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French by Heart: An American Family's Adventures in La Belle France

1. La Tornade

A month before we left for France, a truck pulling a steel shipping container pulled into Kensington Farm, our neighborhood, and parked in front of our house. It was moving day and Mother had come down from Raleigh to help me with the children. We pulled lawn chairs into my front yard, along with the kiddie pool and a cooler of juice boxes, and tried to keep the kids out of the way. Sitting there sweating, we watched the movers swarm into our house like termites, dismantling furniture and loading our life into the steel box. It was a little rusty. I hoped it was waterproof.

“It will be an adventure,” Mother said, trying to sound confident as Sam fingered her necklace. I sighed at the bittersweetness and agreed that yes, it would. Then a loud noise came from inside and we jerked around to see a mover slip on the carpet at the top of my stairs, sending towels and boxes flying and ripping the oak banister clean off the wall. I watched it sail like a javelin right out the open door and land in my India hawthorns.

That’s when I began to feel like Dorothy, pulled right out of a scene from The Wizard of Oz, the one where the twister is whirling and I am in the middle, watching everything pop up in front of me, riding the waves of the wind. There were the towels, and then the banister, and the people—Mother, Todd’s boss, Ben’s soccer coach and Sarah’s choir teacher, my sister–in–law, and the man at the bank. They were all waving and talking to me, though I could barely make out what they were saying.

For six months the tornado had been brewing, starting on a December night right after we had put up the tree and let the kids hang up a few ornaments. Todd had finished the last of the bedtime stories and I had put Sam, our two–month–old, down to sleep. We collapsed on the couch, savoring the stillness of the house in the glow of the Christmas lights, listening to the calm tick–tocking of the mantel clock.

The minute hand twitched forward and Todd broke the silence. “There is a job in France,” he said, and raised his eyebrow into a question mark. My heart fluttered. France? Now? We had talked about going for years. As if on cue, the heat came on, blasting through a ceiling vent and rattling the paper chain the kids had draped on the tree. The little yellow house ornament that I had made for our first Christmas there began to spin on its gold thread, then unwind and spin again, caught in its own little cyclone. I pointed it out to Todd and we laughed at the coincidence.

A move to France? I had been in love with France since I was fifteen, daydreaming myself into the travel posters plastered all over the walls of my high school French class. Mademoiselle Wright was young and blond, and she taught us how to order dinner at a brasserie and how to sing “Sur le pont d’Avignon.” But the best part was when she would pass around pictures she had taken when she was in college and went to Paris with her boyfriend. It was the first time a teacher had ever mentioned a boyfriend, but this class was about romantic France, after all. When Todd first started with Michelin, we had dreamed of getting to go and touring the countryside. He started French lessons and we hoped for a job transfer. But now, settled, with three kids?

The question mark followed me around like a cartoon bubble over my head everywhere I went—into bed or the shower, to church on Christmas Eve and to my parents’ living room in Raleigh as we opened presents. A couple days later we made the drive back to Greer, and as we pulled into the neighborhood, I looked at the houses on our street. We had a nice life in South Carolina. Kensington Farm was a good subdivision, full of perfectly fine vinyl–sided two–story houses, with a swim team, close to the soccer fields and good schools. People decorated their houses for every holiday and there were always pink and blue balloons popping up on mailboxes, announcing more happy children being born into suburbia. The children liked their teachers and I volunteered at school, and on weekends we had soccer games and went to church and spread our mulch like everyone else. And yet that day everything looked gray. Maybe it was the rain. In spite of the hills, the place felt as flat as Dorothy’s prairie.

I tumbled the pictures in my mind of the possibilities before us. French school. The gothic black cathedral I’d seen on Todd’s postcards from business trips. The flowers. The travel. The French countryside.

The job opening was in Clermont–Ferrand, a city four hours south of Paris. According to the tour books, Clermont–Ferrand was an uninteresting industrial town located in the region called the Auvergne, the lush agricultural heartland of France dotted with crumbling castles and sunflower fields. Some described the city as filled with smoke–spitting factories and car dealerships. One of Todd’s French colleagues rolled his eyes whenever Clermont was mentioned. “It’s a dirty place,” he said. But it sounded fascinating to me, such a mix of modern and medieval, with a thirteenth–century cathedral, a thermal spring, and the Michelin headquarters, all within a mile of each other. And on the horizon was the Puy de Dôme, an extinct volcano. Who needed Paris?

