Julien was a tennis instructor with steel shoulders, blue eyes and two terraces we could never sit on because he stuffed them both with his marijuana plants.
Everyone back home in New York City told me that if I’d move to France I’d fall for some French guy, and that French guy was Julien. (Well… at first it was a guy named, Nico, but he had a girlfriend.)
It was the summer of 2008, and I was 28 years old and I’d done the crazy thing and moved to Montpellier, France. My rent was 250 euros a month. I munched an entire crusty baguette each and every single day. I got tan on Mediterranean beaches and I got drunk on bottles of pale French beer at open-air boîtes de nuit (night clubs.)
Very quickly, I’d become that girl, dating that French guy and living exactly that French dream we all think will be so damn beautiful.
And it really is…
… until it really isn’t.
If I’d stayed in Montpellier, I might still be that French girl. After several months, though, I couldn’t get the French dream to match the French reality, and that damn return ticket was always there waiting for me.
Escape from New York
I’d been living in New York City for eight years in one insect-ridden apartment after another. I had a job in television programming my coworker described as “moving color bars around a screen all day.”
I was tired of the crowded expensive city and I needed much more than a two-week vacation. I have dual American and French citizenship thanks to my Caribbean dad, and I was thinking the French life would be for me.
So, I decided to attend a language school. All across Europe you’ll find these small, non-credit, unofficial schools which offer three or so hours of conversational classes per day. They help students find housing and organize group activities. They’re probably meant for European college students, but they attract anyone looking for a short escape.
In my case, it was a crutch to a new start in French life.
Once I bank transferred my 1,000 euros for my first month of classes at Odyssea Language School, I got on the web to buy a one-way British Airways ticket leaving in June. Then I panicked. I clicked instead on a refundable round trip returning in October. If my savings ran out, and I couldn’t find a job, the return was already paid for.
The school was in the Languedoc region in southern France. From the online photos, the town looked blissfully suburban compared to New York and Boston (my college town.)
In fact, Montpellier is France’s seventh largest city.
My creamy colored heaven
When I arrived, I stashed my stuff in a closet-sized room in a tiny apartment the school hooked me up with. I shared it with a girl who spoke not much English and not much French.
With no help from her, I somehow figured out how to explore the town on my own before my classes started.
Montpellier is actually a sprawling little city known for big universities that bring in 50,000-plus students seasonally.
Tall clusters of apartment buildings and department stores dot the outskirts and a small metro snakes in and out of the town center. The central square, or Place de la Comédie, is paved in white and cream-colored stones and anchors a maze of tiny shops and restaurants.
There were too many historical buildings to count, but I vividly remember walking by a plaque commemorating one of the first medical schools in France. It had been there since before the United States was even a concept. That’s when my decade spent studying American History seemed rather trite.
On a tour the school organized, I learned about Europe’s southern history before borders carved it up. Some of the townspeople still speak a Catalan language and love explaining the region’s ties to Spain before it became part of France. They made sure Catalan names were etched on signs along with the French ones and their independent spirit was a precursor of what I would eventually encounter when I finally found a job.
The Spaniards taught us how to play ‘Merde’
The school organized wine and cheese “meet and greets” for new students and bus trips to Avignon and Carcassonne. They organized trivia nights at the local British pub, The Shakespeare, and made sure everyone gathered for outdoor watch parties to see the French lose out in the World Cup.
The social part seemed as equally important to the language classes. I’d taken French in high school, college and even doled out $500 for classes at New York’s Alliance Francaise. My entrance exam at Odyssea informed me that none of that effort put me above “advanced-beginner.”
I could answer “Comment allez-vous?” but I couldn’t have a conversation for more than two minutes before becoming mentally exhausted.
No worries. These schools have no set term start or end dates. You simply roll in any week at all, get placed with students at your level and “graduate” up if your teacher feels you are ready. That open acceptance helped me make all manner of new friends, including:
Jim – An American film editor determined to pick up a language in between contracts.
Marianna – A vivacious, gorgeous, curly haired Russian Italian who refused to wait in any line ever.
Hannah – An adventurous Canadian who’d eventually convince me to scramble down an off-limits cliff in Marseilles because we’d heard the waters were crystalline blue (they were, and they were freezing).
Felippa – A smiley Swede who shockingly explained that Ikea product names actually have real meanings and who would become my roommate in a much bigger and nicer flat.
A young German couple who’d just had a baby and who were spending their year of parental leave hopping around Europe.
Plus a gaggle of young dance-loving Singaporeans on exchange, a party-hardy group of Italian nuclear scientists sponsored by their company, and a rowdy group of Spaniards.
A bunch of us would spend our afternoons biking out to the beach in a town nearby. I’d found a massive red checkered sheet on our apartment’s clothesline and we’d sprawl out on the sand while everyone turned out offerings of cheese, sliced meats, chips, fruits and baguettes.
The Spaniards had a car, they smoked like a coal factory, and they soon taught us a card game they insisted was called “Merde!” (S–t!)
We sadly mostly fell into speaking the more mutually understood English. Try as we might, French all day was simply exhausting. Eventually, though, I did get the accent down straight. That’s all thanks to a lot of fruit and a questionable pick up line.
Framboise, fraise and frozen juice
After a few weeks, I realized if I wanted to stay in Montpellier for a long time I’d need a job. The euro was nearly double the value of the dollar then and my savings were dwindling fast.
Unfortunately, it was nearly impossible to find a job as unemployment for young people was around 20%. Businesses were loath to take on news part-time employees because once they had you, they were stuck with you because of labor laws.
