I get the question all the time, what’s it really like living in rural France?
Do you honestly have croissants for breakfast every day? Are you eating out at restaurants all the time full of gastronomic French delights?
Do you walk up the road with a baguette under your arm stopping to chat with your neighbours?
And the biggest one of all, do you have cheese and wine each night looking out over the sunflower fields?
People believe I live some kind of French fantasy life where every day is filled with wonderful food and aperitifs.
Now I’m not about to completely burst their bubble, or yours for that matter. But it’ safe to say that most of the above simply isn’t true.
For the first month of living in France I won’t lie, I ate croissants for breakfast every morning. But I also put on a few kilos and quickly made the decision to save eating croissants for when we had visitors.
Living the rural life in the Charente
Living in rural France is an experience, one you need to ease yourself into gently. There’s no getting away from it, it’s a bit of a culture shock. But every day is an adventure and there are always lessons to be learned.
So many francophiles move to France to fulfil a fantasy of living the rural life. They have a romantic dream filled with wine, cheese and trips to the pâtisserie.
In some cases it’s brought on by the memory of wonderful holidays. Days spent exploring beautiful villages, sitting in cafes where they play the accordion with chic French waiters.
But very rarely is it the reality of what I’ve come to enjoy in my six years living in the beautiful Charente region.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love living here. I wouldn’t change it for a second. But it’s certainly taken some getting used to. And there are three things I learned pretty fast that have helped me in my everyday life here in rural France.
Understanding the way rural communities work
You have to remember that life in the small communities in France is different. Many of the villages have never left their own village, let alone travelled outside of their department. (A department is like a local government. I’m in Department 16 in the Charente.)
It’s certainly true of where I live in the tiny village of Saint Front.
Everyone knows everyone else. Claud, one of my French neighbours and the local farmer, has lived here all his life. This is where the first of my 3 things I’ve learned about living in rural France comes in.
Lesson 1 - How to greet your elders in France
The way you greet someone in France is extremely important. I wrote an entire post on this topic – Why is the Word Bonjour so Important in France.
But the way you use the word itself is important too. Do not, and I repeat do not, wave enthusiastically at everyone you meet when out walking your dog greeting them with a bright and breezy ‘Bonjour’. Especially if they’re older.
It might make you feel like you’re ‘fitting in with your French life’, but trust me you’re not. What you’re actually doing is highlighting just how English you really are.
I’ve made that mistake several times, including with Claud. Apparently, it’s rude to address someone this way when you don’t know them.
What I should have said to Claud was ‘Bonjour Monsieur’, giving him the respect of his title. Not just a casual hello.
So always remember how you greet someone is an important part of French etiquette. You need to get right, even in the rural countryside.
If in doubt stick with this rule when saying hello to someone when you’re out walking about:
Bonjour + their title (Monsieur or Madame) or first name if you’re friends.
Lesson 2 - Understanding the French language
Understanding the difference between how the French structure a sentence and how the English do, can save a lot of embarrassment.
It’s hard when you first move over and don’t have particularly good French. You want to chat to the people you meet, but don’t feel very confident in doing it. So the natural tendency is to stick with generic topics of conversation.
And being English a safe subject is always the weather.
So one day, not long after we’d moved here, I heard the post van beeping its horn outside my house.
I should add here that I really like our post lady as she’s so friendly and always has dog treats in her van. So naturally Lottie, our border collie, is fond of her too.
Anyway, this particular day it was really hot. And bearing in mind our Postie doesn’t speak a word of English, I was determined to make an effort. I wanted to say something other than ‘Bonjour’ and ‘Merci Beaucoup’, my two standard phrases.
So I greeted her, took the parcel and then said, in my best French, “Je suis chaud”.
This was greeted by hysterical laughter from the post lady. I looked at her nonplussed. Was my French really that bad? What on earth had I just said that was making her shake with laughter like that?
She looked at me, in between her laughter, shook her head and said in reply, “Non, non, non, j’ais chaud”.
And then I realised what I’d done. I’d just told my poor post lady I was hot & horny.
A vague memory of high school French came back to me. Flashes of Madame Litherland, my French teacher, telling us the difference between using ‘I have’ and ‘I am’.
Using the words ‘I am hot’ in French doesn’t translate the way you might think it does.
Lesson learned: only ever use ‘I have’ when it comes to telling people I’m hot or cold, never ‘I am’.
Lesson 3 - The kissing etiquette in France
My final lesson in this missive is the never ending kissing that happens in France.
You see, French people don’t hug each other when they greet each other, they kiss. Not once, but twice, one for each cheek.
Now this can change from region to region, but where I am in the Charente, it’s the rule. I’ll never forget my step son, Alex, visiting us for the first time. He was only just fifteen, and at that age where everything and everyone made him blush.
We were having dinner with our exuberant neighbour and friend, Stefan You’ll hear a lot about him in future posts, as he is very much part of our French life.
Anyway, his daughter Angelina, also 15, was staying with him for the summer. And being French it was completely natural for her to greet everyone with a kiss on both cheeks.
She arrived, a little after everyone else and did the rounds of the table finishing with Alex.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen him go quite that shade of beetroot before. The poor kid didn’t know where to look. After she’d put him back down again he disappeared into his room for the rest of the night refusing to come back out. Not even pizza would tempt him.
So be prepared. If you go for dinner and there’s 10 guests that’s 20 kisses you’re about to receive, Covid or no Covid. It can take quite a while to get through everyone, but it’s rude if you don’t join in.
So there you have it. The first three lessons I learned on moving to rural France. I hope they stand you in good stead and help you to avoid the same faux pas I made.
And as always, I’d love to hear about your French stories, the good, the bad and the absolutely hilarious.
À bientôt et merci beaucoup!