Playing With Fire

“For heating, there’s a proper English stove,” our new landlord proclaimed proudly. “We had to order it special from the UK.”

This ought to be interesting.

“It takes a little bit of planning, but if you figure things out right you can close the flue when you go bed and still have hot coals in the morning,” he continued.

“I’m sure we’ll manage,” my husband, Mike, observed. “I’ve done a lot of camping.”

With those words of confidence, we were on our own.

Welcome to the 1800s.

We moved in at the end of November, Thanksgiving Day to be precise. We were just grateful to have a house. As it was warm on moving day, we didn’t really think much about heating until the sun went down.

However, by that time, it would have taken too much effort to clear a path to the fireplace, so we bundled up in scarves and coats, ate a Thanksgiving Dinner of breakfast cereal and headed to bed.

The next morning was brisk, but we were hard at work so it wasn’t until that evening that we decided to try our hand at making fire. Cavemen did it. How hard could it be?

In addition to the logs in the woodpile, we had procured kindling, fire-starter cubes and a lighter with a long neck–all the tools needed to start a hearth-warming blaze. Unfortunately, instead of a blazing inferno, we started with a house full of smoke. Once the fire got going, it still took an hour to heat the house.

I had always associated a fireplace with leisure. The crackling of a fire creating an ambiance of comfort and coziness. It was the sound of the holidays, snow days, and romantic getaways. Now all I wanted was a source of continuous heat that didn’t make my hair smell like a campfire or the smoke alarm go off.

We didn’t get the hang of things until the spring. When the next fall arrived, we started regularly smoking-out the house again…until Mike discovered the right combination of flue levers and firestarter. (For those interested, he found that he had to start a small fire first to warm the chimney so the smoke would rise up instead of into the house.) Now we had a warmer house and fewer smokey evenings. During the day, I just always wore a coat.

You may wonder why we didn’t install some kind of electric-heating system. The fact of the matter is, we had two wall-mounted electric radiators near the fireplace. However, the cost of electricity is so high, we had been warned not to use them unless we wanted to pay through the nose.

Good thing Provencal winters are mild.

The real expat life.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao

Growing Pains

My family has outgrown France.

Not to say that we’re beyond the culture, the food, the landscape, or the history–we’re not. We love it. BUT, we have literally outgrown France.

Let me explain…

I am six feet tall. An Amazon goddess with a size 12 shoe.

My height is a challenge in almost every part of the world (especially where jeans and high heels are concerned). Here in France, most of the women and half of the men look at me, not face-to-face, but face-to-cleavage; I am–at the very least–above average, and as such I do my shopping elsewhere. Many everyday items must be imported. This doesn’t bother me. It’s my life and I made peace with it long ago. The miracle of online shopping has helped tremendously.

My husband, a strapping six foot four inches, has fewer issues, but still definitely encounters short doorways that require limbo-like maneuvers on a daily basis.  

When we arrived five years ago, our family was smaller–meaning shorter. While we have not grown in number over the years, the majority of us have grown up. With five out of six of us now being adult sized, and our gene pool being what it is, you can imagine people like to stare when we walk together down the streets of our village. We are a sight not often seen in the south of France.

Here’s the issue…

A few months ago, while returning from a Venetian road trip, our car began slipping out of 5th gear. Upon returning home, we took the car to a mechanic who told us it would cost the value of the car to repair the transmission. We decided to look for a new-bigger-more comfortable-road trip mobile.

Our new-car wish list included three simple items:

-enough leg room for daily use

-a small frame that easily fits typical French parking spaces

-seven comfortable seats

By this point we had totally given up on finding anything that’s nice to look at. We were sticking to the basics plus it had to be able to make the tight turn into our driveway.

Sounds reasonable right?

Over the course of the next month, we sat in everything. Used cars, new cars, sports cars, trucks, vans, minivans, sedans.

Nothing fit us.

In the end, we just couldn’t justify paying for a new car we didn’t really like.

So, we’ll repair our Toyota, Verso. We don’t love it, but with a few creative seat configurations we can make it work–even on long roadtrips.

The real expat life.



Photo by: Jace Grandinetti

A Little Louder Please

The phone rings. I glance at the screen.

