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On Living in a French Suburb, and Whether Suburbs Exist in France

When I want to describe where I live in France to people, I tend to compare it to an American suburb. Single-family homes are the main type of dwelling; there is a small, walkable downtown; several shopping centers on the outskirts; and most people get around by car. But people here do not refer to Biscarrosse as a suburb, or a town. They refer to it as a ville—the French word for city.

It turns out there is not a word in French that has the same meaning as what Americans think of as suburbs. The closest French word I know of is banlieue. But, this word tends to refer to a suburb next to a large city, which are more urbanized than where I am. Plus banlieue has taken on an additional meaning—as “a popular word for low-income housing projects (HLMs) in which mainly immigrants and French of foreign descent reside, in what are often called poverty traps,” as Wikipedia’s definition puts it.

Welcome to the French suburbs.

Welcome to the French suburbs.

From what I understand the French word village would not be correct because it is really meant to describe one of those little, old French towns that Americans associate with places like the Provence countryside. And there is a common term, grandes villes, which refers to places like Paris, Lyon, and Bordeaux, that helps differentiate a ville like Biscarrosse apart from those big cities.

By an American definition though, Biscarrosse is basically an outer suburb or exurb. It is about 45 miles from the nearest big city, Bordeaux—about the same distance as Saint Charles, Illinois, is from Chicago, or Ossining, New York, (of ”Mad Men” fame) is from New York City. Biscarrosse has around 14,000 year-round residents, and is surrounded by one of the largest man-made forests in Europe, the Landes Forest. The small town center is made up of all varieties of local businesses (butchers, bakers, produce stores, gift stores, restaurants, cafés, wine stores), a small cinema, a library, and branches of the major national banks. It’s not the big city, but it’s not the country or small town living either.

What reminds me of an American suburb

Biscarrosse in many ways reminds me of outer suburbs or exurbs of places like New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago, such as Westchester or Dutchess County, New York; Chester County, Pennsylvania; or Lake County, Illinois. Like those localities, Biscarrosse has an attractive natural setting while still within commuting distance from the city. It seems like a great place to raise a family.

And it becomes a vacation town in the summer, being situated on The Atlantic Ocean and in the forest, which reminds me of the Jersey Shore or Hudson Valley in spirit if not architecturally.

Biscarrosse also has, like many French towns, the same suburban marker that American towns have: the strip mall. Here they include major France chain grocery stores Leclerc, Lidl, and Super U; Intersport, a sporting goods store similar to Sports Authority; a couple of gas stations and auto body stores; a wine/beer store that is also a bar; a few home and garden stores; the clothes store Cache Cache; and of course, a McDonald’s (Here’s more on France’s (perhaps sometimes conflicted) fondness for McDonald’s, which some claim is better than in the U.S.., though it’s also more expensive).

My local Super U, part of one of France’s big grocery store chains

My local Super U, part of one of France’s big grocery store chains

And, as with suburbs in America, Biscarrosse can feel like a bubble of quiet, far from the big city and its stresses. I’ve felt this recently with the yellow vest (gilets jaunes) protests of the last month, which have taken their most explosive form in France’s cities, including Bordeaux.

Two weekends ago, I had planned to go to Bordeaux because I really wanted a change of scenery. However, a couple of people here warned me against it because of potential transportation difficulties and possible danger from the protests. Most persuasive a reason to stay home, Bordeaux closed its museums and other cultural centers as well as one of its Christmas markets that Saturday, the main day of the protest.

In Biscarrosse, I’ve seen support for the protests, which people display by putting the trademark high-visibility vest on their dashboard. There have also been yellow vest protestors at some local roundabouts or rondpoints, but their numbers have been small and their tenor peaceful.

Like any American suburb it can get kind of boring. The one or two cafés or restaurants that offer bar service at night are subdued and close early by any kind of city standard, although an American bar stays open late on weekends and features live music. But generally, there’s not much going on.

Why this is unlike an American suburb

As much as this place feels like the ‘burbs, there are a few key differences that naturally feel much more European or French. For one, what I referred to as “strip malls” doesn’t do justice to these shopping centers, which are organized around well-landscaped roundabouts (of course!) and connected by roads surrounded by forest.

Strip malls have a different look here.

Strip malls have a different look here.

The home and garden stores feel nothing like the mammoth Home Depots back home. The grocery stores, despite having a similar level of variety as their U.S. counterparts (you can buy anything from milk to pajamas to Michelle Obama’s new book), also have some interesting differences. The meat options are more exotic—with varieties of veal and duck, for instance; the cheese selection is massive, usually a full aisle or more; the wine sections are also large, and mostly consist of wines from France—particularly Bordeaux; there is an area for whole, dried cured sausages or saucisson (a type of meat the New York Times recently claimed is a cancer risk, causing an understandable comments’ section backlash); and at least half of an aisle dedicated to pâtés, terrines, and other spreads of this kind. The types of food Americans would seek out in various specialty or gourmet stores are sold in France’s equivalent of a Safeway.

There are more apartment buildings than in a typical American suburb—after all, the dream for us is or used to be owning a house—and the apartment buildings here are mostly a charmless European block style.

And people seem to be a lot more active here than in American outer suburbs. I think this is at least to some degree because it is just a lot more walkable and bike-able here. Unlike your typical outer American suburb, you don’t feel like a total alien if you’re on your bike. Here a lot of people here bike, and the bike trails are comprehensive, taking you from town to town and to the beach in protected, if winding, natural settings. But the car is still the primary mode of transportation, by far. (And sadly I don’t have one).

Is an American lens accurate?

When I have done the “where do you live?” lesson in some of my English classes, the kids invariably say they live in a “city.” Since I’m trying to teach them American English and infuse our culture, I show them this video, which shows a globe, half divided into an illustration of a city with skyscrapers and half divided into suburbs with single family homes. When the kids watch this video, it becomes clear to them that they live in what Americans would call a suburb.

The white board of one of my students, responding to the video I showed them that explains “city,” “suburbs,” and “countryside,” in English

The white board of one of my students, responding to the video I showed them that explains “city,” “suburbs,” and “countryside,” in English

But, like a true American, I probably have a tendency to view things a little too heavily through the lens of my country—which too often seems like the center of the world.

One starts to feel fluent in a language when no longer thinks of the language as how it is translated from one’s native tongue but rather just speaks and understands that language. Maybe the same is true of living somewhere—that it starts to become more like home when you are not comparing it against what you know but when it actually becomes what you know. Of course, there is nothing that can replace the home where we grew up, as it occupies an an unparalleled kind of familiarity. For now, I’ll refer to where I live as a ville in French and a suburb in English.

When I was younger, I never thought I’d live in an American suburb, much less a French suburb, but here I am! There are certainly challenges, but there is at least a lot to like in the calm, the nature, the pace of life, the friendliness of people, the chance to surf and swim in the ocean (not so much in winter), my short commute, and a feeling I never had in New York City—of having time.

French people or speakers, and urban planners, feel free to comment if you think I missed some aspect of the definition of “suburbs” in French, or on anything else.