‘My Expat Life’ is an interview series that focuses on the lives of fellow wanderlusts living in the Languedoc. Here we ask them the question; how did you do it? Meet our expats and prepare to be inspired.
Happiness does not come from easy work but from the afterglow of satisfaction that comes from doing a difficult task that demanded our best. Theodore Isaac Rubin
Opening a business in France can be a difficult task, and when people come here with plans in hand, many become discouraged. Research is the best way to prepare and to keep in mind; nothing easy is ever worth pursuing. There are no secrets to success, but with perseverance, determination and a little luck, your dreams can come true.
We ask fellow North Americans to candidly tell us how they feel about the complications of running a business in France.
Timo is Dutch and for 23 years lived in the US where he met Isabella who is American. They used to live in the center of Alabama before moving to Beziers three years ago.
When we first met them at the bottom of Les Allees des Paul Riquet in the line-up of Star Kebab, they were just beginning their adventure, were in French classes, searching for a business start-up and very optimistic about their future. They came to the Languedoc to experience European life, and to be closer to historic monuments. After buying an apartment they decided to open Relax Rentals; a bike shop minutes from the train station, across from the tourist office and a one-minute walk from their home.
They integrated by attending town hall meetings concerning their new city, joined associations to meet French people and met French friends every Saturday morning at the bio market at Place de la Madeleine and sometimes on Wednesday nights at place Jaun Jaurez.
After running their businesses for a couple of years, we sit down to talk about how life is going for this dynamic couple.
What is it like to open a business in France?
UGH! Do people really want to know what opening a business in the south of France entails?! Well, I think it would have helped if we had spoken the language at the time, though going through the process certainly helped to learn the language. In many ways, I feel like my whole experience in France, including opening two companies, is just that we should walk around with a big bucket of money and give to anyone and everyone who asks.
Seriously though, we have learned to be excited about the small steps (hurrah for the conquests!) and try not to be too disappointed for too long by the other stuff. For example, when we found our shop (on the corner of our street) it took three or four weeks to track down who owned it…which turns out to be the government of France. Every person we spoke with sent us to someone else. We walked back and forth all over the city. Then one person quoted us a reasonable price, but after showing interest in the space, the proprietor (government of France) went in and did a whole bunch of (much needed) work and jacked up the price. Try negotiating in French with the French government when your best French makes you sound like a malfunctioning R2D2. Hilarious, in retrospect that we have accomplished anything!
Also, as you might have learned, French people have a special price and phrase for Americans. “Tu me prends pour une Americaine”, is what you are supposed to say when the price of something is too high. Well, now we know and now I say I am from Canada…. (Just kidding Eva). So they did all of this (much needed) work to the space, which took months and months because they only worked three days a week, every other week.
Then, one day, they proclaimed they were finished. Apparently finished in France means raw unpainted, unsanded bare sheet rock. Also why don’t they believe in toilet seats? You know, that part of the toilet made to sit on. Or light fixtures…. why do the light bulbs just dangle from the ceiling.
Anyway, we spent months feeling like we were taking one step forward and two steps back – excited and then disappointed. Each time the only solution was (and still is) to invest more and more and more. Timo has stopped wanting to open the mail because every time he does we have to pay something to some new branch of the government. RSI sends us at least two or three different bills every month and we have to have our accountant (50 euros an hour) call them to ask which bill we are suppose to pay. I could tell a million stories like this, so suffice to say, this can accurately describe the first six months of trying to open a business and the last two years of running a business in France.
Even forming the company…due to the outrageous amount required to pay in taxes (20% TVA and then 46.6% cotissation), both of us cannot afford to work there. So the bike shop became Timo’s company and we are thankful that after two years it almost pays for itself. We hope one day it might pay us something too.
Isabella, what do you do in France since Relax Rentals became Timo’s business?
I am an auto-entrepreneur and I work with the Hobson Center instructing students of all ages (4 to 70) in English. I was a university professor in American. I taught Art (sculpture) and Art History. Before we left, as we were waiting for our house to sell in a crappy economic market, I decided to become certified to teach English as a second language…. just in case I thought. I have a BFA (5 yr. degree at my school), which allows me to teach k-12 and a MFA (two more years) which allows me to teach university and graduate school. In addition, I am certified to teach artistic welding, certified to teach yoga, and I thought, why not English also.
