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How to start out in France

September 1, 2012

Dear all

I promised when I started this blog that I’d give you all some kind of clue on how on earth to exist here!  That my blog would catalogue the solution as well as all my problems!  I’m sorry for my absence recently – this is because I have been working on the Solution.  Suddenly, things started to get better – and this short article is to tell you how I’ve started to turn things around.


Photo from article in Le Télégramme.  Click photo to view article (in French)

I’ll keep it as short and to the point as possible.  Feel free to ask for more details should you want them.

Want to be useful?  Ask what they need doing!

My first step was to go to the Mayor (a powerful figure and more importantly a source of community connections and knowledge in french life).  This was made easier for me since she married my husband and I!  I told her that I wanted to make myself useful in my community.  Those who live in France will understand why this is more important here than it would be in the UK.  My preference would have been to get a job, to sort out my own life first, and then concentrate on building a social life afterwards.  However, the job market in France (for those who are not local) doesn’t allow for that possibility.  Anyway, the mayor recommended that I go to the Tourism Office.  She also said that I should arrange work placements for local school leavers, but she clearly didn’t expect much in that area, as you can imagine!  My careers adviser later said that it’d be a total waste of my time, too…

While I was waiting for the Mayor, the receptionist and administrator asked me if I could help her son with his CV, which he needed to translate into English in order to get a work placement in the UK.  Work placements, or “Stages”, are an integral part of not only the education system, but the work economy in France.  It’s really a scandal, in my view.  Talented youngsters are put to work clearing beaches of rubbish and answering phones, for less than the minimum wage, on the pretext that it will help their CV.  I guess it’s better than hanging around the streets – but the “work experience” isn’t really what it says on the tin – people have kicked up a fuss about much less exploitative “schemes” in the UK…

A week or so later, Matthieu came to me and I helped him translate the CV.  It turns out the he’s a promising Engineering student, with a whole load of municipal skivvying on his CV (tssk-tssk).  He asked how much he should pay me – but I did it for nothing because I didn’t see the point in charging him 10 or 15 euros, which would’ve been the going rate for this kind of thing, when I hadn’t really increased the likelihood of his actually obtaining a “stage” in the UK!  I promised to look out for something.  I asked around a bit, but nothing came of it – which I had to tell him when he called back a couple of months later.

So next off I toddled to the Tourism Office.  I introduced myself and said that I was looking for something to do, on a voluntary basis, that would help them – and that what would be in it for me would be to begin my integration into the community.  They were pleased to hear that I wanted to help, and positive about my wishing to make a positive contribution while becoming part of town life at the same time, and gave me some translation to do for their summer tourist magazine.

This work was time consuming (there was a lot of translation to do, about a week’s work for me, by the time you factor in my home/family “duties” as well).  And all for no pay…. I had to remind myself that it might open doors later…  When it came to integration, the effect was much better.  There were two meetings: one to discuss with the Tourist Office what they wanted me to do, and another to discuss the timing of the publication of the magazine.  Both brought me into contact with local people of different levels, in a “work” context.  All good!  When the magazine was published there was a “launch” event at which I was presented with a bunch of flowers…  They also encouraged me to apply for a summer job as a tour guide in the town!  I don’t mean to sound flippant, but for me this wasn’t about flowers, nor getting that kind of job – but so what, it was better than a kick in the teeth!

Help out a friend with their English

The next stage was, I’ll admit, largely luck.  A friend of my husband’s called to say that he needed help with his English.  As a matter of fact, he’d already mentioned it to my husband several times, at which I’d rolled my eyes.  I have taught English here and, to be honest, I find that the teenagers, who are sent to me by their parents, don’t really want to do it (otherwise their school marks would be better), while the adults DO want to do it, but frankly most of them are unlikely ever to be able to speak English (unless they go to live in an English-speaking country).  So I wasn’t tempted to push for his business (especially not at 10 euros per hour).

However, this time Nicolas needed emergency help for a phone call.  He is a distributor for a UK firm, Duvale Plc, who sell movable wall systems. I told him to come round straight away and we’d call the UK on speaker phone and sort out their problems.  A 40-minute phone call sorted out a whole load of minor issues that had been bothering both parties, but which had been hindering their progress.  I didn’t charge Nicolas for this, as I hadn’t yet set a company from which to invoice him – and anyway it was quid pro quo for the time a year earlier that he’d lent me a horse!  (That’s another story!)

In the right place at the right time

Soon after that, Duvale asked me to quote for a day’s interpretation work in Paris.  They didn’t end up using my services, because the British Embassy in Paris offer interpreters at very reasonable rates.  However, one of their directors “befriended” me on Linked-In, and the Export Manager called back a couple of weeks later to say that they could use some help on a day-to-day business.  Well the rest, as they say, is history: I set up a sole trader (AutoEntrepreneur) company, and work for them on a very part-time basis – that’s to say I charge for a few hours a week but in fact work quite a bit more than that, but they’re my first client…

Anyway, I’m enjoying my working life in France – I’m putting the chagrin I’ve suffered at crossing the cultural divide to good use in resolving business issues, which are frequently cultural as well as linguistic.  I get to work from home – with occasional business travel (which i LOVE!).  My company website, Outre-Manche, can be found here.

