On arriving in France (thought, mostly, at 320 kilometers per hour*)

[ I took the high-speed TGV train last week from Angoulême, France, where I live as of about a month ago, to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, to go to a comics festival in St. Petersburg, Russia. It was the first chance I'd had to really sit and compose my thoughts about leaving my old life in Brooklyn and starting a new one in small-town France. More actual concrete details about the situation to be found below all this poetic folderol, if you're interested.] 

WHO

If possible, don’t bring small children.

I stand on the TGV platform and carefully check my ticket time, train number, car number, the chart depicting the train showing that I’m standing at point H and my car (06) will be at point K, pre-walk like a real, if overly-cautious, angoumoisine (yes that’s what they’re called). Flashbacks to getting on the TGV at Charles de Gaulle a month ago (almost exactly—2 days short) with 2 small children, 3 overstuffed luggage carts and no charts to be found showing where our car would be, running, literally, down the platform to our train car, then running back for the other cart (only 2 adults available), chucking bags, computers (oh lord), small children into a crowded vestibule, other travelers helping, getting in the way. Porters crabbing at us for having so much crap. We’re MOVING I wanted to tell them. You think this is a lot of crap? Take a look at my Brooklyn basement. Take a look at the shipping warehouse with my 77 boxes waiting for a boat. (I would like to go to Le Havre and wave hello to them when they arrive on October 15.) What am I going to do when this train arrives at Charles de Gaulle and I visit the site of this trauma? Will I have a small (petite) heart attack?

If possible, bring small children.

Small children give you a really good reason to have done this incredibly difficult, slightly crazy, hubristic thing. It’s for the children, we say. They’ll learn French! And really what else could make you get off your ass and actually do it but the fact that they’re getting older, and if you wait too long, they won’t want to go with you. Small children also equal instant sympathy and (limited) assistance from airline personnel, train porters, total strangers. As long as they aren’t screaming (mine weren’t). Pili and Brigitte, the administrators of the residency, have bent over backwards to make things easy for us. They do that for all the residents. But one gets the feeling they’ll go even further for the kids.

When we all got on board the TGV a month ago, as I rearranged the suitcases and boxes, they charged Matt extra for too much crap. We paid, happily. Did I really need to bring my computer? (Yes.)

junkyard

heavy machinery

pleasant fields

high power lines

factory

elegant town

scrubby fields

allee of poplars

overpass

ugly town

moving too fast to catch the name on the train station.

Looking out on stacked blue, now gray clouds against the lightening sky of 7:42 am. Dawn comes late in this part of the world. This is one piece of the moving-to-a-new-country puzzle you don’t think enough about: the change in light, the change in time of a new location on the globe. Disconcerting. And ugh, arriving to school in the darkness in December.

peach grove

factory

cute town

gardens

old farm, cows.

Am I unromantic to find the French countryside (this bit of French countryside) from a train window no more charming than the East Coast’s? And the train, perhaps less charming. If faster. One doesn’t really want “charming” in one’s trains, anyway.

WHERE

We live on top of a steep-sided, kidney-bean-shaped plateau in the middle of what feels like no hills at all. A few. You can imagine the neolithic Gauls showing up in this part of France and seeing this one tall hill, and thinking, yeah, that’s what I’m talking about. Was this hill inhabited by neolithic people? I wonder if it’s human action that made it a plateau, if they flattened a hill, or was it always this way?

                            view from my studio september 2012

Angoulême is a town of about 50,000, in a “metro” region of about 110,000. No one can believe I would be content here after all my life in Chicago and Mexico City and New York, but so far, it’s about the size I want. It’s about the size that fits with an almost-five year old and a two-and-a-half year old. Yes, you can live in the big city with little kids, and its fun sometimes. But your scope shrinks to the length of their little legs and their little attention spans. Their world is home-school-park with tendrils reaching out to market-library-friends’ houses-family’s houses. It grows year by year, incorporating one place, then another. Why not take a break for a while and live in a town that fits them?

Finally the edges of the clouds turn pink at 7:54. Europeans might find the pre-6 am dawns of New York just one more manifestation of our crazed drive.

