It’s a little known fact about me that I spent a year living in France in my twenties.
It’s not something I bring up about myself all that often, because inevitably mentioning it brings along the question, “Oh really? What did you do there?” And then I get all awkward, because I know I’m going to have to say “Ummmm, nothing really!” because I didn’t move to France for a job, or to travel, or to ‘find myself’ or whatever it is people decide to move abroad for. I moved for love, and as is usually the case when you do things for love, it was a carefree, impulse decision, without a plan or any idea of how it would pan out, and it didn’t end up being anything like I thought it would be.
The big move happened around 8 years ago. I’d had a rough couple of years at the time, and long story short, I met my ex-Fiance , fell in love and followed him overseas because to be frank, I had nothing better to do. When we got together I was not long out of a very destructive on/off relationship and had just quit my job. I had no idea what I wanted to do next, and when this wonderful boy, who had made me feel so cared for for the first time in years, told me he had been offered a job playing Rugby in France I just couldn’t think of a plausible reason not to go. So off I went, a head full of romantic ideas of rustic countryside, eating bread and cheese all day and lounging outside coffee shops at night drinking wine.
I was very naive, looking back. To me, France was a mere stones throw away. Just a quick hop over the channel, and I’d been there plenty of times before, so how hard could it be? I would just get a job in a bar or teach English or something. It was pretty much the same as England, right?
Wrong. Lesson number one – you can still suffer culture shock in your own Continent. Yes, France is a part of the modern Western world, and they have largely the same mod cons, societal structure and way of life as we do here in England, but there were still quite dramatic differences between myself and my new neighbours, and at times it made me feel like I was from another planet. Firstly, the language was far more of a barrier than I thought. Before heading over there I thought I had a pretty good grasp of French, having learnt it at school, and it certainly was enough to get by, but having real conversations with people? Completely different ball game. I think we all take for granted how much slang and colloquialisms we use in everyday life, and of course these aren’t the things they teach you at school. My ex, on the other hand, who did German at school and knew not a stitch of French picked it up in a matter of days because he was exchanging boyish banter with his team mates in the changing rooms all day. This only served to make me feel more isolated, and while I gave it a good shot, more often than not it took me so long to think about how to say what I wanted next that I’d completely missed the appropriate moment and ended up not saying anything at all. I’m quite a shy person, though I normally tackle that by cracking a joke or being sarcastic, a tactic that works well with British humour, but this was not an option to me, because I couldn’t find the words or the tone! Suddenly I found myself considered the quiet, reserved member of the group and it didn’t sit comfortably at all. Most of the people I knew there had a perception of me that was completely at odds with who I really was, and it was such a strange experience.
Lesson two – going from being an independent, self-sufficient person to a kept woman is HARD. This was never my intention. But the above situation made it harder than I expected to get a job, and the more I struggled the more I withdrew into myself, until I simply didn’t have the confidence to try and get a job any more. To be honest, I didn’t really need one – we had enough money to get by, and I’m sure I’d have stepped up to the plate if I’d needed to, but it would have been a huge benefit to me to have done so and it’s one of my only real regrets about my time there. Most days it wasn’t a problem. I kind of relished the life of a housewife, keeping our lovely flat tidy and cooking delicious meals, taking a stroll when my ex had his afternoon break, then maybe watching a film in the afternoon, eagerly awaiting his return. But my funds hadn’t been particularly healthy at the time I moved over, so I was pretty much 100% reliable on him to take care of me, and it’s not an easy situation to be in. Over night I found myself needing to ask for money if I wanted to go for a glass of wine with a friend, or justify why I’d rather buy the 8 Euro vase to put flowers in rather than the 3 Euro one he thought was perfectly adequate. We had to negotiate what I was allowed to spend on Christmas presents, and of course when we did go home for visits, he was able to go out on the town with his friends, while I had to stay in because I was broke. It wasn’t easy. He was in no way intentionally unfair or selfish, but we did disagree fairly frequently and it put a huge strain on the relationship. Until that point I had always assumed I’d take as much time off work as possible when the time came to have kids, but now I wasn’t so sure. It was very unsettling, and probably shaped the way I’d view relationships for a very long time.
Lesson three, though, was more positive. The biggest thing I learned is that I’m much stronger than I think I am. My confidence had been shattered in the events that led to me quitting my job and there were plenty of times when I thought about packing up and heading home. There was more than one tearful phone call home, I’m certain of that. But every time I conquered another scary task – like negotiating the train and shuttle bus from the airport on my own, managing a full half an hour of chatting without resorting to English, making the group laugh at a dinner party or accepting an invitation out without my partner – I felt a little prouder and a little more competent. In the long run, things between me and my ex didn’t work out, but we got through it together, and I wouldn’t take back any of it. I’d certainly do it differently if I did it again, but I would do it again, and I treasure the memories of our time there.
So while I get a little embarrassed and awkward about it, because it seems like I spent a year doing nothing, I’m still proud of what I achieved, because I wasn’t doing nothing, I was living and growing and learning about myself without even realising it. For all the stress and uncertainty it brought, I look back at it with nothing but happy nostalgia.
I did miss cheddar cheese though, but that’s a story for another day….