Living In France — Ooh La La Or OMG?

Map of official départements and régions of Fr...
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It’s been a long-cherished dream of mine to move to France and live there again, now and/or in retirement, should that lovely day arrive. On one of our very first dates, being my usual reticent self, I told the sweetie — then not the sweetie but a new beau — that this was my plan and, should things work out, I hoped he’d come along. He, being as focused as I, told me he intends to visit Tibet.

Last night we took a baby step — un petit pas – as it were, towards this and sat for an hour at Alliance Francaise with about 200 others listening to two lawyers and two realtors tell us what it’s like to buy and own property in Paris or the provinces. The Manhattan realtor, bien sur, owns both.

Sobering little session that was!

I’m still trying to decide which part I found most French, the Napoleonic dictate that every child associated with a home’s owner (wedlock, schmedlock) can stake a legal claim on it after your demise or the fact that these said kids could force the surviving spouse from the marital residence. Thank God we don’t have kids!

As the lawyers droned on, usefully, I kept thinking of Balzac and Flaubert every time he mentioned the notaire, the government functionary necessary — in addition to the lawyers and the realtor and the person, who in Paris knows each arondissement (official neighborhood, 18 of them) well enough to find you something within them.

I first visited France the summer I was 17, with an impossibly glamorous month in a villa on the Cote d’Azur rented by my uncle, a well-known British entertainment figure. It’s all pretty much downhill from there! Kidding. I spent the happiest year of my life on a journalism fellowship, with 28 others from 19 countries, from Togo to Japan to New Zealand to Brazil, based in Paris. Years later, I could turn on RFI (Radio France International) and hear my friend Olivier da Lage.

We learned, then, that if you are having a bad day or a headache or cramps do not go to the post office or the bank, where blank-eyed officials will ignore you at their leisure or make you fill out many pieces of paper. The notion of “customer service” is an American idyll. The park? Don’t sit on the grass or someone wearing a whistle will toot at you to get off it. The stores have signs in the window entree libre — you are free to enter.

And what else would you do?

On a small monthly stipend, I lived in a teeny single dorm room in Cite Universitaire. Their website is pretty sexy, but sex? Hah! I was then in my mid-20s and had been living with my boyfriend in Toronto for years, but men in your rooms was interdit.

I was summoned one morning by a furious woman official demanding to know about the clandestins (snuck in) men I’d had in my cell, sorry, room. I had a number of lovely beaux that year, but never brought them upstairs. Nothing better than a false accusation, complete with that very French brand of official outrage, en francais.

I spent the best five days of my life tootling around Corsica on a mo-ped, which I wrote about for the Wall Street Journal. I was moving, in a blessed, once-in-a-lifetime ascent, from one job to another, with a serious raise, within two weeks of getting canned, so needed a fab five solo days. Corsica is it! I stayed in a hotel on the rocks and the sea, smelling the salt through the large, 19th. century windows. I got caught in a blinding rainstorm (eyeglasses don’t work in rain on a mo-ped), and wheedled a garbage bag to wear and prayed a lot — in the middle of a lightning patch, there I was surrounded by electricity pylons. A Corsican man with, of course, a huge boar’s head on his wall that he had shot (in the French dictionary, the word macho may be the same as Corsican), introduced me to the most spectacularly haunting music I’ve ever heard — the a capella polyphony of I Muvrini, a wildly popular Corsican group.

I feel bien dans ma peau — deeply at ease — in France in a way I never have in my native Canada nor in the U.S. Can’t explain it rationally. I value what they value: luxury, great food and wine, family, intellectuals, arguing (see: intellectuals), journalism, thinking, beauty, symmetry, elegance. You don’t gulp junk food at your desk in France. When we visit Paris and I eat croissants every morning and ice cream and dessert, I still lose weight because I walk 4-6 hours a day.

The sweetie fell in love with Normandy on our visit in November 2008. I loved Brittany, but it rains too much. The sweetie loves to golf. I dream of running some sort of antique-hunting tour for Americans who don’t speak French. Who knows when or if we’ll realize this dream — as we headed home, he said “I wish we worked in other industries”; journos even at their top of their (print-based) game, make less than first-year corporate lawyers. I said: ” I wish I had a real job with a real salary.”

Buying property almost anywhere costs serious coin. But, in the meantime, our kitchen is a shrine to Paris — filled with 18th. century engravings and my own photos and maps. As I type this, I look above my Mac at a poster of a drawing by Sempe, “Fin septembre, 6 heures du matin, Paris.” A cat crosses the street at dawn; the metal garden chairs are lined up neatly, the street lamps are still on. (I can’t find the accents on my keyboard, sorry.)

My American mother met my Canadian father in Eze, a hilltop village in the south of France. I think it might be genetic.

17 thoughts on “Living In France — Ooh La La Or OMG?

  1. You know already (by experience) that France has as many advantages and disadvantages as Canada or the United States. It’s lovely to live there, but you won’t ever be happy if you are looking for something that’s not there – or is also available in your present home town.
    Further more: the French are not waiting for you 🙂

  2. But hey, if you want to swop houses with me, there always space for neotiation. It’s not France, but Amsterdam is “filled with 18th. century engravings” as well…

  3. Thomas Medlicott

    Great story. I spent four days alone in Montreal in the mid-nineties. It was July, and the Montreal Comedy Festival was in full swing. It was as close to France as I have been. One of the books I am reading is “Distant Mirror” by Barbara Tuchman. France in the fourteenth century. It would be hard, even after six hundred years, to shake the baggage that the clergy and nobility embedded in the French. Tom Medlicott – has a True/Slant link, otherwise I logged on as usual.

