So, why did you move to France?
All of us, the confederate of expats, immigrants, aliens (!) if you will, have been asked that question more times than we can count.
For me, the more interesting question is, “Why did you stay?”
Mine is a classic saga of how best laid plans can turn out to be better than one expects.
Here’s my story – why I came to France and why I stayed:
The job. It was a dream job, Style Editor of the International Herald Tribune.
The risky part was that it was on a contractual basis; I was not an employee with benefits and security. At the same time I was a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and had freelance assignments from the States, particularly during the periods of the couture and ready-to-wear collections.
The decision was made, I quit my job in New York, announced the decision to my eight-year-old daughter (who was clearly too young to absorb the ramifications), had a container packed with some furniture, and commissioned three large crates to be built to transport our very big dogs from the Bedford, New York, SPCA.
Because of the dogs we couldn’t live in Paris. Thankfully, by some miracle, I found a thatched-roofed cottage in the country outside Paris, bought an ancient Renault 4L, drove to the station, took the train into la gare Montparnasse and then the Metro to the paper when we were putting out a style section.
It was a rented house and along with the deal came two ponies and a magnificent horse named Déesse (Goddess) and indeed she was. She, Andrea, I and the dogs became so friendly with her that she often came into the kitchen – or as far in as she could get her body — to see if there were apples or carrots waiting for her. Her fare was always included on my market lists. The ponies were biters, cute as can be, but we needed to be wary.
This was the plan: Two years, max. In two years I figured I could parlay my experience into a fantastic job in New York, Andrea would speak perfect French, thus giving her an edge for the future and we would be looking at a win-win all around.
Then fate stepped in. At a dinner party – out here in the country — I was sitting across the table from an extremely attractive bachelor who was invited to the soirée not solely because he was unmarried, but also because he spoke English, a distinct advantage when the American guest spoke, for all practical purposes, not a word of French.
At table he asked for everyone’s telephone numbers, explaining he would like to invite the group chez lui for cocktails. When we left the dinner, he held my hand for just a few seconds too long. I thought, “Oh, no, a French man, how obnoxious. Well, I suppose he’ll be calling in the near future.”
He didn’t call! I couldn’t believe it. (I learned later he was in the middle of extricating himself from a complicated relationship and didn’t want to call me before it was over.)
Four months later: another dinner party, same routine. At this point my resolve to keep to my two-year deadline was firmer than ever.
He hadn’t lost my telephone number because he called the next day and every-single-day thereafter – often several times a day – until we married.
Between the beginning and the culmination, Andrea learned to speak decent French in three months and perfectly in six. She attended the village school where we lived and every afternoon was tutored by a retired French teacher who had a dog named Dog.
Andrea didn’t care about learning another language; she wanted friends. When we would shop together I would say to her, for example, “Drea, where’s the milk?” When I turned around she was nowhere to be found. My speaking English to an eight or nine-year-old in public was apparently hugely embarrassing.
Let’s see what else? Andrea asked me if she could please have a cat. I thought, “What’s one more animal at this point?” Enter Mimi one of the most exquisite creatures to ever walk upon this earth and completely bi-lingual. He (yes he) quickly trained the dogs to obey him and all was well.
On another occasion while we were tranquilly living in our thatched-roofed cottage, a gendarmerie van drove up, three gendarmes jumped out and explained – Andrea translated – that they were terribly sorry, but they had to deport us.
We were illegal aliens. It’s true. Since I didn’t speak French and all that paperwork was so complicated, I never bothered.
Fortunately, we were saved by the fast-talking silver tongue of my future Reason-For-Living-In-France. While we were at the police station, the gendarme said to him: “Wait a minute! Let me get this straight. You speak three languages, French, English and American?”
MRFLIF said, “Oui.” I said, “Let me get this straight; he’s allowed to carry a gun?” Whereupon my future husband said something like, “I think you should probably be quiet.”
My two-year plan has now grown into more than 20 and we’ve all lived happily ever after.