In yet another attempt to avoid doing what I should be i.e. housework/scholarships/going for a run…anything other than sitting in front of my computer, I’ve decided I might as well give an update as to how exactly life in France is panning out.
I guess I’m living what amounts to other people’s dreams. Its not a way of life I ever imagined for myself but now that I’m living it, it’ll be hard to say goodbye if/when we eventually leave for Paris. Albi is a population of approx. 80,000 people depending on whether you count the wider region, or upwards of 40,000 if you include just the centre of town. It’s located in the south west of France and the closest metropolitan city is Toulouse which is only a 50 minute drive away, while the Mediterannean is a 2 hour drive. Albi is part of the Tarn region, named after the river which flows through the region. The local people are called Albigeois and most speak with a local twang which is said to be ‘sing-songy’, although I am used to the Parisian accent and find it difficult to make any sense from some people! Other locals speak another dialect altogether, Occitan, which sounds like a melange of French-Spanish-Italian and probably has its own specifities too.
The centre of Albi is a UNESCO world heritage site thanks to the well maintained medieval buildings which Albi is known for. The very centre of town is adorned with Saint Cecile’s Cathedral, which unlike many of the Catholic churches I’ve been to, has a very gothic influence with gargoyls protruding from the top. I believe it is also one of the largest churches (in terms of volume) in France. The Tarn river winds its way through Albi and connects with the Garonne river, which in turn meets the Atlantic.
My husband and I didn’t really move to Albi by choice, rather it was one of the only options that presented itself to us when my hubby was searching for work. I admit to being very scared, having heard lots of scary things about small town France – and this came from the French themselves! I’d read in books and heard from natives that people in the north of France, including Paris, are much easier to talk to at first but harder to know in the long term. In contrast, it’s apparently much harder to build relationships with people in southern France but when they eventually let you in, its a friendship for life. I still can’t say whether this is true of northern France, but from other women’s experiences of life in Albi it appears true that southern French can be difficult to build relatoinships with, whether you’re a foreigner or not.
The hubby and I live in the commune (this is the generic term for village, as opposed to a communist/hippy village) of Saint Juery. While the French make a big deal of specifying the boundaries, Saint Juery is effectively a suburb of Albi and only a 15 minute drive away. To make my point, while we live in the centre-ville of Saint Juery, it is a far cry from the centre-ville of Paris or Toulouse…. even Albi. While we have everything you need (except for a butcher, although we have 2 local markets per week and this is where you can find all your needs), it is a fairly quaint and quiet centre – exactly what I adore. We have a supermarket, pharmacy, the doctor, lawyers/notaires, the mairie (local council), 2 boulangeries (bakeries), 2 florests, the post, a couple of banks, real estate agents, a brasserie, the pool, a playground, a dairy, 2 pizzerias, the obligatory Chinese restaurant, an American diner and an Italian restaurant, all within a minutes walk of our home. The two things I love the most, are that the river is only a minute walk away and the beautiful Tarnais countryside is about a 30 second drive from our doorstep!
The pace of life here in Albi is really chilled out, at least in my experience. Its the kind of place that I have come to believe would be a great place to raise a family, not that we’re thinking about that any time soon. But as I grow older, it becomes increasingly important for me to consider the type of work/life balance we want to have in life and Albi has shown me that it is possible to have a really healthy work life balance and social life while living in a small town. While the locals may be difficult to get to know on a personal level, at a distance, the locals are so lovely. You can quite literally strike up a conversation with anyone on the street and this is the kinda person I am, although the language barrier can prove difficult sometimes, I love it all the same. While I admit that winter in Albi is almost like living in a post-apocalyptic world after 7pm on any given night (including Friday and Saturday!), in the summertime, Albi comes alive. There are loads of festivals, events and spectacular’s (shows) around the region and days are long. And if you can’t find something to do, you can rely on the Irish pub to stay open until the early hours!
