I’m about to give you an insider’s sneak peek to the truths and realities of expat life. Not just from my point of view. From expats around the world. I’ll be sharing their stories with the dreamers, the movers, the curious. You!
The idea behind this series is to share other expat stories because:
1. You are probably bored to tears with me.
2. There is a world of opportunities out there. Maybe reading these interviews will inspire you to follow a dream that is more attainable than you ever thought.
3. I’m selfish. And totally nosy. I want to learn about how other expats live around the world. As much as I love Malaysia, I’m still a Sagittarius (read feisty, independent, traveler) who’s always ready for the next adventure.
So, without further ado… Let’s Dive into my Expat Interviews Series!
Meet Carlie, an Aussie who moved to France for love.
She interviewed me for a podcast called How to Move to Malaysia, and was so kind that I asked to interview her about living in Strasbourg. Keep reading to find out more about her life in France.
1. Tell me about yourself
I’m Carlie, I’m 35 and I recently got PACSed to my partner of 6 years, Yannick! The pacte civil de solidarité is essentially a civil union here in France. We gathered a bunch of documents, signed some paperwork at our local town hall and voilà!
We can now make a will and declare our taxes together. Romantic huh?
Getting PACSed is like the diet coke version of tying the knot for straight couples in France. It gives us most – but not all – of the same legal rights as a French marriage.
We don’t have kids, I’m still on the fence about that one, but I’m warming to the idea of getting a dog.
2. Where are you from?
I’m from Australia.
3. Where are you living now?
I live in a town called Schiltigheim just next to the city of Strasbourg in the beautiful Alsace region of France.
4. How long have you lived in Strasbourg, France?
This is my fourth year living in France, and my first year as a homeowner! We bought a little house and are enjoying slowly renovating it, with the help of a lot of YouTube tutorials.
5. Why did you decide to move to Strasbourg?
I decided to move for love.
I met my partner Yannick in 2014 when I was living and working in London. I had randomly visited Strasbourg on a girls weekend and while there I dropped by a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) gym to do a class, which Yannick was at. Six months later I ran into him again in Copenhagen, Denmark, at a BJJ Globetrotters camp.
Chatting at the camp, we discovered that we would both be in Paris on the same weekend in three month’s time! So we met up again in Paris and after that, decided we should probably date. After two years’ long distance between London and Strasbourg, I took the plunge and joined Yannick here in France.
6. What is the cost of living in Strasbourg like?
I think living costs in Strasbourg can be high or quite cheap, depending on how you choose to live.
You definitely get more for your money here than say, Paris. When we were renting, we paid €930 per month for a big two bedroom apartment in a trendy neighbourhood (heating and water included).
We now own a three-bedroom house and our mortgage repayments are quite manageable.
Other living costs like food and bills I find comparable to other cities. If you shop at the weekly food markets and eat seasonally, you can save some money. A lot of people catch the tram or drive the couple of kilometres over to Kehl in Germany to do their grocery shopping because prices are lower there.
Germany is also cheaper for beauty and body products! France has a chain of large charity shops called Emmaüs that sell everything from used furniture and kitchenware to second-hand clothing.
There’s also a strong buy, swap and sell culture through sites like Facebook Marketplace and Leboncoin – which people even use to list their homes for sale and rent (thus avoiding real estate agent fees).
Strasbourg has great cycling infrastructure and public transport including a tram network, so a car is not a must. The city is the formal seat of the European Parliament and also home to many EU institutions and international organisations. It has the second largest diplomatic presence in France after Paris and a large student population too. Salaries vary. Generally you’re not going to find the pay levels that you would get in a bigger French city, however several big companies and institutions here pay well.
7. What do you do for a living in Strasbourg?
I’m a content manager for a professional services company.
In my spare time I do a bit of voiceover and I host the Expat Focus Podcast, chatting to fellow expats and experts about various aspects of life abroad. Back in Australia I was a radio journalist, so broadcast has always been a passion.
8. What is your favorite part of expatriate life?
I love that I get to experience new places and meet so many new people who give me a fresh perspective on the world. What was important to me and the global issues I thought ‘mattered’ as a 28 year-old living and working in Melbourne, Australia, has changed a lot in the 7 years I have lived abroad.
9. Do you need a visa to live in France? Was it easy to get?
I’m Australian, but also an EU citizen through my dad who was born in Malta. Having dual nationality means I didn’t need a visa to move to either the UK or to France. I don’t ‘need’ French citizenship, but I might apply for it in a couple of years.
