“What’s it like to live in a small French town surrounded by woods?”

If you join INSEAD on its Europe campus, you will be coming to Fontainebleau. You might have been to France before or have heard some stereotypes (whether true or false) about life in France. But if you are like me, then whatever the stage you are at, the above question will be running through your head. In this post I will try to summarize my experiences of what daily life’s like in Fontainebleau when you are not studying/partying/networking/… which does happen some of the time…

Parlez-vous Français?

Let’s tackle the number one stereotype – French people like to speak French and English is not on their menu.

My experience on the truth of this is mixed. My French is quite basic and yes, I’ve had several instances where not speaking fluent French was slightly problematic, for example the time in a restaurant where the owner and her son and daughter would not speak English to us at first despite the kids knowing English (as we found out later). But for every one of these instances I’ve had several other positive experiences – from the pharmacists who answer me in English when I pretend to speak French to the policeman who patiently called his English-speaking colleague when we could not understand each other in French.

The problem is not really with the locals not wanting to speak English but sometimes not being able to speak it, which is actually quite understandable. I come from a 100K-people town in the Czech Republic and I still remember an American tourist couple complaining about the lack of English communication in restaurants and other places. The thing is, people don’t speak English in a smaller town like this because they won’t really make a good use of it there. So actually the level of English in Fontainebleau is quite high, likely mainly due to INSEAD. In any case, for important things like taxi and doctors, there are plenty of English-speaking options so I would not worry about the language barrier.

And yes, I am still proud of the fact I managed to make small-talk in French with a florist for full 2 minutes without any English!

Can I help you sawing-off the bike lock?

Apart from language, I found the local people quite helpful. There was one time, I was struggling with sawing-off the lock on my bike in the city centre and a man stopped by and offered to hold the lock so that it was much easier for me to saw. Another time, I went to a shop to buy croissant and when the shop lady said they ran out of it, she actually went the extra mile and showed me another shop nearby where I could get one, while apologizing along the way.

It’s not all roses though, and this is true especially when it comes to opening a bank account. Experiences vary bank to bank, but my bank sent me a letter confirming my debit card is ready one month after application, and when I came to the branch where it was supposed to be, they told me they don’t have it and that I should wait for a mysterious phone call despite the clear instructions on the letter… and I am not the only one with this experience. In summary, make sure you have some non-expensive back-up money solution in place (I use the Revolut app + card to take out cash at a cheap rate) because you might not get your bank account up and running very fast.

So…?

In summary you will get by just fine – there is plenty of good and cheap wine in every supermarket, while low-fat cheese is not really a thing in France (try finding more than one in a 3-metre long shelf of cheeses).