La vie en France

How living abroad taught me about myself and life in America

A street scene in Allègre, a charming village in the Haute-Loire department near Yssingeaux.

A street scene in Allègre, a charming village in the Haute-Loire department near Yssingeaux.

photo by meredith J. Graham

About the author:
Freelance writer Meredith J. Graham is a former managing editor of the CN&R. She lives in Colorado with her husband, Josh, and four dogs.

When my husband, Josh, and I decided to take the rather large leap from our comfortable lives in Chico to a small town in south-central France, we predicted we’d come back with a greater understanding of the French language and culture. But there were many experiences we did not foresee that would shape the way we see the world.

Perhaps one of the most obvious differences between small-town USA and small-town France can be seen on street corners, in centuries-old market squares and along cobblestone alleys. Mom and Pop still run France’s consumer culture. The idea of Costco made our French friends shake their heads and laugh.

We moved to France so Josh could attend pastry school, and what better place to do so than the land of the croissant and éclair? The French value expertise in a way that many Americans seem to have forgotten. In France, it’s not uncommon to meet a pastry chef who had perfected the art of tempering chocolate by age 15. The same goes for so many other trades.

Walking along the time-worn streets of small-town France, we gained a new-found appreciation for homemade, for handcrafted, for true quality that Americans have taken for granted almost to the point of forcing it all to extinction. We often shopped at the farmers’ market in Yssingeaux, a town of 8,000 whose entire downtown—every road and alley of it—is filled with fresh produce, cheese, meat, fish, spices and knicknacks every Thursday morning.

We navigated our new surroundings with a mixture of curiosity, difficulty and, many times, surprise at what we’d learned. We struggled with the language, relished the flavors, marveled at the history and fumed at the bureaucracy.

Some of the experiences during our time abroad were positive; others, not so much. Yet each one forced us to reassess the value we place on convenience and how we choose to spend our money and time. We landed in France last April, and returned in December with new insight into ourselves and how we want to live life in the States.

The author and her husband (right) and roommate at a sidewalk café.

PHOTO courtesy of meredith J. Graham

Getting us to France taught me that I’m more determined and patient than I ever realized.

Josh had started looking for pastry schools a few years ago and, being so close to the Bay Area, he first set his sights on San Francisco. Pretty quickly, though, his search took him to Chicago, then New York. By the time we imagined a cross-country move—and to an expensive city like the Big Apple—we thought to ourselves, “We might as well move to France!” So he changed his search parameters altogether, found a small but reputable school that offered classes in English, applied, and was accepted.

Voilà, right? Well, not exactly.

Turns out the application process was considerably easier than that of actually getting us the roughly 6,000 miles from Chico to the small town of Yssingeaux (pronounced ee-san-joe). This is where it came down to hard work and patience.

You know the caricature of the Frenchman drowning in bureaucratic paperwork? It’s only a slight exaggeration. Just to get our visas that would enable us to stay in the country for longer than three months (the amount of time a normal tourist can stay), we needed no less than: our passports, Josh’s acceptance letter and an official document explaining he’d be living at the school, our marriage certificate, bank statements showing sufficient funds to last us the duration of our stay, plane tickets to prove our date of arrival in France, documentation to show our current residence to ensure we were at the correct consular location (in our case, San Francisco), and a notarized letter stating I would not seek employment while in France. Oh, and each document had to be presented in person, in triplicate.

Consider that we took two dogs with us and that they required almost as much paperwork. (Actually, all four of us might not have made the overseas flight had Dr. Wrinkle at Valley Oak Veterinary Center not been kind enough to rush to the clinic on her day off to type up a letter stating the pups could fly in 45 degree weather and fax it to American Airlines. She deserves a special thanks for that.)

We chose France, and the community of Yssingeaux in particular, because of its pastry school. Josh had been baking bread for nearly a decade, first at Tin Roof Bakery and more recently at the Upper Crust, and had decided to expand his skill set. What better place to do that than a French pastry school … in France? We’d done plenty of research and found what appeared to be the perfect place for him, Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Pâtisserie (ENSP for short).

A fruit tart created by Josh Graham at ENSP, a pastry school.

photo by meredith J. Graham

Josh was one of seven international students—and the only American—in the intensive, five-month French Pastry Arts program. Classes were taught in English, but between French classes, recipes delivered in both languages, and French friends in town and at the school, Josh came away learning more French than he had expected. (Just the other day he admitted to having, when it comes to pastry, a hard time pronouncing the word “fruit” the American way instead of the alternative fwee.)

He spent four days a week in the lab, learning and perfecting everything from chocolates and candies to mousses and ice creams to entremets (beautifully designed mousse cakes) and tarts. He made croissants, baguettes, eclairs, wedding cakes, you name it. And because it was a “pastry arts” course, the emphasis was not only on taste, but also presentation, something very important to the French.

