Pros/cons, ups/downs, love/hate: Life in France after almost a year.

charente nov 2012
I’m not a Francophile. I like France, but I’ve never fantasized about living here. I don’t idolize French food, or the language, or fashion. I decided a few years ago (with Matt, of course) that it would be a good idea to try to live in France, because the comics industry is so strong here, because we have professional connections, because Matt speaks very good French, and because I really need to finally learn to do so too. There are other reasons we wanted to move, but they’re less specific to France: we want our kids to know multiple languages and to have an international perspective. We feel that living abroad, anywhere, is a really good idea for artists. We were trapped in an ongoing stress-fest life in Brooklyn, where we did (a lot) more comics-related work than on actual comics, and we needed to go somewhere cheaper and simpler (this factor does not really point one to France, of course). (More on our decision-making process here.)

So the last few days of August 2012 saw me and Matt and our two kids get on a plane with way too many suitcases and arrive in Angoulême, France.

People say to me, “oh, that just sounds so fan-TAS-tic” in this dreamy voice…you can tell that my story plays into their more-or-less developed fantasy of escape to a romantic other life, where things are simpler and slower and a hell of a lot prettier.  I have this conversation with friends and family over and over: Is it great? Are you happy? When are you coming back? Does socialism work?? 

We do try to keep track of the local goat cheeses we've tried. Sometimes we forget.  (clockwise from upper left chèvre fermier Galletout, chèvre Saint Clement, chèvre Le gatinois,  chèvre Gariotin)

We do try to keep track of the local goat cheeses we’ve tried. Sometimes we forget. #frenchpeopleproblems (clockwise from upper left chèvre fermier Galletout, chèvre Saint Clement, chèvre Le gatinois, chèvre Gariotin)

The short version: we are here in France, we plan to stay longer, and we are happy to be here, but not so happy that we’ve been able to put into practice that very wise Buddhist teaching to live in the moment: we’re constantly thinking about what comes next, and constantly assessing and comparing what we’ve got now.

The long version is really really long, and frankly, it’s way too early to tell how this will all play out over time. Life doesn’t perfect itself just because you’re in a new country that has much much better cheese. There are tradeoffs. Mexican food for example.

And as an example of not living solely in the moment: How does reality stack up to my goals so far?

Comics are one of the primary industries in this town. In my daughter’s class of 22 kids, there are two other children of cartoonists, and one of a comics festival administrator. That’s almost 20% comics-related children in that class. It’s great to be able to talk about my job like it’s just a normal job. Both kids have told me they want to make “bandes dessinées” when they grow up (uh oh), though my daughter also wants to be a “worker” (a builder). It truly warms my heart.

I spend all my time holed up in my large, airy studio, working. Except for writing this damn blog post (which has taken way way too long, and is much too difficult to justify its own banal existence), I’ve been making comics basically all day every day lately. Which doesn’t mean you’ll see a lot of comics from me soon, since both of my projects are huge, and one will be out (so far) only in French. But if I judge this move by the criterion of stress-reduction and getting back to making art, it’s a rousing success.

I don’t speak good French. My French has gotten a lot better since I got here, but it’s pretty weak, partly because I spend all my time holed up in my studio working, and not out talking to French people. That said, I can hold a basic conversation, and understand most of what’s being said if I’m familiar with the context. My 5-year-old corrects my pronunciation constantly. I have trained her to be kind about it.

Our kids, as implied above, speak accentless French. French is not the most useful language for Americans, but any second language changes the basic structures of a child’s brain in very positive ways. And, another real benefit that probably should have made my “reasons to move abroad” list above, they are in a really great public school (école maternelle, the equivalent of a 3-year nursery/kindergarten).

ecole maternelle

high points of school in France.

1. Fantastic facilities. our kids are in a 3-room schoolhouse for ages 3-6, room to play inside and out, and well-laid out roomy classrooms with lots of specialized corners to play and learn. The littler ones have these adorable nap-rooms with lines of bunk beds.

nap time!
2. Fantastic teachers. They never appear rattled, and are always kind. The kids learn excellent self-control and still have fun.

menu for the cantine at the ecole maternelle in angouleme

Click to enlarge and find yourself drooling over…a cafeteria menu.

3. Lunch. four courses, real silverware, cloth napkins, sitting together at round tables. I mean, seriously. We in the USA are throwing away the opportunity presented by the civilizing effect of eating together. Plus, they get served things like pot au feu and camembert for in the range of $2.75/day (on a sliding scale).

4. Enrichment: theater, film, farm and woods trips, cooking in class, swimming lessons, the works.

5. Free after school care until 6:30.

6. Our kids are learning cursive handwriting. Oh, and French.

low points:

1. No school weds. Well, for the kids, that’s a high point.

2. Yes, I said, “no school on Wednesday” at least until next year, when the education department is shaking up the schedule and doing a half day on weds mornings.