10. Was is easy to make friends? Do you socialize mainly with locals, expats, or both?
I found it relatively easy to make friends in London thanks to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu – once I found my new gym, I found my ‘family.’ The same is true in Strasbourg with the BJJ community here, though to a lesser degree due to the language barrier (and we’re currently not training due to Covid-19).
It’s harder to forge strong friendships and camaraderie when you’re not always grasping the entire conversation or getting the jokes!
When I moved to France I joined Girl Gone International Strasbourg and quickly developed a close group of expat friends.
I also made friends through taking French classes and signing up to work from a co-office a few days a week. French friends are mostly co-working colleagues and couples we know through Yannick and/or BJJ.
I plan to join a few more clubs to widen my French social circle. The only ‘problem’ with having so many international friends is that they tend to leave town and you need to find new ones!
11. What’s the best thing about being an expat living in Strasbourg, France?
The quality of life and diversity.
I’m a big city girl, so I was a little worried that I wouldn’t be able to adapt to a smaller town and slower pace, but I think the balance is just right. There’s always a lot happening and it’s a very international community.
We live a 20-minute cycle from the city, but if you head in the other direction you’re surrounded by fields and get a country village vibe. Drive the highway for around 40 minutes and you can explore the Alsace wine route.
12. Are there any negatives about living in Strasbourg?
We’re landlocked here and I miss being near the beach – even just a couple of hours’ driving distance. Strasbourg airport is a bit expensive to fly to and from, though they do have good deals to places like Turkey and Portugal if you book early.
Touring bands don’t always stop here, so you have to go to Paris or another bigger city to see a lot of international artists.
Other negatives are less Strasbourg and more of a France thing: the damn admin and never ending paperwork, shops don’t really open late (other than during Christmas season) or on Sundays and sales are regulated to certain times of year.
13. What are the best things to do in Strasbourg?
I always recommend they do the Happy Strasbourg free walking tour and yes, it may feel corny, but the boat tour around the city has a great audio guide and lovely views.
We always take our visitors out for traditional Alsatian food, though it’s not the type of thing we would eat at any other time except occasionally in winter, as a lot of it is quite hearty and heavy!
Strasbourg is at the crossroads of France and Germany so local dishes are influenced by both countries. Think choucroute (sauerkraut) with smoked meats, baked potatoes with delicious, stinky munster cheese and tarte flambée, a pizza-like dish of thin pastry, crème fraîche, onions and bacon.
I’m pescetarian and am happy to report that salmon and veggie versions do exist and are quite good!
Strasbourg is known as the ‘Capital of Christmas’ and its Christmas market is world famous, so that’s a must if you’re visiting between the end of November and the end of December.
In summer, Strasbourg cathedral puts on a stunning free sound and light show that runs until late every evening.
If it’s a nice weekend or we have time off work, we take friends and family for a day out on the Alsace wine road, tasting some riesling and pinot gris (Alsace is known for its white wines), visiting fairytale villages like Riquewihr and Eguisheim, sometimes the Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg – a restored medieval castle. La Montagne des Singes (monkey mountain) is also very fun, the cheeky free-roaming barbary macaques will take popcorn right from your hands!
We also enjoy driving through the Black Forest in Germany, stopping for coffee and the famous cake. I recommend an overnight stay at Titisee in the summer – it’s a beautiful lake with hiking and bike trails all around, and you can rent cute paddle boats and go for a refreshing swim. If you’re into theme parks, Europa-Park in Germany is great for a day out, and there’s a FlixBus that takes you there from Strasbourg.
14. What is your best insider tip about Strasbourg?
If you’re here for more than 2 days, get a car and get out of Strasbourg. There is a lot to see, the traditional food is typically cheaper and better in small villages, and you’ll really get a feel for the region.
15. If you could give one piece of advice to people moving to Strasbourg, what would it be?
If you don’t already know French, learn it!
Even if you’re not going to be in France long-term, getting the basics down is a must. I started taking classes while I was still living in London and now I study a few hours a week at université populaire européenne, which offers courses in all kinds of things from languages to art, sewing, music, yoga and dance.
Don’t feel like you need to live in the Strasbourg city centre. Most ‘suburbs’ of Strasbourg are well serviced by tram or bus and it never takes long to get in and out of the city. Check out Strasbourg Curieux for things to do and also consider joining an association; there’s everything from sports teams to garden clubs and they’re a great way to make friends.
