I spent the past year teaching English in Dijon, France, and I’ll soon be leaving to go back to the U.S. I’m not sure how to feel about leaving France. On one hand, I had a lot of fun running races, exploring Europe, seeing old friends, and meeting new people. On the other hand, my difficult students were a headache, and it was tough to be away from family and loved ones.
I was supposed to stay through mid-August to train in the French Alps, and potentially race in the Swiss Alps. Unfortunately, my ankle issue uprooted my original plans. I decided to head home at the end of July–I’ve had my fill of traveling for now, and I’d rather spend time with my loves back home.
Since I’m heading back to the US soon, a few friends have asked me what I’ll miss about France (or not). So, here are five things I’ll miss, and five I’m happy to leave behind.
5 Things I’ll Miss About France
1. Cheaper race entry fees / trail running
Race registration is exorbitantly expensive in the US. While I paid 39€ euros for the Lyon Half Marathon, I’ve paid over $100 for a half marathon in the US. My other European races ranged from 20-35€ for distances up to the half marathon. Of course, the Paris Marathon was an exception and cost roughly the same as an American marathon, given that it’s a high-profile international race. I’m not sure why there’s such a discrepancy in cost overall, though–American races do offer electrolyte drinks and energy gels, and French ones don’t, but I can’t imagine that would account for such a gap.
I also discovered trail running this year, and the landscapes in France are just so beautiful. In particular, I wasn’t expecting Burgundy to have many mountains/hills, but we saw plenty during our runs. I’m sure I can keep running trails in the US, but I’ll miss the outings with the running club friends I made (I actually never went to the official club runs, just the member-organized trail runs haha).
2. Zero waste stores / general eco-consciousness
I loved the local zero waste store in Dijon, where you could buy several staples in bulk (I always got brown rice and oatmeal there). Instead of plastic bags, paper bags or reusable glass jars are the packaging/containers. The store collects old glass jars, then washes and weighs them so they’re ready to use. The concept not only cuts down on packaging waste, but also food waste. There were several instances I wanted a specific amount of one thing, and buying in bulk made that easier. I also appreciated the household and personal hygiene products they offered, like refillable dish soap and solid toothpaste. There’s at least one or more zero waste stores in most French cities, and I’d love to see these be more common in the US!
In general, I find that the French are more eco-conscious as well. Many people are more careful about bringing reusable bags, buying local, avoiding straws, etc. Most families also don’t own dryers, but air dry their clothes. This might be more motivated by cost, as electricity is expensive, but it’s still more eco-friendly than running a dryer.
3. The convenience of trains and public transportation
I wouldn’t have been able to take most of my trips without the French railway system. Sure, there are always buses, but they’re much more inefficient and uncomfortable. One of my least favorite parts of traveling to Eastern Europe was actually the lack of trains–I was so sick of coach buses by the end of the trip (I get nauseous easily).
Within cities, I also really appreciate the metro and tram systems. Dijon has a population of 155,000 and a relatively reliable tram and bus system. If there was a problem, it was because of strikes, not due to technical issues. My hometown, Columbus, has a population of 879,000 people and no real public transportation system. This might not be a totally fair comparison since Columbus is a lot more spread out and very suburban, but it seems like only major cities in the US have working (ha) public transport.
4. Healthcare is more accessible
Going to the doctor is 25€ before government-provided insurance (it’s 6,50€ after). An x-ray is about 30€ before, and 12€ after. A bone scan cost me 13€ with insurance. All of these pre- and post-insurance medical costs would’ve been at least three times as high in the US
The most striking to me? A 30-minute physical therapy session in France is around 20€ before insurance. In the US, it’s $100+, and most insurance companies have a $200+ deductible before PT is covered.
70% of my medical bills were automatically reimbursed by the government-provided insurance since I had a teaching job, but I also could’ve purchased supplemental insurance for 26€/month. The supplemental insurance would’ve covered 100% of all my medical costs, which is insanely cheap for the amount of coverage you get.
5. Rent is relatively cheaper
I’m most not looking forward to Boston rent prices of around $1000/month (with multiple roommates). After income taxes, that can be 50% of your monthly income if you have an entry-level job. In Dijon, I paid just over 300€/month (including utilities) for new apartment I shared with 2 roommates. Of course, salaries are lower in France, and I made the minimum wage of 1200€/month post-tax. Proportionally, however, 25% of your monthly income for rent is way better than 50%.
It’s true that Dijon and Boston are cities of different scales, so perhaps this is another unfair comparison. That said, France also has income-based government housing subsidies for all residents, called la CAF. I never received la CAF (it’s a long story I’ll tell later in this post), but I’ve heard of past English TAs receiving over 100€/month in reimbursements.
