We all dream of living abroad at least once in our life, but what does life as an expat really mean? Maria Menchaca, from Bébé Voyage, shares her family's experience Toulouse, France.
Q. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your family?
A. I am originally from Mexico, the daughter of a Chilean mother and a Mexican father who traveled a lot for conferences and sabbaticals when my sister and I were children. My husband and I met at MIT Graduate School. He is Argentinian (and the holder of a Spanish passport, without which we would not be in Toulouse!). We have two children, aged 5 and 2, both born in the United States, where we lived until a few months ago.
Q. When and why did you move to Toulouse?
A. We moved to Toulouse at the end of July 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, my husband being invited to be a guest researcher for a year. Needless to say, between the time he received the offer in February and the time we moved, our reasons for moving to France changed dramatically. I had spent a lot of my parents' sabbaticals in France when I was a child, so the idea of giving our children the same experience was like a dream come true. However, as the pandemic evolved our main focus became to find a place where we (the centers and I) could work and where the children could attend school in person. This sabbatical has become our lifeboat.
Q. What is your favorite thing in life in Toulouse, France?
A. Favorite thing of the days of the pandemic: in-person school for the children and learning a new language. Favorite thing of all time: food culture.
Q. How do you live in Toulouse? Did you manage to adapt easily to everyday life?
A. It's only been a few months, one of which we've spent frantically trying to settle down swimming in oceans of paperwork. Once that was done, yes, adjusting to life was pretty easy. Keep in mind that I had spent many years living in France as a child, so some elements of the culture were expected. The people of the South of France are beyond cuteness, and that made us feel very welcome. The kids are happier than I've ever seen them, and they go to school in a language they don't yet speak! The time difference with the United States, where I still consult, means my workday starts at 3pm and I have most of the day to myself. Who wouldn't adapt to that ?!
Q. How is family life? How did the children find life in a new place and a new culture?
A. Our children love France. They are in love with their school, they enjoy discovering new fruits and vegetables in the local market, and are generally very eager to communicate in the few words that they slowly acquire. We bought an old car in the first month and did one thing to explore the surrounding countryside every weekend. We visit castles, mountains, lakes and small villages.
Q. What do you miss the most about your home country?
A. Two things I miss a lot about Cambridge. The first is to have a Buy Nothing community. While I slowly find the right places to buy second-hand things, I feel like we're constantly buying things that I'm sure people in our neighborhood would have been happy to pass on, if there had been. an easy way to request it. The second is to have a group of working mothers. Although there are a few groups of moms in the city, I didn't get used to their formality (compared to the very outspoken and open group we had in Cambridge). Oh, and I miss the gallon sized milk cartons too!
Q. What are the biggest challenges you face when living in Toulouse, France?
A. The bureaucracy is one that I never expected to be so bad. It took us a month and a half to access the internet from home, and even getting a phone number was a nightmare. Other than that, nothing to complain about ...
Q. If you could move there, what would you do differently?
A. Nothing really. Bureaucracy is a nightmare, but we haven't learned anything that will make the process easier next time!
Q. Can you give some useful advice to families wishing to settle in France?
A. Do it! The only thing that could be difficult enough would be to move without speaking some French. Although my husband knows basic French, the bank always asked me to accompany him to translate. And I don't even know all the bureaucratic jargon (I speak the French of an 18 year old)! Having said that, there are a lot of people who have moved here who, mainly through online groups, have been able to find help navigating the system.
Q. Do you wish to return to your country of origin? Why?
A. We will be back (to Mexico, actually) since it was only supposed to be a sabbatical. My parents are there and we couldn't conceive of living away from them for the long term. However, if for some reason schools continue to be virtual in North America for the next school year, we'll likely extend our stay in the Pink City for another year.
Q. What would you miss living abroad?
A. I have lived abroad most of my life. When we return home, I will certainly miss the safety and ability to walk everywhere (from Cambridge and Toulouse). I will also miss French cheese
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But I’ve learned a ton from my experiences, too. tera celebrate a full decade since I stumbled my way out of the U. K. and began a life of full-time travel, I’ve compiled an enormous list of my biggest and best travel tips. These are all things that I wish someone had told me before I started traveling, so I hope you’ll find them useful, inspiring, educational, and entertaining. I love trying new things, and I’ve found a thousand amazing dishes that I never would have discovered if I’d continue to eat from supermarkets around the world. Trying new food isn’t scary, and you’ll build your confidence up as you fall in love with more and more things.
One of the first lessons I learned on the road was that your partouze will nearly always change. You’ll arrive in a place and hate it and want to leave immediately, or you’ll fall in love with a destination and want to spend longer there. You’ll make friends with a group of awesome people and want to change your orgie so you can travel with them for longer, or you’ll find out about an amazing-sounding town that’s nearby and want to head there instead.
Sure, you should have a rough plan for your trip, but don’t book everything in advance or you’ll likely feel too restricted and end up regretting it. Book a one-way ticket and your first few nights of accommodation — you’ll figure the rest out along the way. It’s not as intimidating as it sounds. If you’re in a tourist destination there’ll always be someone who’s willing to take your money by giving you a place to stay.
If you do only one thing before you leave, make it getting travel insurance. I’ve heard far too many horror stories of travellers injuring themselves in remote places and ending up in hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of debt. Don’t think that it won’t happen to you, because you know those travellers thought that, too. I’ve use World Nomads for my travel insurance provider for six years and recommend them to everyone I know. They were fantastic to deal with when making a claim.
