Life in the Loire Valley
September 16, 2009 1:53 PM   Subscribe

What should I do to prepare for expat life in France's Loire Valley?

I'm a Canadian woman in her mid 20s, moving to France to work as an English language assistant for seven months. I leave in just under 2 weeks. I'll be living in an unbelievably picturesque town in the Loire, which is awesome, but I have very little knowledge of what to expect of life in France, or what I can do to prepare while still in Canada, besides the usual paperwork misery.

Some specific areas of curiosity include:
- How much my limited language skills will hinder me. My knowledge of French is fairly basic, and although I can make myself understood and throw around a few verb tenses, my oral comprehension is pretty weak. However, I'll be teaching solely in English, and I'm very keen to improve in French
- Whether a lacto-ovo vegetarian has any hope of subsisting on much more than pasta, salad and eggs
- Whether there are any good ex-pat groups in the region (though I'd love to make French friends, I suspect language skills might hold me back on that front)
- Whether the locals will shun/welcome me

Beyond all that, I'm curious about any experiences in the Loire, whether as a tourist or expat resident. Recommendations, dos/don't, Canada-specific culture shocks, I'd love any firsthand knowledge.

FYI, I have a healthy savings account and will earn a modest salary, so I don't expect money will be an issue. Also, I know there have been similar questions about living in France, but none specific to this region that I could find.
posted by nicoleincanada to Travel & Transportation around Tours, France (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Off the top of my head. Nice region, used to be the hangout for French royalty to hunt and party. Quite touristy in summer, not so sure about winter, could be a terribly boring affair. Paris is not too far away, though (3 hour trip by car or thereabouts).

Visit the chateaus, of course. Chambord and Chenonceau in particular. Drink the local wine. You will see a lot of Pouilly Fuissé and Sancerre - those are white. One house that I can recommend is Alphonse Mellot, who has a decent mid price Sancerre. Pascal Jolivet is even better, but more expensive I think; it's also biodynamique (organic).

Be advised that other than Loire wines, you won't find a lot of good wines from other regions. You will be drinking wines that were made within ten miles of your point of sale. For a Frenchman, everything his neighbor makes is superior to whatever the rest of the world makes.

Too bad you don't eat goat cheese (chavignol), because that's basically what this area is famous for. That and duck meat and fresh water fish (trout). For dining out, you'll definitely have trouble finding anything vegetarian, as meat eating is a religion in France. Home cooking won't be a problem, there's bound to be some huge Auchan, Carrefour or other hypermarché close by.

Your limited language skills will hinder you. French people do not speak English. This being a touristy area, you might have better luck, but overall don't expect much.
posted by NekulturnY at 2:11 PM on September 16, 2009

Whether a lacto-ovo vegetarian has any hope of subsisting on much more than pasta, salad and eggs

If you're cooking for yourself, you'll be fine. There are plenty of vegetables and beans and all of that. Last I checked there aren't a lot(/any) of Morningstar type vegetarian-aimed foods. Eating at restaurants will be difficult, though, especially if your comprehension level is low. I'd pick up some sort of french menu guide (there are a few at amazon) so you can identify foods when you eat out.

In my experience, people outside of Paris are more welcoming to English speakers. Well, it's complicated - they'll speak a lot less English, but those who do will be more excited to have an opportunity to practice (as opposed to some of the big city folk who might just be annoyed.)

Whether there are any good ex-pat groups in the region

Try looking on for meetups in your area - typically that place is full of ex-pats/travelers and the locals who want to meet them.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 2:21 PM on September 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've spent a lot of time in the Dordogne (Sarlat, Les Eyzies), fairly touristy areas in the summer, and you can count on some sort of vegetarian food being available at restaurants, particularly omelets and pizza (and sometimes crepes). And French omelets and French-style pizza are awesome. Maybe a bit monotonous after months, but you'll be able to supplement with fresh produce (look for market day) and trips to the hypermarché.
posted by The Michael The at 2:34 PM on September 16, 2009

Will the school you're teaching at help you with French lessons? If you can do a course while you're there it will definitely help. I wish I'd done one when I moved to France.

