On Moving to the French Countryside
Paris is, undeniably, the love of my life. Yet, as in all long-term relationships, we need to give each other some breathing room from time to time. I am a true believer in the adage “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” It’s not that I’m unhappy in what my niece refers to as my “postage-stamp sized” apartment, which I have paid for with my blood, sweat and oh-so-many tears.
I suspect that a midlife crisis might be the cause of my feeling too cramped. Or, maybe, it’s the numerous paint jobs required these past few years thanks to my upstairs neighbour’s neglect of plumbing problems. Whatever the reason, five years ago I was suddenly struck by the need for space.
It began with an act of treason, on my part, which I could never have predicted. While helping a friend look for a new home, I made the acquaintance of a small house in a tree-lined passage in the 20th arrondissement. I fell in love. Luckily, she didn’t want it, so I packed up and rented out my postage stamp in the 10th, leaving behind my beloved Canal Saint Martin. And, ignoring the considerable strain that it put on my finances, I signed a lease on my new object of desire.
The damage had been done.
I was ecstatic about the charm of the tiny garden and the spaciousness of my new abode. I asked a fellow expat friend from Louisiana, “Is it really ‘American’ of me to be so happy about living in a house?” He replied, “No, you’re just grown-up.” We, who come from wide, open spaces, equate house habitation with adulthood, it seems.
In spite of the dampness caused by faulty foundations and the fact that the yard quickly became a jungle due to me missing a green thumb, I spent two happy years there. I still had the urban side of life. There were kids selling and smoking pot in front of my garden gate, and squatters living down the street. It would have been too much of a shock to my Parisian system had it been too peaceful.
When my landlords decided that they wanted to move back in, I was sad but undaunted. The damage had been done. I was now accustomed to rooms that were bigger than closets and there was no turning back. From my tiny place in the 10th I began to scheme. My professional life, although lucrative, was becoming taxing and invasive. I thought that if I put some physical distance between my irrationally demanding employer and myself that I might get some respite.
The idea, like most of the big, important decisions that I make, came to me suddenly and stuck. I would move to the country, and I knew where.
Looking up at the plaque over the red wooden door, announcing “Alfred Sisley died here on January 29, 1899”, I felt a shift in my center of gravity. Three months later I moved in.
I met my best friend in France two days after I arrived to stay for good, all those years ago. She opened the door to her country cottage and we instantly hit it off. She helped me through the first few rocky years of Parisian and married life, and listened patiently as I wept through getting divorced. We have always lived within a few blocks of each other in town, and I have spent dozens of weekends in her home, an hour south of the city.
The region around Paris becomes strikingly rural only a few miles beyond the Portes that mark its boundaries. In the surrounding forests and fields, the châteaux of centuries of monarchs remain. My friend’s place is near the forest of Fontainebleau. So, of course, I started house-hunting there.
On an exploratory drive along the Loing River, where each village is more picturesque than the next, we stopped at an art gallery in Moret-sur-Loing. It was late July and tourists filled the cobbled streets. This area attracted many artists in the 19th century and, in Moret specifically, an impressionist by the name of Alfred Sisley, an Englishman by birth. The house, which he rented until he died in poverty and despair, is just two doors down from the gallery.
As we walked by on our way to visit the oft-painted banks of the river with its famous towered bridge and watermills, someone said, “Isn’t the Villa Sisley for rent again?” Looking up at the plaque over the red wooden door, announcing “Alfred Sisley died here on January 29, 1899”, I felt a shift in my center of gravity. Three months later I moved in.
I admire people who move to French villages with no knowledge of the language or culture. It was intimidating to be l’Américaine in a town where everyone seems to know each other, even with thirty years in Paris under my belt.
I now reside in a house with a fireplace (meaning I had to buy lots of wood and learn to make a fire), a big garden (meaning I’ve made half-hearted efforts to plant vegetables and flowers, which actually do grow most of the time!), and space to have visitors, meaning that I’m beginning to see a lot more of my family members (finally). I have even recently acquired an old clunker of a car, which makes me inordinately joyful.
At first, I was a weekender. I admire people who move to French villages with no knowledge of the language or culture. It was intimidating to be l’Américaine in a town where everyone seems to know each other, even with thirty years of Paris under my belt. After two years, the fromager and the boulangère have begun greeting me like its not the first time they’ve seen my face. I do have a lovely neighbor who usually drops by without warning. He helps me with the unexpected challenges of life à la campagne, like frozen pipes and trimming the unruly evergreen that houses every variety of bird in the environs.
I’m surprised by my slow but certain commitment to being actively present here and not just a tourist. Is it enough to make me stay? Or is this just a dalliance, a pause in my long romance with Paris? When I’m away for too long I miss the car exhaust that makes me cough and the impatient man behind me in the supermarché checkout line. Paris is always in my heart and, in true French fashion, my country affair is tolerated as long as I always come back.
Photo credits for Thirty Years Living in France: Moving to the French Countryside by Unsplash.