Have you ever wondered what life would be like in another country? Meet expat, Gaenor du Plessis from KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, currently living in Strasbourg, France. In this #ExpatAdventure series interview, she gives us insights into living in France, some major adjustments to living in an apartment as well as getting around the city without a drivers license and so much more!
Gaenor was born and raised on a farm in KZN. She studied to be a chef in Durban and worked in that field near Sun City before going to London for two years as a 23-year-old. She returned to live in Johannesburg, got married, and had her two kids between 29 and 33 years old. She loves food – all aspects of it. She generally has her kindle packed in my bag and loves her camera as well!
SO, WHAT COUNTRY ARE YOU FROM? WHERE WERE YOU BORN?
I’m South African. I was born in Pietermaritzburg, but only because there is no hospital in the dairy farming district I grew up in is a tiny one-horse postcode called Boston.
IN WHICH COUNTRY AND CITY ARE YOU CURRENTLY LIVING IN NOW AND FOR HOW LONG?
I live in Strasbourg, France, with my husband and two daughters. We have been here for seven years now. It’s truly uncanny how fast time has gone since we were chauffeured in on a steamy hot Friday morning with four suitcases and two back-packs.
ARE YOU WORKING IN STRASBOURG, AND IF SO, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?
Personally, I only started working here in France 4 years ago, while we initially had come over for my husband, who had accepted a job and a cushy relocation package. I have had a work permit from Day 1, but with zero French language skills plus 2 daughters under the age of 6, working in my profession as a chef was not easy.
I am now working as a chef in an Irish pub. Being a chef was never going to be an easy way to earn a living, but now that my daughters are more self-sufficient, I can do what I love, which is to cook. The job is not the most strenuous chef job I could find, but it’s in a relaxed environment where I have learned to speak more French and become more confident in communicating in this language.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE MOVING AND HOW DID YOU FIND THE EXPERIENCE OF SETTLING IN AND MAKING IT HOME?
From a psychological perspective, moving was not the hardest thing in the world, to be honest. My husband and I were sitting in stressful job situations in the months before we moved here and the opportunity to experience a different culture was something we embraced. It helped me to know that my husband had lived in Strasbourg years before we had married, worked in the exact same office, so he had a small network of friends and contacts, and he knew what we could expect.
From a physical perspective, he was given a relocation package, and this included the cost of using the services of a company that dealt specifically with relocating families to Strasbourg. (The company he works for is a multinational business, with nearly 25 different nationalities working under its roof). The onus of finding a place to stay with an address to call our own, enrolling my daughters in school, opening up bank accounts, and obtaining an internet and mobile phone contract all fell to the relocation company. Hence, all the initial nitty-bitty admin details that so many expats come across were irrelevant in the beginning. If it had not been for their help, I’m not sure how I would have coped.
We were incredibly grateful to have access to this. The other part of the relocation package was that we were tied into committing to staying living in France for 3 years minimum. Should we have decided that life was too hard living away from our comfort zones, we would be expected to pay back the relocation fees’ cost, an amount we could definitely not afford. That sort of thing makes you reconsider what you really want.
TELL ME ABOUT LIFE IN STRASBOURG, HOW IS IT LIKE FOR A FOREIGNERS?
Where to start? So many of us could write books about life as a foreigner. Some of my closest friends back home used to ask me how was I “REALLY doing,” despite the assurances that I was doing JUST FINE thank you very much. The truth is, despite the language barrier and the small cultural differences, we are not that different. For the most part, our family’s religious base comes from the same as the French, which makes a world of difference. I used to remind my friends that we were not living in China, where we didn’t recognize the alphabet’s characters. Learning a few French syllables was more manageable than learning an entirely new alphabet. Also, it’s not like we were living in the Middle East where we would be expected to hide the people we are, so we can’t complain about differences from a basic human rights level.