I'm not in the Loire but I've only been in France for three months so the following is all pretty fresh in my mind:
- get someone who is French or fluent to help with Social Security/house insurance/banking because the letters are written in super-formal language that is hard for beginners
- consider finding an english speaking bank, there are a few Barclays around and for this one thing I chose not to go native, as banking vocabulary is very specific
- politeness is everything, be prepared to say bonjour/bonsoir when you enter for a shop, and bonne journee/bonne soiree when you leave for example
- a willingness to speak french goes a long way, mine is still terrible but the nearly everyone I encounter appreciates my efforts, even if I'm mangling their beautiful language I haven't yet been shunned by the locals
- find a colleague/language exchange partner to practice speaking french informally
-get a TV, as it's helpful for oral comprehension and easier to decipher than radio (pictures help!)
- check SNCF's website for their TGV Prem's offers to explore other areas of France eg. Paris for 19 eur
- eating out at regular restaurants is tough for vegetarians, but I can think of at least 3 vegetarian restaurants in my town so they do exist!

Have fun on your big adventure
posted by Skaramoosh at 2:37 PM on September 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks so far, everyone. For what it's worth, I'm the kind of lacto-ovo vegetarian who cheats on cheese and is definitely planning to sample some chevre.

I don't expect the school will help with French lessons but I do plan to take them, likely in Tours, which is about an hour's train ride from my small city.
posted by nicoleincanada at 2:49 PM on September 16, 2009

Wahoo my favourite region in France!

OK, I spent last year (in uni) abroad in Tours, in the heart of the Loire Valley. If you've been placed as an assistant there, please feel free to Meta-mail me and we can chat. I'm happy to discuss this further!

Also, I ate vegetarian (99% vegan, actually) in Tours and didn't find it much a challenge. Yes, it's easier cooking at home than going to restaurants, but honestly, every place will have salads at the very and often pizza as well. It's definitely do-able. As for home cooking, you will love the awesome markets for fruits and veg. The field of hippie grocery stores/healthy eating places is growing, so you can find tofu and tempeh and soymilk and whatnot.

As for finding expats: Tours has something called Cafe des Langues, where students and other townspeople met once a week at different language table. You could sit at the French table and practice French, or the German table, or the English table, etc. So you can easily meet folks from all over at that kind of event. Also, this may not be your thing, but I found a fantastic church when I was abroad, the Eglise Evangelique in Tours Nord, and made quite a few French and expat friends from all over.

On the topic of your language skills: fear not. Non-Parisians, as pointed out above, are far less quick to judge. Be sincere, be willing to learn, and you'll do fine. Better to make an effort than to be that foreigner who makes everyone cringe.

Good luck! I'm sure you'll have a great experience. Do take advantage of the awesome train travel opportunities and enjoy the wonderful wines from Vouvray and Sancerre.
posted by fantine at 2:59 PM on September 16, 2009

First, I love the Loire valley. I spent a fair amount of time in Touraine, specifically Tours. The people are very friendly, with none of the big-city snobbery of Paris. There's a billion zillion places to see. The accent from the area, and specifically from Tours, is considered acceptable and recognizable throughout France and much of the francophone world.

The wines are my favorite in France, although it's difficult to get them in the States.

How much my limited language skills will hinder me. My knowledge of French is fairly basic, and although I can make myself understood and throw around a few verb tenses, my oral comprehension is pretty weak. However, I'll be teaching solely in English, and I'm very keen to improve in French

So, they talk about the French being snotty to foreigners. They're not. They're snotty to tourists who roll up in their town and demand they speak English (or Japanese or German). If you try to speak French (and I don't mean read a phrasebook), they're generally quite forgiving of mistakes and more willing to reciprocate with English. You can easily ask people to nicely correct you. [This is probably, to a great degree, the same everywhere... but France is the only other place I've spent time.]

- Whether a lacto-ovo vegetarian has any hope of subsisting on much more than pasta, salad and eggs

You're fucked. The French cook French food. I gave up and just ate what was on the menu, as I never had any luck getting substitutions at restaurants. And they cook for flavor, which means throwing fresh beef stock in the rice and anchovies in the salad dressing. It's much, much worse than trying to eat in North America as a vegetarian.

There are plenty of cheaper establishments that have foreign menus. The fast food and diners of France: kabob joints, falafel, gyro, Greek, Chinese, all-night cafes, etc. You can often get substitutions or built-to-order meals there, but it's mostly French-assimilated foreign food and not native French food. You should try Chinese food in France, if you can. It's clearly based on the same source material as North American Chinese food, but it is not the same.

You can cook at home and have whatever you like, of course. The grocery stores are awesome. They have most everything you can get in North America, although some items from "home" are outrageously expensive if you're used to getting them in NA. They aren't as likely to have eggs stamped "free range", but their regular eggs are farmed according to arguably-more-ethical and definitely-better-enforced EU standards. I did notice that their regular stores seem to be a little short on tofu, seitan, and other processed soy and wheat products. You should expect to eat a lot of actual, you know, vegetables and source your protein from other foods.

