It’s been a while since I’ve updated my blog – oops. Mostly its coz I didn’t have much to report or reflect on. This year has gone super-fast coz we’ve been pretty busy, busier than I’d wanted to be at times. The hubby’s only on a short term contract for the moment, so he’s been searching and applying for jobs for the most part. It’s a frustrating process, especially because we love our life here in Albi and we keep hoping that his current job will offer him a permanent contract. They’ve toyed with our emotions a bit too, telling him it’s possible and then ripping the rug out from our feet again.
One of the problems is because of French employment law. I’m not even gonna begin to pretend I understand anything in that area. Anything to do with French administration is a minefield, so yeah, I know nothing really. But from the little that I do understand, its illegal for an employer to offer 2 consecutive short term contracts (contract of a determined duration – CDD), which if they do, means they’re obligated to offer a permanent position. In the case of my hubby’s current employer, they will neither extend his contract nor offer him a permanent position. But I’ve also been told (by a 3rd party) that my hubby’s position is relatively important and that it doesn’t make sense that they won’t offer him a permanent position. Welcome, once again, to the contradictions of life in France.
So although we’re hoping we’ll get to stay in Albi, it’s hard to consider that we may not have a choice. It’s hard to explain why I love Albi so much. In fact it’s much much easier to criticise and critique the things I don’t like about France than to talk about the things that I do love, and there are a lot.
Albi feels like a sanctuary to me. The lifestyle doesn’t feel so different to life back in New Zealand either. It’s true that I miss the hustle and bustle of being in the city on a daily basis (more especially our Kiwi brunches + mocchachino with cinnamon and chocolate sprinkles, topped with marshmallows = mmmmmmmmmm), but at the same time, I love that my home is surrounded by the luscious greenery of the Vallee du Tarn. Finding a home that has a balance between the two seems to be close to impossible here in France. In Auckland we lived no more than 7-10mins max from downtown, yet our house was like a holiday home. It was away from the road, so was nice and quiet. It was surrounded by a tiny forest of trees, including a pohutukawa which protected us from the street. We had a massive deck which allowed us to have bbq’s all year round. From our bedroom we had a view out over the Hauraki Gulf towards Devonport; Orakei domain and beach were only 800m away and Bastion Point, with one of the most beautiful views in Auckland, was only a 15 minute walk away. We were also spoilt having Mission Bay and it’s fancy restaurants, sea views (and ice cream joints!) right around the corner. All of this, yet the city was only 7km away!
In France you’ve either got to be ‘in’ the city, or out – unless you’re up for a long commute. It’s just not possible to live 7kms from the CBD and still feel like you’re on holiday. If you have enough money you could probably live in an apartment or townhouse that feels like a sanctuary once you’re hidden inside, but you’re still likely to have to step outside and be surrounded by a concrete jungle (and oodles of dog shit). In lieu of living like that, I think Albi has the perfect balance. The centre of town as well as the various shopping centres on the outskirts of town, provides you with everything you should need to make life comfortable. You don’t need to go elsewhere. Of course Toulouse is only a 45 minute drive away if you want a few more options. While Albi is a relatively small town (40,000 inhabitants in Albi itself, with 80,000+ in the wider region), there is always something going on entertainment wise. They have a lively theatre and music scene, as well as 2 universities and university hospitals. The centre of town is a Unesco heritage site because of the well preserved medieval buildings and architecture, plus the Albi Cathedral, St Cecile’s, is one of the largest (in terms of volume) in Europe. Because of this and because we are the capital of the Tarn region, which holds the title for the most number of ‘the most beautiful village of France’ (les plus beau villages de France), our tourism industry thrives all year long.
There’s something else that is difficult to explain or quantify in words. There is a real sense of community that exists in Albi, something I haven’t experienced since my childhood. There’s just always stuff going on to encourage community engagement, even if it’s just a vide grenier (France’s version of white elephant trunk sale). There are public discussions, protests, lectures, children’s events, several markets, festivals….. the list goes on. Contrary to what people might think of small town France, life is very lively if you want it to be. Of course if you prefer to chill out (like I do), then all you need to do is take a short drive, walk, bike ride into the countryside – which truly is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever had the chance to enjoy (see the main photo above with the 2 hot air balloons – that is a typical Sunday drive!). One of my favourite things to do, is to go to the Sunday session of the Cafe Citoyen (an informal debate/discussion group) at Plume Cafe in Lautrec, one of the ‘plus beau villages de France’. I enjoy the stimulating discussion, but what’s more, the cafe doubles as an alternative bookstore AND their meals are the most delicious, organic, free range, vegetarian meals ever. Oh and the music’s great too! Driving back through the countryside is always so therapeutic, no matter what time of year it is. I feel truly lucky to live in such a beautiful, tranquil part of the world.