As for me and how I’m settling in, I can’t believe how comfortable and content I feel after such a short period of time. Perhaps home sickness will start sinking in when I least expect it, coz I have certainly been expecting it to pop up since I arrived. Thats not to say that I don’t miss my family. Thats another thing all together coz while I don’t miss New Zealand at all, I wish more than anything that I could jump on a plane and visit my family for the weekend. But that can’t be helped and life is treating me well, so I don’t see any point in wallowing in pity. Anyway, I’ve really started to find my feet here in Albi. Going to the local market has become a little bit of an event, particularly at our Saint Juery market, where I’ve been able to strike up coversations (in terrible French!) with some of the vendors. Even the butcher recognises me after I explained that as Kiwi girl, I NEED thick slices of steak with a whole lot of fat attached. I admit to feeling ripped off the first time I bought meat coz he gave me a pittance and shaved off the fat too! I know its not necessarily ‘equilibre’ (balanced) like the French believe is important to have in a meal but I will not apologise for enjoying a chunk of meat with a massive hunk of fat on the side! I’ve also come to recognise the difference between an artisanal boulanger, a baker who makes his own bread and those who don’t. Of course I’m not an expert but I much prefer the baguette’s and croissants of the boulangerie 5 minutes further from our house, to the ones sold just a minute away.
I also love travelling and discovering places. I can’t explain the feeling that I get from doing these things, but its kinda what makes me feel alive and gets me excited. I guess some people do sports, other people have hobbies and me, I love discovering places. So I am relishing every opportunity to discover France. Its funny because so many French people (and this is no exaggeration), seem perplexed when they find out that I moved from New Zealand aka the Garden of Eden, to France. They just can’t understand why, particularly in this tough economic climate. But mostly, they point out that New Zealand has such beautiful landscapes and have this idea that I’ve left paradise. Which, yeah I guess is true. But the thing is, France has equally beautiful landscapes, like Les Causses we discovered this past weekend. And yeah, I agree that where New Zealand has much more savage and virgin forest, the French landscape has been shaped by man over tens of thousands of years and its difficult to find truly isolated places. But to be fair, it’s beautiful all the same. In some ways and this is totally my own neurosis here, but its easier for me to appreciate the man-made French landscapes, than it is to appreciate the man-made New Zealand landscapes. When I drive through Taranaki for example, I look at the barren land and it makes me sad for what was there, particulalry because I have read 19th century reports explaining what happened to my people who did not give up their land. And what New Zealander’s find difficult to appreciate, is that these things happened in recent history. When I drive through France, its difficult to feel the same sense of sadness because man has existed here since pre-historic times. There are cave paintings going back tens of thousands of years, that is how long France’s landscape has been shaped for. Or perhaps its coz I don’t have an attachment to the land, so its easier for me to appreciate it without feeling the sadness.
While all of these things have helped to make me feel more at home, I admit that it has been creating a social life that is the cherry on top. For the first 3-4 months I didn’t really meet anyone outside of my French classes. Having said that, I did a lot of research before arriving in France and I didn’t expect anything different, so it didn’t bother me too much. But since my class picnic took place about 6 weeks ago, my social life has been snowballing and its been great! Great for my confidence and great for my sanity. Admittedly most of my local friends are Anglophone (english speaking) and although I never thought I would be a person who made friends exclusively with expats, the reality is much less black and white. The women I have become particularly close with are all married to local men and are making a life for themselves here in Albi. And while our common language is English, we come from very different countries – the US, the Czech Republic and Spain. But we are all committed to learning French and making it work.
On top of all of this, and most importantly, living in France has allowed us to be closer to my husband’s family. While the language barrier and cultural differences can sometimes impede on communication, for the most part I have loved building relationships with my in-laws. For the past 8 years we have lived independantly from each of our families, so I’m not really used to the dynamics of in-laws and have only read stories or heard other people’s experiences. For the most part, at least on both sides of my family, we generally welcome in-laws like other family members and I’ve also had plenty of family members/friends live with their respective partners along with their parents at the same time. Thankfully, it seems that my husband’s family are like this too and they have made a huge effort to make me feel welcome and comfortable. Words can’t express how much this means to me, needless to say, I am enjoying discovering where I fit as part of the family and look forward to more family time.
So this is my life in France 🙂