How I Quit My Day Job and Finally Pursued My Dream of Living in France
“Courageous, bold, inspiring” …these words sound like they belong in a rave review on a book jacket. Rather, these are some of the words my friends bestowed upon me after I announced I was finally quitting my life in the USA and moving to France to speak French. As encouraging as this triumvirate was, the most fitting for me seemed: “It’s about time.”
For more than 20 years, I had a princess-and-the-pea urge to speak French, a gnawing dream that never seemed to get off the ground and inevitably took the back burner. Life got in the way: I changed jobs, formed new relationships, went to grad school and felt like I never had the money. Four years of high school French and one semester in college helped me order a chocolate croissant (“pain au chocolat“) at a random patisserie in the States. I could read signs in New Orleans during a spring break trip, but the dream just wasn’t happening.
For more than 20 years, I had a princess-and-the-pea urge to speak French, a gnawing dream that never seemed to get off the ground and inevitably took the back burner.
In 1994, a few years out of college, I teased my language appetite with a ten-day trip to Paris. After I had earned some cash working a seasonal job in Alaska, I flew to France and checked into a youth hostel, exposing me to international friends. One day we sat for hours having conversation over wine, bread and cheese. I struggled through explanations, used hand gestures and smiles and sprinkled in some English, but I did it! At 24, I was speaking French and I was in love.
The melody and rhythm of French fascinated me. As I challenged my brain to search for vocabulary and ways to express myself, speaking the language felt like the budding moments with a new lover. I couldn’t wait until the next opportunity to ask for directions or buy a pack of gum. As French words rolled out of my mouth, it reminded me of little Christmas ornaments adorning each branch of conversation. Papillon (butterfly), oreille (ear), fraîche (fresh), histoire (story) and nourriture (food) became my playmates.
My favorite gem, liaison—the way the French join certain words in conversation—became my obsession. I was infatuated with finding those combinations that elicited the connecting lullaby. “Je suis Americaine,” I would espouse, emphasizing the link between the S in “suis” and A in “American.” When I spoke French, and was understood, it was like catching an admirer’s stare from across the room, and not looking away.
Once I returned to the US however, the love affair lay dormant for 20 years. I attended my share of Saturday morning French conversation groups and even hired a native speaker for private lessons. But without regular usage, my language skills went by the wayside, as did my dream. It was on the shelf like that classic epic you vow to read when the time is right (Doctor Zhivago perhaps?). On occasion, you flip through the pages and admire the crisp cover. One day it even makes its way to the bedside table ripe for a rainy day—or a visit by the muse.
When I spoke French, and was understood, it was like catching an admirer’s stare from across the room, and not looking away.
Finally my muse arrived—in the form of a pink slip. Earlier this year, a work contract was not renewed and within three months, I found myself unemployed. Panic or freedom? At 44, with no kids, no husbands (no ex-husbands!), no mortgage, no car, no credit card debt, all I saw was a blessing in disguise. I didn’t even have any pets. I had been saving for this moment. France here I come.
In 2010, two of my American friends had moved to the south of France to make a new life raising their son. With a similar love of languages as mine and attraction to the European lifestyle, socialized healthcare, affordable or practically free education, they had applied for student visas and moved to Montpellier, a city known for its culture, beauty, universities and proximity to Mediterranean beaches. Montpellier boasts 300 sunny days a year, they had reminded me.
After several encouraging phone calls with them and emails explaining how to apply for a visa, I was ready. I downloaded forms, located a translator to create copies of my college degrees, photocopied my birth certificate and social security card, updated my passport which was coming due for expiration, and applied in person at the French consulate in San Francisco.
At 44, with no kids, no husbands (no ex-husbands!), no mortgage, no car, no credit card debt, all I saw was a blessing in disguise. I didn’t even have any pets. I had been saving for this moment.
I sold much of my belongings for some extra cash and kept only personal and sentimental stuff (books, letters, photos). Electronics, furniture and kitchen items went to goodwill, and for safekeeping, friends held onto valuables like a guitar and bicycle. With only a 39-pound suitcase and a carry-on backpack, I departed in August 2014 for the south of France.
It’s November, decidedly fall, and I’m enrolled in 16 hours a week of French studies. I’m renting a flat in a 17th-century building that has stone floors and classic French architecture. I’ve opened a French bank account, have my French mobile phone and take the Tram to get around the city. Summertime trips to the beach with my friends, their son (and now daughter), have been replaced with weekend hikes in the country and excursions on the regional train to nearby cities like Nîmes and Avignon.
The love affair with the language has been renewed—I’m speaking and writing in French every day, and I’m searching for a French translation of Doctor Zhivago.
How I Quit My Day Job and Finally Pursued My Dream of Speaking French