|Bet you'd be surprised to know it was raining when this was shot! Photo by wiggly.|
Suddenly one day Berlin Independence Days was over, the guy who'd emerged as the head of it during a power struggle that had co-existed with the planning told the three Americans working there that because Americans had done nothing to stop the Vietnam War and had, as a consequence, destroyed Vietnamese culture, he wasn't going to pay us because he hated Americans (he was German, just for reference) and there went a month's salary.
And at last I was alone, in a tiny apartment, with no work and a German winter coming on, and my 45th birthday coming on, too. I didn't know it, but I was just beginning to learn stuff. In December, my landlord in Texas told me he needed my house (which I'd sublet to an employee of a friend of mine and a couple of her friends) back because his wife was divorcing him. The decision, which I'd anticipated making in March, of whether to stay in Berlin or go back to Austin, had been made for me. One way of looking at it was that I was stranded. Another was that I'd just been handed a great adventure. Both of those statements were true.
Somehow I survived the adventure, the highs and lows, fame (but not fortune) and frustration, and the growing realization that I really, really didn't like living in Germany, although by now I knew how to do it. I started writing a book, The Accidental German: How Not to Expatriate, hoping that by getting an advance for it, I might be able to move away from Berlin, but the literary agent who was going to sell it for me turned out not to actually be an agent after all. And then, in November, 2008, a ghostwriting gig came my way and I was able to pile stuff into a car, hire some movers, and move to the place I'd found that I really wanted to live: Montpellier.
If you've been reading this blog, you've pretty much got the picture on how that's gone. It's like anything else: it's got its good points and its bad points, and neither is exactly where you'd predict them to be. I was hobbled by getting burned for $20,000 of the ghostwriting money right off the bat. I had horrendous problems with various phone companies. My apartment was far smaller than advertised, and I still haven't unpacked. The movers destroyed my almost-new washing machine. I got horrible advice from a guy who, it turns out, just makes shit up. French people were seriously unhelpful. I lost my sense of taste and smell for a year. But I also regained it, mostly. I got to know the surrounding countryside and loved it. I learned a lot about food and started learning about the local wines, and fell into the rhythm of the seasons and their output. I learned a lot about the history and culture of the area: who knew that France had bullfighting? But that's what's happening in Béziers this weekend.
And becasue it was something I did in Berlin, I hooked up with a bunch of expat websites and organizations to help others, and that's been very interesting.
We get tourists here in the summertime, which, in France, basically means August.
|Le Petit Train|
I have no idea why it's our symbol and most famous tourist attraction, but there you go. And they take pictures of each other.
|Umm, guys? The fountain's in the other direction...|
From time to time, people tell me they want to leave the States an move to France. Before that, I'd hear from people who wanted to move to Berlin. Why? They'd visited and liked it. They ask for advice. And, both for that book I wanted to write and for the advice I give, I realized that there's one thing anyone contemplating a move like this has to internalize. The first commandment of expatriation is that you must realize you're not on vacation any more, ever.
That may seem so obvious. It's not. I don't know how many British people I've read about or read comments from who've moved to France (or Spain or Portugal) and who say "We always had so much fun on holiday, but this is so disappointing." When I was hanging out at the late, great English Corner Shop, I marvelled at the products people asked for -- and bought! Bread! White bread! I mean it: frozen loaves of English bread flew out of that place. I'm happy about that because my friends made a lot of money off of it, but seriously, folks, if there's one thing the French know how to do it's bread. Maybe not the dense, dark, seed-and-nut-bearing breads of Germany (but on the other hand, have you ever had a German baguette? Don't.), but not only the familiar French breads, but also sliced sandwich loaf. Really: it's called pain de mie, and if your corner baker doesn't have it, the supermarket will. I've certainly got nothing against slipping into one's native cuisine from time to time (and I'm planning to have breakfast tacos tomorrow morning), but this smacks of the Dutch tourists who come down here in caravans loaded with food from Holland and never pay a cent for anything in France. Except, of course, that the Dutch go home. (Usually: one of the forums I read had a tale the other day about a Dutch couple who'd built a house in a local village, bringing both the building supplies and the bulders from Holland. Bet they have problems with the neighbors.)
Well, as the alcoholics say, one day at a time. The furthest-off plans I have just at the moment involve breakfast tacos.