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The year was 2007. I was a junior in college, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and bubbling over with excitement about my upcoming semester abroad in Nice, France. I had gotten a taste of what to expect from the south of France during a three-week-long study abroad trip in Montpellier the previous summer. I had always loved traveling, but while I had thoroughly explored the Northeastern U.S. and gone on a few family adventures to the Caribbean, I had never before been to Europe, or anywhere else in the world.
Experiencing Montpellier and the surrounding cities and villages of the Languedoc-Roussillon region was like an awakening for me. I vividly remember the enticing smell of spices and lavender, the ancient buildings steeped in history, and the beautiful language that I could half-understand, like a fascinating puzzle my mind raced to put together. Every time a new word or phrase clicked it was like a tiny firework going off in my brain, a rush of pleasure and excitement that fueled an insatiable hunger for more.
Long story short, I loved it and couldn’t wait to go back. I arrived in Nice in January, planning to stay through May and then travel in June before heading back home. Most of my fellow study abroaders lived in apartments with each other as roommates, but I chose to stay in a charming little studio apartment by myself. I wanted to completely immerse myself in the experience, and while I had nothing against my peers, I wanted to go out on my own, get a taste of local flavor and find out what it was really like to live in this beautiful, exotic, strange new place.
My fellow students and I had no trouble finding the most happening bars, and our first week in town we engaged in the mandatory college bonding ritual of getting too drunk and acting a fool, and then reminiscing about it fondly the next day. Once that was checked off the list I was free to move on to other business, such as meeting some interesting locals. Little did I know that one of the first locals I met would be my husband just two years later.
Americans can hold many preconceived notions about the French. One such notion is that the French are arrogant and rude. I won’t get into all the reasons why that is BS -- but suffice it to say, that is one example of a tiny kernel of truth growing into a giant mutant cornfield of misinterpretation and misunderstanding.
Another common stereotype of the French is that they are skilled in the art of seduction. This particular theory, I am happy to report, cannot be denied. At least not by me.
I didn’t realize just how dead romance and seduction really were on my mid-Atlantic college campus where higher learning seemed to take a backseat to sports, frats and keggers, until I came to France. I don’t know if it was because of the bro-positive environment of institutionalized patriarchy, the fact that I made little effort to conform to standardized ideals of femininity, or just bad luck, but I had very few romantic experiences with guys on campus back home.
Actually, scratch that. I had NO romantic experiences. Drunkenly making out with a guy I just met in a curtained alcove of my friend’s dorm room we had lovingly baptized "the cove" and used for various nefarious activities, while somewhat thrilling at the time, no longer fits into my definition of romance.
But back to Nice.
Two weeks into my international adventure, I met a charming young Frenchman we’ll call Enzo at a bar. At first I thought it would be just a fun fling during my studies, travels and revels. He was handsome, a bit taller than me, with dark hair and Mediterranean features. I learned that he had some Italian ancestry, as well as French.
I had been studying French for years and could read and write it pretty well, but I only understood maybe half of what he said and could barely form a coherent response beyond the basics. Apparently all those hours spent analyzing and interpreting the works of Victor Hugo and Baudelaire were poor preparation for having an actual conversation with an actual French person in the 21st century.
At first we dated casually, going out for drinks and then walking a few blocks through the narrow cobbled streets of the Old Town until we reached the Promenade des Anglais, a wide, miles-long avenue that runs along the picturesque coast.
Many nights we ended up snuggling on the beach, contemplating the sea, the stars and the smooth little grey stones that stretched along the seashore as far as the eye could see. And sometimes -- I’ll admit it, even at the risk of turning into a giant, gag-me-with-a-spoon cliché -- we would sit on the beach at sunset and watch the sky change from blue to purple, pink, orange and all the hues in between, breathing in the salty sea air and listening to the waves breaking gently on the rocky shore.
Some nights we would stay in, smoke some hash and order pizza from a van down the street (yes, a pizza van) that to my surprise made the most delicious pizza I’d ever tasted.
And while we’re on the subject of culinary delights, I have to add that Enzo was not only skilled in the arts of seduction and pizza-ordering, he could also cook meals the likes of which I had never experienced before. The first meal he made for me was gnocchi in a creamy mushroom sauce that took him about 20 minutes to put together. Up until then I had thought mushrooms were disgusting, and had never heard of gnocchi. I soon learned that mushrooms are actually delicious, and gnocchi are kind of like mini potato dumplings that soak up whatever sauce you drench them in. They are basically little clouds of savory goodness. My tastebuds exploded with creamy, cheesy pleasure at every bite, but I didn’t finish my plate because "cute French guy cooking me dinner"-induced butterflies in my stomach didn’t leave much room for an appetite.
One spring evening, drunk on infatuation and overpriced cocktails, we sat on the beach together, his arms and legs wrapped around me, and he asked me to stay. I laughed, reminding him that my semester would be over soon, and I had to go home. He said that he was becoming very attached to me, and that he didn’t want to lose me.
I didn’t want to lose him either, but up until that point I had never even fathomed not going home. I had to finish college, and I had a life and friends and an ideal apartment right off campus waiting for me. This was only supposed to be a casual fling, an experience to think back on fondly after my life had taken its inevitable turn towards the mundane routine of adulthood.
I felt like I was on a precipice. I could either go home as planned, and leave the only man I’d ever really loved, who really loved me, or, I could stay. Except it wasn’t that simple. I will spare you the details of what it’s like to deal with all the paperwork, visas, and red tape involved in studying and living in a foreign country, but trust me, it’s a headache of migraine-sized proportions.
Not to mention the fact that my friends at home had already gone through hell and high water to secure a room for me in the aforementioned ideal apartment off campus for the following semester. Did I really want to tell them, "I’m staying in France, have a nice life, peace"? Was I really going to uproot my whole life for this man and this place?
Yes. I loved my life in Nice too much to give it up, so I did all the paperwork, apologized to all the people, and jumped through all the hoops to be able to stay for another semester. I didn’t know what would happen at the end of the second semester, but in the spirit of living in the moment, I didn’t worry too much about it at the time. I hopped across the pond for a few weeks that summer to see everyone, then hopped right back to my newfound home in time for fall classes.
Since I was spending so much time at Enzo’s place anyway, it seemed stupid to continue to pay rent for my own apartment. So, I moved in with him. Some felt that this was not a good idea, but it worked out fine.
The next few months were a whirlwind of love, sex, food, and an increased understanding of and appreciation for the French language and culture. I was becoming increasingly fluent, and it was exhilarating. Little by little, I could understand more and more of what was being said all around me, on TV and in the papers, and I could express myself more easily and coherently.
As the title of this story has already given away, I ended up making my home in Nice and have lived here ever since. I did return to the U.S. for one semester to complete my degree, and then came right back as soon as was bureaucratically possible.
In some ways I am still kicking myself for having created such a complicated life. I have many friends and family members back home whom I miss dearly and rarely see, and it’s not easy to be so far away from them and miss important moments in their lives, and for them to miss those moments in mine.
But ultimately I’m glad I took a leap of faith and gave up everything I knew for love. I might not have it all, but I do have a loving husband, a wonderful baby daughter, and a plate of creamy, cheesy, homemade deliciousness for dinner.