La Tour Eiffel
(photo F. Arnaud)
I just finished reading a book by Christian Signol in which the story takes place in the Dordogne country side during the second world war. It’s about a couple, living in a small house in the country who end up taking in Jewish children, hoping to save them from the Nazis. Reading the book made me think about the choices we have in life today compared to living in different places or at different times. They didn’t even know really how far the Côte d’Azur was from their home and they certainly didn’t wonder about what their life could be if they moved to another country.
I’ve been living in France for nearly 19 years, always in the same department, Pyrénées Orientales. I don’t suffer from homesickness because home became France a long time ago. In the first years I went through a period of missing certain things from Canada, like certain foods, habits, appliances (dryers!!) but by the time my kids were in school, I had adapted well enough to my new life in France and had given up trying to bring Canada in to my life here. I understand newcomers who desperately try to find the equivalent of brown sugar, real baking powder, cream of tarter, horseradish and all those other necessary ingredients to produce authentic North American dishes and desserts. (And I’m now an expert on those things, so go ahead and ask if you want). But I don’t do that anymore. I’m here, probably for good.
But we live in a society where “everything is possible!”. My family and I could pack our bags and go live in Canada or how about Africa where we almost ended up a few years ago. Having these choices pushes me to spend much too much time comparing cultures, ways of living, education, professional possibilities and even food. Since the junior high school in our area isn’t that great, should we move nearer to a city with better school? Are we cheating our children out of a great education? Of course, that comes from my years of private school education and being in contact with highly successful, privately educated people. Will my country bumpkin children find success in their lives???
And what about the social and financial strife we are going through in France?? Would we be better off in a nice, safe, modern country like Canada? My older children are already determined to use their Canadian citizenship and go live their adult lives there. My younger children ask when we will be going back.
Opening a business in France these days is economic suicide, which doesn’t leave much place for professional ambition. Every couple of years I get a strong desire to do something professionally, open a cooking school/store/café, but then I change my mind because I actually do love only working very part time and not having to struggle to be a good mom and a professional at the same time. I don’t want to get in to that situation with young children at home. I’d never be able to find balance. But I can’t help fantasizing about the opportunities we would have if we went to live in Canada.
I sometimes get very frustrated with life in France, especially in such a small town. Coming from a big, modern city and ending up in a small, country town of 450 people is bound to create some havoc in my brain once in a while. But even so, France, and this town, have become my home. I thought I’d take some time and actually list all the things that I really love about this country and my particular area. Maybe one day we will leave (though we can’t imagine selling the house two of our daughters were BORN in) but for the moment we aren’t going anywhere and I think it is about time that I stopped thinking of the other possibilities and just enjoy the luck I have to be here.
We have thought about just taking a year and renting a house somewhere in Canada for the experience. My husband will be able to do his work from anywhere starting next year, though it would mean him being away quite a bit. So maybe we could organize a year away before the little kids are too old to want to go. But in the meantime, this is what I love:
1. I remember arriving in Paris in the fall of 1989. I had flown from Tokyo, to Vancouver, to Paris and hadn’t slept in almost three days. I was MORE than exhausted. But when my friend picked me up from the airport, we hopped on the RER and then emerged into the streets of central Paris, well, my breath was taken away! I wasn’t seeing Paris for the first time, as I had been working their that spring, summer. I was coming BACK and it felt like I was returning the the most extraordinary place on earth. I adore wandering the streets of the city, admiring the architecture, the shops, cafés, parks, bridges, everything!! I ended up leaving Paris that winter, but it was deep in my heart and when I had an opportunity to go back to France, even though it was to the city the farthest away from Paris in the country, I didn’t hesitate! I just love knowing that at incredible city is our capital and I can go whenever I want to. I have wonderful recent memories of taking the train up to Paris to see my dear friend who lives near the city, visiting a fabulous bakery with her, learning to make the best Parisian baguette of the year, drinking a beer in an Irish pub with my husband who I met up with once while he was working there for a few weeks, carrying Karamelle through the streets of the Marais when she was just a puppy, finally going to the top of the Eiffel Tower and having the fright of my life with my daughter Hélène.
Photo F. Arnaud
2. I love the French language. After working in Paris in 1989, I had picked up a bit of the language and decided that I should major in French at university. After all, Canada was a bilingual country and being bilingual could help me get a job. It was funny because I always had really BAD grades in French. I remember once sitting a French exam and, even though I had studied all the grammar and verb tenses, I couldn’t answer the questions because I couldn’t understand the words other than the verbs! Needless to say, I hated French class and systematically fell asleep during the French documentaries we were shown once in a while. But when I actually went to France, it was a different story!!! Hearing people speak it and seeing the culture that goes with it, made me instantly fall in love with the language. So, I studied it in university and when I participated in a third year abroad program in Perpignan, I realized just how little French I actually knew! I couldn’t understand the Catalan accent which could be compared to someone learning English going to live in South Carolina. I ended up staying in Perpignan for nine years and it took me quite awhile to learn the language. But I did! And it is funny because when I am in an airport and I hear French people speak, I am still in admiration of the language and their way of being… and then I remember that they are from MY country, too.