That’s it. I probably prefer a more progressive approach to schooling, but it’s a mix, and at least until the kids are older and the fun parts give way to more formal grind, I’m happy. And it’s all so easy—so low-pressure for parents, with no PTA peer-pressure, no volunteering in class, no continual round of fundraising events to organize and attend. Maybe your school isn’t like that, but every school we toured in Brooklyn before we left made being a school parent sound like a second full-time job. The only complicated part is Wednesdays, for which we had to find somewhere to send the kids. But the system is set up for this, too, with a fantastic public daycare for kids under three and something like day camp for older kids.

Cost: on a sliding scale according to income. We spend under $300 a month on lunches and the cost of Wednesday care (it costs about $2/hour) for two kids. This is about 20% of what we spent in Brooklyn.

**

rue raymond audour

We have to move from our Maison des Auteurs-provided apartment after a year (to allow other residents to use it), and we found a new apartment that somehow embodies the size of our ambitions at the moment. It is a lot smaller and a lot less bourgeois than our home in Brooklyn. In fact, it’s “affordable housing”, which we were able to qualify for because quitting all our side jobs means we’re making a lot less money. But if we can make life work on that lower income here, the time we have to make comics and be with our kids is worth the trade off. It’s a relief to step away from striving for a while, but the decision to be content with this state of things was a strangely existential one. As it turned out, we had the choice of another house on the same day as this apartment, and it was a lot more like our old Brooklyn home. It would have been a more elegant life, but also more problematic, with longer walks to everything, and a lot more stairs (the house was spread over three stories, four if you count the laundry in the basement). With that difficult 36 hours of agonizing behind me, I’m pretty confident that making the pragmatic, less-lovely choice will prove wise, and at the moment (before learning what the real pitfalls of the new place are—every place has them) I feel positively serene to have thumbed my nose at bourgeois-ness.

**

family paris

Angouleme is a small town. It’s not a hamlet—it’s got the majority of mod cons one needs—but it does not have the hustle and bustle that we’re accustomed to. Even when we visit a slightly-larger town, as we have recently in Aix-en-Provence or Amiens, just the sensation of walking around the town square, in vague proximity to warm bodies milling about, can feel slightly exhilarating. We are obviously not cut out for small-town life long-term. That said, our daily commute (to drop kids off at school and then get to the studio) is approximately 15 minutes walking. From our new apartment, it will be about 16 minutes. Most of our friends live in easy walking distance. We’re 10 minute walk from the train station which the two and half hour ride from Paris. The indoor market, though closed on Mondays (today’s a Monday) and after 1 PM every day, is three blocks away.

Which points to another concern of mine that I didn’t list above: I care a lot about what I eat and drink. The produce and meat available at the market are wonderful and fresh and very seasonal (at least compared to what you typically find in the US), if not as varied as I’m used to. The cheese situation is top notch, of course. Wine’s not bad either (see, I am learning French!). But I plan to grow my own kale and corn this year.

**

Does socialism work? We’ve spent almost a year getting ourselves right with an alphabet soup of agencies, forms, and procedures (CAF, URSSAF, P0, CFE, CESU, AGESSA, MDA, CNL, RSI, CPAM, CMU, OPH, etc), and it’s not done yet. Mild French-style socialism might end up being better for us in the long run, but in the short run, it’s a lot of work, and extremely difficult to figure out. On the other hand, healthcare is indeed cheap and good (though not free), child care is cheap and excellent, we qualified for a subsidized apartment, we have a free studio at a government-supported institution, so yeah, so far, the game is socialism’s to lose. I’ll keep you posted.

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Comment

  1. I think you should pitch a book about goat cheese, those pics are salivatory.

    More about Socialism! I like the on-the-ground perspective. Maybe a photo of all the paperwork on the floor?

    There’s a large hole in my dance-card with you guys in France,

    NUB

    • Jessica says:

      Nick–my thoughts on the whole socialism thing are still too unformed/uninformed, but I’m saving notes. At some point I’ll write more about it. I do think it’s the key to why we can afford to not have side-jobs for the present. But it’s hard to tease all the economic factors apart. But, you want photos of paperwork? I think I can probably do that…

      We miss you too–wish we could be both places at once :(

  2. Ellen L. says:

    Super-interesting. Thanks, Jessica!

  3. John T. says:

    Good post, Jessica. What was the process of getting clearance for an extended stay in France? I would love to live overseas for a year or so, but have heard it’s not easy.

    • Jessica says:

      John, like everything (especially everything having to do with administration) that’s a complicated answer. For me, it’s easy. I have dual US/UK citizenship. Matt got his Carte de Sejour as my spouse, but would also have been able to do so (perhaps not as easily) as an artist who had been awarded a residency here. He would probably have been able to get one for the length of his residency. There are other ways to do it, none, I think, very easy, but possible. But I’m no expert. I’ve gone deep with lots of other offices, but not the Prefecture.