Josh brought a particularly American male perspective to the class of mostly women. During the lesson on wedding cakes, he opted to use blue frosting rather than the more common pink or purple. His instructor and chef, Kyung-Ran Baccon, was at first averse to this color palette, but Josh surprised her by creating flawless flowers by hand (she commented that she hadn’t thought it possible that such a big man could create such delicate flowers), and afterward she admitted that he’d managed to make her like blue.

Living as an American in France gave me a new perspective on life for all the foreigners who have made the United States their home. I no longer take for granted the fact that I can ask a bus driver which stop I need, explain the kind of haircut I want, understand a menu or offer someone directions.

While abroad, every time I opened my mouth to speak to a French person, I had to first think about what I was going to say. I’d taken French through high school, and had brushed up using Rosetta Stone, but I was far from fluent, and every conversation was hard work.

Once we settled into our apartment with our Brazilian roommate, Clovis, my main goal was to “live in France” while Josh went to school. I went to the farmers’ market every week (amazing!), I quickly found the best butcher in town, the best grocery store, the best cheese monger. I could buy things. I could even do it politely. But when it came to asking questions, mine were very, very basic. My go-to was, “Q’est-ce que c’est?” which simply means, “What is this?”

One morning, when I was to meet Josh’s French teacher, I challenged him to introduce me to her. In French. He mustered up the courage and said, “C’est une femme. Elle s’appelle Meredith.” I got a pretty good laugh out of it, because what he’d meant to say was, “This is my wife. Her name is Meredith.” But what he actually said was, “This is a woman. Her name is Meredith.” Obviously, it could have been worse; it just so happens that the word femme means both “woman” and “wife” (let’s not get into that one!). I was proud of him for trying, though. Half the battle with learning any new language is getting up that courage to blurt out the words. And hey, he got it mostly right.

Produce from the weekly farmers’ market in Yssingeaux.

photo by meredith J. Graham

Small-town France is steeped in history. Yssingeaux, where we lived for the five months Josh attended ENSP, is about an hour by car southwest of Lyon in what’s known as the Haute-Loire department (the equivalent of a county). It was first settled around the year 1000. That fact alone is almost unfathomable to an American whose “historic” monuments go all the way back to the 1700s.

ENSP is housed in a castle. It’s been renovated, of course, so the interior is completely new. But he got to go to school in a castle. How many people can say that?

After Josh finished school, he had to complete an internship in a French pastry shop. His choice was not far from Yssingeaux, to the south, at the entryway to Provence. Montélimar, the “Nougat Capital of the World,” is a medieval city whose downtown used to be walled. We lived in a studio in the old part of the city. Our landlady said the building was built around 1800, and our big, old keys backed up her story. The roads were narrow (one was just wider than my arm span), most of them cobblestone, and they wove an intricate web through town.

Every day, as I walked through town, I reminded myself that I would probably never again live amid such beautiful history. The castle in Montélimar (every city has one) was built in the 1100s and sits perched above the old city. There’s a church in the middle of town that was first referenced around 1050, meaning it might be much older. It burned down and was rebuilt in the 1600s. Before the United States was a country. There’s some perspective for ya.

For many Americans, one of the most striking differences of French life is the slower pace of everything, including work.

Perhaps it’s a byproduct of the no-rush mentality (or maybe it’s the cause—who knows?), but the French seem to take a much more balanced approach to work and life than we Americans. Lunches last at least an hour, and the work week is 35 hours instead of 40. While Josh was at his internship in Montelimar, his lunch break was 2 1/2 hours long. No joke. He was able to come home for lunch, sometimes go on long walks with me and the dogs around town, and more than once sit down for a very French, very long coffee at an outdoor café. This is probably why fast-food restaurants and even to-go ordering is hard to find in France.

Adjusting to this way of living took some time and patience. When I arrived at the electric company office—a mile walk from our apartment—only to find a sign on the door that said they were on vacation and to come back the following week, well, I was more than a little annoyed. Don’t expect to get anything done during August in France—even government offices shut down so everyone can go to the beach.

Meredith and Josh Graham below La Chapelle Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe in the town of Le-Puy-en-Velay, in Auvergne, France.

photo courtesy of meredith j. graham

To the French, Americans work too hard and take too little vacation. Having lived like the French for a little while, I can understand why they would think that. We live to work in such a way that many of us don’t take the time to enjoy what we have—our families, our friends, our homes, even our food. One of the more important lessons I’ve taken away from my experience in France is that, while work is clearly an important part of life, it is not in control—I am.

Just as a foreigner visiting the United States would quickly be able to point out all the fast-food restaurants, strip malls and SUVs that America is known for, it is not hard to find examples of everything you’ve heard about France while there. Some of the clichés are admittedly more true than others.