Spread the love

And there’s another piece of good luck, this time in another direction: my husband suddenly said one day “Why don’t you ask Duvale if they’ll take young Matthieu on work experience?”  I couldn’t believe I hadn’t already thought of it…  Well, Duvale being a nimble company despite their Plc status, arranged this swiftly enough to make it a reality, despite the short timescales involved.  So instead of clearing beaches, off Matthieu went to see how engineering’s done UK style.  He went from being sceptical from when I first suggested it, to absolutely delighted.  He called me from the UK while he was there.  “I’m loving Worthing (where he was lodging with a Duvale employee), and Duvale’s great.  How can I repay you?”

“Do you know”, I said, “If you don’t think this is too mad, what I want from this most of all is that you remember your experience in the future.  I think that it’s a great shame that people in France aren’t more open to young people, foreigners and unusual suggestions, and although no one person can change all this, the only way things will evolve is if each of us start from where we are and make small steps towards a future with more possibilities”.  I must admit that at the time of saying this I was at a party (in the UK, by coincidence), where the sun was shining we had all just been juggling, and I was walking barefoot on a freshly-cut lawn….hence the hippy overtones!  “I  don’t think that’s crazy at all”, said Matthieu.

I hope he was serious.  I was.

It all comes back to you….

Do you know, it didn’t take long for this small bit of good fortune to start coming back to me, in small ways – like the time the Mayor bought me a drink at a school function – which led to a senior manager at a local international company striking up a conversation with me.  Small beginnings, it may seem – but you never know, and a year ago many of these people would have simply looked through me.  It took me a few minutes to work out why I’d been honored in this way – then I remembered Mattheiu and his (at the time) forthcoming UK work experience placement – his mother must have reported it back to her boss, the Mayor…

Build on small successes

My next step is to get some more clients like Duvale.  A few of those, and I will have full-time work, and I’ll be able to say that I’ve made a success of things in France.

I will do this by getting some more press coverage, as well as the usual phone calls and contacting people, which I’ve already started.

I have turned the corner.  If you’d like my help to do the same, please get in touch.


  1. September 1, 2012 9:13 pm

    WOw I’m inspired! I’m currently living in Brittany and teaching English, a job which I found through a chance meet selling something on Le Bon Coin! I like the sound of the work you do, I used to be in business, customer service and I know how much cultural differences can affect business. Maybe next year when the kids are a little bit older I’ll be asking you for some advice! Thank you!

    • September 2, 2012 9:42 am

      Thanks, Michelle. I’m in Lamballe, near St. Brieuc – and struggling to work with the kids around me. But at least it’s doable, even though it drives me mad! You’re right, having been in customer services is a real asset, and so is understanding the two cultures. It looks from your blog like your husband’s also French… If I ever need to pass some work onto someone else I could be looking for people like you!

      • September 2, 2012 9:57 am

        please do keep me in mind if you ever get overloaded! Yes my husband is french and I am fluent like you by the looks of it! We’re in Lannion, the other side of St Brieuc to you!

  2. September 2, 2012 12:21 am

    I am really glad to see that you have, as you say, “turned the corner”. I hope you are genuinely happy. All the best….

  3. September 3, 2012 10:17 am

    What a great story! Well done Em!
    I completely agree with you too about passing on good messages and not charging for small services.
    France is such a great country and does so many things so well (much better than the UK in so many ways), and will be even better with just a touch more of our English good sporting attitude! 🙂

    • September 3, 2012 10:34 am

      Absolutely, Mike. Small steps. Show people how helping before judging, and keeping an open mind, are ways of being that create possibilities for everyone, as well as making the world a less stressful place. Three cheers for the British spirit of fair play!!!

  4. September 10, 2012 4:05 pm

    Update: one of my little ones has now started school, freeing up a whole lot of my time! I also received this testimonial from Matthieu after his work placement at Duvale:

    My name’s Matthieu Lantrin, I’m a second year student in Preparatory school for entry to Engineering School. Thanks to Mrs Montès I’ve had the incredible opportunity to go to England during my last summer holidays, between 22nd July and 18th August 2012.

    Above all, this trip was invaluable for me, as much professionally as personally. I was lodged with a family in Worthing, and I worked at Duvale, 30 minutes away by car.

    Firstly, I must say that the welcome I received from the family was very warm. I immediately felt at home, and all the way through my stay they showed me around and brought me thoroughly english experiences, making my stay special. As regards english language, it was my biggest fear before leaving, but once I was there I quickly got over the hurdle thanks to those around me not only with the family but also at Duvale. They made me feel at ease, which helped me make myself understood. I felt totally at ease to ask for help on my vocabulary and grammar. So although my English is far from perfect, I felt myself improve every day. I’ve familiarized myself with English and in the future I’ll take pleasure in improving further.

    The internship at Duvale brought me a diverse professional experience. The company makes movable walls. I worked in the electric department and my work consisted of making the connections and also mounting the motors on the panels. I worked in partnership with another person. The work was interesting. My lack of experience of the professional world means I can’t make any comparison with a french company. One thing surprised me the first day: we had breakfast at the company before starting the working day. But that must be part of the english culture. The english culture is different in many respects, despite the small distance that separates us. Worthing is a coastal town and even in good weather it’s only the diehards who go to the beach.

    In conclusion, I found this country enchanting and I’ll happily go back if the chance presents itself. Thanks, Emily

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