cheques or paid with a hundred vouchers.
Having to put bags on the belt in the supermarket. Occasionally, having bags searched.
Everybody seems to be an artisan, even taxi drivers.
Having to research tradespeople carefully as they keep strictly to their own trade, no “doabitofeverything” people. ( We always had excellent service)
Don’t pay up front. We were never asked.


nowt wrong with pleasantries imo.
What I found most difficult in this area was going back to the UK after 1½ years in France for 6 weeks to housesit for a friend going on safari in Africa…
The startled look on most people’s faces as we entered a shop and announced “good morning” was amazing… and when offering my hand to shake hands well… quel horreur! anyone would think I was brandishing a knife!


Kissing etiquette hasn’t been mentioned yet. When being introduced to someone by a mutual friend I was never really sure what to do - some would lean in for a kiss and I would be caught unawares. And then there was how many, just 2 or 3 or 4 or what? I can remember a new employee on their first day at work kissing everyone they were introduced to you. I found that most odd!
In the end I used to just hold out my hand to shake hands with people I met before they had a chance to do anything else.
Izzy x

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I think it’s a regional thing… here in the Charente (pre Covid of course) it was always 3…

Yes I worked that out eventually but not before a few embarrassing moments :flushed: :kissing:
Izzy x

OMG, an upside to Covid!


Totally agree with you there Mark! I’ve announced to everyone I’m not going back to ‘la bise’ ever!!! Every cloud and all that :rofl:


I would say the biggest problem, aside from numerous trips to the Prefecture for my carte de séjour, was employment law and my rights and my employers obligations. As a quite naive 19 year old, I was heavily exploited for the first couple of years in my job as I had no idea what I could or could not do. I also was in a business with a lot of internal conflict so no one wanted to help/guide or get involved.