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Get Used to It—Life is Different in France

Ground level view of the Eiffell Tower in Paris, blue skies and clouds in the background

I’ve spent the last four days taping our 47th House Hunters International episode. Often I hear fans of the show complain how the “contributor”—the person (or persons) who is visiting the properties to rent or own—complains about the differences in our French lifestyle compared to their own experience in the U.S., Canada or elsewhere. In this episode, our contributor is a young woman, named Jenny, from Calgary, Canada, who has a plum job with the Atomic Energy Commission of the OECD who has just moved to town.

Adrian Leeds with House Hunters International contributor, Jenny in Paris

For example, our small refrigerators, our separate toilets, our lack of elevators, our lack of storage, our small spaces, etc., etc. The viewers think it’s pretty silly that anyone moving to France doesn’t already know what they are in for…but the reality is that no matter how much they do know in advance, it’s still a hard pill to swallow when they actually make the move. Managing the newcomer’s expectations is not only a tough job on the TV show, it’s even tougher in real life working with our clients.

One word of advice to all of you before I go any further: Exchange the word “expectations” with the word “hopes.” If you can really do this, and take it to heart, in life you will never be disappointed. I learned this years ago and it keeps me happy and accepting of “what is” rather than what I “expect.”

Meanwhile, understand that France is not like anywhere else in the world. The French do things the way they do things—not like you do, in most cases. And they have their reasons, just like you have yours. Let’s explore a few so that when you arrive in France, search for you new abode and move in, that you’ll be prepared to have your “hopes” realized:

Elevators: The U.S. and Canada are a lot younger than France and so are their buildings. They had an opportunity to install “this newfangled gadget” in the process of building the building, so it was a no-brainer. But France didn’t have that luxury, especially in buildings built before Baron Haussmann…and that’s one reason you love it so much, isn’t it? It’s old. It’s historical. It has character. And it doesn’t always have an elevator. So, either you walk up or you find a newer property that does have one. And even so, the elevator might not be so large, because it was likely wedged in long after the building was built. Thank your blessings if it has one at all.

A tiny elevator in a French apartment building

In one of the apartments in which we taped, the elevator was a sliver of a size. It was wide and very, very narrow. On the wall it was posted that it could accommodate up to four persons—300 kilos! What a joke that was— there was no way to fit more than two (even thin) people in the elevator. You’ll see it for yourself when the show airs, because they taped us getting in and out of it using GoPro cameras positioned in the ceiling corners and if they use that segment, it should be pretty funny indeed.

The small elevator in the building where House Hunters International was taping

Separate toilets: Once upon a time, no one had toilets. Imagine that? Then, toilets were installed on the floor so that everyone on each level could use the facilities. That eventually changed so that most apartments now have their own toilets, of course…at least those apartments that are more than eight square meters in size, like a “chambre de bonne” or servants quarters!

Cameraman for House Hunters International taping from inside a separate toilet in an apartment

In most cases, the toilets are separate from the bathroom. This can be shocking to those of us from the west, but get used to it—it’s much smarter. The truth is that our modern bathrooms are a wasteful, unhealthy design. The same pipes should not be used to dispose of excrement as bath water. According to Lloyd Alter of The Guardian: “Inside our houses, the architects and homeowners of the late 19th-century were as confused as the engineers about what to do. People had washstands in their bedrooms, so at first they just stuck sinks and taps into them, and put the toilet into whatever closet in the hall or space under the stairs that they could find, hence the ‘water closet.’ They quickly realized that it didn’t make a lot of sense to run plumbing to every bedroom when it was cheaper to bring it all to one place, and the idea of the bathroom was born. Since the early adopters, then as now, were the rich with a few rooms to spare, they were often lavish, with all the fixtures encased in wood like the commodes they replaced.”

From a practicality standpoint, it makes so much sense to have the toilet separate from the bathroom so that more than one person can use the facilities at a time! The tricky part is fitting a small sink into the WC so that you can at least wash your hands after using the facilities without having to go down the hall to the bathroom or kitchen. You’ll see the tiny sink more and more often, too.

Refrigerators: I must admit, large American-size refrigerators are becoming more and more popular in France, but there’s really no good reason for them…except for during the recent period of confinement when we were no longer dining out and doing all our cooking at home. Mostly, small apartments have small kitchens and with them come small refrigerators— what our contributor on the shoot called “a Calgary beer fridge.” I have small refrigerators in both my Paris and Nice apartments that remain virtually empty except for milk and wine, condiments and a few eggs…but that’s because I rarely cook at home. Even so, with a food market just at the corner, I never need to buy more than a day’s worth of food. So, why fill the fridge with food that will spoil before it can be eaten?

