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Living Abroad in the French Alps

Mont Blanc in the French Alps.

Mont Blanc in the French Alps.

A Slower Pace

While I stand the bakery, I glance around and smile blankly at those waiting after me. They too glance aimlessly at me and at the baked goods. Nobody is expecting to be served soon. The only staff member here is chatting to the customer at the front of the line about a mutual friend. Chances are that most of the people in the line know her too, and will no doubt have a chat with her once they have paid for their order. When I first moved to the French Alps, lines at shops were frustrating: I was still in big-city mode and I had come to be used to being served quickly — with or without a smile. Waiting while people chatted seemed like such a waste of precious time.

Four years later, I have grown to love the slower pace in the Alps. Waiting in line at a Bakery has replaced traffic jam time, and it is a lot more pleasant. Living here reminds me of my Australian childhood in the seventies, when kids roamed the streets with friends after school and nobody knew the term health and safety. Although the climate is totally different, a similar laid back approach to life is obvious. Many shops and restaurants still close at least one day a week so staff can spend time with their families. Even the local convenience store here in St Jean de Sixt is not that convenient, as its name gives away: 8 à Huit — eight to eight, and it often closes during those hours too. That same sense of community that I felt growing up is present here: strangers have helped me push my car out of snowy car parks, supermarket lines represent an opportunity to chat to complete strangers; and some shopkeepers call me by my first name even though I am an ├ętranger.

Being a Stranger

When I first moved to this region, I presumed ├ętranger was used solely for foreigners — strangers. But then a French friend who moved here years ago explained that nobody is considered a local here until the third generation of the family had been buried. I am united with other French people as an outsider and that is strangely comforting, for as homely as these mountains feel, the locals really do live a world away from the rest of us, benefiting from privileges they only ever reward each other with while the rest of us wait in line for bread. Some here called this world the La Clusaz mafia, but it is as transparent to me as I am to it. We share the same mountains but not the same social circle.

Here in the Alps, a night out usually involves fondue, sledging on the locally-made paret, or if I am lucky, a dubious local band singing the occasional English song with half the lyrics missing or wrong. When the barman gets to know you, he will automatically run a bar tab for you. If he likes you, he might buy you a round of drinks once in a while. No matter what, he will say hello to you when he sees you outside work.

But not all areas of the French Alps are like this. I once lived in a village close to Meribel, where expats abound and one of my few local French friends told me to “just speak English” because “it’s quicker and easier” when I tried to speak French with him. His reaction summed it up: how can anyone experience the French way of life in a place where even the French locals accept that English is the predominant language? So I moved to the Aravis valley, close to Mont Blanc, where the expat community exists on a much smaller scale. First, I lived in La Clusaz for three years — before moving to St Jean de Sixt, about five minutes down the road.

Ski jumping in the French Alps.

But their is always time to do ski jumping in the French Alps.

French Bureaucracy

Now you might think that moving five minutes down the road would be a simple thing. However, the regulations for car registration plates in France changed when the country updated the car registration numbering system in 2009, and any change of address now requires old registration plates to be exchanged for new ones. I only found out about this when my car insurer asked me about my updated car registration document, the carte grise. Paperwork in France has a reputation for being overdone. For example, I applied for my healthcare card, the carte vitale, almost a year ago. I have paid thousands and I have a temporary piece of paper, but still no card. The paper itself took months to get. With this in mind, I checked the car registration office’s website to ensure I had all the required paperwork and to check their opening hours. The website announced a fermeture exceptionelle — a phrase any expat gets familiar with very quickly, which means the office is closed for an undisclosed reason — so I headed down a day later. What the website did not bother to say was that the office is closed every afternoon. It reminded me of a government answering machine message that said the office was closed two days a week “to improve customer service.” Eventually, I did get my new registration plates.

Speaking French and Being Understood

It is my turn at the bakery and I ask for pain aux grains. To me, it sounds like I am pronouncing it correctly, but the confusion on the girl’s face is obvious. As she wanders along the different breads pointing questioningly, I repeat my request and say “La” pointing to the bread I want. She says: “Ah, pain aux grains”. I still do not hear the difference. As difficult as it is to be understood sometimes, the French language is one of the factors that drew me to France. However, it is a difficult language to learn, and I still feel like a total beginner. For example, “Australie” sounds just like “Israel” to a French person. Adding “kangarou” often sets them straight, but some just look more confused.

Local Foods and Specialties

I add to my order a croix de savoie — a tasty treat involving custard and sugar on top of a cross made of pastry. The Savoyardes are proud of their region, and some are still pushing to have it made into a principality, like Monaco, to further separate them from any French ties. Indeed, the region has previously been governed by Italy, and pizza is almost as common here as the regional specialities, most of which involve a lot melted cheese.

French pastry in the Alps.

French pastry in the Alps (including the croix de savoie).

The Aravis valley is the home of Reblochon cheese: cows replace skiers in summer and the mountains sometimes smell of cow manure (known in French as bouse, pronounced “booze”). The cheese is named after an ancient French word which means to take a second milking from the cow, and relates back to the days when landlords taxed farmers according to the milk yield. The farmers would wait until after the yield was measured before re-milking the cows and using the milk, said to be richer in taste, to make Reblochon cheese. The cold winters and rugged, rural life in this region before ski resorts brought more wealth means that the traditional dishes revolve around cheap food mixed with local produce. Cheese and potatoes exist in many formats: tartiflette (Reblochon and potatoes mixed with sour cream and bacon), raclette (a different cheese melted at the table and eaten with potatoes, cured meats and gherkins), and beignets de pommes de terre (fried potato patties served with cheese, salad and cured meats), to name just a few local specialties. Despite their simplicity, the dishes taste great, and that taste is unfortunately reflected in the high prices at the restaurants although the tourists do not seem to mind.

I pay for my baked goods and leave the bakery. My home is just a few minutes’ walk away along the busiest road in the town, which is still single lane in both directions. Although there are no traffic lights in town, the road is busy with slow traffic. Some cars have snow chains on their tires even though there is no snow on the road. 4-wheel drives are being driven cautiously. The tourists have arrived and they have seen the snow banked up on the sides of the wet roads. As I curse at the idiocy of tourists driving so cautiously on safe roads, I too feel like a real Savoyarde. The feeling only lasts for a second before I remember the only Savoyarde thing about me is the pastry treat in my hand.

Tips for Moving to the French Alps

  • Cheese talks: offer it as gifts to locals who provide your services (plumbers, electricians, real estate agents) and watch their friendliness and motivation to help you soar.

  • Come equipped with basic French and know the rules of the language, and then consider an immersion course at one of the many French language schools. Language courses at Ifalps are available in both Annecy and Chambery, and course dates are very flexible.

  • Find cheap stuff on leboncoin — France’s alternative to ebay.

  • Get snow tires for winter unless you do not mind putting chains on your car tires when you least expect to. Most local garages have specials just as winter is starting.

  • Research before you leave for France. There are plenty of helpful websites offering information. One French-specific site is French Entrée, which is full of useful information on all aspects regarding living in France.
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