Before living in France, I had been living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for 5 years. I had moved there from Seattle in 2003 to follow my long-term partner and to attend the University of Pittsburgh’s Speech-Language Pathology graduate program. Neither of these choices ended up working out, and in the summer of 2007, at the tender age of 28 I found myself asking what it was I really wanted from life. I remember sitting in front of my computer at 2 am in the morning wondering what I could do with a language research background and a love for teaching when the language assistant program in France popped up. French was one of those things I had always loved and I loved living abroad (having done so in Taiwan and Guatemala), so it was a no-brainer. I put together my application, took a refresher French course, and waited for news. I received my acceptance letter in April of 2008 and learned I would be assigned to a technical school (lycée professional) in Angers. People asked me how close it was to Paris, or they would say “You’re so lucky to be living in Paris”. Already proud of Angers, I found myself constantly correcting people, usually with me saying half-jokingly “You know, Paris does not equal France!” Little did I know that I would continue to say so until I actually lived in Paris. But I digress. Thus started my French life, a spontaneous decision made at 2 o’clock in the morning.
I wanted to beef up my teaching experience a bit before the school year began in October so I took an intensive certificate teaching course. I lived and breathed pedagogy for the entire month of September in a little town outside Paris called Tournan-en-Brie. Now armed with not only a more cohesive teaching approach but also some great insights into teaching French students in particular, I felt quite confident as I arrived in Angers for my first ever job in France
But as it would turn out, I wouldn’t be able to teach for another 3 months. After a week of arriving in Angers, I was hit by a car on my way to an orientation meeting in Nantes. And so, I got to learn way more than I ever thought I would about the French health care system. And let me tell you, as an American, I love the health care system here. I had no family anywhere in Europe, let alone France, and the few people I knew were either my week-old flatmates or my colleagues from the teaching course. My family back home had their own health problems to battle – my mom was suffering from cancer – and so I recovered slowly with the help of the town of Angers. I found everyone in Angers to be incredibly kind, generous, and patient with me. While my mom was racking up hospital bills in the thousands back home, with sub-par care, I was getting quality treatments in France. I marveled at how the doctor would come to me at my flat once a week, and a nurse would stop by every day for a month to monitor the heavy meds I was on, and then there was a driver to take me to my physical therapy once I was fit enough to do so. All of it covered by the universal health care provided to even me, a foreigner who had only been in France for a month and a week.
I loved Angers. I still think of it with nostalgia. As someone who grew up in the Pacific Northwest, surrounded by a beautiful outdoors, the Loire Valley was a perfect fit. I loved being within walking distance of a river again. I could hop on a train and be in Nantes in no time if I wanted more liveliness, more culture. And the city has this wonderful program where a bike was available to any resident of Angers. Free of charge. So once my physical therapist ok’d it, I got myself a bike and took advantage of all the bike and hiking trails the region had to offer. There were also free language classes (among others) offered by a local community center, and I found myself popping into the Spanish and French classes whenever I could. I absolutely loved it there.
At the end of my contract, I found myself looking for a job again. I was now 29 and at the limit (at that time) for the language assistant program, so it was time to send out the old CV again. I ended up getting a teaching job in Paris, to start in September, so I went back home to the States for July and August. Sadly, my mother died that summer, and so I stayed in the States for a year instead of returning to Paris.
Return to France: Clermont-Ferrand
My return to France was as a lectrice in the fall of 2010, this time in Clermont-Ferrand. I found CF to be a little less friendly than Angers. In Angers my French really took off as I was the only native English speaker I knew, even in the language department. But in CF, I was at the Université Blaise Pascal where 90% of the English language staff were native speakers. I lived on my own instead of with flatmates. My French took a bit of a dive, and all the wonderful community programs in Angers that were so easy to find out about seemed nonexistent in CF. It was all up to me to make quite an effort to integrate even a little into CF life, but it would take a year to figure that out, and about two years to learn to like Clermont-Ferrand. I learned about OnVaSortir, a kind of meetup for French speakers, and made most of my friends through there. When I wanted to get out of the city, I learned about covoiturage, another online resource for carsharing. Not until my last year in CF did the city implement a bike program like the velib in Paris. Riding the bus also became far more important than it had in Angers. CF is not really connected to anything, and hopping on the train to go to the next little town wasn’t as exciting to me has it had been in Angers. But, CF does have an excellent short-film festival every February and summertime heralds tons of festivals. And other little gems like Café les Augustes, the Flea Market or Ciné Fac had weekly entertainment. Otherwise a car was necessary to really take advantage of the gorgeous natural beauty of the Auvergne. Daily life was otherwise similar to Angers, such as if you wanted only a baguette, you could often hop the queue at the boulangerie, grab one from the basket at the counter, and hand over exact change (all the while being polite, of course).
While I had some friends in Clermont, my close friends were in Paris, so I found myself taking the 4.5 hour train ride for most of my holidays. It was during one of the those trips that I met my current partner, my lovely German who lived in Paris. We were a doing the long-distance thing when I fell pregnant in my last year in CF. Being pregnant in CF was wonderful. Clermont-Ferrand has a wonderful network of midwives (sage-femmes) and I couldn’t have felt more taken care of between them (really her, Marine Vidal) and my OBGYN Dr. Chabrand. I saw my sage femme regularly and the one time I couldn’t get to her, I trusted in the network. When it came time to give birth, my OBGYN wasn’t available, but I wasn’t worried as, being a small town, everyone knew me on the staff, even if I hadn’t met them, and I was well looked after by the formidable, lovely Marilyn. We spent 6 lovely days in the clinic, and I am forever grateful to the staff at Clinique la Châtaigneraie. I really felt welcomed into the sisterhood of mothers, and owe my both my lack of fear in asking for help, and my confidence as a mother, to those 6 days of learning from those wonderful women.
Once Léon was born, we moved our previously 2 domiciled family into one, located in the 13ème of Paris. I thought I knew Paris, but the one you live in is vastly different from the one you visit. The préfecture is beyond unhelpful, the landlords uncaring, and as a new mother, the community of French women unwelcoming. But I still love it here, better than I did CF. Old friends who had lived in Paris had moved onto other adventures, so I found myself once again starting from scratch in terms of a social circle. But this I didn’t mind too much. I had a new family, and I loved watching the wonder that is my growing son. The three of us went out to eat once a week in the first year of Léon’s life, and I found every restaurant more friendly towards us than before. We bought a baby seat for our bikes so we could explore the city without the metro or buses. We’ve gone on walking tours and art exhibitions with only smiles for our little guy from the general public. I breastfed Léon for 7 months and never once encountered someone out to shame me. Our closest friends are a Spanish couple with a little girl who goes to the same crèche. We’re each other’s emergency contacts, and when either of us need couple time, the other is happy to watch the little ones. We are truly luck to have found them and the variety of other expats living in Paris.
I loved the jobs I had had in Angers and CF, working for the national education ministry but here in Paris, I found myself working at a private company as an English teacher, being sent out to the far corners of Paris teaching small courses at big businesses. It wasn’t for me, all the commuting, and with our crèche frequently on strike that year, always in the dog house with my last-minute absences. So now I’m currently unemployed, thinking about my next move from the comfort of our cosy apartment in the 13ème, with the love and support of my wonderful partner, the giggles and hugs of my little boy, and the city bustling around me.
Have any questions about living in Angers, Clermont-Ferrand, Paris, or being sick/pregnant/unemployed/living on a budget/the assistant program/getting TESOL certified in France? I’m always happy to share my experiences, my knowledge such as it is, and when I can’t help, to simply listen. Don’t hesitate to contact me 🙂