A small French refrigerator filled with food

Back in the good ol’ U.S. of A., living in our “bubbles” without the ability to walk to the corner market, we’d have the habit of driving to an enormous supermarket and stocking up for the week or even a month! My sister used to be proud of her monthly jaunts to the market, the 20 bags of groceries she would bring home and then stock large freezers with food. I never understood why she even wanted to do that…except that I suppose it saved her time! The point is that you can manage very nicely with a small fridge, because you won’t really need more with everything so accessible! If you’re living in the countryside, then it’s a different story, but the center of Paris!? I don’t think so.

Several large, American style refrigerators

Storage: It’s not unusual to find an apartment with no closets. The French answer to closets was the classic “armoire” that is a free-standing piece of furniture. Ikea and others make closet units that are free-standing and work as well if not much better than the armoire, but built-ins are a rather new-fangled invention. Besides, the French don’t accumulate nearly the quantity of clothing and stuff we Americans do—just because we have space we feel compelled to fill. So, when in France, do as the French and don’t buy so much…that you don’t need! In fact, it’s a good idea to start divesting now so that you don’t waste time, money and energy on moving it here!

Small and separate kitchens: The American lifestyle has for a long time embraced an open kitchen to the dining room and den so that the person cooking could be a part of the family at the same time. In France, they were used to the servants being in the kitchen, apart and sometimes far from the dining room, keeping the odors and the mess away from the family or guests. So, you’ll still find lots of separate and small kitchens…by our standards.

Example of a small, separate kitchen in a French apartment

In today’s world, largely thanks to Ikea—who offered the complete kitchen all looking finished and pretty—apartment spaces were enabled to be opened up to incorporate the kitchen and it still look quite pretty. This “new” concept in France has come to be known as an “American Kitchen.” Even so, I can tell you that small kitchens are a whole lot more efficient than large kitchens, in which you must walk across the room to get eggs out of the fridge. I know because I went from having a typically large open-plan kitchen in the U.S. to a tiny room, but one that is fully equipped. Cooking is now a whole lot easier when I can reach everything without having to move around much at all. Trust me—space is highly overrated!

A roomy open-plan kitchen

Washer/dryer combo: Old properties were not equipped with venting that allows for a clothing dryer to pull room-temperature air in, heat it up, tumble your clothes in it, and then blow the exhaust—full of evaporated moisture outside, like your American models. It happens to be very energy inefficient and near to impossible to even accommodate in an old building. Hence, the invention of the ventless dryer. To save space, they then invented one unit that does both wash and dry. Interestingly enough, in some places in Europe, the vented dryers are actually illegal…Switzerland, for example.

A French all-in-one washer/dryer combination

The way the ventless dryers work is that the air passes through the condenser for initial heating. The heated air is then pushed into the drum, where it heats up the wet laundry and causes water to evaporate. The air is then looped back into the condenser where it’s cooled down. Some models use a tank that you must empty between cycles, rather than a drainage hose. The ventless models are gentler on clothing, believe it or not. And they require less maintenance and rarely need cleaning. They take longer to dry the clothing or linens than their American counterparts, but so what? Just plan for it. And don’t forget: it’s a lot better for your clothing!

Towel warmer: I’m not sure why this simple invention has not hit the west like it has here. Almost every bathroom has one, and it’s great! We call it a “Sèche-Serviette.” It doubles as a radiator, while warming your towels, and is a great place to dry your clothing, too…if you don’t have a dryer.

Photo of a heated bathroom towel warmer

In all honesty, all these things that we must accept as different than the lifestyle we’ve been used to, are by and large a whole lot smarter on many levels—more practical and energy efficient. So, don’t “pooh-pooh” it before you try them out for yourself!

Let us help you transition from the life you’ve known to the new life you could have. I do one-on-one consultations to provide you with creative solutions and ideas about how to reach your goals to live and/or invest in France. Visit our website to learn more and book your session.

A la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds as seen from behind the camera for a taping of House Hunters InternationalAdrian Leeds
The Adrian Leeds Group®

P.S. If you are considering a property purchase in France, don’t do it lightly. Let us help you make the smartest decisions to ensure you make the best investment you can. Contact us to learn more!

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