So Albi is just, well, awesome in my view. It has everything you need, Toulouse is only 45 minutes away, the countryside is on your doorstep and there’s always something to do. But what makes Albi even more special than all those things combined, are the friends that I’ve made here. Before moving to France I used to tell myself I wouldn’t be ‘that’ expat who hangs out with other expats. I lied. But I don’t care. There’s this thing called life and we deal with it the best we can. Besides, there’s a reason I have more expat friends than French friends – the French will be the first to tell you that the further north you go, the sooner people open their arms to you, but they’ll never close them. That is to say that you’ll never truly get to know someone. To some degree I have experienced this myself. It’s frustrating, but oh well. I’m learning to just accept the French and their quirks.
The French will also tell you that the further south you go, the longer it takes for people to open their arms to you, but once they do, you’re friends for life. I’m also learning to deal with this. After being in Albi for a year and a half I’m finally starting to feel like people see me as a good ‘long term bet’. There’s one friend who, after a couple of months, I kinda gave up on. If you think of it like dating, I just felt like there was no spark or interest and assumed there was nothing to be gained in hoping for more. I always thought it was a bit odd given that we did have quite a few things in common but…. they just didn’t seem the least bit interested in me so concluded that they just didn’t give a crap. Then suddenly, after 10 months of feeling like we were only in the same room because we had to be, I was invited to start spending quality time together. I was kinda shocked……. I literally came to accept that we didn’t have a future and stopped making an effort. I guess they were just taking their time sussing me out, and eventually decided I was worth opening up to. So I guess we’re friends for life now?
It is a painstakingly long process to graduate to the status of ‘good friends’ with the average French person, but its something I know I just have to wait out. (I have found that abnormally friendly, sensitive, well-travelled or just plain bizarre French people are much easier to get along with from the outset – but they are generally not the norm and are few and far between). I can’t emphasize enough how cross-cultural differences influence this process. You just have to recognise it for what it is and deal with it the best you can. I was always aware of it in theory, but it doesn’t prepare you for the rejection you feel when your warm fuzzies aren’t reciprocated right away. I could’ve been all righteous and stayed away from expats….. but given the time it takes to build strong relationships with French peeps, I sure as hell wasn’t gonna sit around collecting dust.
Which brings me to my Albi peeps. Yes the majority are expats, but they are my peeps nonetheless, and we have all helped each other to navigate and make sense of life in France. When you are dealing with the bloody frustrating aspects of French society, it’s such a relief to be able to rant to someone that can instantly validate you and share their experiences, or better yet, they can offer a different view or perspective. It’s seriously like a lifeline. And for the first time in a long time I feel part of a group. Before I left home (Wellington) I was part of a big group of friends, who are still a very important part of my life but I’m not there sharing and creating experiences with them. It’s something that I’m keenly aware of each time I return home and someone cracks an in joke that I don’t understand. Since I’ve been in Albi I’ve become part of a group again and it’s the coolest thing. It’s also kinda weird…. I lived in Auckland for 5 years and I lived a pretty busy life and while I made lots of close friends over those 5 years, I didn’t become part of a group. I’m not exactly sure why that was the case, especially coz I longed to replicate what I had back in Wellington, but it just didn’t happen (though I suspect that part of the reason is coz of Auckland’s poor infrastructure, which doesn’t allow for thick social ties to be created very easily, enhanced nor maintained…. but that’s another story). But I have found it here and I don’t want to leave it.
So that’s where I’m at, at the moment. I don’t want to leave Albi and hope we can stay. Despite that, someone close to use recently said we could go to Hong Kong for all they cared (it was said with love and kindness, they’re just very pragmatic about stuff). I was quite surprised but mostly hurt. My friends and family back in NZ would love more than anything if we returned home. I was tempted to say ‘well fine then, we’ll just go back to NZ!’. But the truth is, as much as I bitch about France, I really love our life here and hope we can stay for the time being. More than anything, I love Albi and the Tarn region. So cross your fingers that my hubby’s employers see reason and decide to give him a job!!!