And then, we’ve experienced bad days cursing the French for their ridiculous paperwork practices (something I still do after 7 years). I felt that it was important to remember that we chose to be foreigners, so quite frankly, we just had to ‘suck it up’.
However, most significantly in our case is, I think, that Strasbourg is not your average French city. With the European institutions based here and the fact that Strasbourg is centrally located across Europe and parts of Asia, it makes it the perfect location for a large international community. For the most part, we socialize with families who speak English well but are not necessarily Anglo. As a result, we have friendships that are quite euro-wide, educating us into so many different points of view that we have benefited from being foreigners 😉 Obviously, there are pros and cons to this, and our integration within French society is somewhat stunted, but not in a hugely negative way.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE STRASBOURG IN THREE WORDS?
No, I can’t. But okay, let me try.
Strasbourg is: Historical, International, Precious.
WHAT ARE THE BEST TOURISTY THINGS TO DO IN THE AREA YOU ARE LIVING IN; ANYTHING TO RECOMMEND TO FUTURE EXPATS?
I’m not sure I can dispense the advice you’re looking for, as we don’t really get out and about and do things like other families. However, I love walking, and as an amateur wannabe photographer, I love walking around with my camera and taking in the historical charm, the canals and bridges, and the seasons- I LOVE the fact that we experience four very different seasons.
Strasbourg is located between 2 mountain ranges, the Black Forest in Germany, and the Vosges in France on a broader level. Both are great for hiking and usually some low-key skiing.
Europa Park in Germany is a great place to go for the family if you don’t object to thousands of people and waiting in queues to go on rollercoaster rides. It’s 45 minutes away from Strasbourg.
Also, across the Black Forest border is Triberg town where cuckoo clocks are made, plus you can take a walk to see the Triberg Waterfall.
WHAT ARE THE MOST SIGNIFICANT ADJUSTMENTS YOU AND YOUR FAMILY HAD TO MAKE WHEN SETTLING INTO EXPAT LIFE IN FRANCE?
For my children, learning a new language in school may be their most significant adjustment. It should have been for my husband and me, but his office is multinational, so English is a pre-requisite, and I have a network of English-speaking friends I made by having my girls attend the International School.
For me, it was our habitation space. Growing up on a farm, I’m accustomed to vast amounts of space. Obviously, we didn’t live in an apartment in South Africa, and while it certainly wasn’t a big home, our house was a house on a small property with a garden and privacy.
When we arrived, we adjusted to living on one salary, so we rented an apartment in the city with a 100sq meter box- not even a small balcony to speak of. I found this the most challenging adjustment, and even after 7 summers, I shake my head at how locals flock to the green spaces in the city when the summer shines. I just can’t embrace it. We managed to find an apartment on the city’s outskirts 3 years ago with a garden and open space around us, which has been the very best thing for me.
Another minor adjustment for me was the lack of having a driver’s licence. While I do have a SA driver’s licence, I have lost the privilege to drive here. What’s excellent about Strasbourg is that we have a great public transport network and bicycle routes, so having a car to get around is unnecessary. We have one vehicle, and that suits us fine.
Life would be different if we lived in a village outside of the city, so it’s become a weighing up of what we truly hold important.
DID YOU EXPERIENCE ANY PARTICULAR ELEMENTS OF CULTURE SHOCK? AND IF SO, WHAT WAS IT.
No, I can’t say that I did.
Okay, maybe the fact that I can’t get a decent cup of tea here sucks.
HOW WOULD YOU RATE THE HEALTHCARE AND PUBLIC TRANSPORT IN FRANCE VS. THAT OF SOUTH AFRICA?
Healthcare: It’s incomparable. But honestly, if you look at how highly taxed the French are, and how many people pay those high taxes, it’s understandable that the French medical is as what it is. I think South Africa has a system far too similar to the States, where too many people benefit from the business of ill health while not taking care of the people who need it most.
Here in France, medicine is affordable, doctors rates are standardized, and while government hospitalization may cause people to whinge about shoddy meals, that’s the extent of how bad it is.