This train slows down for several minutes before it reaches a stop. The beast has incredible inertia. To stop takes time. To change direction is an enormous undertaking. Our family was a speeding train, a stagecoach in deep ruts. Extricating ourselves from the well-traveled route, it’s complicated, and painful. It’s bumpy to cut across ruts and open fields to break a new path. It’s not comfortable.

And oh the money. Great gouts of it pouring into the void. Plane, luggage, shipping, house repairs, new equipment, you have to ask yourself, why? Is it worth it? Why are we doing this if it’s so hard and so expensive? long pause.

We’re certainly not the first to do it, and I’m not looking for congratulations (or (!) pity). We won’t be the last. In fact, I hereby invite all our friends to move somewhere near here. We will be happy to share what we’ve learned. But the movers who packed our things for the container were surprised to learn that we were moving our own damn selves (and either impressed or taken aback by the fact. Hard to tell). No company was paying the bills.

When we applied for our sabbatical, we thought about moving some other, somewhat-randomly-chosen French or Spanish city. But having actually done it now, I can’t think how that would have played out. Badly, I imagine. Pili registered our kids for school, and had the apartment set up with twin beds. She’s friends with the visa office at the Prefecture, she knows how the CAF works, her kids went to the Ferme des Valettes and she knows the director. So I claim that we’ve done this on our own, but it’s not true. And we’ve got studios (a beautiful, lonely studio on the top floor. I miss my interns), and instant colleagues. We’ve moved into a new life, a readymade.

WHY

What the hell am I doing here? I think that every so often when I find myself gazing out the window and allowing my thoughts to wander. Our new tenants move into our Brooklyn apartment today, no going back now.

I’m out of touch. We don’t have good internet at home yet, I don’t listen to NPR or get the paper. Morning Edition while making dinner? I guess I can get used to it. I don’t go into magazine stands much. This isn’t really what I intended. Makes for slight free-floating anxiety.

Dearth of to-dos on my calendar. I’m used to blazing red and orange tasks, undoable lists every day. I’ve had a hangover of tasks since I got here, but it’s clearing up. That’s what I hoped for, but I still don’t really know what it’s a function of. France? Is France simpler? Certainly child care is simpler. Cheaper, closer, faster, better. An empty calendar is a totally novel feeling. At least in the last four years (six?). How can I look at those years and analyze what I was doing and figure out why I’m not doing it now? Was I making it all up, and didn’t have to be that crazy after all?

                               October 2011 vs. October 2012.

HOW

Arrange leaves of absence. Register your kids for school in your town, then cancel the registration. Rent out your apartment. Find some trustworthy neighbors to look after it for you. Find a place to live in France. Estimate what you’ll want to have there, then nix most of it. Pack your life in boxes, store them. Find very expensive shippers to come and pack what’s left to put it on a ship (eventually). Try to get your house clean, fixed up by the time you leave. Fail, but have people who can do it for you available. Pack as much as the baggage allotment on the airplane allows. Pay extra for the carryons that are over weight and check them. Spend a nice dinner hour in Reykjavik at their midnight, everything closed. Arrive, and do complex geometry on your luggage to figure out how to get it all on 3 carts. Have only 2 adults to push 3 carts. Do it in little stretches, running back in relays to move the other cart about 100 feet at a time (30 meters). Make sure you don’t lose your children. Shift items of luggage off carts and onto an elevator, then a shuttle, then an elevator, then carts again. Almost miss the TGV. Don’t miss it, but lose a bag. Arrive and collapse into new apartment. Children will scream all night due to jet lag. You will survive. Wake up. Realize that you’ve shipped way too much crap. (The missing bag reappears the next day.)

cornfields

cows

grain depot

train passing in the opposite direction, gone in 2 seconds

strange road arrangements. (I have to get a new drivers license here, and that will mean actually taking driving lessons, on top of a written and road test. In French.)

WHERE, AGAIN?

