1 August 2016

Winifred Allen - Expat in Toulouse, France

Winifred Allen - Expat in Toulouse, France

Winifred Allen is a 31-year-old English teacher/student living in Toulouse, the capital of France’s southern Midi-Pyrénées region. Originally from the outskirts of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Mrs. Allen relocated to Toulouse due to her husband continuing his education abroad, “My husband wanted to continue his education abroad and one of the mathematicians he could work with was located in Toulouse. I was more than happy to follow!” she shared.

Mrs. Allen’s experience in finding housing wasn’t easy. “No one wanted to rent us an apartment, because we are both here on student visas and didn’t have jobs; we couldn’t prove that we were good tenants.  Every housing agency wanted to see pay stubs showing that you earned three times the rent, or that you had a French garant, a French person who could vouch for you,” she said. Additionally, opening a bank account was just as hard. “In the midst of our apartment-hunting, I thought we should get our financial affairs in order. I had a semi-closed bank account from previous years and I thought reopening it would be the easiest thing on our list of administrative tasks to accomplish. I crowed to my husband that I had had the foresight to only ‘semi-close’ it. However, the bank wouldn’t re-open it for me because we didn’t have housing!” Mrs. Allen shared.

Finding a place to live is probably one of the most difficult aspects of the expat life. Finding accommodation online is one way to find housing. There are about 200 countries all over the world, each with their own unique laws and requirements, so it’s great to be able to know the important requirements before relocating. As for opening a bank account, it’s a great idea to have an Offshore Savings account prior to moving abroad, as it is considered a good option for people living overseas or earning money in a different currency. Additionally, Offshore accounts are a good way to deposit money in various currencies.

Find out more about Mrs. Allen's experiences in France in her full interview below.

Q: Where are you originally from?

A: I am originally from the outskirts of Philadelphia, PA. Recently, before relocating to France, I spent a few years in Fort Collins, CO.

Q: What made you move out of your home country?

A: I have always wanted to live abroad. The last decade of my life has been spent flying back and forth over the Atlantic, trying to reconcile my extreme francophilia and my very American passport. Altogether, I’ve managed to spend about 5 or 6 years in France. I moved to Toulouse in the fall to give it another go and actually commit to settling in the hexagon.

 

Q: Where are you living now?

A: I live in Toulouse, a region and city that is new to me.

Q: How did you come to choose this new country of residence?

A: All of my experience with life in France previously has been in Brittany. My husband wanted to continue his education abroad and one of the mathematicians he could work with was located in Toulouse. I was more than happy to follow!

Q: What has been the most difficult experience you've had when you were new in France?

A: We both arrived in September of 2014, but as mentioned, I’ve spent about 5 years collectively in France. Probably the most difficult thing so far was opening a bank account and finding housing. No one wanted to rent us an apartment, because we are both here on student visas and didn’t have jobs; we couldn’t prove that we were good tenants. Every housing agency wanted to see pay stubs showing that you earned three times the rent, or that you had a French garant, a French person who could vouch for you. In the midst of our apartment-hunting, I thought we should get our financial affairs in order. I had a semi-closed bank account from previous years and I thought reopening it would be the easiest thing on our list of administrative tasks to accomplish. I crowed to my husband that I had had the foresight to only ‘semi-close’ it. However, the bank wouldn’t re-open it for me because we didn’t have housing! The beautiful southern sunshine was pouring down on us as we left the bank and I burst out into tears, totally discouraged.  We were living in a Formule 1 Hotel with about a week left on our reservation, and the hotel was completely booked. I dramatically wailed to my husband about having to ‘just pack up and go home.’  He remained militantly optimistic and we walked into and got rejected from five other banks, all of them citing our homelessness as the issue. But then, right when I was about to lie down on the street, we walked into a Banque Populaire. I spewed my sad story all over the receptionist and something changed in her eyes. We were ushered into a back office and a VERY kind banker gave us a chance. Bless him! It felt like a little miracle. I crazily whispered to my husband if it was inappropriate to hug a near-stranger….?  (I decided against it.) A day or so later, we heard word of a professor in the Math Department at my husband’s university who was spending a year abroad and looking to sub-let his apartment. Unbelievably, from thousands of miles away, another nice stranger took a chance on us and sent his friend over with keys to a gorgeous, fully-furnished apartment.

Q:  Would you say that formalities like getting visas or work permits and international health insurance was particularly difficult in your host country? What was your experience with these?

A: Yes, it’s difficult to set up a life here. I know this very well about France, but it’s a challenge I’m willing to accept. Also, French people themselves know that it’s difficult to sort out all the little details, so they often cut you some slack on deadlines. I currently teach English at a small school as an auto-entrepreneur (a freelancer status). I still have my student visa status, but I’m hoping to change that in the coming months to just a working visa. I’ve heard that they will often make you renew your visa every few months, as a foreign auto-entrepreneur. Again, that’s a hassle, but it’s a decision I’m willing to make. To get health insurance is not difficult; it’s just been a long process. I’ve been two or three times to the health insurance office and there has always been some document we didn’t have or some form filled out wrong. We’re still sorting that out. Everyone at the office has been nice and helpful; it’s health insurance, there’s nothing straightforward about that in any country!

