A One Year Assessment: Living in France
I just celebrated my 72nd birthday. I spent almost all of my 71st year living a new adventure in central southwest France -- "la France profonde." I'm leaving tomorrow (10/14/18) for a two-week visit to the States, which will include my one-year mark of living here, so it seems like a good time to take stock.
I'll be coming back to my home here in beautiful Argenton-sur-Creuse, but that almost didn't happen. I spent all of May 2018 in the U.S because of unexpected eye surgery and thought about throwing in the towel on this adventure, but I persisted. Then once I returned, personal issues -- exacerbated by various events -- slid me downward until I was sure once again I was going to return to the States. I reached out to many close friends (and I know how fortunate I am to have them) and they all -- to a person! -- said exactly the same thing: Stay. You haven't given it enough time. Don't be so impatient. Stop having such unreasonable expectations. Stop getting in your own way.
I understand friends and acquaintances -- several of whom have already visited or are planning to -- are rooting both for me and for themselves. Many of them have admitted to having "bragging rights" because they have a friend who has "done" this...who is "living the life others only dream about"...who is "inspirational", and "brave". Of course, the real friends know that while this choice I've made is exciting and adventurous, it has also been a struggle.
I'm an immigrant and I'm doing it alone. Having spent most of my adult life with a partner and family, I have neither anymore (except for a beloved, soon-to-be 22 year old grandson), though I have indeed started to make friends here, both anglophones and francophones. I never doubted I could do that, because I make friends fairly easily, but not having a "support system", per se, has really been a challenge. I wonder what I'd do if I had an accident, or became ill (and don't yet have my national health insurance card). As for dating -- well, that's worked out about as well as it was working out in the U.S.! I'm finding men are indeed equally odd (and that's putting it nicely) on both sides of the pond.
But, oh! What I have learned and experienced and enjoyed ! Let me categorize:
Language -- I came here speaking French, it is true, but now I can converse much more deeply and naturally, including understanding and making jokes -- which the French love to do. I have made French friends with whom I speak only French (though several have some English), and am starting to participate in social situations in French. I'm better on the phone, but still have trouble understanding media (e.g., radio, TV and film). However, I have attended lectures in French, read the newspaper in French, and have read nonfiction books in French (fiction is more difficult because of the use of slang and idiomatic expressions, plus descriptive narrative that often loses or confuses me), and of course I conduct daily life in French.
I have been taking writing workshops in French with an instructor who is willing to help me find "le mot juste" (exactly the right word/s), which sometimes is a challenge for her, as well, as I insist, "No, no, that's not what I mean..." And she/we keep on searching until we're both satisfied. She seems to know I'm a good writer in English, and she's helping me work toward becoming at least passable in French.
While there is so much I don'know -- all the idioms, common usages, poetic phrasing, the vagaries of "ça ne se dit pas" (it isn't said that way) --I do have utilitarian vocabularies I never thought I'd have -- and I do mean that in the plural: I've learned to "speak" rental and purchase agreements, insurance policies, bank and internet accounts, car repair, furniture and household appliances, hardware store, some medical, and of course, supermarket and restaurant.
"Systems" -- The "How do you do this?" for an immigrant is an ongoing bafflement. My first challenge was making a bed. Really. They make a bed here -- hell, they construct a bed -- completely differently from how we do it in the U.S. There are municipal systems: where and when the trash is picked up and how to handle the recycling, how to read the water meter, how to set up services and appointments, whom to call when things go wrong (how to explain what has gone wrong!); who delivers what and to where? Joining groups and memberships (with their own vocabulary, as well). And government systems -- aarrrgghhh! Particularly challenging in France where everything is wrapped in miles of inefficiency and red tape: applications have to be supported by "justificatives" and inevitably, must be submitted more than once..or twice... and then you wait...and wait... Frustrating doesn't even begin to describe the experience.