16. What does home mean to you?
I left home for the first time at age 20 to chase my radio dream and I lived in a few places in Australia for work before moving abroad. Home for me has always been wherever I am, but I do love getting back to my hometown of Melbourne, sleeping in my bed at mum and dad’s and visiting my old haunts.
I have learnt that nothing and no one is where you leave them though.
Life moves on while you’re away and it makes me cherish the moments even more.
17. What has been the most helpful thing in adapting to your life in Strasbourg?
Understanding the French mentality and general approach to work and life, which is different to what I experienced in work-a-holic London, and even back in Australia.
In my experience, people in France don’t typically work overtime and they don’t eat lunch at their desks (in fact, I think technically it’s against the labour code). At lunch time my co-office is deserted. By 6pm everyone is gone for the day. People don’t typically respond quickly to emails, or purely to acknowledge receiving them. If it’s the summer break, forget it – you’ll get a reply when everyone is back at work in September. Maybe.
Sometimes on Sundays I long for a hardware store to be open, but a friend explained that Sundays in France are for indulging in your hobbies and passions or maybe seeing family – why should anyone have to be at work?
The difference in attitude is also evident in for example, the French mentality towards unemployment. I grew up in Australia understanding that being ‘on the dole’ is quite a negative thing that you don’t wish upon yourself, whereas in France it’s more accepted that you may need to be unemployed for a while at some point, and taking government payments is ok. In fact, you’ve paid for the unemployment support through your high taxes so, of course you’re entitled to it!
I still get frustrated sometimes when my post office and boulangerie close for 2 hours at lunch and I can’t get some retail therapy in on a Sunday, but understanding, accepting and embracing that this is just how it is in France has helped a lot.
18. What do you miss most about your home country?
Aussie-style brunches! Administrative efficiency. Security screen doors and windows, air conditioning and banter – just having a little natter with the lady at the post office or the dude at the supermarket checkout. I’m a people person, and not having the French language ability to shoot the breeze like that is something I really miss.
19. What’s the biggest adjustment you’ve had to make as an expat living in Strasbourg?
The biggest adjustment for me would have to be the language.
I didn’t grow up bilingual. I didn’t choose French at school (big regret), so I’ve had to learn from scratch. My profession is content and communications and it’s extremely humbling not being able to communicate, or to be mistaken as shy or aloof when I’m such an outgoing, chatty person in English.
Not having fluent French has meant I’ve needed help with life admin, I’ve ordered the wrong things at restaurants, I haven’t been able to attend certain events and I’ve had to sit on the sidelines a little during big milestones like buying our house. But not being as involved and integrated as I’d like to be has also served as a motivator for me to keep working at learning French.
20. How is the quality and cost of healthcare?
My experience with healthcare in France has been really good. The cost of pretty much any medication has been covered between the carte vitale (card for the national health care system) and my employer-issued health insurance. The same goes for doctor appointments, I am rarely out of pocket.
21. Is Strasbourg safe?
There have been a few France terror attacks in recent years including here in Strasbourg, and while scary, personally I have never felt unsafe. France has a much bigger and denser population compared to Australia, and maybe if I lived in Paris I would feel a greater quality of life contrast, but overall I feel like the countries are on par. Each has its upsides and downsides.
22. Do you feel like you fit in culturally?
Some days more than others!
On the whole, yes, but times when I notice the differences are when I’m working late, when my boyfriend points out that I have a lot of material possessions (‘Consumer Carlie!’), when I get frustrated over the general lack of interest in customer service and administrative efficiency in France or when it’s pointed out that I’m eating outside of the traditional breakfast/dinner/lunch hours. The French don’t snack so much or eat on-the-go.
23. What’s it like working in France as an Australian? How does the work-life culture differ?
I know Australians are meant to be admired for our ‘work to live – not live to work’ attitude, but I feel like the French do it better.
Their infamous labour laws probably have a lot to do with it, but they also just seem to possess a really good and healthy work-life balance. They know how to stop during the work day and take a proper break, and switch off on weekends.
24. Did you find any great resources useful when planning your move?
I didn’t look for any local resources as I had a bit of a soft landing, moving in with my boyfriend. I joined a few ‘Expats in France’ Facebook groups including one specifically for applying for a French driver’s license, which was super helpful. I’m also in a group that connects businesswomen in France and that has been a great source of information.
Thank you, Carlie, for sharing your life in Strasbourg with us!