From time to time, people ask me what I’m doing all the way in France. The short answer is: My girlfriend is French and I moved to be with her.
It was not a decision that I made immediately after we met. In fact, at first, I honestly believed there was no way I would ever move to France. It was a terrifying thought. I didn’t speak a word of French. I told K that I didn’t think I could deal with living in a country where I didn’t speak the language. I had all these flashbacks to being 10 and trying to learn English properly and kids making fun of me at school because I pronounced things funny and because I didn’t understand half the things that were said to me. I hated that feeling of not knowing what was going on and I couldn’t see how I could ever put myself through that again. So, I put the option to move to France in a little box and locked it away.
K and I spent two years flying back and forth to see each other. And a few things became clear to me during that time:
We weren’t breaking up.
We couldn’t go on like this forever because it sucked.
There was no easy way for K to move to the US.
If I wanted to be happy, I would have to move to France.
From one day to the next, my perspective shifted. There was a moment where I thought, I have to do this. And more than that: I can do this. So I told K that I was ready to move to France. We discussed it a lot. She was worried for a long time – I think up until the day my plane landed in Lyon – that I would change my mind. I knew that I wouldn’t because it felt right. And when something feels right to me, I do it.
When I first told my friends and family that I was moving to France, I got mixed reactions. My grandparents were very much set against it (and still ask me every time we talk when I’m moving back to Puerto Rico). My parents sounded concerned but resigned to the fact that I’d made up my mind. How will you make money? was their main concern. My friends were all supportive, and if they thought I was crazy they never said so. Most said things like, “That’s so romantic!” And, “That’s so brave!” And, “It’s going to be such a great experience for you.”
So, I quit my job. I sold most of my belongings. I signed up for school in France so I could get a student visa for a year. And in August of 2005 I hopped aboard a plane and headed off into the unknown.
So what have I learned in the past five years? Lots of things. Here are but a few:
1. Nothing happens the way you planned
That’s such a cliché. But it’s true. If someone had told me 10 years ago that I’d be moving to France one day, I’d have laughed in their face. You know how people say that they’ve always wanted to live abroad? I never wanted to live abroad. I didn’t really even care to visit Europe. The thought of traveling didn’t excite me. I had no intentions of learning a third language. I was perfectly happy in the US. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
I moved here thinking that we’d stay for a couple of years until we figured out a way to move to the US together, and for a while that was very much my mentality. I wasn’t homesick, but in my head the move to France was a temporary thing. Then as timed passed, I started to realize that I didn’t just like living here, I loved living here. And it occurred to me that aside from my friends, there was nothing about the US that I missed at all (Okay, I kind of miss Barnes & Noble and Taco Bell).
But I honestly have no intention or desire of ever going back to the US to live. I love Europe. If I can stay here forever, I will. And by “here” I don’t mean just Lyon. I very much would love to live in Spain at some point. I want to travel. I want to see it all.
2. It pays to follow your heart
When I made the decision to move over here, I knew there were no guarantees that it would be a good idea. K and I had never lived together, so there was no way to know if our relationship would even survive my moving in. I felt ready to move here, but there was no guarantee that I wouldn’t be terribly unhappy not knowing the language and feeling left out of conversations. And there have been many times when I have felt left out of conversations and I have felt unhappy that I couldn’t contribute in the way I’m used to.
But moving here opened the door to different opportunities. For nearly five years, I made my living by writing, something I had always wanted to do and something I intend to do from here on out. I have access to places I never knew I wanted to visit, like Paris. I love Paris. And it’s only a train ride away. I’ve been to Greece. I’ve been to Portugal. I’ve drank wine in Bordeaux. I got to walk around Cannes as they set up for the film festival. I’ve gotten to explore the hidden passageways of Lyon and eat foods I would’ve probably never had the guts to try before (like escargots, which I love with a fiery passion).
I had no idea what to expect from this move, I only knew that it felt like the right thing to do. And I haven’t regretted it for a second.
