Meet the Expat – Robyn Santa Maria, near Marseille

1. Where do you live now, and where did you move from?

I live on the sunny south coast of France, to the east of Marseille, having moved from Brisbane, Australia. I made the move here with my French husband and we’re living in the same area in which he grew up, so it’s great to have a ‘true local’ as my tour guide!

La Ciotat, on the Mediterranean coast

2. Is this the first time you’ve been an expat? If not, where have you lived before? If so, what was the leaving process like?

This is the fourth time I’ve lived away from Australia. I’ve lived and worked in London, Japan and New Zealand and the leaving process is always similar – a mixture of excitement and trepidation! But this is the first time I’ve moved with a partner; all previous moves were on my own. I still remember how nervous I was when I embarked on my first international move, to the UK, 18 years ago; in hindsight, I was unprepared! But I’d always imagined that travel would be a part of my life so, despite the nerves, I made the decision to leave family and friends for new adventures further afield. My life in London was great – I had a great job and my savings allowed me to travel for six months in Europe and southern Africa. The leaving process soon became a distant memory thanks to such experiences. Having already gone through that process made my subsequent moves to Japan, New Zealand and France much easier. Of course, I still find airport-goodbyes difficult but the thought of seeing places that I’d only ever read about before makes leaving so much more bearable.

3. How do you spend your time? Do you work?

Just last year I started my own business – Red Robyn Communications – after having worked full-time for a French company for 18 months. While going freelance was a tough decision, given the uncertainty of work, it’s a decision I’m pleased about as it’s allowed me to reach out to my network, to reignite professional relationships and collaborate on interesting projects. It’s great – I work with other creative freelancers and clients here in France and back in Australia, as well as in the UK and even the Netherlands. The ‘future of work’ is definitely here! I’m also currently at university in Aix-en-Provence, doing an intensive French language course. Between doing client work, building my business and French homework, life is pretty busy! When I’m not doing any of those things, I spend time running on the trails of our local forest in a bid to keep fit for skiing in the winter and road cycling in the summer. I always try to have personal goals on the calendar, so this year it’s to finish my first marathon and improve my ski touring. All good fun!

Trail running in the southern Alps

4. What do you miss most from home?

The long sandy beaches, the coffee and less organisational hierarchy. Admittedly, I can’t complain too much about where we live as I know half of the country would love to live on the Mediterranean. I do, however, miss the coffee culture back in Australia. There’s something comforting about sitting in a buzzing coffee shop, catching up on a good book or with friends, while sipping a tasty flat white. Here it’s a quick espresso most often at a (male-dominated) bar hence I invested in a decent coffee machine at home! When I was employed by a French company I was often surprised about the conservative approach to hierarchy. I respected it, naturally, but found it frustrating having come from consultancy life in Australia. Now that I work for myself, I’ve left the hierarchy behind altogether!

5. What do you appreciate the most in your adopted country?

I love the fact that we eat with the seasons. Seriously! That may seem like such a small, insignificant thing, but it has made a big difference to how I appreciate food even more. Perhaps it’s because my husband’s family spend a lot of time cooking and talking about food, but I understand more about the health benefits of eating only what’s in season. I’ve read many times about how the Mediterranean diet is one of the best in the world for good health – I think there’s definitely a lot of truth behind that. I also really appreciate living in an area where I can easily access the sea and the stunning southern Alps, which I call ‘my happy place’. I also appreciate that a lot of people, not everyone, do cut me some slack for my French language skills. Their patience is appreciated.

My happy place

6. How did you make new friends in your new home?

My husband is from here so we had a network to tap into but I also made a few friends when I was working full-time. We also spend a lot of time in the Alps, trail running, skiing and mountaineering, so through those activities we’ve met some great people with whom we’re forming friendships. I’ve always found that sport is one of the best ways to meet people; I have lifelong friends from my triathlon days in Australia. I feel the same is happening now via the alpine sports I’m participating in with my husband. And in the mountains, you really need to trust the people you hang out with so those friendships become even stronger.

7. Have you started learning the language? Any tips on the best way to do it?

I’m not a natural linguist so am still struggling, despite having taken quite a few lessons! I find it more work than pleasure but that’s because the perfectionist in me hates making mistakes. However, the thing with language-learning is that you need to make mistakes so that you can progress. As well as taking lessons, watching films and listening to the radio in your target language is a great way to become attuned to the ‘music’ of the language. And always (always) remember that language is more than words – it’s nuances and body language. Learning the local language is, of course, a door-opener to so many opportunities. I’m getting involved in a local project to start a co-working space and for that I need to be able to communicate in French. Suffice to say, improving my French has personal and professional benefits.

8. Do you obviously stand out as being foreign? What’s your experience with this?

It’s all in the accent! I find this interesting as I don’t have a strong Australian accent but when I speak French people pick me as a foreigner straight away. In the early days, I’d get frustrated when people would respond in English when they realised that I’m a native English-speaker. Now I try to continue with my French even when they respond otherwise; it can actually make conversations more interesting and sometimes fun. Also, native speakers (of any language for that matter) use a lot of short-cuts in speech. When you’re learning, you tend to learn formal speech patterns first, which make you stand out.

9. If you have children, what are your observations on Third Culture Kids?

I don’t have children.

10. Any tips for beating home sickness? 

If you can, continue to participate in activities you enjoyed back home. I’ve always tried to stay fit and healthy. I’m now doing even more trail running than I was doing back in Australia as well as learning a whole bunch of alpine sports given we’re lucky enough to spend a lot of time in the Alps. I’d never have thought when I left Australia that one day I’d be summiting 4000m peaks and learning how to climb ice! The fact that I can’t do that in Australia makes me realise how fortunate I am to have such opportunities. For the day-to-day, having social media and Skype makes things so much easier. I check in with family and friends regularly, so I feel less as though I’m missing out on what’s happening at home.

Learning to climb frozen waterfalls

11. What’s the most common question you are asked about being an expat?

Why on earth did you leave Australia?! In my experience, many French people have the impression that Australia is ‘the dream’ so wonder why I would leave it behind, but it all comes down to perspective. Of course, I love my home country but there are many things I love about my adopted country, so I guess I have the best of both worlds. Second to that, do you like the food? French people take their eating very seriously. 🙂

12. How does the cost of living compare to where you were before? Anything that really surprised you as being particularly cheap or expensive?

I think it’s relative and, perhaps because of where we live (i.e. outside of Paris), I find it a little more cost-effective than back in Australia. City-living in Australia has risen astronomically in recent years so, while I envy the salaries of some of my friends, I don’t envy their mortgage repayments! We’re spoilt for choice here in France when it comes to fresh bread, good quality wine and delicious cheeses at a fraction of the cost. In Australia, we’d ‘treat ourselves’ to $4 baguettes and 100 grams of Roquefort cheese for $16 on a rare occasion – ouch! Thankfully, we can get our daily baguettes for 95c and Roquefort for about 2 euros! It does make you realise that imported products really do come with a hefty price tag.

13. Are you settled here now? Or do you plan to move on one day?

Being settled is a strange concept for me as I’ve always enjoyed moving and experiencing new places. But this time around, it’s starting to feel a little more permanent. Perhaps that’s because it’s nearly four years since I left Australia and I’m starting to feel more at home here. My husband and I enjoy the lifestyle we’ve created for ourselves so it would be hard to give that up; however, we always leave the door open to returning to Australia given it’s my country of origin and where I met my husband (he loves it there as well, thankfully). But having said that, we’re always open to new opportunities. My husband is travelling more internationally with his work, so who knows. The alternative is that we buy our dream chalet in the Alps and never leave!

My adventure partner (AKA my husband)

14. Would you share something embarrassing that happened to you as an expat (but that makes you smile when you look back)?

I filled a petrol car with diesel and, as a result, caused the car to stop which meant having to call my father-in-law to explain the situation! This happened during my first year in France, when I was still quite new to the language and I had to try to explain this over the phone. I was so embarrassed as I’d never made such a mistake. Fortunately, my in-laws were really good about it and we all had a good laugh over dinner that night – phew!

15. And finally, if you could give one piece of advice to someone considering moving to where you live, what would it be?

Leave your assumptions at the door. We live in a world of stereotypes, so if you move to France you will have ideas of how you perceive the French and their way of life. Leave them behind and discover it for yourself. You’ll be surprised, perhaps shocked, but ultimately it’s worth it. Definitely do your research as to where you want to be because small village life can seem romantic from the outside but isolating in reality. But, like anything in life, it’s what you make of it. As Nike says, just do it!

Approaching my first summit


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