#WanderWomen: 8 Years of Expat Life in the French Riviera

What does it take for someone to leave everything behind? To move to a new destination with a thousand unknowns, dive headfirst into starting over with a new culture, language, people, cuisine, novelty abound. It might look glamorous from the outside, but longterm life abroad isn’t without hardship or awkward adjustments; it’s also full of beautiful and surprising twists and turns.

This #WanderWomen series highlights diverse women every Wednesday around the globe who took a leap of faith to leave comfort and familiarity behind and embrace expat life. In some cases, it was to find themselves, love, work, or something else entirely. I’ll share candid stories to inspire the inner adventurer in you, to remember that no matter where you start over, there’s a new home waiting for you if you’re up for it.

Meet Sonia Dunstan, An English Expat and Chef who Lives in Nice, France

In her 30’s, Sonia had hit a slump in her life. She decided to take matters into her own hands – literally – as she trained to become a professional chef. After training, she loaded up her car with less than £1,000 in her wallet and drove to France never having been before. The beginning of her new life in a new country freed her in new ways and helped her rediscover a love for her home country in a surprising way. She’s still in what she calls ‘the most beautiful city in France’ but isn’t sure the slow lifestyle is for her anymore. She adores her French home but even a place as parfaite as Nice can present some challenges. Read on!

You lived in the USA for a short time. How did you end up in France if you loved Florida so much?

When my parents decided to move to Florida I didn’t have to be asked twice when, three years later, they asked if I’d like to move over too. And I LOVED Florida! Those palm trees, the rugged outdoor lifestyle, friendly people, gorgeous beaches and the shopping – well just everything! It also turned out that I’m actually a huge closet redneck! I still always choose barbecuing over cooking, love off roading, prefer a pickup over a car, and of course, shooting tin cans.

In my early thirties I’d sit staring from my rainy office window in the UK thinking “there has to be more to life than this!

Unfortunately I was unable to get a long term visa so sadly, three years later, I unwilling went home. I immediately started training as a chef as I knew I could work almost anywhere with this skill; so at the age of 35 (and after cutting every onion in my poor Grandmother’s fridge while watching Ramsay on YouTube) I started as a trainee chef.

What did your exciting start in France look like?

I packed up my car and headed to France with just £700 in my pocket. I’d never been to France before, didn’t speak the language and used a website exchanging labour for lodgings, I got lost – a lot! Cried – quiet a bit, and always ate in McDonalds as I couldn’t read or order from menus in local restaurants! But without doubt I had the best year of my life! I stayed with multiple families on vineyards, cheese farms, hostels, yoga retreats and private homes; working 4-5 hours a day then joining in with their daily activities, it was as freeing as being a child again.

I slowly made my way down south to Nice where I found myself a job in a fine dining restaurant and a few months later took on a gorgeous apartment – bang on the Promenade Des Anglais overlooking the sea… I can’t deny I didn’t feel proud of myself, my unusual and sometimes tearful journey in a strange country with just £700, turned out better than even I could have expected.

Sonia’s apartment view on Promenade des Anglais.

France is such a delectable country. What are the things you savor most being in Nice?

These past eight years have been an incredible adventure! I obviously adore the weather here, which goes without saying! But weather & beautiful scenery aside, it’s the lifestyle & culture of France I enjoy the most, it reminds me of England when I was a child. The respectful way strangers address one another, the low level hum of voices barely ever raised in public, neighbours courteously abiding of quiet times through lunch and over the weekend. 

There is a tranquillity and respect here I noticed has sadly faded from the UK since my childhood days. If I had to pick my favourite thing about France, without doubt I would say dining! Not in restaurants, but as a guest. To sit among family and friends at a large family gathering is such a treat; there is always a happy energy and excitement of all involved, even the teenagers! Issued with just one plate for the many courses to come (usually five), the younger men of the family take pride in standing up and serving each person. Beginning with the eldest lady at the table, they attentively spoon the food onto the plate waiting for the nod of “that’s enough thank you”. It’s the traditions, respect, and attitudes like this that I adore the most about French culture. 

But these past three years have become a double edged sword for me.