Public Transport: Meh. Public transport across Europe is generally great. Certainly, living in smaller villages will be different, but for the most part, getting around is much more feasible here than in South Africa.
Historically and geographically, though, South Africa’s state public transport network only ever existed to serve the railways. By the time 1994 arrived, railways faded into obscurity, and cities never really developed real public transport networks due to the gross divide in public wealth. It is probably not a good idea to get me started on taxi’s. Still, state transport networks don’t go anywhere because of the taxi industry’s relative mafia-like attitude.
One key element we don’t consider for South Africans is that we’re different from Europeans who live and work in very close proximity. With millions of poorly paid South Africans residing in centres so far away from commercial centres due to the apartheid government, it’s considerably more difficult to supply a public transport network that is affordable and efficient. Honestly, it’s a no-win situation sadly.
Rural South Africa cannot justify a decent public rail network.
WAS IT EASY TO MAKE FRIENDS AND SOCIALIZE?
Yes. I initially had concerns that my hubby would be out jolling at every opportunity with his work colleagues, leaving me home with my girls, as he knew many of them from his time working there in 2003-2005. But it turns out I made a bunch of mommy friends through the school my girls were at. But again, I was fortunate in that they were at the International School, and many of us connected as expats.
The downside of being stuck in the expat community is that families come and go more frequently, so we have had to say goodbye to many friends.
HOW DOES THE COST OF LIVING IN FRANCE COMPARE TO SOUTH AFRICA?
It’s more expensive to live in France, mainly if you spend your days converting euros to rands. Obviously, what you spend on accommodation here is more expensive than SA, especially if you live in a city, as space is prime within the confines of a cosmopolitan area. If you wanted to, you could find much more comparable accommodation costs if you go to live in a small village. Strasbourg is also one of the more expensive places to choose to live as there is a high demand for accommodation.
Food used to be more expensive here, but I think that the cost of living in South Africa has become greater, so if you compare the euros and rands, there isn’t such a vast difference anymore.
On the flip side, it’s more expensive to buy vehicles and electronics in SA due to customs and excise taxes. France has a considerably lower financial lending interest rate, which makes a world of difference.
DO YOU HAVE ANY RECOMMENDATIONS FOR OTHERS LOOKING FOR WORK IN FRANCE, HOW DO YOU SUGGEST THEY GO ABOUT IT.
● Learn to speak French.
● Learn to speak French.
● Learn to speak French.
Unfortunately, I can’t supply any advice with regards to job hunting. The job I currently have came about after another Irish pub where I had worked for 11 months had closed down, and by merely being within a network as I was at the time, I was lucky to just be in the right place at the right time, a case of “it’s not what you know, but who you know.”
I know that for friends who have changed jobs, they have subscribed to job-specific agencies where they receive emails of all jobs on offer in their field of work. I used to receive emails from a restauration agency that I think I came across randomly through the phone-app called INDEED.
From outside the country, how would a South African living there get a job in France? I am sorry, but I don’t know.
DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR ANYONE WANTING TO MOVE TO FRANCE WITH THEIR FAMILY.
I think learning to speak French is most important. It really does make a world of difference.
Make sure all relevant administrative paperwork is up to date, particularly your passport. Consular services for things like passports are one incredible stress, and if you can avoid needing to do so, I would recommend it. If you’re not based IN Paris itself, you’ll need to consider a trip to the capital (which is hardly the worst thing in the world, to be honest).
If you’re weighing up the pros and cons of living in France, decide what your expectations would be and try to figure out if what you’re hoping to get is possible. If you’re set up with a humungous house, 2 brand new cars, private schooling for your kids, and a domestic cleaner and/or gardener, it’s probably not the best idea to move to a place like France.
If you think you can be humble and open to some changes and challenges in your life, then go for it. Embracing the culture and not wishing for what you no longer have is really crucial.