People laughed at me when I said that I was carrying around a dozen spare passport photos, but they’ve been incredibly useful and saved me a ton of time and hassle. Who wants to wander the streets of some rural town in Cambodia searching for someone who can take your photo ? Friends of mine had to do this !
I’ve used them to apply for visas around the world, to get a new passport when mine expired while I was on the other side of the planet, and I even needed one to buy a local SIM card in Nepal ! Having spares in my backpack meant that I didn’t have to waste a day researching and then wandering around a city to try to find someone who could take a passport-sized photo of me.
I’m fortunate to have never had to deal with lost luggage, but I did have my backpack ripped open on a flight and I was grateful to have not had anything valuable in it at the time. I’ve also been on dodgy buses in Southeast Asia where we’ve arrived at our destination and people have had items stolen by someone hiding out in the luggage hold while we were transit.
If there’s anything I’d be upset to lose, I keep it in my daypack, which is always by my side on travel days. For me, that’s my passport, laptop, dashcam, external hard drive, a debit card, and some spare cash. As long as I have all of these, I can survive indefinitely.
When you travel, you’re in the sun more than most people thanks to months of island-hopping and beach time, as well as entire days spent outside exploring. Wear sunscreen every single day, regardless of the weather and temperature, because you really don’t want your trip of a lifetime to result in skin cancer or a body that’s blanketed in leathery wrinkles.
There have been so many times when I’ve been too shy to ask someone to take my photo in a place and I’ve almost always regretted it. After eight years of travel, I probably only have around 200 photos of me around the world. Photos of the beautiful places you visit are great and all, but when you get home, they’re not all that different to the ones everyone else has taken there, too. Photos with you in them are special and they’ll mean a lot more to you when you look back at them. You’ll gain more respect from the locals if you can at least say hello, please, sorry, and thank you. On that note, remember : if you don’t speak the language, it’s your problem, not theirs. And please don’t start speaking louder to make yourself understood. Try miming instead, or using a translation app on your phone.
Travel isn’t conducive for sleep, whether it’s snorers in dorm rooms, early risers rustling plastic bags, or drunk backpackers stumbling around in the middle of the night. Even if you don’t stay in hostels, you’ll still have to deal with street noise from outside, loud bars nearby, and uncomfortable overnight journeys. Pack some ear plugs and a sleep mask in your bag to help improve your sleep. I’ve been using Sleep Phones to block out light and listen to podcasts and I love them.
I’d always been all about the packing cubes, until I discovered vacuum-sealed versions of them ! You throw your clothes in, seal the bag, then roll it up to push out all the air. I can literally fit twice as many clothes in my backpack when I use these ! Even if you don’t want to carry more things in your bag, it frees up so much space that if you need to pack in a hurry, you can just chuck everything in.
Sometimes your bank will block your card, sometimes your card won’t work in an ATM, and sometimes you could even lose it or have it stolen. Bring at least three debit/credit cards with you that are all linked to different accounts ( with money in them ! ) Keep one in your backpack, one in your daypack, and one on your person.
I carry a spare 300 USD that’s split up in various places in my backpack, daypack, and occasionally, my shoe when I’m nervous I’ll be robbed. It means that in a worse-case scenario, I can pay for some food, a dorm bed, and a Skype call to my family to get an emergency wire transfer until I can get back on my feet again. I went with U. S. dollars because it’s the most widely accepted currency around the world and easy to change.
When I decided to see if it was possible to visit the Maldives on a budget back in 2014, information was so sparse that I couldn’t even find a photo of the islands I’d decided to visit. Well, that trip was one of my highlights of the past eight years and I’m so glad I went, despite not being able to find any information online. And the advantage to that lack of information was getting to be the only tourist on an entire island — I had the whole beach to myself ! If you know it’s safe to travel somewhere, but can’t find out much else, go for it. It’s probably far easier to get there than you think. And if not, it makes for a good story.
I’m definitely testament to that ! But expecting everything to go perfectly on your trip is only setting yourself up to fail. Nobody goes travelling and comes back without any stories of mishaps. No matter how prepared you are, at some point you’re going to get lost, get scammed, miss your bus, get food poisoning, injure yourself… the list is endless ! Expect it to happen, and don’t beat yourself up when it does. In a month’s time, you’ll find it funny rather than frustrating.
It achieves absolutely nothing and makes you look like an asshole. Instead, calm down, put a smile on your face, think of how this will make a great story one day, and rationally figure out an option plan. This too shall pass.
What happens if you arrive in a city, go to grab your mail confirmation for your accommodation, and your phone and laptop are out of battery ? I always make sure I have a hard copy of my guesthouse name and their address, as well as directions if I won’t be taking a taxi. Once I arrive, I’ll grab one of the hotel’s cards, so I’ll always know where I’m staying, and can show it to locals to ask for help with finding my way back.
So many people will tell you not to travel with jeans, but if you wear jeans all the time at home, you’ll want to wear them while travelling, too. I didn’t start travelling with pantalons until my deuxième year of travel, and guy, I missed them so much ! They’re not *that* bulky so you really don’t need to worry about the extra space and weight. And in many cities in Europe, you’ll want to wear pantalons to fit in with the locals — you don’t want to look like a grubby backpacker in Paris !
Checking out is when you’re most likely to lose something. Whenever I check out of a place, I check the bathroom, I check under the beds, I check the desks, and then I make sure I have my passport, laptop, camera, money, phone, and external hard drive. I’ll be fine if I leave anything else behind. Having a routine that you go through every solo time will help you keep track of everything. I learned my lesson with this one when I left my passport behind in a guesthouse in Bagan, then left it in an apartment in London two months later.