So much has been written about France and the French that we probably know this country and population better than they know themselves. Relishing the dream to live in France is one thing. The reality, however, does not always match up to expectations.
Aside from wine, cheese and foie gras, we know France is a gloriously beautiful country, and the people fiercely patriotic and proud. Sometimes speaking to them in your perfectly practised school standard French does not always produce the result you want. But it is often said that the further south you travel, the friendlier the people are and Toulouse is the proof of that.
It is the warm glow of red bricks and tiles which gives Toulouse its nickname "la ville rose" (the pink city). With a flow of population from the industrial belt to the sunbelt of Europe, this modern city is the fourth largest and fastest growing city in France and the second largest university city after Paris. It is also Europe's capital of the aerospace industry and home to French rubgy as well as some high-profile modern art. Toulousains have reason to feel decidedly good about their town.
The vibrant student population (85,000) adds charm and atmosphere to a sophisticated and thriving city. Easy to explore, it is well served with public transport and has easy access to the Atlantic coast, the Mediterranean coast and Spain. Paris is five hours away by high-speed train, seven hours by car or 70 minutes by air, and the ski-slopes a mere hour and a half.
Alternatively, the Canal du Midi is the slow route for those with plenty of time - and the rigidly applied rule of the thirty-five hour working week and seven weeks of paid holiday in France provides just that. Small wonder then that the civil servant class amounts to no less than a quarter of the working population and 70% of graduating students aspire vehemently to become a part of it. It’s an added bonus that French labour laws make it very difficult to sack anyone.
Living in France is all about attitude; attitude to people, attitude to culture and attitude to life. Come with an optimistic outlook and the willingness to adapt to a different lifestyle; embrace three hour lunch breaks, the Mediterranean concept of time, and a flavour for fashion and you will start to slip into the French way of life. Things do work in France, it just takes time. A fair knowledge of the French language is an invaluable asset in overcoming initial difficulties.
On the other hand, time is of the essence out on the open road. Once you have managed to circumnavigate the forms for registering your car in France, which is really quite simple but lengthy, you may wish you hadn’t taken the trouble. A Frenchman’s personality completely changes when he gets behind the wheel. Heavy on the pedal and determined to be first no matter what, his overtaking is a skill practised with a passion. As a result, France has one of the highest rates of road fatalities in western Europe.
This statistic is being addressed dramatically in the Gers and Haute Garonne regions. Permanent speed cameras are sited on certain roads and frequent road blocks check not only for speed but also to ensure your papers are in order. You must produce proof of insurance, a valid driving licence (an EEC or French one) and a positive ‘Controle Technique’ - a road worthiness certificate which has to be renewed every two years. Failure to comply satisfactorily could result in the immobilisation of your car there and then. Finally, it is of vital importance not to drink and drive. The police have the power to stop any car and breathalize the driver right through the window. As well as being hauled off to jail there and then, the fines are hugely punitive.
There are no particular expat enclaves in or around Toulouse, some preferring the rolling hills of the Gers to the west, others the picturesque but windy Lauragais to the east, or the lush vineyards to the north. Many of the foreigners who live in the city and its surroundings are employed by Airbus, the international aerospatiale consortium. Already a huge employer itself, it has attracted an onslaught of national and international companies that design, service and supply parts to the aerospace industry and this obviously has an effect on the housing market.
It is common to live in rented accommodation in France but the influx of so many families has pushed up the rents. Buying is a costly alternative and the modest little chateau going for a song means you must be Madonna to sing it. You may be fortunate and find the house of your dreams but if it requires renovation, you will definitely feel differently about it a few months down the line.
French builders, or artisans as they are affectionately known, are a breed apart. They have their own definite ideas on how the house should look, which may or may not coincide with yours. If the former is the case, so much the better: if the latter is true they will do it their way regardless. That is if they arrive at all and continue to arrive until the work is completed. Always arrange a survey; it may save you a fortune in the long run. As a rule of thumb, double the original estimate and triple the time scale.
When you require a telephone or telephone service you must go to the France Telecom office closest to your home. Be extremely patient. There is usually someone in the office who speaks English but it is not unusual to have to wait at least half an hour. Installation will take a few days and billing is every two months, itemised free of charge on request. The service is satisfactory with the occasional breakdown of the line, but repairs do take an absurdly long time.
There are alternative solutions for long distance and international calls, with price-competitive companies as Cegetel, Tele2 and Onetel, to name just a few. The ADSL connection (Broadband) is slowly reaching the outlying countryside but connection can be intermittent. Downtown Toulouse has many cybercafés and the main Post Offices offer Internet access.
Wherever you decide to live, when first arriving in France it is worth visiting the Mairie or Town Hall. As well as being aware of houses for sale in the area, this office can provide you with a comprehensive list of sporting and leisure activities available to your children. This is of paramount importance if your child enjoys team sports, as these are not practised in the local schools.
The clubs are usually extremely well organised and well supported and, of course, offer the added benefit of meeting the local townsfolk at matches and events. Be prepared for a lot of driving! Practically every village and certainly every town boasts a tennis court or two, an enduring reminder of Yannick Noah’s Roland Garros victory in 1982 when the nation was encouraged to produce a successor.
Banking presents no special problems or difficulties and opening an account is very straightforward. Among a population of over 55 million, only approximately 2 million possess credit cards. Transactions for the most part are completed by debit card or cheque. It is considered a serious offence, however, to overdraw a current account.
Penalties can amount to ten years blacklisting: this would prohibit you from using a debit card or writing a cheque within France for up to ten years. Because of the serious consequences of “bouncing” cheques, payment by cheque is readily accepted everywhere in France (shops, restaurants, petrol stations,) often without proof of identification.
While emptying a bank account is an all-too easy affair, filling it up can be trickier. Finding a job is difficult. Unemployment in the Toulouse region is as high as 13.9%. Many expats tend to lean towards teaching (this is greatly helped if you have the TEFL award). There are several language schools in the area but turnover of staff is high and salaries are low. In general, the French insist on their own diplomas and qualifications – so be prepared to be pipped at the post by a local. Even with high unemployment, however, domestic help is not always easy to find and word of mouth is essential.
Meeting other expats is often easiest at the local marketplace, when, as the French say, the English come down from the hills. However, with children at a local school and spouse employed by Airbus, meeting other expats is not a problem. There is an International Church in Toulouse, an Anglican church and even a lively theatre group, which puts on an excellent pantomime every year in English. The Americans in Toulouse (AIT) is a non-profit English-speaking expatriate service and social organisation, while the Toulouse Women’s International Group, (TWIG) a similar organisation welcomes all English-speaking women, meets monthly for “tea and chat”, hosts a variety of craft activities and presents an excellent Charity Christmas Fair each year.
At end of the day, however, when you are sipping a glass of Corbieres in the warm evening air, you will reflect that it is not the banking, the housing or even the jobs that really matter in France. It’s the ambiance, the climate, the passion for gastronomic delights that make this fantastic country what it is. When it comes to lifestyle, “il n’y a rien de comparable”.