I’m missing the map app on my iPhone. I’m waiting out my contract, so I can’t get phone service here yet, but it’s contributing to the floating feeling I have sometimes of not being anywhere, really. The plastic temporary tag on my keychain makes me feel like I’m living in a vacation rental. I need to buy one, ceremoniously (a key chain).

giant windmills

town so small you can see all the way around it

cloudy skies

there is definitely no wifi on this train.

Another town you can see all the way around. Are these towns, or giant single farms with lots and lots of outbuildings? Is everyone who lives there related?

What’s more important: productivity or contentment? There’s no school on Wednesdays in France. Did you know that? I did not know that. I’ve read that no one wishes, when on their death beds, that they had worked more. I’m clinging to that idea.

I jest. My calendar is empty. I will work and produce and make comics. That’s what I’m here for.

WHEN

The hardest thing for the kids so far? Adjusting to the food schedule. Not the food—that’s easy. The schedule. No snacks mid-morning, lunch at 11:30, no snacks until “goûter” at 4:30, no snacks until dinner. I never realized how often we gave our kids food until now. And we’re not a snacking family, particularly.

We spent our first few weeks here trying to get our hands on enough plug converters for our US-plugged stuff (not that much of it, either). Amazon.fr is not Amazon.com. They will take a week to deliver even stuff they have in stock. Do not be fooled. Bring plug converters.

It’s pretty small beans as far as real problems go, but to stand there in the vestibule of the shuttle to terminal 2, three carts full of our worldly possessions, two small children, and not more than a couple of hours of sleep among us, was to despair for a moment. How would we transport all this stuff and also always have one parent with the children? Why do we need so much stuff? What’s “need”? Did we leave our protective middle class American shell behind and were suffering the consequences? Or did we try to carry it with us, and suffer the consequences?

We gird our loins and look at one another and say, are we really going to do this? Really? And then do it. Carry, return, scold children, carry, push, stack, take small hands. I really don’t mean this to read as complaint. It was, rather, a moment of existential doubt. If the journey itself is this hard, what are doing here? Why are we putting our family though this? (Nothing since has been as difficult or scary.) I sat on the airport shuttle softly crying behind a suitcase where my children couldn’t see me, exhausted and mourning for Brooklyn and my friends. I’d shed my cocoon of home, neighborhood, friends and family, professional networks, and I felt very vulnerable. But I also wondered: had I wasted my 30s racing for something, trying to make, get, settle, finish, achieve, rather than live and experience? Virtually the only moments in that decade that stand out to me, that have clear outlines, are when I traveled, and felt a glimpse of this lighter, less complicated way to be.

There are all kinds of circumstances, some worked-for and merited, some pure chance, that make it possible for us to do this as a family. Not everyone can, or not so simply.

Feeling unmoored as I do makes me wish to be in Cool Brooklyn, but I didn’t live in Cool Brooklyn. I only visited, and it was out of my reach even when it was a short subway ride away. Why couldn’t I make a life this simple in NYC? Does anyone know how to help me figure it out? There’s less to want here, and that’s helpful in not wanting more than it’s possible to have. Is New York angst a perpetual thing, that no matter how much money you have, there’s always a secret artisanal supper club you’re not invited to? Do those (few) people I hear of who seem to lead perpetually interesting lives, but still relax with their family and friends actually do that? Or is it an illusion? What are the elements of a life that works in New York? Just massive massive amounts of money? If you have a personal chef? an assistant? Do you relax?

Will we be spoiled for NYC life by living here, unable to stand to return? I saw that Tom Hart has started writing about his family’s escape from New York, and I knew I needed to think about this before I read his story.

I felt like I was careening towards a crash before I left, and maybe the trip itself was the crash. And I’ve been recovering, since. quiet, short hours in the studio. Wednesdays mostly off. Life is yet to begin in some way. I want to make large images of whatever, nothing. Short stories that mean very little, that flitter and float away.

The effect is to allow me–no, to remind me–to live in the present.

I arrive at Charles de Gaulle with a backpack and a carry-on suitcase, just like a regular person, to find my flight to St. Petersburg.

WHAT

4 full size suitcases: clothes, toys, shoes. books.