3. I love French food and cuisine. France produces the most incredible fruits and vegetables, cheeses, breads, meats. Where I live now is a foodie’s paradise! All of our fruits and vegetables are local and mostly organic, bought at the weekly market. I buy goat, ewe and cow milk cheese at the same market, all local and all very reasonably priced. I buy local pork, beef and lamb and have some game supplied by hunter friends. They also give me mountain river trout in the early spring. When I see videos like this:
I don’t feel like moving to Canada because even though it is possible to buy locally for certain things, the prices are outrageous!! I couldn’t believe the food prices in Vancouver this summer and the small amount of organic food, outside of specialty stores are outrageously expensive. And the taste of our food here is incredible. The organic flour I buy to make my sourdough bread makes the most incredibly tasting and textured bread. Fruit here is fantastic. Biting in to a summer peach is pure heaven. I buy local clementines and kiwis in the winter and my kids eat them like some kids eat candy. I ordered lamb from a local farm last year and I felt a bit bad ordering the death of a poor, innocent animal, but I have to say, when I grilled that cutlet and took the first bite, I had to accept that lambs were put on earth for those people who are omnivores. It was so good! When we got back home from Canada last summer, all of my children stated that they were thrilled to get back to French food.
France’s famous Macarons
Photo F. Arnaud
4. I love the landscape, the countryside, the chateaux and farms. When we drive to my parents-in-law’s home outside of Toulouse it is always enjoyable. The view is incredible and we even pass by Carcassonne with it’s walled town and turrets.
© Delphine Ménard
Since I didn’t grow up with old structures, castles and wine chateaux, I continue to be amazed by them. The rolling countryside in the South of France is so lovely as well. In summer there are fields of sunflowers blazing, rows and rows of grape vines, peach trees, wheat, fields dotted with old stone buildings and thins roads winding through the undulating landscape. It’s beautiful! Our own house is Catalan architecture and though it is very simple, the outside walls are made of large river stones and red brick. We fell in love with it the first time we saw it. There is a small river that lines our property and since we sleep with the window open all year, we can hear the soft sound of the water rushing by. In the summer we fall asleep to the croaks of frogs and sometimes we hear the yapping of fox or the snuffle of wild boar. Last night we had an owl hotting at our window. And just near our house is this path where we like to take our Sunday walks with the dogs.
A river in the Gers
5. I actually like the French seriousness. When I first arrived in France, I found it a bit difficult to make new friends because people seemed almost cold sometimes, never very excited or enthusiastic. You rarely hear very loud laughter in public places and everyone seems to have a learned, calm politeness about them. I had come from Canada, of course, where in the space of one hour you can meet someone and feel like you’ve been friends forever. North Americans laugh out loud anywhere they are, speak to almost anyone, ask questions about personal things almost right away. But little by little, I adapted to the culture here and now I find it comforting to be around French people. You see, it took me a long time to make friends, but they are really, really good friends and we always know where we stand. There is never any of that intense enthusiasm in the beginning only to realize that the friendship is impossible or empty which happened to me quite often in North America.
6. I appreciate the private, non-judgemental, what I call the “dark side” of French people. Yes, it is really too bad that some people don’t respect the basic rules of society, but at the same time, not having daily pressure to be “perfect” and compliant is actually very soothing. There isn’t the stress of living up to an imagine or what is expected. We don’t have signs saying 500$ fine for littering, no loitering, etc. People don’t talk about how much money they make or other private subjects. Maybe something in between Canada and France would be ideal for me.
7. I much prefer European clothes. I remember as a teenager looking for certain styles of clothing or colors and never being able to find them and then when I got to France, I wanted to buy everything! Kids’ clothes are way cuter over here.
8. I like having easy access to the rest of Europe. London is a short plane ride away, Spain is 1 hr by car, 3 hrs to Barcelona (very cool city!), Italy about 6 hrs by car. We have a 110 Land Rover Defender and we have plans to visit Europe. We took a trip around Ireland and would really like to go back and we have plans to drive to Scandanavia. Mat and I headed to London to visit our good friends last October. We don’t travel that much but just knowing that we CAN is fantastic!
9. I like living in the country and not having to feel bombarded by shops, advertisements, noise, pollution. I could live in the country in Canada but what is nice about here is that there are pretty towns on all sides of us, just a few km away with their own shops, markets, hot baths, skiing, hiking paths, etc. We are away from the city but near to a lot of exciting things!
10. France has very little genetically modified cultures for the moment and my area has the most organic producers in the country. It’s easy to avoid consuming GMOs, and I am very thankful for that.
Our vegetable garden
And any country that makes a film like this:
must be a great place to live!
And music like this: