Meet the Expat – Keith Van Sickle, living in Provence

Keith Van Sickle is a “part-time expat” who divides his time between the highly charged lifestyle of California’s Silicon Valley and Provence, with it’s more relaxed and leisurely pace. Pétanque anyone?

“We stand out but in a good way—we’re Yanks who speak French, which makes us kind of exotic. We were once invited to someone’s house for an aperitif and half the neighbourhood showed up to see us, these strange beasts—like a two-headed cat or something.”

Keith and Val Van Sickle at the hilltop fortress of Les Baux.

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

I’m actually a part-time expat, splitting my time between California and France, where my wife Val and I live in the charming town of St-Rémy-de-Provence.

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?

We once spent five years in Switzerland, living in a village so small that the streets didn’t have names and the cows outnumbered the people.

Swiss life is quite structured, which was not a surprise. What was surprising was how seriously the Swiss took the notion of a weekly day of rest. Virtually all stores closed on Saturday afternoon and didn’t open again until Monday. Val and I both worked so it meant a frenzy of shopping on Saturday mornings. But it also made Sunday a real break during the week. You couldn’t shop or run errands so you spent time with friends, or went hiking, or puttered in the garden. It was nice once we got used to it.

We loved Switzerland and took advantage of its central location to travel all over Europe.  So much history!  So many different cultures!

Expat assignments eventually end and after we came home we really missed Europe.  It was like there had been an extra dimension to our lives that had disappeared and we wanted to find it again.

We tried to find another expat gig but without success, so one day we decided to invent our own. We quit our jobs (that was scary) and started consulting. We figured we could work mostly in California, but be away for a few months at a time and communicate via email and Skype.

We had always liked France, and especially Provence, so we decided to base ourselves there.  One day about ten years ago we packed our bags set off for our first long stay.

Oh, and we could barely speak French.

How do you spend your time? Do you work?

We still work, but less and less as the years have gone by. And sometimes it can be hard to stay motivated when you are far from your clients. I’ll admit that more than once a glass of wine has taken precedence over a spreadsheet.

In Provence, we spend a lot of time with our French friends, hiking and biking, going to local fêtes like the transhumance, and especially eating and drinking. They say that French social life revolves around the table and I can testify that this is true!

A big French lunch.

What do you miss most from home?

Our friends and family. Phone calls and emails are nice but they only go so far. There’s nothing like spending time together.

What do you appreciate the most in your adopted country?

In California, I live and work in Silicon Valley. I love its energy and optimism but it is a place where work tends to dominate life. So I appreciate the balance in French life, the emphasis on the pleasures of small things.

The annual transhumance festival.

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

We began with the usual language classes, learning the basics of grammar and pronunciation and building a small vocabulary. But the only way to become conversational is to speak. And that’s a problem when you’re not yet good at a language—who wants to spend time with someone who can barely stammer out a sentence?

The key was when we found language partners. These are people who are trying to learn English, so you get together and speak one language and then the other. They are having the same struggles as you and so are patient in helping you improve. We found our partners various ways—through a language exchange website, the local tourist office, a language school, even our butcher! Speaking regularly really helped us improve our French and now we are fully conversational, though we still make mistakes.

How did you make new friends in your new home?

Many of our language partners have become friends, as have some of the owners of the houses we’ve rented. And we’ve met others through day-to-day living.

It’s always awkward to try to meet new people, especially when your language skills are weak. We’ve found that we often need to be the ones that take the first step—invite someone to meet at a café for a coffee or a drink, invite them over for lunch or dinner, etc. Doing that is a risk, and sometimes what seems like a promising friendship just stops for a reason you never understand. But if you keep going, trying with different people, it will eventually work out. Today we have a wide circle of French friends, some of whom are very close friends.

The popular Provençal game of pétanque.

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

Yes, we stand out but in a good way—we’re Yanks who speak French, which makes us kind of exotic. We were once invited to someone’s house for an aperitif and half the neighbourhood showed up to see us, these strange beasts—like a two-headed cat or something.

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

From the French—“Why did you pick France/Provence” and “What do you think about France?” The French are very curious about what Americans think of their country. From the Americans—“Are you fluent in French yet?” (no, and we never will be) and “Aren’t the French unfriendly?” (not in our experience)

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

California is fairly expensive so it’s less costly to live in France. We love the delicious and inexpensive wines there!

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

We plan to continue our bi-national life as long as we can!

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

Once, shortly after we had arrived in France and picked up our rental car, I went shopping and parked in the main city lot. When I finished shopping and got back to the lot, I had barely gotten into my car when a lady started rapping on the window, saying “Monsieur, vous êtes dans ma voiture!”

My French wasn’t yet very good and I didn’t understand at first what she was saying. But after she said it again it dawned on me, “Sir, you are in my car!” Our cars looked a lot alike and we had apparently hit the remote “open” buttons on our car keys at the same time. I’d seen her car’s lights flash and thought it was mine.

I jumped out of the car and did my best to apologize but I’m sure she thought I was some kind of madman.

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

I would give two. First, try an extended stay or two before moving, in order to really get a feel for the place. Second, learn French—you will miss so much if you only associate with fellow English speakers.

Keith Van Sickle is the author of the best-selling One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence, available from Amazon. You can read his stories about France at FrenchlyMy French Life, Perfectly Provence and on his website Life in Provence. You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.


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