Today, for my Living Abroad series, I’m chatting with Claire, an American freelance writer who lives in beautiful Strasbourg, France (a city I visited when I worked as an au pair!). Here, Claire shares the reasons she loves living in Strasbourg so much, including the romantic architecture and laid-back pace of life. She also shares the best way to make friends as a new expat.
Hi! I’m Claire and I grew up in the Chicagoland area. I initially moved from the US to Paris for the 2018-2019 school year to au pair. By the end of that school year, I was ready to move on from Paris. Paris is a gorgeous city but I’ve discovered that I’m more of a midsize city girl. Conveniently enough, my French boyfriend was starting a PhD in Strasbourg and I already knew I liked the city from visiting before, so it was an easy choice to enroll in more French language classes and move here.
On making friends: Facebook expat groups are such a lifesaver! The one I utilized was Girls Gone International Strasbourg. They regularly post events and meet-ups, which can be intimidating depending on how many people go and how social you are to begin with, but I was fortunate enough to meet a really great group of girls fairly early on who have been nothing but friendly and inclusive. It’s a mostly American group, but we all have partners or other friends who are from other English speaking countries or France, which always makes for fun big group get-togethers.
I’ve also made some friendly acquaintances through bachata dance classes at a local bar called Barco Latino. If you have any inclination to learn how to dance, Latin dances are some of the best ways to break the ice, practice the local language, and meet local, easygoing men and women.
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On the pace of life: The pace of life in Strasbourg is pretty laid-back. It can get hectic, but I think the romantic architecture and canals really do a lot to contribute to the relaxed and pleasant city atmosphere. That being said, Strasbourg is one of the most bike-friendly cities in Europe, which essentially means that pedestrians are always at risk of being run over. Always make sure to be aware and look both ways before crossing any street or sidewalk-seriously!
On the cost of living: You need at least €1500/mo per person to live here comfortably. Now, you can get by on much less than that if you want/need to, but our figure takes into account the basics, such as rent, groceries, Internet, transport, etc, and also leisure activities such as grabbing happy hour drinks fairly regularly, dining out or splurging on groceries to prepare nicer meals, and the occasional shopping excursion.
On the Strasbourg expat community: Strasbourg has a huge community of expats! It’s an incredibly international city due to the fact that the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, and the University of Strasbourg draw people from all over the world for employment and education. American expats in Strasbourg tend to be on either student visas or a visa “vie privée et familiale,” which means they are in a civil union or married to their French partner.
On living in Strasbourg as an American: Americans are pretty well-received in France in my experience, and this extends to Strasbourg. Although, one very specific exception I’ve experienced firsthand is when a group of people attempts to order food at a restaurant with lots of customized requests (substitute this for that, add this on, etc). While customized requests are par for the course in the US, they’re not really a thing in France and servers get extremely annoyed trying to keep track of all the extra detail. Obviously, if you have a dietary restriction, that’s one circumstance, but beyond that the reception to special requests gets extremely chilly.
On learning French: Oh god, I’ve cried more times than the rest of my life combined since commencing my French language studies a year and a half ago. Technically French isn’t a hard language to learn, and I already had a healthy helping of Spanish language background going in, but the French insistence on “just right” pronunciation and their general lack of cocern for someone who can’t really participate in a conversation can feel very jarring and isolating.
To anyone who is wanting to learn or beginning to learn French, the best advice I can give you is also the advice I find the hardest to execute: Just do your best, and try to let the grammar and pronunciation blunders roll off your shoulders. If you’re in conversation with someone and are really struggling, just ask to switch to English. It’s not rude if you’ve clearly been making an attempt. And, more often than not nowadays, French people are fully capable of holding conversations in English–they just avoid it and will rarely offer to switch on their own volition.
READ NEXT: 10 Tips for Becoming Fluent in a Second (or Third!) Language
On French food: French food is an experience. Different regions in France specialize in different types of food. For example, Strasbourg gastronomy has been heavily influenced by Germany due to its geographic proximity and subsequent geopolitical exchanges throughout history. But overall, French food can be summarized as an experience meant to be savored and enjoyed. There is never any sense of urgency to a meal and, as I’ve learned to control my hungry American “need it NOW” impulses, I’ve learned to appreciate the pride French people take in the loooong preparation of a meal to share together, too.
On must-try local foods: Tarte flambée and choucroute are absolute must-try local dishes in Strasbourg. Tarte flambée is basically an extremely thin flatbread served with fresh cream, onions, chewy bacon pieces, and salt and pepper. If you want a kick of yummy local cheese, ask for Munster as an add-on.
Choucroute features around five different types of meat (sausages, ham, roast pork) served on a bed of cabbage with a hearty side of potatoes. Don’t be put off by the cabbage! The very specific, tangy flavor actually marries really well with all the salty meat and neutral potato going around. Be sure to order a glass of Riesling or recommended white wine by the server.
On personal safety: I live in the city center and personally have never felt unsafe in the city, however, I have been harassed a couple of times by men during the day, so I’m extra-vigilant at night time as a result.
On the local fashion: Women in Strasbourg dress just a little more practical than women in Paris due to the fact that there are cobblestone streets everywhere and biking is the most popular form of transportation, but nevertheless, the average Strasbourgeois could still be considered runway-ready.
On the biggest challenge of living in Strasbourg: The hardest part was swallowing my pride and moving to a city to be with a boy. In its own right, Strasbourg is a fantastic city, but it’s highly unlikely I would have ended up here if I hadn’t met my partner. Furthermore, I never imagined myself to be the “type” of girl who would move somewhere “just to be with” someone, and I really struggled with the decision as something that went directly against my feminist ideology. I’ve developed a much more nuanced perspective on the decision in the last few months and both my relationship and I are better for it, but I did want to acknowledge this motivating factor because it’s a paradox a lot of American expats live with daily, this living in France because they love a French person and genuinely loving life in France in its own right.