I love working with the Hobson crew. I immediately adopted Jacqueline Hobson as my French maman – because as a successful businesswoman, she reminds me of my mom and they both remind me (by example) to work hard and always do my very best. The students are a real treat for me. Adult classes are comprised of students ranging in age primarily from 30 to 60. Some are taking a formation class to aid in finding new employment; some are already employed by international companies and need English to progress in their company. The hardest part is trying to make the students forget about learning all of the rules and just speak. They seem to be afraid of making a mistake. I tell them stories of my own progress learning French, like the three weeks I tried to learn to pronounce the letter U and how I still cannot pronounce the letter U! We have fun and laugh a lot. I have met many people with whom I am still in contact after they have completed the course.
What else does the Hobson center do?
In addition to offering English classes, the Hobson Center, being the only official translator in the area, is always filled with new arrivals to Beziers needing translations, but also relocation assistance. I am reminded daily how much of the process I have forgotten when I see all these nouveaux arrivants. Like how difficult it all seems at first because everything is new and foreign and how what you actually need depends who you speak with. One day, one person tells you something, another day a different person tells you a different thing. Since Timo is Dutch, he needed nothing and the sous-prefecture welcomed him home like a lost European son. But for me, no matter how many pieces of paper I gave them in two or three languages, I needed to give something else never before required by the person I spoke with any of the other times. After seven months of this insanity, I went to Jacqueline to avail myself of her assistance and this wonderful service. I still have to apply for my Carte de Sejour every year, even though my husband is a european citizen, and no matter how prepared I am, I still have to provide some document that I have never before needed.
We chose Beziers for very practical reasons. Close to the sea, close to the mountains, lovely countryside all about, an airport, a train station, hospitals, a very nice new library, the Canal du Midi, the cathedral. It is a small city that can be navigated easily by foot or bike, but not so small that I get bored. We came to look at Montpellier because it has three universities and I thought it would be easier to find employment. Though Montpellier has a lot to offer, we did not love it. Wecame to Beziers for a day and decided to stay a week. Buying our apartment was a spur of the moment decision. Our apartment looks over the Park of Poets so it is like living in a tree house in the middle of the city. At night, the owls sing us to sleep.
I think we are lucky in that we do not need much of anything to live contentedly. We did not move to Beziers to pretend to be fancy living in the South of France – a sandwich for lunch is ok with us, a walk in a nearby vineyard is a grand treat. Also, (not sure which – positive or negative) I am too stubborn to quit anything before it is successful – so for me there is no turning back. I do miss some things about America, a certain indefinable simplicity.
Any advice for people wishing to move here?
In retrospect, I think that making this move is not for everyone. In some ways, living in France is much harder than living in America. Anything dealing with the French government is a nightmare of inefficiency. We work very hard here, as hard or harder than we worked in America. The price of everything is double or triple, the pay is half as much, and the taxes are more than double (all comparisons to the USA).
What are the prices like in France ?
Last year (2013), when we received our yearly water bill of 883 euros, Timo declared that he was no longer going to bathe – he does of course, but no more long hot luxurious steam filled showers. The price of electricity is so high that we hover around one light bulb…and then the price of light bulbs is just absurd at 12 euros a pop. In winter, we live under piles of blankets!
We no longer have to wonder “what if we had moved to another country?’ The first steps are always the hardest, especially when not speaking your host country’s language, like us when we first moved here. But now that we speak French and have gotten used to how things work, we feel more and more comfortable.
Timo reads the Midi Libre each day and Isabella says, ‘He likes to joke that the better his French is, the less interesting the newspaper is.
Do you have any regrets?
Life is way too short to walk around regretting stuff. All in all, if we did not want to stay here, we would not. But of course we do worry about the retirement age future as regardless of the almost 70% we pay in cotisations (a french word that makes french people think they are not paying taxes), if we do not work in France for a minimum of 20 years, we will not receive anything for retirement. Even after 20 years, we will only (hopefully) receive the minimum…. about 300 euros a month. It is not possible to save for retirement, when we pay so much to the government. So, yes, sometimes in the dark and cold of winter, we are so scared about the undefined, nebulous future that we become a bit paralyzed with fear. I remind myself of the words of an installation artist named Jenny Holzer: The Future is Stupid.
And then I sing to myself…. the sun will come up tomorrow, you can bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow…. there’ll be sun….
For all your bike rental needs visit http://www.relaxrentals.fr/