3. Things don’t have to be perfect for you to be happy
Life here isn’t perfect. I lost my job a couple of months ago so now we’re down to one income. We live in a cramped apartment and while we’ve been wanting to move for a long time (and almost did last year) it hasn’t yet worked out. Even though I’ve been here for four and a half years, my French is still mediocre and I have a hell of a time communicating with people. We don’t have any local friends. K has a ridiculously long commute to work which means she gets home between 8pm and 9pm most days. Never mind the stress of visas and stay permits and so on and so forth.
But I’m happy.
I’m happy because my relationship with K is awesome. I’m happy because my parents support my relationship and support me. I’m happy because even if I have no friends in Lyon (something I do hope to change in the near future), I have really amazing friends all over the world. I’m happy because even if the apartment is small and our bedroom looks more like a storage closet with a bed in the center than an actual bedroom, it’s a whole lot more than many other people have. I’m happy because I get to write, which is pretty much the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. I’m happy because I have a book published, which is a dream come true.
I’m happy, too, because all the other stuff that isn’t “perfect” can be improved upon. We’ll eventually move. I’ll eventually get an income stream. I plan to head back to school and improve my French in the next couple of months. Once we move, K’s commute will be shorter. Etc. Etc.
4. I’ve changed a lot since I was 10 (but that’s not necessarily a good thing)
One of the things that kept me from making the decision to move to France was the memory of how unhappy I was when I’d moved to the US at the age of 10. The move really affected me. As much as being Puerto Rican makes me technically American, it’s not the same thing at all. Florida was a huge culture shock for me. It was like moving to Mars (I remember being really mystified by sporks because I’d never seen one. My teacher once asked me about Wal-mart and I stared at her blankly. WTF was Wal-mart? There wasn’t a Wal-mart in PR in 1990. Taking your lunch to school in brown paper bags? Deeply mind-boggling).
For many years I just wanted to move back to PR. I was really miserable. But it was a very productive sort of misery. I was unhappy that I didn’t speak English very well and it motivated me to learn it as best I could. I practiced my pronunciation until I lost my accent. I read all the books I could get my hands on. I started writing.
I wish I could get that mentality back. Learning English was all about emotional survival. Everyone around me thought I was stupid because I didn’t speak English very well and being called stupid drove me insane. But with French it doesn’t feel so dire. There’s no kids at school making fun of me. No teachers making me feel dumb. No parents secretly commenting to each other that I didn’t belong in “normal” classes.
The point is, while I have no desire to be my emo 10 year old self again, I really need to get my butt into gear when it comes to learning French. I’m trying to get back in touch with my driven, younger self. It’s not working very well. Yet.
5. Worrying is pointless
This is one of those things that I know in my head, but that rarely changes anything. I worry. I worry all the time about a plethora of different things. And even though I know it’s pointless, I can’t help but worry.
I spent 2008 in a state of constant panic. I was living in France with an expired visa. My grandparents were both in the hospital. My mom was then in the hospital in critical condition. I couldn’t leave France without potentially getting in trouble, and possibly ruining my chances of ever returning. I thought my grandfather was going to die. I made plans to go to PR in September but my visa situation was still not rectified. I spent my days surfing the Internet and finding horror stories about illegals getting arrested and deported. I thought for sure that was going to be me. I thought K and I would be separated forever. If anything had happened to my grandparents or to my mom and I wasn’t there I’d have never been able to forgive myself. I was, in a word, a mess. I was crying pretty much daily. The rare moments of everything is going to be okay would quickly spiral into worst-case scenarios.
It was not a good year.
But all that worrying I did was for nothing because in the end, my mom was fine. My grandparents are fine. And eventually K and I got my situation here sorted. Thank God. And I say thank God because I prayed and prayed and prayed.
I think this is the first year since moving here that I actually feel relaxed. I don’t have to worry about flying back to FL to renew my visa. I don’t have to worry about a visa at all. And that makes everything else manageable.
I’ve never really thought of my moving to France as a brave thing. I had money in savings. I had an apartment all ready to welcome me. I had the love of my life here. Given the chance to do it all over again, I would make the same decision in a heartbeat.
If I could travel back in time and tell 25-year-old me anything it would be: Stop worrying. This is the best decision you’ve ever made.
All images were taken by me in Lyon, France.