Squeaky snow washes away dirty Paris
My first experience of France was going to Paris with my mum when I was 17 and just out of school. Living in Australia, my mum had offered to take me on a round-the-world trip at Christmas to reward me for passing my final exams. She let me choose our bonus weekend stopover city. “I knew you’d choose Paris,” she said. “It’s horrible.”
She was right. We saw homeless people nearly freezing to death sleeping on park benches, a man urinating in a side street, and eating in a restaurant one night, the owner’s dog took my piece of bread from the table. Luckily, our hotel concierge spoke English, but even that led to frustration when we asked him how to get to the department store Printemps. “Printemps?” he asked, looking confused until we showed him the pamphlet with the word written on it. “Ahh, Prohn-tahm,” he snorted. We took off from the hotel with directions and an ample dose of embarrassment.
Fast forward ten years and my experience was totally different. Working in London, I took a long weekend at New Year to go skiing with my travel-buddy housemates. Stepping onto French snow in my ski boots for the first time, I heard the snow squeak.
Coming from Australia, my skis had only experienced icy slopes or soggy snow hiding rocks underneath. Powdery, dry snow that squeaked was a new sensation, and I fell in love with the rugged beauty of the French Alps and the amazing postcard-blue sky that was such a rare event in the Snowy Mountain range of home.
As soon as I was back in London, I plotted a course which would see me quit my job before the following ski season so I could move to France. Australians aren’t legally allowed to work in France without a visa, which motivated me to save during the year so I could be a ski bum.
It worked, and I spent an amazing five months with little cash, skiing and learning how to snowboard between snippets of French language and culture. Living in the Méribel Valley meant that most of my friends were English-speaking, making the transition to France much easier, and when the season ended, so did my stint in France.
By 2005, with a new British passport in hand, I moved to France permanently. The passport entitled me to live and work in France. Knowing I’d never learn French in a big ski resort like Méribel, I moved to the Aravis mountain range between Annecy and Chamonix.
Determination has kept me in France more than anything else. The paperwork and red tape involved in healthcare, working and even renting an apartment will push the most patient of people to the brink of fury. Add in the language hurdle for extra frustration.
So why stay here? I can’t resist that snow, and who doesn’t love the sound of French words? The delicious food, stunning views and high standard of life also hooked me, and although I’ll return to my hometown one day, I’m just not ready yet.
Twenty years after that first trip to Paris with my mum, she visited me in the French Alps. Her verdict was that Paris does not represent France fairly, and I have to agree. Although I can now appreciate and enjoy Paris without the culture shock, it just doesn’t beat the mountains.All images courtesy of Wendy Hollands.