4 cardboard boxes (1 with a handle): bath and kitchen items, a portfolio of original art in progress, an iMac, a Cintiq

4 carryons: more clothes, toys, books, video and audio equipment, art supplies

4 “personal items” backpacks/totes: food, books, a laptop, cameras, notebooks

2 strollers

2 carseats

2 children

2 adults

but we left a lot of baggage at home.

*200 miles per hour, the standard top operating speed for a TGV train. My train was probably going a lot slower, actually.

 


For those who could use some actual information mixed in with rumination on the meaning of life or whatever goddammit, here’s what’s going on:

Matt Madden and I moved to Angoulême, France, in late August, 2012, with our two children, ages 4.75 and 2.5. Angoulême is a medium-sized town in the south west of France, near Bordeaux. We’re here to do a one-year residency at the Maison des Auteurs, which is a part of the Cité Internationale de la Bande Dessinée et de l’Image (translation: the city of comics and the image). The MdA is a residency that offers well-equipped studios, and sometimes apartments, to working cartoonists, illustrators, and animators. If you think you’d like to apply, you’re probably right. Go here (materials are available in English, you don’t have to speak French to apply, and it’s not a criterion of being accepted, but you’ll probably want to get studying if you hope to come. It will make your life a lot easier).

There are something like, I dunno, 20 or so residents at a time? In solo and shared, well-equipped studios, in a large building on the edge of the ramparts of Angoulême, in the old town. My studio is on the top floor, on the non-round end.

The Cité is an institution comprised of the MdA, a comics library, a cinema, and a comics museum. All the non-MdA parts are in other buildings just down the hill from here, but it’s very a steep hill.

In the USA (and most other places) Angoulême is best known as the home of a giant comics festival (English here) that happens each year at the end of January. This is a separate organization, but of course very connected to the Cité. Are you coming? See you here!

We live in a lovely but somewhat strange apartment about a block away (14 foot ceilings—sorry, ~5 meters—a spiral staircase linking bedrooms and bath with kitchen and living rooms). It’s getting more comfortable (especially after a trip to IKEA Bordeaux (oh yes)), but I do miss middle class comforts like a dishwasher and a shower (bath only).

We rented our apartment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to a very friendly family, and hope it will be as nice for them as it was for us. One day we’ll be back.

I’ll write occasionally about our life here on this blog, and I guess Matt will probably write about it too. If you’d like to hear about that and, I don’t know, probably about some comics or whatever, please join our mailing list.

Comment

  1. Joanne says:

    Love it. You’ll know you’ve switched to the other side when you wonder how you managed to live before without a “gou?ter.”

  2. Eireann says:

    I remember so clearly the feeling you describe on arriving in France six years ago—what am I doing, why!? Hard as migrating can be, I can’t imagine going back to the US for good now. I hope you really love your time in Angoulême and wish you all the best luck with your transitions.

  3. Steven john says:

    Wow! Looks like you and your family have been having quite an adventure. Congratulations!

    You probably don’t remember, but years ago you actually responded to a fan letter i wrote to you about La Perdida. It wasn’t huge or anything, but I appreciated the you took the time to respond.

    Thanks for being awesome!

  4. Corey says:

    This is so fascinating to follow and read about your experiences there. Do you ever feel like your family is living in an alternate universe/Matrix-type fantasy world created entirely for comics artists? :)

  5. Rob Clough says:

    This feels like the script to an unpublished issue of Artbabe–wonderful. You may well want to move back to Brooklyn, but perhaps you and Matt should strike out and found your own comics school in a smaller town in the US. There are lots of cities between 50-200000 people with thriving arts scenes (I live in one of them)….

  6. Robbi says:

    This is fantastic! Wonderful observations, and an adventure I can partake in without all the luggage!

    Looking forward to reading more…

  7. Hey Jessica,

    I’ve been planning on doing my Masters on BD at the ÉESI Angoulême (I’m brazilian), and taking my two little boys (4 and 2 years old) with us.

    If it’s not too much to ask, how much do you guys spend monthly on average, with living expenses, food, rent, etc?

    I’ve been following the blog avidly, and these posts about the move and life in france have been very enlightening.

    Thank you!

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