Culture -- Less difficult to manage, actually, are the cultural "systems"-- or customs -- such as how to greet, how to accept/decline invitations (I don't!), how to write emails, what to bring as a host gift, how to order in a restaurant, how to buy tickets to an event (e.g., in the countryside, not all tickets can be bought online). The many different ways to order coffee...and how not to worry about being a wine connoisseur ("red, white or rosé" works just fine, plus "dry" or "fruity"). These are things you just ask, watch others do -- or you make a mistake once and learn -- and there are no serious consequences. Getting your water or electricity hooked up, though, is an altogether different matter!
As for the cultural arts and activities -- they're everywhere!! This is a huge part of the allure of France -- its ongoing commitment to "culture". Big cities, towns, villages of all sizes all have their history, architecture, museums, nature, churches, art, music, theater (which I don't attend because of language barrier), dining, markets, concerts, choirs, bands, dance, lectures, galleries, literature (including towns and events devoted to it) poetry, antiques, outdoor and indoor markets... Every city, town, village -- even if there's just one bar or one bar/restaurant -- offers events and activities, no matter what the season. Autumn festivals, Christmas markets, spring gardens, and in the summer??? Just too, too much, with all the fairs, brocantes (second-hand markets), ballades (walks and bicycling) and radonnées (hikes). There is ALWAYS something to do, something to see, something to experience, something to learn. Absolutely heaven for someone with as much gusto for learning as I have.
I've traveled innumerable roads and highways -- mostly driving, but also by train -- exploring predominantly the southwest central part of France, but this past year have also been to Lyon to the east, Toulouse to the south, Bordeaux to the southwest, the Atlantic west coast, and the Loire Valley and Paris to the north. I've gotten lost more times than I can remember. (My GPS, paper maps and actual road signs are not always in sync, and the French way of giving directions verbally is to say, "tout droit" = "straight ahead, meaning, "and then ask someone else.")
I have been to countless medieval villages, seen exquisite countryside vistas, fairy tale châteaux, churches and cathedrales, rivers, lakes, ponds, the ocean, fields and gardens, trees painted with a greater variety of greens than one can imagine, red and white cows, shops and museums and galleries, attended concerts, visited historic homes, and walked dozens (hundreds?) of streets and paths -- and in the process learned about French history and culture -- i.e., what the French call their "patrimonie" -- their heritage. Everywhere people are friendly and welcoming. I am in awe.
And then, there is the art -- the core of where I live. Much of what I've been doing this year -- and certainly the last six months -- has revolved around art technique (how to draw, how to paint), art history (especially the impressionists and post-impressionists), and meeting and seeing the work of area artists. I have had three instructors (and remain with two), take private lessons and belong to a drawing group. This has been a whole new area of discovery for me, and I love it!
People -- Definitely saving the best for last. Rachel and her family in St. Vaury -- where I first was introduced to the Limousin in 2014 and who have now become my "adopted family" here. I go there to laugh, share, be hugged, cry, be welcomed. Pierrette, my first French friend -- the owner of "La Presse" (newspapers, magazines, books and a whole lot more) in the village of St. Sulpice-les-Feuilles, adjacent to the village where I lived my first five months here. I visit her to be able to be "real" in French; regrettably I don't get to see her often because of her work schedule and now our increased distance. Alison, my first English friend (after Rachel) who lives a lifestyle completely different from mine, and yet whom I find to be such engaging company. My new British (English, Irish, Scottish) friends in my drawing group in La Souterraine...my new British friends in the Castaways Drama group...my new French friends and acquaintances. It seems wherever I go, I am able to connect, and I thank you all, not only for welcoming me here, but also for those among you who also said, "Stay".
Update: Following my two-plus weeks in the U.S., I thought I would be either reluctant to return to France, or enthusiastic. I was neither. I was not only thrilled to see so many friends (20+ people in 17 days, including 9 home stays) in PA, MD & D.C., I also felt many of those relationships were strengthened (though one, sadly not). I felt the U.S. was a disturbing place to live now, given the political climate, but I did find Frederick, MD to be a potential choice for if/when I return. And when I came back here to France, I was immediately engaged in responding to and extending invitations to new friends and lining up activities and outings. So it appears that I am at home, in both places. C'est bon.
A la prochaine --