Try to prefer the local shops to the supermarket. The corner green grocer is maybe expendable. But, you absolutely must buy from the local baker and the local pastry maker; their wares are always much better than the equivalent stuff from the supermarket.

If the reasons for your dietary restrictions aren't ethical or religious, you should consider easing them for the duration of your trip. The food in France is delicious. And judging by the people around, I can't imagine that it's actually unhealthy despite all the butter and drippings. Even if your dietary restrictions are ethical, you might consider relaxing them: the French relationship to their meat is nothing at all like the North American. Nearly every vegetarian I've known ate meat products in Europe, even if they didn't have the steak-frites; only one definitely didn't, and she never ate at a restaurant.

On Preview: If you're going to Tours for your French lessons, you might look at L'Institut de Touraine. I did a month-long immersion course there, and it was fucking awesome. A little boring, but very, very instructive. Especially on my accent and listening comprehension.
posted by Netzapper at 3:02 PM on September 16, 2009

Response by poster: Vegetarianism is for ethical reasons, but I'm willing to relax the standards in an environment where I'll face a lot of challenges (relax = allowing chicken/beef stock/etc, not chowing down on leg of lamb per se). I love to cook -- with items including actual vegetables -- and am psyched about the local shops.

Also, thanks much for mentioning L'Institute de Touraine. I had no idea where to look for language instruction in Tours and I"ll definitely keep them in mind.
posted by nicoleincanada at 3:08 PM on September 16, 2009

So you're definitely going to be in Tours? If so, the Institut is great for language instruction. I didn't actually take classes there -- long saga -- but other students in my program did and found them very worthwhile. There are 5 levels and the classes themselves are not too large.

Bonus: it's located in a very cool building right near the "Vieux Tours" area with the bars and everything you need for your social life!
posted by fantine at 3:12 PM on September 16, 2009

Response by poster: I won't be in Tours, but it's the largest major city that's in reasonably close proximity. I'll be in a city of around 8,000 and don't expect much in the way of English language instruction. Could be wrong, though.
posted by nicoleincanada at 3:37 PM on September 16, 2009

That's reasonable. Glad Tours is close to you though!
posted by fantine at 3:44 PM on September 16, 2009

By the way, it was winter when I last did a tour of the Loire Valley castles. This was especially great because it was a rare (I believe) day of snow and so we had the places to ourselves and the pictures are all fantastic. Chenonceau's roaring fires were particularly charming.

So, while they're worth seeing in the beautiful fall, they also might be worth a look when the tourists are gone (if you can handle the cold.)
posted by Solon and Thanks at 8:15 PM on September 16, 2009

Response by poster: I'm a Canadian prairie girl. Cold, I can handle. :)
posted by nicoleincanada at 9:20 AM on September 17, 2009

I just wanted to make sure that Solon and Thanks last suggestion didn't get glanced over. As an ex-pat (I hate that term) living in Finland, I have found Couchsurfing to be a true savior. Within a month of living here in Helsinki, I had a mixed group of other ex-pats and locals to call friends. Events, dinners, picnics, etc. It really makes moving into a new area, especially one where you are not an expert in the local language, a lot easier than without it.

There are over 300 Couchsurfers in and around Tours and they have a very active forum group where at this moment there are multiple gatherings being discussed and even a vegetarian restaurant discussion. I highly recommend it, I couldn't live here without it.

Here is the link to the group where things are being discussed inside Tours. If you need any assistance, you can message me here or on the CS website. I use the same username on both.

Good luck, it sounds like it will be a wonderful experience.
posted by wile e at 3:02 PM on September 17, 2009

Hey, I'm doing this programme too! I will be in Brittany, though. Are you ridiculously excited?

You probably already know about the Assistants in France forums by now but just in case...

Orléans-Tours forum

and some relevant threads:

Your current level of French
Nervous about language ability
What French ability is necessary?

There's also the Guide for English Language Assistants in France and the Teaching Assistant in France Survival Guide.

Have you been able to contact the assistant who was there before you? You could probably get very specific answers that way. I found my predecessor and she was terribly nice and helpful.

I too have been dying to know what to expect, but remember that whatever it is you're wondering about, it's only a matter of days before you find out for yourself, so don't worry about it too much. And have a good time!
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 8:40 AM on September 20, 2009

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