Not my apartment, but the loveliest Airbnb in Paris–unfortunately, rent is way more expensive there!
5 Things I Won’t Miss About France:
1. Poor customer service
Don’t get me wrong–some business owners and staff are incredibly friendly in France. I’ve just noticed that customer service tends to be much more curt and not as gracious.
A prime example from this year was my private gym. The owners decided to sell all the spin bikes, without asking for their clients’ input. I had signed up for this gym primarily for their bikes, so I was upset and asked for a refund for my remaining membership months. I wanted to go elsewhere if the gym didn’t have what I needed. At first, the owners refused to give me anything. I had to speak with both owners for over 30 minutes before one of them offered free small group classes once a week, which wasn’t even something I considered very desirable.
In another instance while I was studying abroad, I received the wrong data plan, so I went back to the phone company. The salesperson had told me I’d get 1GB of data a month, but I ran out after 500MB. The staff refused to change my plan or refund my money, insisting that I had “misunderstood” the initial salesperson. I was pretty offended because I understand French very well, and even if I didn’t, there’s a clear difference between 1GB and 500MB.
In the US, the customer’s satisfaction takes precedence in most cases. I usually just have to ask for a refund, and I’ll get it.
2. Less cultural sensitivity
I shared my thoughts on being Asian in France last fall, and my sentiments remain largely the same. I experience microaggressions and racism more frequently, such as “Nihao” in the streets, people making karate noises as I run by, or strangers demanding “Are you Chinese?” before even saying hello.
I even once tried to explain that saying “Nihao” to any Asian person is racist, as it’s based on the assumption that all Asians are the same. It’s assuming they all speak Chinese, or that they all are Chinese. It’s treating them differently because they look different. I explained that I was actually from the US, and that it wasn’t cool to make assumptions. But rather than engage with me in conversation, these strangers in the elevator instead began caricaturizing Americans.
Is there a good way to respond in these situations? I think that these people know they’re doing something wrong most of the time. I just don’t understand why they still do it. If you turn it around and go ask white people if they’re Danish, English, American, etc. in the streets, you’d look ridiculous. If you shout “baguette, baguette” at every French person you see, you’d look crazy.I do experience microaggressions in the US, but they’re much less frequent and often less unsettling.
3. Smoking is more prevalent
This has been a pet peeve of mine for a long time. Maybe I’m oversensitive and indoctrinated by all the anti-smoking campaigns from elementary school, but I really dislike the smell of cigarettes (I also feel like it makes me physically feel less well). In France, it’s still quite trendy to smoke, especially among young people. Students will take smoke breaks between classes, and restaurant terraces are filled with smokers. In the US, I find that I encounter cigarette smoke much less frequently.
4. French bureaucracy is a headache
The French administration is notoriously inefficient and frustrating. There’s a great French cartoon (Astérix) that illustrates how much running around and back and forth there is. People will ask you to submit certain forms, say you’re missing one when they never told you to submit it in the first place, ask for the same forms again, etc.
For instance, I actually never got an official apartment contract this year as the agency was incompetent. They asked for my residency permit, and I dropped off a copy as soon as I got mine. Three months later, they called and said I gave them my visa and not my residency card. The thing is, my residency permit is just a sticker in my passport, on the page facing my visa. The staff just couldn’t recognize a residency permit when they saw one! I called and told them this, but I never heard back.
Since I didn’t get an official apartment contract, I also couldn’t get la CAF, the government housing subsidies. I wasn’t too upset about that as getting the subsidies is also allegedly another headache of a process.
5. No air conditioning in most apartments and schools
This one is maybe more petty, but it’s definitely a challenge as an American used to AC blasting everywhere (we also had that historic heat wave a couple weeks ago). Most apartments in France don’t have AC, even if they’re modern (my building doesn’t, and it was constructed 2 years ago!). No AC is not new to me after living in older Boston buildings, but the small window ACs are also not common in France. In the US, there’s usually at least window ACs, even if there isn’t a central one.
On the flip side, I’m not looking forward to the super cold buildings in the US because of too much AC…I guess I can never win haha.
I don’t want to end on a more negative note, so I will reiterate that I made many fond memories this year, and that I’ll definitely miss many aspects of my life in France. I think it’s interesting just to compare the different conventions and look back on the year–it’s also a way to reflect on how daily life might change upon my return.
I’m not sure when I’ll be back, but I’m hoping it’ll be soon. In the meantime, I’ll be doing my best to enjoy the time I have left!
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