Would we live in the city? Most American expatriates lived together in one of the sleepy little villages on the outskirts of town. But I wasn’t interested in that. I wouldn’t want to move all the way to France to live right in the middle of a bunch of Americans. Still, the village sounded so quaint, with its bakery, butcher shop, vineyards, and town square. Couldn’t we find a village that was still unexplored? Todd said that it would all depend where there was a rental house available. But there I was, picking out a village when we hadn’t even decided on whether to move yet. I didn’t want to rush my answer even though this was my long–lost dream.

Then Todd tempted me with food. He spoke of fresh cheeses, crusty baguettes, and big loaves of pain de compagne, country bread. Potatoes layered with cream and cheese, and coq au vin. Apricots, fresh from the tree, and clafoutis, a cherry flan, eaten warm. My mouth watered.

We said yes.

Within two weeks of our acceptance we were summoned to a meeting with personnel. In the parking lot, a sudden gust of wind blew my hair and fluttered the paper I carried for notes. A guard handed me a badge on a chain and I followed Todd through hallways and past mazes of cubicles. Finally we got to an office where a serious–looking woman sat across from a frightened couple. We joined them at the table, and she shut the door and handed me a three–inch–thick binder on expatriation. And then she talked at us for I don’t know how long about French taxes, insurance, school for the children, bank accounts, how our lamps would work but our televisions would not, percentages of pay in dollars and in francs, housing costs, French lessons for spouses, the company’s responsibility in case of accidental death, and how France has no closets. Two hours later, it was over. I looked down at my paper. It was blank.

Todd and I wandered out into the parking lot with our eyes spinning and struggled to find our car. We drove home and called our parents. I just knew Mother and Daddy would be thrilled for us, as much as they loved to travel. “Oh,” Mother said, with a quiver in her voice. “Well,” she said, “I’ll call my friends at church. You’ll have to be our new foreign missions project.”

Daddy sounded serious. “I’m sure it will be good for Todd’s career,” he said, and then got off the phone and started planning a last–minute family trip to Florida, as if they might never see us again.

Next we called Todd’s parents, and Todd’s mom didn’t hide her feelings. After considerable silence she said, “I guess I might as well curl up and die.” I couldn’t blame her. She had just gotten Todd’s brother and his family back to the Carolinas after the air force had taken them off to Japan and then New Mexico. Now we were running off to another country with her youngest grandbaby, before Sam had even started reaching for her. Todd’s dad, who had been in France with the army in the early sixties, said, “You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” and started recalling how he used to see French men bicycling to work with wine in their baskets and baguettes under their arms.

Within three months that breeze in the parking lot had grown into a full–blown twister. Paperwork of every kind blew around us like confetti, though we tried to rein it in. I walked around the house for a week with a clipboard, writing down the required inventory of our every possession, from boys’ briefs to salad forks, complete with a translation in French and estimated replacement value in dollars and in francs, just in case the boat sank. We sold our house, closed bank accounts, were photographed and medically examined, went to French class, got a visa for the cat, and said goodbye to everyone we knew at least a couple times.

* * *

Finally, we lugged our suitcases to the airport.

Ahead of us was the very last obstacle, a three-flight marathon; first to Atlanta, then to Paris, then south to Clermont–Ferrand.

Flying to France with three children, an old cat, nine suitcases, four backpacks, a diaper bag, a car seat, and a stroller turned out not to be nearly the nightmare I expected. Sarah busied herself by making up sad songs about lost nine–year–old ponies who would never see Greer, South Carolina, and their little yellow house again. Ben spent his time by drawing pictures of the cargo ship carrying all of our worldly possessions tragically sunken at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Thankfully, baby Sam slept most of the way and Katie the cat was strung out on kitty Valium in the cargo hold. Todd and I took turns at being comatose and giddy, celebrating that our move to France was finally happening. If we had forgotten any essential detail, it was too late now.

As Todd snored at the other end of the aisle, I asked the cute Air France steward for a drink.

“So you are taking your children to visit France?” he asked in his charming accent, searching his cart for a Coca Light.

“Oh, no,” I gushed. “We’re moving there. Today!”

“Ah. How nice for you,” he said. “Americans do love Paris.”

“Oh, we’re not moving to Paris,” I said, smiling. “We’re moving to Clermont–Ferrand.”


“Clermont–Ferrand,” I repeated with some throat scraping, trying to sound more French. “We have a connecting flight in Paris to Clermont–Ferrand.”