      • John T. says:

        Thanks, Jessica, and enjoy your time in France.

      • Nick Ramsay says:

        John, if you’re not particular about your day job, the easiest way for an American to acquire the paperwork to live abroad is to teach English through a program sponsored by the foreign nation’s government. I taught in Spain last year and am returning in August for another year, through this program: http://www.educacion.gob.es/exterior/ca/es/menu_fijo/programas/auxi_canada.shtml. The French government has a similar program: http://www.ciep.fr/en/assistantetr/. If you do this, you should have plenty of time to work on comics, as these jobs usually only require you to teach 2 or 3 classes a day, 3 or 4 days a week. Jessica, thanks for the post, and best of luck with your artistic endeavors and your life in the old world. Huge fan of Mastering Comics!

        • Jessica says:

          Thanks for the tip, Nick. I’m super-curious about living in Spain, myself–I’d love to see a blog post about it!

          • Nick Ramsay says:

            Thanks for the reply, Jessica! Made my day :)
            Haven’t done a real “reflections on the whole experience” kind of post like this, but you’re more than welcome to check out our photos and stuff — nickandlauraineurope.wordpress.com
            When you guys do get there, I’d love to hear how your Mexican Spanish fares in Spain!
            Cheers!

          • Jessica says:

            Thanks for that link, Nick–your photos look great! And don’t worry about my Spanish. I’m a Spain vet. Love it there (in fact, going tomorrow…)

          • Nick Ramsay says:

            Ah, I should’ve known! entonces, disfruta tu viaje!

        • Quincy B. says:

          What ’bout Brasil? LOL.

  4. [...] After reading about Jan Eliot’s three months living in South Africa, I found this interesting post by cartoonist Jessica Abel about her experience living in France for the last year: [...]

  5. Quincy B. says:

    Very interesting blog. I wonder if I fair well if I moved my family to Brasil? LOL.

    • Jessica says:

      Yeah, Quincy, why not? Brazil sounds great!

      • Quincy B. says:

        If had the connections to some kick-ass animation/graphics companies in Rio/São Paulo that paid well — and the fact I spoke proper Portuguese, I would do it in a heartbeat, “Jessie’s Girl.” :-)

        As for the comment about “More Socialism!” Well… “universal health care” didn’t fair well with me when I got food poisoning. Had to wait 7 long hours just to have nurses stick an IV in me to hydrate my system. That was AFTER they took in a guy they thought was dying, but as it turned out was probably a town drink! LOL. – Q.Diddy OUT!

  6. What a wonderful blog! Great to hear the nitty gritty details about a small French town and the contrasts from Brooklyn and the USA. They sure show some love to artists in France…

  7. Loved this update, Jessica. My partner every now and then talks about the idea of us moving to the other side of the country, and even that has always felt a bit daunting. It’s nice to get a little reminder of a much bigger move, and how well you and Matt and the the kids have adapted. It makes the prospect of a move feel more possible.

    Thanks for making it come to life for us sitting at home!

  8. sylvainj says:

    an interesting point of view about our country :)

  9. knedo says:

    Thanks for sharing

  10. Jen Spence says:

    I”m one of Matt’s former students, I somehow got routed to your FB page from something on his & linked up with this. I’m thrilled this turned out so well for you all, thought about you all alot as I visited Paris for the first time this summer – and discovered how obsessed France is with comics – it is truly amazing.

    I also thought a lot about you all staying there for another year. Out of curiosity, have either of you considered applying for something like a Fulbright to continue work there? Is it possible for France? (I know it is not for the teacher Fulbright…. because I looked… how impressed & in love with Paris I was…)

    Also made me happy to hear your comment about how multiple language acquisition opens up more centers in children’s brains – something that I wish the majority of America would take to heart.

    I will have to keep checking back on here for other updates…see if Matt’s published some as well.

    • Jessica says:

      Hi Jen,

      Thanks for writing. We have considered the Fulbright, but France is (obviously?) just about the most in-demand country, maybe second only to the UK, so actually getting a Fulbright is another matter! Even though Matt is now a knight and all…

      We have legal status here to work, though, so we’re doing workshops and so on. And drawing comics, of course! Matt has posted a few updates, mostly on work, but do check back here, as I’ll occasionally be posting more.

      • Jen Spence says:

        Legal status to work overseas is pretty huge (I realize you had it the first year, but wasn’t sure if it was as hard to maintain multi-year there as it is for non-Americans here).

        I missed the “Matt is a Knight” FB post somehow, though I did catch the one about him receiving a huge French honor….well, yeah. duh. Though he is not just a night, but a COMIC knight. YEAH!

        Rock on with the comics, thanks for the reply & links, & I’ll look forward to future posts to live vicariously through. (I am seriously thinking about the French sugar daddy route myself. Though I’m not a 6 ft Russian chick, it could happen, right?) Cheers -

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