Q: Are you living alone or with your family?

A: I came to France with my American husband. He likes his life here, but the academic atmosphere at his university came as a shock.  The department at his former university was close-knit and worked as a team. He socialized frequently with his adviser. The approach to learning was not based on rote memorizations, but on problem-solving. It was surprising for him to come here and find that his adviser didn’t even live nearby and that a lot of his exams evaluated his ability to commit proofs to memory. Globally, he wants to stay since he too has always harbored dreams of a life abroad.

Q:  Was it easy making friends and meeting people?

A: It’s difficult to make friends as an adult no matter what country you live in. Perhaps my husband and I are a little different from most expats in that we chose to come here for personal reasons, and it wasn’t a move for work, etc. We both avoid making friends with other Americans. It’s not out of malice, but simple logic. Why would I seek out other Americans after moving all this way to a different country to experience a new culture? Certainly I’m not against Americans or being friends with them, I just don’t frequent any expat groups or circles. We have it a bit easier in that we are both students, so you have a built-in group of people you are introduced to and see regularly. Previously, my social group was formed mostly from the church I went to. We are currently seeking a church here.

Q: What are the best things to do in the area? Anything to recommend to future expats?

A: Cite de l’espace is great! (and recently re-opened.) I found the Airbus tour pretty interesting, but some people in the group I went with weren’t too keen. Musée des Augustins is also really lovely—a museum built into a cloister has a lot of charm for me. My husband and I enjoyed the Abattoirs, the modern art museum here, as well. It’s not a huge museum, but there were still a few interesting things to see.  There is also a lot to see in the surrounding area: Carcassonne, Arles, Narbonne. Lourdes was a charming city and close enough to the Pyrénées that we got a small hike in. And you are so near lovely Barcelona. (We took a dirt-cheap night bus there for 9 euros. We were exhausted but it was worth it!) My husband is an avid rock-climber and skier. He managed a few outdoor climbing excursions in the Pyrénées before the weather turned cold, and recently took a ski trip to Spain.

Q: How does the cost of living in France compared to your home?

A: I was afraid that Toulouse would be a little bit more expensive since it’s a major city, but I was pleasantly surprised. Prices are comparable to what I’m used to.

Q:  How do you find the local culture and people in your host country?

A: I love the local culture. It’s strange because in Brittany, the region of France I have the most experience with, people have a reputation for being reserved and rude. This is not entirely true. People are reserved when you first meet them, but if you get to know them, let them in on your story, they will try and help you, even strangers. We were told a lot that people are very nice here. They are nice up front, but there is just a touch of the American attitude. That is, people are polite and nice, but wouldn’t go out of their way to help you. Whereas in Brittany, once you earn someone’s kindness, there’s nothing they wouldn’t help you with. Really, I’m picking at tiny flaws! We’ve only had great experiences with strangers being kind here in Toulouse. (You should see how seriously they take the “offer your metro and bus seat to the aged, infirm, or pregnant” rule. It warms the heart.)

Q: What do you think are the positive and negative sides of living in France?

A: I chose to come to France because I just love the culture and the language, so for me, the positive aspects of life are innumerable. I love the café culture, and hearing French spoken everywhere. I love that work is not everything. I love the slightly different view of the world and life, held by French people. One negative would be the rigidity of the French “norm.” I am the kind of person who has had a lot of different jobs and educational paths in the past, and that kind of lifestyle doesn’t chime that well with the French mindset. I’m still trying to figure out how to package my ‘set’ of skills to make my choices seem coherent.

Q:  How do you cope with homesickness?

A: It is hard to know friends and family are celebrating or marking life events, without you there. Watching nephews and nieces grow up from a far is sometimes sad. But a friend of mine reminded me that we live in a great age to stay in touch. It’s so easy to reach out and connect with friends and family. Plus, I have an awesome set of friends and family who are excited for my adventure and remain encouraging, even from far away.

Q:  Do you have plans to move to a different country or back home in the future?

A: Ha, I’m constantly fantasizing about the next place I want to land. But really my goal is to at least try and create some kind of stable life in France for now.

Q:  What has been the hardest aspect to your expat experience so far?

A: The hardest thing is knowing that this life here is fleeting. I have to work really hard just to keep up with paper work and stay one step ahead of any new legislation. It’s a part-time job in itself, trying to stay legal!

Q:  What tips can you give other expats living in France?

A: Stay positive! It’s worth it, so keep working it. That is, a life abroad is so fulfilling, just keep working at your paper work, or job search or hunt for some friends and eventually you’ll have some success.

Q:  Do you have favorite websites or blogs about your host country?

A: No. I don’t know of any.