  4. silviovasconcellos

    Hi Caitlin!

    Thank you for your post about the latin way of live in France. If I may let me say there are 20 arrondissement in Paris not 18 as you mention( I’d like to show you the key combination to print the accent on your mac keyboard:

    option+e = ´
    option+i = ˆ
    option+n= ˜
    option+`= `
    option+u= ¨

    Have a nice weekend.

  5. Ms. Kelly,

    It seems to me, that what truly makes France wonderful is that I don’t actually live there. Any place you live full-time automatically become mundane, NYC, Los Angeles, Hawaii, and yes, even France. To live in France permanently would kill the magic. It is the magic that counts.

  6. Caitlin Kelly

    Bart, we’re on! I’ll trade you my top-floor Hudson River view and 38 min. ride to Manhattan…I’ve only spent three days in Amsterdam, many years ago and I was both ill and working, so saw almost nothing of your gorgeous city. I did see Nederlands Dance Theater at the Concertgebouw and loved it.

    silvio, I am a total moron! Thank you…I slept vvvv badly last night so was not compos mentis when I wrote of 18, not 20. Thanks. And for the tips!

    Tom, I have lived twice in Montreal, as a 12 yr old for a year and when I was 29 for 18 months.I loved it as a child and did not enjoy it as an adult, which is one reason I am actually quite wary of buying property anywhere — renting makes a lot more sense. Montreal, where I will soon spend a fun day on vacation, is a terrific city for visitors, much less amusing for residents who come from larger, better-run cities (like Toronto). I found taxes insanely high, too much crime and very poor municipal services. Charming, yes; functional, no. And very few job possibilities for even a bilingual Anglo in my field.

    david, la…very true! Magic is key. People rhapsodize about New York City and, after 21 years here, I just roll my eyes. I enjoy aspects of it, but there are tremendous stressors as well — as France, and Paris, also provide much of. I’ve been back to Paris twice since 2007, partly to curb any such nostalgia.

  7. Caitlin Kelly

    Bart, I take your other points — bloom where you’re planted and the French xenophobia.

    Two thoughts, (not sure how often you have been in the U.S. of late): I value certain qualities in people, public policy and perspective that are becoming ever more elusive in the U.S. right now, like…hmmm…compassion, environmental stewardship (hello, BP?), political cooperation (Tea Party?). So, while France certainly has plenty of its own dramas and issues, they may be *different*; you know, the second husband (or wife) is equally annoying, just in different ways.

    I also do not find, quite frankly, that Americans welcome foreigners with a big, warm, fuzzy hug these days. And I am white and educated. So xenopohbia is not unique to les francais. It is here and growing as well.

    I chose to come to NYC for professional reasons and it has offered a larger life mix of good and bad. Workwise, it has not been a smooth ride; for some, it is. (I actually interviewed, en francais, at 24Heures for a job when we were last in Paris; obviously not hired.)

    While I find NYC can be charming and interesting, I have never found it a place in which to make and sustain deep, lasting, intimate friendships — while I am still in touch with Canadian and European friends decades without having seen them. I don’t think anywhere has everything, but having lived more happily in some places and much less happily in others, there *are* differences, some easier to surmount or ignore than others.

  8. caroaber

    I visited France in ’90 (Paris) and in ’03 (Nice). I have fond memories of friendly people and beautiful landscapes. I, too, dreamed of living in France since I was young. (However, after a ’95 trip to Italy, I knew I’d found a new idyll.)

    Montreal is well and good, but it is no match. Oui, I miss France very much these days.

  9. jaxyn

    That fellowship sounds like a wonderful experience. The first time I went to France I stayed in a residence with the same rules. Since I was already married, frolicking with Frenchmen was not on my mind, but the girls who were there before me showed me a back door on which the lock was broken just in case.

    It’s strange, when I’m in the U.S. I don’t feel like a francophile because most of the French stereotypes don’t appeal to me, but I’ve always felt oddly at ease when I’ve happened to be in France. If I had the opportunity do work there, I’d go in a second.

    What city a person lives in can in fact make a huge difference in his degree of happiness. I’ve lived in several different places and some have made me much happier than others.

    Good-luck. I hope you find something in France!

  10. Caitlin Kelly


    I know I romanticize my French memories, but when you have such lovely memories, a place becomes a repository of your personal history. I feel like I (barely) survived 18 months in a small NH town, but that one year in Paris felt like just the beginning. I have always regretted coming back, but I also got my first, and very good, national newspaper job in Toronto within six months….so who’s to say?

    1. joan

      Paris is a special city. Like New York, but completely different. A paradox.

      On my first trip there … when I came out of the métro and up to the street, I knew it was the place for me. And every subsequent visit has only reinforced it. Paris is sensual. You feel it or you don’t.

  11. Caitlin Kelly

    Joan, I come home with many photos but always a recharged sense of elegance and visual beauty, from the proportions of doors, windows or street los to colors, especially in combination, I never see in the US. One of the most compelling images of my last trip was a pair of olive Bensimon sneakers with burgundy laces– worn with such panache by a woman in her 50s or 60s; of course, I later realized, she had customized them. I miss that sense of confidence and individual style.

    I love “bonjour msieur/madame”. It civilizes the day.

  12. Pingback: Nigeria: Scènes de pugilat au Parlement |

      1. I’m trying to think of ways to make money when I move to France… In the south there are a lot of British retirees who don’t speak French. Was thinking of teaching them from a native English speaker point of view (I’m a high school French teacher here in the US). Where there’s a will, there’s a way, right?

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