I was graduating in 2009, during the now famous recession in the United States. It didn’t stop anyone from asking each other, “What are you doing after you graduate?” The job market looked bleak, our professors didn’t have much to offer in words of encouragement, or solutions to the lack of jobs that despite being assured would be there, just weren’t. I personally had been hoping to get hired at my internship, but after almost the entire Creative team got laid off, I knew this wouldn’t happen. That is when my Plan B became Plan A with a letter I received in the mail. I was accepted to teach English abroad in France.
I had applied to three different regions, and was given a contract to teach somewhere in the Academy of Nantes. This is an umbrella term for the whole region, and I still didn’t know where exactly I would be teaching. I did eventually find out I would be teaching high school students for seven months in Angers. My response to the question about what I was doing after school became, “I’m moving to France.” It would change me forever.
The hardest part about moving to a new place where you don’t know anyone is definitely finding a place to live. You can read all the articles you want, prepare yourself mentally and financially, and hunt on all the message boards, but there is no substitute for being there in person to find your accommodations. A lot of places now have pictures, and you get an idea of what the place is like, you can even do virtual tours with your landlord or future roommate, which is what I did. Had I met this person face to face before I had agreed to live with him, I would have been able to tell something was off about him from the start. I found myself homeless a week after arriving, and even worse, on the street with all my bags on a Sunday, when almost everything is closed in France. I knew the hotels in town were not affordable, and quickly messaged the five people I knew in Angers for advice, and someone recommended CouchSurfing to me. (Thanks Internet!) I was saved by an American I had never met and the French family who was hosting him for one night.
I was taken to a cramped apartment on the outskirts of town. The young French girl, who was the contact for this CouchSurfing arrangement would be returning to school in Nantes that evening, one of us would stay in her room, and one of us on the couch. She informed us her family enjoyed meeting CouchSurfers as well and that is why they didn’t mind squeezing us in with themselves, and the two other younger siblings of hers. We were also treated to dinner, I couldn’t believe it. I was in shock and awe at the generosity of complete strangers. When the family brought out sardines, bread, and butter, I didn’t think twice about the oily fish I would normally never eat. I ate them, and to my surprise I love it. I think my gratitude and this experience was changing me from the inside out, including my taste buds.
This family was so helpful in helping me to find another accommodation, as well as listed apartments that were available to visit, phone numbers of landlords to call, and they were so genuine. The following day, I was picked up by another Couch Surfer, whose English was as bad as my French, and I found myself in an artist house in another part of town. Having just finished Art School, I felt more comfortable in this house with five people under the same roof, all doing their own weird thing in life. I was also able to stay here for a week while I was looking for an apartment. I repaid them for their hospitality by cooking them meals, and we communicated mostly in broken French and English, and had a good laugh while doing so.
I eventually found a place with the American I Couch Surfed with on the first night. It was a strange apartment, but it was cheap, and I fell in love with its charm and character. I would very soon after fall out of love with the old heater, the windows that let all the cold air in, my new roommates strange behavior that emerged only after I moved in with him, and the toilet that smelled like 10,000 rats had died in there. This apartment still has a special place in my heart, because it was the first place I would call home in Angers, my first home abroad. It didn’t hurt that there were hollyhocks growing out of the pavement outside my front door. I also loved my giant antique wardrobe and the quintessential French windows.
I also loved the poster outside our front door, featuring an Alpine hiker on top of a mountain, with a quote that you could read while you searched for your keys, out of breath from climbing three flights of rickety old stairs.
“Quand on monte vers Dieu on ne vieillit jamais, on grandit toujours, on rajeunit sans cesse.” – Cardinal Marty
Translation: “When we climb towards God, we never age, we always grow, we rejuvenate without end.”
It is still a nice reminder that rarely is something worthwhile very easy. And as many of my friends know, this wasn’t exactly the end of my troubles.