I live in France. No matter how often I say this, it still seems surreal. I wish I could tell you that there was some cosmic shift and the skies opened up and I was magically transported here on a wonderful tale of adventure and self-discovery but the reality is much more somber steeped in heartbreak and tears…a lot of tears.
But that is a story for another day. Suffice it to say I chose to leave New York, the only place I’ve ever called home, and start over here in France. The transition has not been without its challenges but I’m not going to bore you with stories of lost paperwork and missed deadlines. I’d rather just bring you along for the ride.
Let’s start at the beginning…
My family was smaller than most and as the only child of a single mom (who was also an only child) moving around was something I grew accustomed to at a very early age. I never had the childhood memories of the family home or an attachment to any particular place so the idea of living in another country, which somehow seemed to make my friends think I was crazy, really didn’t faze me. I’m sure that not having any familial ties makes it easier to just pick up and go.
I was born and raised in New York and I am in every sense of the word a typical New Yorker – driven, direct, intense, outspoken. My friends wondered how I would transition into the nuanced, laid back world of France (the jury’s still out) but I was determined to go. There was no question that I needed a fresh start and living in France had always been a dream.
It seemed prudent to visit before committing myself to a 4,000 mile relocation – maybe I wouldn’t like it, maybe they wouldn’t like me – so plans were made for a fact-finding expedition which meant the more pressing question to begin with, was Where? How do I choose where to live? France is by no means a small country. How do you knowledgeably find a place where you will feel at home, happy, content? You don’t. Well, not knowledgeably you don’t. It’s pretty much a crap shoot. I spent weeks online researching different regions, their personalities, median age, income you name it. I called everyone I knew who had lived in France (tiny list) and everyone who knew someone who lived in France (slightly less tiny list). It was daunting at first but eventually I started to narrow things down.
There was certain criteria I knew from the beginning that would have to be met. I didn’t escape the ghettos of the South Bronx to relocate to the ghettos of France. The area I chose would have to be at least the equivalent of where I was moving from. That was non-negotiable. I’m sure that sounds horribly elitist but hey the truth shall set you free. I knew that country life didn’t suit me so it couldn’t be too rural and being a single female the opportunity for a social life was important. I picked 4 cities to visit during my 10 day trip. Two cities were within an hour drive to Paris and the third city was located in southern France, a metropolis in its own right. Each city had something different that appealed to me and I arranged to spend 2 days in each place with my trip ending in Paris.
I decided to stay with local residents booked through Airbnb instead of staying in hotels. This would give me unfettered access to people actually living in the places I was considering. The isolation of a hotel room would not fair me well since I needed to get as much information as I could in a very short period of time. Living with a local for a few days, talking to them about their opinions and personal experiences, seemed like a good idea. It turned out to be a stroke of genius.
The plans were made and the plane ticket purchased. Despite my nervous excitement, I forced myself to get a little shut-eye on the plane in the hopes of avoiding the jet lag that I had no time to indulge and was certain to screw up my very tight timeline. It was an overnight flight so when I arrived in Paris at the Charles De Gaulle airport (or Roissy as they call it here) it was morning of the next day.
I rented a car for the first leg of my trip. I picked up the car and began my expedition.
First stop: Mantes La Jolie
As it turned out, the young man behind the rental counter at the airport was born and raised there. When I told him where I was headed, he offered his sage wisdom on the best route to take to avoid the Paris traffic. I should not have listened. It’s not that he didn’t have good intentions or even that his directions were bad but I have NO sense of direction. None, zero, zilch, nada. He pointed out on the map what seemed to be a very simple route and sent me on my way.
I had already purchased the international plan for my phone because I knew I would need it to get around and communicate during my trip. (I was too cheap to rent the gps for the car through the rental company- it was obscenely expensive) I was feeling rather confident in my ability to navigate the situation so I left the airport and headed towards the highway. Forty minutes later…I was still looking for it. I ended up in some weird backwoods gas station trying to ask for directions in French and getting nothing but silent stares in return. After a few choice words to myself in the car I scrapped that plan, plugged the address into my phone and got back on course.
I arrived a little over an hour later. The drive was picturesque with beautiful rolling hills and expansive fields flanking the highway. It was strangely familiar. I could have easily been driving in the Hudson Valley in upstate New York.
