When I decided to leave Johannesburg, I started shopping around for a new place to call home. I considered Cape Town, a rather nice spot, surrounded as it is by sea, beaches, mountains, vineyards, with a vibrant culture and a laid-back vibe. But I had an European passport in my hand and a desire to learn a new language, so I started looking at the Mediterranean, finally settling on France.
I’ve always thought the French language sounds kinda sexy. I imagined myself cruising down the Riviera in a convertible, James Bond-style. I was going to become a film director on the Côte d’Azur and spend weekends on my sailboat. There would be girls in bikinis. Glorious!
In Dublin, I moved in with Adèle because I wanted to live with a French person. Adèle wasn’t so keen on France though. Most of the time she insisted on speaking English together. At the end of her Erasmus year she went back to Rennes and I moved to Paris. We saw each other on weekends, but our relationship had changed. She didn’t like coming to Paris, so I would go more often to Rennes. Weekends together are no replacement for living in close proximity. After a few months I couldn’t stand Paris either. My job at Mercer wasn’t working out well, the client sismply didn’t know what he wanted, and I spent my time twiddling my thumbs a lot.
Learning French is probably the single hardest thing that I have done in my life. There is the study, which is hard, but then there is the added challenge of living in the country and trying to make yourself understood. The beginning was very challenging. There were several moments when I was terribly frustrated by the incapacity to communicate. I sub-rented my apartment for a month and went to work on a farm in the south of France.
Paris is a very dense city, I got pretty tired of living a shoebox. Such high density does have its advantages: the city is very walkable, you can cycle just about anywhere, there are myriad interesting things to see and do. But overcrowded metros are unpleasant, even finding a free table on a sidewalk café can be a challenge. Some French people quite like Paris, but in my experience most don’t. I wrote a little guide.
I really wanted to get some sunshine so I moved down to Provence. I had a look at Nice, but its mostly just a big retirement home. Marseille is tad too messy, a touch too lethargic and a bit too violent for my tastes. I’ve found Montpellier to be altogether quite pleasant, a dynamic university town, protected from the blustering Mistral and Tramontane winds, with miles of beaches and a picturesque hinterland.
The old stone towns with their winding roads, sculpted limestone facades, painted shutters and clay tiled roofs are very quaint. Sprawl is a thing however, I was quite dismayed to see acres of suburban subdivisions, where soulless detached houses with mowed lawns and swimming pools surround sad low-rise apartment blocks and garish big box stores, eating up the abandoned vineyards. Poverty is surprisingly present to, despite the overarching social state, especially prevalent amongst the immigrant population from the former French colonies in North and West Africa. The social housing blocks on the edge of towns are particularly depressing places, where groups of loutish youths hang around the wrecks of burnt out cars. Its not always gay.
Adèle was accepted into a master’s program in Avignon so we moved there together. I got a job working for the SPEC, helping them get their public transit fleet management system off the ground. It was quite technically challenging. I hadn’t had much experience with real time streams of information. The SPEC was a terribly rigid company, very old-school top-down management. There was no space for ideas to filter up. That said, it was the most enjoyable programming experience I had, probably because I got to spend a lot of time looking at maps. The system felt a lot like a video game that I used to play called Transport Tycoon. SPEC was located outside of town; initially I cycled my bicycle there, but it was exhausting so I bought a scooter instead.
I met Andy in Avignon, an English guy who was big into rock climbing. He took me out on a number of expeditions, helping to kindle my interest in rock climbing. I also met Marie, a beautiful art-restorer with whom I did not have a love affair.
I signed up for a degree in geography, but I only completed the first semester before student and teacher strikes stopped me in my tracks.
Adèle finished her masters and spent a year looking for work, of which she found hardly none. Our relationship was on the rocks, we weren’t sleeping together much. She didn’t like living in the south, she found the summers too hot, and she had made hardly any friends. I felt like I no longer fulfilled her desires for an Irishman; I was becoming too French. I encouraged her to move to Edinburgh, but declined to join her. Ultimately we said goodbye and she left.
I felt like I had got stuck in Avignon. I decided to start learning Spanish with the idea of moving to Spain. However, before I could execute this plan I met Nathalie.
Nathalie’s mum is French and her dad is German, but she’d grown up in Frankfurt, so she was more German than French. Our relationship was blossoming, so I decided to cancel my plans to move to Spain. I still wanted to get out of Avignon so I moved to Marseille instead.
I rented a small house in Marseille with a terrace. I got on well with my neighbours. I was on unemployment benefits for the first time in my life. I tried my hand at a bit of computer game programming. Making computer games is extremely technically challenging. The artwork counts for more than the programming and I didn’t have a graphic artist to help me. My ideas were too big, I couldn’t possibly finish the project in a reasonable amount of time.
For a few months I got a job consulting at GSF in Sophia Antipolis. I rented a second apartment in Antibes and then in Nice for the duration of the contract. I realized that I really don’t like the Côte d’Azur, too many rich old people.
Nathalie would come down on the train to visit me in Marseille, alternatively I would go see her in Avignon. Seeing each other only on weekends for a long duration became quite frustrating. On the one hand we missed each other during the week, but on weekends we spent too much time together. There was a lack of balance.
Nathalie decided to give up on her art school in Avignon, so we decided to move together to Montpellier where she signed up for university. I got a job working for Arkadin for a few months, redesigning their browser-based front-end for a teleconferencing product. I left Arkadin to work for the SNI, helping to evolve and refactor various intranet applications that were used to manage the energy consumption of their real estate. I also did further work for the SPEC in Avignon, designing a mobile web site for real time transit information.
After our building was set on fire, we moved into a sweet little house with a garden.
Salaries are reasonably good in southern France, especially compared to other Mediterranean countries like Spain, Italy and Greece. Taxes are high though, for every €2 I invoice, roughly €1 goes to the state. There are a lot of freeloaders living off the state, which does grate me a little, but what’s a cat gonna do?
One thing that really drives me round the bend is the cult of the permanent contract, the so called “CDI”. I work freelance, which makes it very difficult to rent an apartment. The fact that I’ve always paid my rent, on time, for 15 years, doesn’t count a whit. Without entrepreneurs the entire economy would stall, but everything is done to restrict dynamism. At least telecommunication is cheap and fast.
Property prices in the South are very high, pushed upwards by wealthy individuals from Northern Europe buying holiday homes or simply investing in real estate. Young French people entering the job market now will have a very tough time buying their first home.
After eight years, I decided that I was about done with France, so I decided to sell everything and go sailing in Greece for a while.