This slow lifestyle and polite nature I’ve come to adore definitely lacks the buzz of English style social actives; and sometimes I just feel the need to break out into that good old English humour and banter, which to be quite frank would just be a little rude here. I miss shops being open all day and on Sundays, I miss taking my pick from a variety of endless and different activity clubs available, I miss wandering around the low priced stores offering everything you can want for your home and more, and I miss teasing someone with on the edge banter and getting back as good as I give. For this reason I’m thinking of going back home, just for a while, because sometimes I just feel too young for France. 

Can you explain what you mean by ‘too young for France?’

Maybe, if I was married with children I would feel differently, but as a single and very active woman, I feel there are huge voids in my lifestyle that I just, at present, can’t live without. I overlooked this for so many years when I arrived as the beautiful positives of this country overwhelmed me, as time has gone by those certain missing home comforts have crept back into my thoughts and I can no longer ignore them. But all that said, I know for sure I’ll be back! This tranquil lifestyle and beautiful country will be without doubt just the ticket for 65+ me.

You mentioned English humor & banter. How would you explain it to someone who isn’t familiar?

The best way I can explain it is as a sign of affection. True banter is never about being offensive. It’s about noticing the little things a person does, a quirk, or an everyday thing they can’t do well (I can’t do basic math, or throw a football to save my life), then making an over the top playful remark about it. The more subtle the behavior the better, and the more dramatic the remark the funnier. Banter shows someone has taken the time to notice or discover something about you, that person’s really showing they “see you”! and, that they want to have fun with you. The idea is that you return it, it’s like a private joke between you… a fun and playful connection of people getting to know one another under the “self” you present to the world. 

After living in France, I saw how much pride people take in their language and how helpful it is to speak it to assimilate. How did your personal language journey unfold?

I was actually shocked when I arrived in the North of France, for some naive reason I believed they’d speak English there! This really makes me laugh now, as it’s not as if everyone on the South edge of England speaks French!

When I arrived I frequently felt frustrated, stupid, embarrassed, and isolated, depending on the situation. I tried reading, television, and various apps to learn French, but these really didn’t work for me. Unfortunately for the first three years I worked in a completely English speaking environment, so I never learned more than “supermarket French”. I genuinely felt embarrassed about not being able to speak, I would often lie about how long I’d been in France to prevent being judged; and I felt quite stupid with regards to my ability to learn. Fortunately, my second employment required spending one afternoon a week with a workman who only spoke French, within 3 months I could speak comfortably. This just goes to show how easy it is to pick up when you’re fully immersed into a language. After seven years I’d say I’ve become as fluent as a 5 year old!

I can understand and be understood, and I can speak without the need to rehearse in my head. Sadly not being in an environment where I’m living or working with the language (and being on the Riviera where English has frequently spoken) I’ve not advanced. Regardless of whether I stay in France or not I’ll always continue learning French. I intend at some point to spend a month volunteering in a French only environment, for me it’s the quickest way to learn, far easier than apps and classes.

How did you tap into a community or network of friends in Nice? Is it easy to do there?

Of all the places I’ve lived in France, Nice was the most beautiful but the hardest place to make meaningful connections.

I never developed a social life there outside of work colleges. Funnily enough my hairdresser, who was born there and spent 7 years in London, said she believes it’s the most difficult city to make friends in…which was a relief to hear, I thought perhaps I was becoming unpopular in my middle age! I think it’s probably just because it’s a large city, the smaller towns I’ve lived have been far more friendly.

What advice would you give your younger self before moving to France all those years ago?

I believed I was moving to a beautiful new country, to sunny days, and to be absorbed into a new culture. It’s only in hindsight I’ve realised the truth, that I just like a challenge! I like to take the most difficult path, to test myself, and see what I can achieve. It’s taken me five years to realise the true reasons I came here!… and while I undoubtedly adore France, I can’t honestly say I’d choose this lifestyle over my home country’s. It’s been a blessing in disguise, while believing I was leaving to embrace a whole new country and lifestyle, I in fact fell in love with my own country. 

So, I’d probably tell myself… prepare yourself for an emotional journey far bigger than the physical one that you’re embarking on. 

Do you have an expat story worth sharing or know someone who should be featured? Please reach out to me for more information.


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