The house was amazing but it became apparent almost immediately that my plans for the car would require a bit of ‘tweaking’. In the airbnb listing, it mentioned parking was available for guests. What it didn’t say was that you would need the driving skills of Mario Andretti and the scientific mind of Einstein to fit that car into the allotted space. Any thoughts I had about taking it out and driving it around the area quickly evaporated. That baby wasn’t moving from that spot until it was time for the next city.
I was staying with a family of four, my host Marie-Laure, her husband and their two children. Everyone was very sweet although the children were a bit loud. I got myself settled in and headed out to see the town.
I had the misfortune of arriving in France on Monday. Now if I had been staying in Paris this may not have been a big deal but I was in a sleepy little town 50km from Paris and on Mondays everything is closed. I’m sure it never even occurred to Marie-Laure to mention it because it’s a very French thing for stores and banks and restaurants to be closed on Monday. It is meant to give everyone a full 2 days off since many people have to work on Saturday. Although I appreciate the sentiment behind this practice, it was extremely inconvenient at that moment. You see I didn’t know about Mondays in France and I was really hungry.
I was a bit underwhelmed with Mantes. It seemed nice enough but very small and I definitely spied some not so savory areas around the edges of centre ville (the heart of town). I was beginning to feel that this may not be the place for me.
After wandering around, I decided to come back to the house, take a nap and search out a restaurant to have dinner. No dice. Every place I found online was closed. Even the pizza place down the street.
One of the things I’ve learned about myself over the years is that I am expert at killing time. This is a very useful skill for someone who often travels alone but it can also derail a lot of plans. That was the case this particular evening. I got on Facebook, texted a few friends, updated everyone on my whereabouts and the next thing I knew it was quite late, almost 10pm. I decided to just go outside and find a place to eat. Luckily, there was an Indian restaurant right off the main road. It was empty except for a couple huddled in the corner.
I sat down at a table a good distance away from the love birds. I figured we had the whole place to ourselves no need to infringe on their privacy. The manager was a charming young man named Shabaz who spoke perfect English. I told him of my plans and asked his opinion about Mantes. He was more than happy to contribute to my research efforts. He ran the restaurant for his father (the owner) and lent his particular charm to the nightlife of Mantes via some very interesting events at said restaurant.
I ordered my food and was thoroughly enjoying my mango lassi when I heard a loud crash as the food from the lovers’ table cascaded to the ground. The hand of the gentleman was just coming back to rest on the table when I looked up. His voice was louder now and truth be told there were earlier warning signs that not all was well in paradise. You could tell the woman had been crying and they were in the midst of a pretty nasty argument.
I didn’t like the guy’s tone at all. Whatever happened, he was pretty pissed about it and was becoming quite unhinged. There are some men for whom a backhand across the face is not an out of bounds reaction. This guy seemed like that type. My first thought when he started yelling was ‘Shit. I’ve been in France less than 24 hours and I’m gonna end up in jail for having to beat this man’s ass.’ Because sitting idly by while a man used his woman as a punching bag is just not in my DNA, regardless of what country I happen to be in.
As it turns out, my worries although justified, were unnecessary. Within a few seconds Shabaz swooped in and handled the situation. He quietly escorted the man out of the restaurant and followed him down the street to be sure he didn’t put his hands on her. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one with concerns.
After the entire ordeal, Shabaz told me that the man’s wife had cheated on him and that was why he was so angry. I asked him if he made the guy pay for the stuff he had broken and he said “No, because then he would think it was okay to behave that way. Now he will never cross this doorstep again. The embarrassment would be too great.” It’s rare for someone to change my mind (I of course would have gone a completely different direction on this one) but his rationale was poetic. I was surprised to find such wisdom in someone so young. Maybe Mantes la Jolie wasn’t so bad after all.
The next day dawned with open shops and bustling, noisy streets. It was distinctly less gloomy than the previous day but I still wasn’t convinced it was the right place for me. I decided to put a pin in Mantes and see what awaited me within France's other cities before settling in what would become my new home.
Force of Nature, Crazy Cat Lady, Giggle Addict, Entrepreneur & Storyteller. From New York to France with cats and horse in tow, these are her stories. Monica is the owner of 3D Studios, an international boutique branding firm that helps businesses and organizations find their voice. You can find Monica on twitter at @BrandinBandit or follow her journey at myfrenchodyssey.com.