Living In France — Ooh La La Or OMG?
It’s been a long-cherished dream of mine to move to France and live there again, now and/or in retirement, should that lovely day arrive. On one of our very first dates, being my usual reticent self, I told the sweetie — then not the sweetie but a new beau — that this was my plan and, should things work out, I hoped he’d come along. He, being as focused as I, told me he intends to visit Tibet.
Last night we took a baby step — un petit pas – as it were, towards this and sat for an hour at Alliance Francaise with about 200 others listening to two lawyers and two realtors tell us what it’s like to buy and own property in Paris or the provinces. The Manhattan realtor, bien sur, owns both.
Sobering little session that was!
I’m still trying to decide which part I found most French, the Napoleonic dictate that every child associated with a home’s owner (wedlock, schmedlock) can stake a legal claim on it after your demise or the fact that these said kids could force the surviving spouse from the marital residence. Thank God we don’t have kids!
As the lawyers droned on, usefully, I kept thinking of Balzac and Flaubert every time he mentioned the notaire, the government functionary necessary — in addition to the lawyers and the realtor and the person, who in Paris knows each arondissement (official neighborhood, 18 of them) well enough to find you something within them.
I first visited France the summer I was 17, with an impossibly glamorous month in a villa on the Cote d’Azur rented by my uncle, a well-known British entertainment figure. It’s all pretty much downhill from there! Kidding. I spent the happiest year of my life on a journalism fellowship, with 28 others from 19 countries, from Togo to Japan to New Zealand to Brazil, based in Paris. Years later, I could turn on RFI (Radio France International) and hear my friend Olivier da Lage.
We learned, then, that if you are having a bad day or a headache or cramps do not go to the post office or the bank, where blank-eyed officials will ignore you at their leisure or make you fill out many pieces of paper. The notion of “customer service” is an American idyll. The park? Don’t sit on the grass or someone wearing a whistle will toot at you to get off it. The stores have signs in the window entree libre — you are free to enter.
And what else would you do?
On a small monthly stipend, I lived in a teeny single dorm room in Cite Universitaire. Their website is pretty sexy, but sex? Hah! I was then in my mid-20s and had been living with my boyfriend in Toronto for years, but men in your rooms was interdit.
I was summoned one morning by a furious woman official demanding to know about the clandestins (snuck in) men I’d had in my cell, sorry, room. I had a number of lovely beaux that year, but never brought them upstairs. Nothing better than a false accusation, complete with that very French brand of official outrage, en francais.
I spent the best five days of my life tootling around Corsica on a mo-ped, which I wrote about for the Wall Street Journal. I was moving, in a blessed, once-in-a-lifetime ascent, from one job to another, with a serious raise, within two weeks of getting canned, so needed a fab five solo days. Corsica is it! I stayed in a hotel on the rocks and the sea, smelling the salt through the large, 19th. century windows. I got caught in a blinding rainstorm (eyeglasses don’t work in rain on a mo-ped), and wheedled a garbage bag to wear and prayed a lot — in the middle of a lightning patch, there I was surrounded by electricity pylons. A Corsican man with, of course, a huge boar’s head on his wall that he had shot (in the French dictionary, the word macho may be the same as Corsican), introduced me to the most spectacularly haunting music I’ve ever heard — the a capella polyphony of I Muvrini, a wildly popular Corsican group.
I feel bien dans ma peau — deeply at ease — in France in a way I never have in my native Canada nor in the U.S. Can’t explain it rationally. I value what they value: luxury, great food and wine, family, intellectuals, arguing (see: intellectuals), journalism, thinking, beauty, symmetry, elegance. You don’t gulp junk food at your desk in France. When we visit Paris and I eat croissants every morning and ice cream and dessert, I still lose weight because I walk 4-6 hours a day.
The sweetie fell in love with Normandy on our visit in November 2008. I loved Brittany, but it rains too much. The sweetie loves to golf. I dream of running some sort of antique-hunting tour for Americans who don’t speak French. Who knows when or if we’ll realize this dream — as we headed home, he said “I wish we worked in other industries”; journos even at their top of their (print-based) game, make less than first-year corporate lawyers. I said: ” I wish I had a real job with a real salary.”
Buying property almost anywhere costs serious coin. But, in the meantime, our kitchen is a shrine to Paris — filled with 18th. century engravings and my own photos and maps. As I type this, I look above my Mac at a poster of a drawing by Sempe, “Fin septembre, 6 heures du matin, Paris.” A cat crosses the street at dawn; the metal garden chairs are lined up neatly, the street lamps are still on. (I can’t find the accents on my keyboard, sorry.)
My American mother met my Canadian father in Eze, a hilltop village in the south of France. I think it might be genetic.