“Oh, Clermont–Ferrand,” he said, and grimaced. “For Michelin, no?” he asked, pointing at my husband drooling on his little pillow.

“Yes. How did you know?”

“Ah, madame, why else would anyone go to Clermont?” He handed me my glass. “It’s not Paris,” he said, frowning. “But maybe you will like it.”

2. Le Debut

We landed in Oz.

There were volcanoes on the horizon—volcanoes, for heaven’s sake, not jagged and rocky but smooth and green, weathered into mounds and mountains, one sunken at the top like an egg cup for the moon. There were farm fields in the distance, dotted with little stone buildings roofed in orange tile, and tall, blackish cedars spiking into the purple blue sky. And there were thousands of sunflowers, tight green balls, flanking the roads as if standing offstage, waiting for their cue to raise their heads and burst into bloom.

Inside the air–locked plane we had braced ourselves to be hit by the steamy July heat we knew by heart, but this air was oddly cool and dry, as if puffed into the scene like a special effect. What was this place? Even the people in baggage claim had seemed strange—the woman so boyishly thin yet so outlandishly sensual, with her dark eyes and her silk chemise unbuttoned down to there. She moved in such a sultry way, whispering ordinary things to the businessmen as they stood by the conveyer belt and smoked.

The French people had greeted each other with smiles and kisses on both cheeks, taking each other’s bags and talking quietly. I stood and watched from the middle of our pile of stuff while Todd hoisted our heavy bags off the belt and the children flitted around him, getting in the way. We were making a scene, but no one seemed to notice. One by one the French left us. Huddled there alone within the glass partitions of baggage claim, we looked like an exhibit at the zoo.

Someone was supposed to meet us there. The lady in personnel had said that someone, maybe even a family with children of similar ages to ours, would be assigned to meet us at the airport, to welcome us and escort us to the furnished apartment where we’d stay until our things arrived. Americans are always assigned to Americans, she had said, as they would know better than the French what their fellow countrymen would need when they were jet lagged and hungry. But no one came.

I didn’t mind—I liked the idea of the five of us seeing Clermont–Ferrand for the first time alone, arm in arm on our yellow brick road, without anyone else to color our opinions or explain how our life here would be. I had talked with a few American expatriates back in South Carolina, and most were malcontents. Not me. This was going to be the big adventure of my life—of my family’s life.

“Somebody will show up,” Todd said, leaning on the luggage cart. “They have to—they’ve got our keys.”

Finally the conveyer belt turned off and we found a bench of plastic seats to sit in while Todd went to report two missing bags. Sam, tired of sitting in his stroller, fussed and fidgeted. Ben was setting up the suitcases like dominoes and Sarah was whining to take Katie out for a second when Todd called out, “Catch!” from behind.

He swung a heavy ring of keys up in a fake throw. There had to be twenty keys on the ring—paper–thin keys less than an inch long and heavy old keys with a single tooth that looked like they belonged in a chateau.

“You won’t believe it, but this envelope was just setting up there on the counter with my name on it. It's a good thing we had two bags missing or I wouldn’t have even seen it.”

Sarah, intrigued by keys and envelopes that magically appear, whispered, “How do you think it got there?”

“Mrs. Thompson brought it, Sarah,” Todd said plainly. “You know Beck, Dan’s wife, Nora—I worked with Dan back in Research and Development. She must have dropped it off earlier,” he said. “She left a note that something came up but she’d call later. There’s a map—see, here’s the airport and here’s where we’re going to be, and there’s this,” he said, pulling out a blue elastic–bound folder labeled “PAPERS VERY IMPORTANTE,” and a small paperback titled La code de la route, with French traffic signs all over the cover.

“You want to look this over? Before we, uh…” I hesitantly asked my husband as he stuffed Sam into the car seat between Ben and Sarah in the back of our small rental car. Todd shook his head.

“Don't need to. There are only a few signs I’m not sure about. I’ll just follow him,” he said, nodding at the taxi driver, who had loaded eight of our suitcases into his car and was gunning his engine. “No problem.”

Excerpted from French by Heart © Copyright 2012 by Rebecca S. Ramsey. Reprinted with permission by Broadway. All rights reserved.

French by Heart: An American Family's Adventures in La Belle France
by by Rebecca S. Ramsey

  • paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway
  • ISBN-10: 076792522X
  • ISBN-13: 9780767925228