Unknown. Great.

I take a deep breath and put my mind into French mode.

“Oui? Allo.” So far so good.

I’ve been expecting this call.

The conversation follows a predictable script with the receptionist explaining why she is calling and asking if I still want to make an appointment.

Yes, please.

It’s going well.

“L’ordinance que vous avez incluse avec votre demande de rendez-vous en ligne concernait XYZ maladie?” she inquires. (The x-ray prescription you included with your online request was for such-and-such condition?)

Again, yes.

I’m beginning to congratulate myself on my excellent phone-conversation skills, when I’m distracted by an English conversation going on between two friends next to me.

I tune back in just in time to hear the voice inflection rise on the other end. She has just asked me a question. I pause, hoping for a flash of genius.


“Comment ?” I ask.

The receptionist, thinking she can overcome my French ineptitude with volume, shouts into the phone, “QUELLE EST SA DATE DE NAISSANCE ?” (What is her date of birth?)

Ok. Ok.

I give her the relevant information and the call continues smoothly until she asks me a question I actually don’t understand.

I hesitate for a few seconds, hoping again for enlightenment and dreading her reaction when it doesn’t come.

I’ve got nothing. So I respond timidly, “Pardon ?”

She audibly inhales. Here it comes.

“QUI EST LE MEDICINE PRESCRIPTEUR ?” she shrieks. (Who is the prescribing doctor?)

Instant clarity.

I smile to myself as I finish our conversation. Maybe louder does help.

The real expat life.

Photo by Jason Rosewell

The Breathalyser Test

Flash. The brights of an oncoming car briefly shine into my eyes. Something’s coming.

I warily reach the summit of a small hill and can see the reflection of police vests in the roundabout ahead.

Even though I know I haven’t done anything wrong, my heart starts to pounds and my palms start to sweat. Please not me! Please not me!

The weak streetlight in the center of the roundabout doesn’t do much more than attract moths so I can’t see much. Was that a signal? Should I pull over? Where should I go, there’s no shoulder in the middle of a roundabout?!

Naturally, I decide to err on the side of caution and panic. Instead of pulling over, I take the exit and drive away in the direction away from home.

Maybe if I just keep driving, he won’t realize I was supposed to pull over and he’ll let me go.

Half a breath later, I realize turning off is madness as there is only one way home and it’s through that roundabout. I make a u-turn. I really look guilty now.

My mind is frantically buzzing with possible French vocabulary words.

Should I use vous? I should probably use vous. This is useless! I don’t even know the word for headlights or trunk. 

French class has not adequately prepared me for this moment.

The two children in my car are silent as I we advance toward the checkpoint.

The officer watches my approach with confusion. He lifts his eyebrows skeptically as I roll down my window and say, “Hello.” English, only speak English if you get pulled over they always said.

He responds with a question I can’t understand, but based on his body language is, “Why did you turn around? I thought you were heading the other way.”

I smile weakly and ask if he needs to see my driver’s license. I begin frantically digging through my purse to find it. He furrows his brow and examines the other occupants of my car. They don’t move.

“Non, non,” he motions for me to put my card back.

I’m confused. If he doesn’t want to see my license, what does he want?

He walks around my car then looks at my windshield and verifies that my insurance and safety inspection stickers are up to date. Satisfied that the car is legal, he heads back to me.

Calm, remain calm. Breathe. Smile. 

He takes a loud breath and begins to rummage through his pockets. Soon, he pulls out a clear plastic bag containing a white, plastic straw. He attaches it to a machine and points it at me.

“Souffle,” he orders. He demonstrates by blowing.  

I look up at him doubtfully and try not to laugh. He thinks I’ve been drinking?!

Instantly, I feel calm. This is a test I know I can pass. I don’t drink. Ever.

I place my lips over the straw and look at him for instructions.

“Souffle, souffle,” he orders. “Continue, continue. C’est bon.”

He suspiciously eyes the machine and waits for the results.

Ping. He looks at me, shrugs he shoulders and shows me the results–0.0.

I could’ve told him…if I had only known how.

The real expat life.


–Special thanks to Nabeel Syed for the photo