The Russian Italian convinced me to try working for an Irish bar in town by pretending that my first name, Channon, gave me some Irish cred with the owner. That failed as soon as he realized I was African American.
Instead, he offered me about 15 hours per week making frozen juice at his new Jus Plus store in the mall. It was a new concept in France, then, and I suppose I looked like I could handle a blender.
I easily learned the frozen mixes, mostly based in apple juice, and quickly blended them together before calling out the drink orders to guests.
(Fraise = strawberry, framboise = raspberry)
Customers stared back at me dumbfounded and I didn’t know why. My dear coworkers Stella and Charles helped me to realize that a hard American “r” doesn’t really work in French. I quickly learned to make the correct and softer sound using the middle of my tongue and the roof of my mouth. I describe it as a mix between: a soft g, w, and que.
It worked! Stella also kindly forced me to speak French. Charles was a musician and he loved to explain all the rights I then had as a worker and all the great ways young people were starting revolutions.
The “mec” taught me something else entirely.
Le mec et la petite amie (the guy and the girlfriend)
French people do indeed drink lots of wine and eat lots of bread and cheese. But they also guzzle down cheap beer and stock up on tinned meats, packaged toasts, bags of processed cookies and cartons of highly processed milk.
I was drinking beer with a group of friends at a café (which is, in fact, a bar), when a guy named Julien walked up to me and asked in English:
“Where are you from?”
“New York,” I said.
“Oh really?” he asked and then added: “I thought you were from paradise.”
Maybe it was the French accent? Maybe it was the tennis instructor body? I was immediately in like.
We had one date. He kept texting me and after a few weeks he referred to me as his “petit amie’” I quickly learned relationships can really form that easily in France.
Julien had lived off chômage (French unemployment) for nearly two years and would gasp when I used all his beurre on my baguette. He knew not much more English than he’d used to pick me up, so our relationship was mostly about what you think it was mostly about.
One day he did manage to scrounge some cash for gas and we went out to the beach, swimming out as the waters turned choppy and filled my nose with salt.
My days were all free and clear and sunny, until I suddenly couldn’t breathe.
The French way – No bills, no laws, no worries!
I’ll never know if it was all that saltwater, but a week or so after the beach trip my lungs started shrinking. I could barely wheeze. One day it got so bad, I woke up in a panic sinking to the floor beside my bed feeling like my throat had become a red cocktail straw.
When I walked into a doctor’s office, I signed my name on a slip of paper because there was no receptionist, just him. He took a listen to my sad lungs and gave me a prescription for expectorant and a calming agent at the pharmacy. When I asked about the bill, I mentioned my French citizenship, but I admitted I hadn’t worked long enough to get a medical card.
“Well, you’re French so you’re not supposed to pay,” he told me, politely letting me go.
The medicine cost me around 15 euros, but over the next several weeks the infected lungs never quite went away. I never spoke again in France without coughing.
The beautiful haze grows hazy
The weather got cold and crisp and the beach lost its charm. Then my friends began to leave, one by one returning to their home countries. The Spaniards left, then the Canadian, then the Russian Italian. My cheap summer room had to be turned back over to the fall student I’d sublet it from.
Then the strikes started. First the wine growers protested land taxes. Then the metro stopped working for weeks in the name of metro worker’s rights. The strikes caused chaos and brought attention to a cause, but they always ended without much progress.
To truly improve her French, my roommate enrolled in a real university for the fall and she wanted me to join her. But I couldn’t stomach the idea of being a college student again living in a dorm at then 29. (I’ve only realized now, of course, that 29 is still so young.)
I grew tired of never completely understanding anyone and only getting the gist. I hated all the money I’d spent buying tickets for the wrong day, and having packages sent to the wrong destination. I was frustrated that I couldn’t have a real conversation with Julien.
And it was so hard to shout “fgwquambwazzee!” while coughing.
At one point I realized I was a lot funnier back in New York. I just didn’t get French humor. I didn’t understand why movies never had a real ending but were instead vaguely unsatisfying. I didn’t get all the constant anger at the government.
Then my coworker Charles started his own revolution in our little shop. He and my British boss screamed at each other over shift changes until he stormed off one day and I lost him, too.
But I still had that return ticket.
Just a tourist again
Late September, I left Montpellier and took the TGV up to Paris to stay with my aunt for a few weeks before my flight out. As I rode the smooth train north, I gazed out at vineyards whipping by with their grapes hung low to the ground waiting to be picked and crushed.
In the city, every morning my dear aunt made me a bowl of café au lait along with pâté smeared on bread. She sent me out into the city with a thin paper booklet called “Balades a Paris.” I climbed the bright Montmartre hill, learned Notre Dame’s secrets from a volunteer tour guide and bought a classic leather Cassandra bag at the Marche aux puces.
My mom and my brother joined me for my final two weeks and we were dazzled by the marbled figures at the Musee d’Orsay. We loved the thick chocolate at Angelina cafe. We drove down to see the Loire Valley’s castles.
As the date of my return flight drew closer, I realized I was dreading finding a new job in New York and starting my life there over again. Moving to France hadn’t been so hard after all. What had been difficult was staying there, building up a real life. That’s the work you have to do wherever you choose to go and wherever you try to stay.
I realized too late that you never pick up a language. It simply drags you along till you’re standing.
For a short time, I had been that girl, dating that French guy, living that French dream, but eventually I became just another American in Paris and a return ticket took me home.