In France, in my experience, you will absolutely see at least three people walking around town carrying a baguette and/or croissant every morning. There is at least one sidewalk café in every town, along with a very old church and a castle or the remnants thereof. The wine, cheese and chocolate really are amazing (and amazingly affordable). Perhaps it’s their willingness to take time to eat rather than grabbing McDonald’s on the way home, or their penchant for walking, but the French certainly live up to the stereotype of being thin. There’s no obesity epidemic there, despite their intense love of good, rich food and drink.

One myth I will dispel is the one of the beret. The only person I saw wearing one was a policeman in Paris. Seeing as it was part of his uniform, it doesn’t really count.

Of course, the American stereotype of the French is that they are snooty. Well, that might be true of Parisians, who generally think they’re better than everyone, even their countrymen. But I found that, even in Paris, as long as I made an effort to speak French, the people were quite friendly. I truly believe that it’s the arrogant Americans who walk into Paris restaurants demanding things in English who give us—and the French—a bad name.

One thing that was easy to get used to was France’s love of dogs.

The French basically consider it a right to bring their canine companions everywhere with them, including cafés and restaurants. We adapted easily, often taking our dogs with us when we sat for cappuccinos or went shopping. In fact, I think the only places that were consistently off limits to the pups were grocery stores. (Now, if they would adopt the American attitude about picking up after their pooches, France might just be perfect.)

Josh Graham at ENSP with a week’s worth of sweets made by his class.

Photo By meredith j. Graham

Most of the dogs we encountered while in France were small, like ours. Think Shih Tzus, Pomeranians, Bichon Frisés … But not a lot of chihuahuas. So, our chihuahua-Jack Russells got quite a bit of attention. Twice I had strangers come up to me while I was walking them and exclaim, “Ils sont magnifiques!” meaning, quite rightly, that “They are magnificent!”

A lot of culture shock lies in what is considered normal in one place but not another. In America, it’s normal to drive everywhere, and when we go shopping we not only expect store employees to bag our groceries, but also to provide the bags and trek our carts back to the corrals for us. In France, something as simple as grocery shopping is such a different experience. Everyone brings their own bags—if you don’t, you buy one, and it’s reusable. You bag your own groceries. And you put a euro coin into a slot in your shopping cart to release it from the corral—if you want it back, you put your cart back.

Our experiences with culture shock and interactions with not only the locals but also people from all over left me with one major impression: The world is humongous, so much bigger than my Chico bubble, than Butte County or California or even the entire United States.

It really hit me one evening when we were having dinner with Josh’s classmates. We heard stories about growing up in the USSR; about post-apartheid South Africa; about contracting dengue fever in Brazil—twice; about life as a Bollywood actress; and about going to school in Indonesia during the SARS outbreak.

Sure, I’d read about apartheid and seen news coverage of SARS, but nothing quite brings those things home like experiencing it yourself or through someone you know. This was probably an even bigger revelation for Josh, who had never been outside the United States until we landed in Paris. Among other culture shocks, he had a hard time understanding that phrases like “‘Sup?” and “How’s it goin’?” are uniquely American and don’t quite translate. (He loves using “word” as an affirmative answer so much that he started saying it in French, finally settling on “mot, chien”—literally “word, dog.”)

All things considered, it’s good to be home.

Living in France was a true adventure. But it was not easy. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t breathe a sigh of relief when I stepped off the plane onto American soil. There was a big mixture of emotions—sadness that our adventure was over, but relief that the nightmare of traveling with all our luggage and two dogs via train, car and plane was behind us; already nostalgic for friends we’d made as well as my favorite wines and cheeses, but excited for what new discoveries the future might hold.

One discovery is how living abroad has given us a new perspective on life in the States.

So far, that life is in Colorado, where Josh is working as a pastry chef in a European bakery in Boulder. He’ll soon be adding his own dessert—an entremet he learned to make at ENSP—to the menu. I’m a freelance journalist, writing from home, exploring our new environs and taking life one day at a time, something I learned from the French.

Living in France gave us a new appreciation for quality, both of ingredients and the expertise it takes to turn them into something worth waiting in line for, and paying more for. There’s nothing quite like spending eight months without conveniences to make you question your values.

One thing that immediately went out the door upon returning to the States was our reliance on fast food and drive-through coffee shops. We now cook most of our meals, as we did in France. We’re also less inclined to jump in the car to travel a few blocks. We’re now sharing a car, which, quite frankly, despite the fact that we both lived within walking distance of work in Chico, would not have seemed possible for us then. Now it works, even if it is less convenient.

America is a wonderful country, but that doesn’t mean we’ve gotten everything right. It can be hard to get perspective on your life—and your way of life—while you’re living it, which is what makes traveling and experiencing other cultures so valuable.

In the end, living abroad truly gave us a new appreciation for the world as a whole as well as for the country we call home. When we feel we need a reality check, or just a nice, long vacation, you’ll likely find us in France. Or in some other country—who knows?