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Living Like a Local in Montpellier, France

SmarterTravel

Christine Cantera is an American freelance writer and editor who splits her time between Rome and Montpellier, France (pronounced “mont-PELL-yay”). You can read more about her work, and her life, at Miss Expatria.

Q: What’s one thing most tourists don’t know about where you live?

A: Where it is! For most of the year I live in Montpellier, France, and I’ve rarely come across someone who knows it. They think it is Paris (because France = Paris) or on the French Riviera. Actually, though, it’s in Languedoc-Roussillon, which shares roughly half of the southern French coast with the PACA Region (Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur).

Montpellier is four hours from Nice, Barcelona and Paris; has its own delightful microclimate; and is just a few miles from the beach. And Nostradamus used to teach here!

Q: What’s the worst culture shock you experienced as you settled into your new home?

A: I moved to Montpellier after three years in Rome, and what I am still struck by is France’s attention to infrastructure and daily basics that keep a country going. Italy could learn a thing or two about “small” details — like road maintenance and trash pickup — from France.

Q: Do you find that living in a foreign country makes you a better traveler when you visit other places? If so, how?

A: I don’t know if it makes me a better traveler; although I travel a lot and I love it, I tend to be egregiously lazy about “seeing the sights.” But I think because of initial language barriers it’s become second nature to me to look for a wide variety of cues and clues when needing to know information, which is something I’ve seen frustrate other travelers but makes me an incredibly calm traveler.

Q: Which tourist attraction in France is most overrated, and where should travelers go instead?

A: Under no circumstances do I think that Paris, which is its own tourist attraction, is overrated, but visiting Paris and saying you’ve been to France is like visiting Manhattan and saying you’ve been to the U.S. So if I had to recommend only one other place to visit, it would be Mont St-Michel. It’s not particularly convenient to get to, but it’s hands down the most magical thing I’ve ever seen made by man.

Q: No one should visit France without tasting __________.

A: Oh, man, now you’re hitting me where it hurts. Let’s see. I would suggest tasting a really good rose wine, pale as a summer morning and chilled to perfection. If anything tastes like the south of France in a glass, it’s that. As for food, I’d say that you may think you’ve had a really good croissant, but you haven’t until you’ve had a freshly made croissant au beurre from an artisan boulangerie (many bakeries get their dough premade and just pop it in the oven; here artisan doesn’t mean precious, just homemade). It’s the kind of thing where you say, “Oh, now I get it.”

Q: What’s the toughest thing about being an expat? The most rewarding?

A: The toughest thing about being an expat is the learning curve involved in daily living. Whenever I first attempt to accomplish any mundane, picayune thing I used to do without thinking in the States, it involves an inordinate amount of time and energy.

I remember when I first moved to Montpellier and wanted to find a small plastic trash can for the bathroom. It once involved me saying to some poor kid in a store, “I want the thing for when I don’t want a thing,” and eventually crumpling up a tissue, throwing it on the ground and pointing at it, because I’d forgotten the word for trash can. He realized what I meant, told me that they didn’t sell trash cans and couldn’t tell me the name of a store that did. No one could, in fact. I eventually just waited until our local IKEA opened.

But the most rewarding part of being an expat, for me at least, is that same learning curve. Being a foreigner I am put to the test constantly, in large and small ways, and at the end of almost every day I can look back and recognize a new skill I learned, or a new acquaintance I’ve made, or even just the correct way to conjugate a verb — and it feels damn good.

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