Alison Kerr, Transatlantic Adventures: First trip to France – Part 1/4

I thought that the transatlantic experiences of my long-time online friend, Alison Kerr, would be of interest to the readers of My French Life Magazine… and she agreed to be interviewed.

Background: What’s my connection with Alison Kerr

I met Alison Kerr around the mid-2000s, in what we used to call the ‘blogosphere.’ I was keeping a blog at the time, and following a few bloggers, including Neil Kramer, a New Yorker who was then living in Los Angeles, whose writing I found both gripping and hilarious. Alison would often comment on Neil’s blog, and I soon realized that she was an American expat living in France and that she was originally from Pittsburgh, where I had lived for 10 years. She had also gone to college not far from Clarion University of Pennsylvania, where I was teaching. I decided to follow her blog. She was (and still is) an incredibly creative woman and a fantastic writer.

A few years later, Alison returned to the U.S., where she settled in Lexington, KY. She would travel back to France regularly and, on one of her trips in June 2010, we managed to finally meet in person and have dinner in Paris with another fellow blogger, an American woman living in France. I met Alison in person again in March 2016 when, while visiting her family in Western Pennsylvania, she swung by Clarion and had lunch with me.

Soon, we all moved on to Facebook and gave up blogging. I have kept up with Alison ever since – even after she left Facebook for Instagram.

A few months ago, Alison embarked on a journey back to France, where she plans on staying for at least six months, managing a property that friends of hers, a Franco-American couple, own in the Cognac region. Alison is also a writer who is finishing her first novel and is very interested in all kinds of creative endeavors.

This is part 1 of our conversation:

Part 1 – this one
First trip to France

Part 2
French citizenship, to USA & back to France

Part 3
Artist colony & reconnecting with France

Part 4
Favorite Places and Advice


Alison’s first experience in France: life, challenges & cultural differences

Q – When did you live in France for the first time, how had you ended up there, and how long did you live there? Did you work there, and if so, what did you do?

A – I moved to France at the very beginning of 1993, in order to get married to my French boyfriend.

We had met a little more than a year previously, during my senior year of college. He was the French Teaching Assistant, but we actually met in a bar.

I didn’t start learning French until we’d dated for a few months. I lived in France until 2006, and I taught English. First, I taught in a language school, then I ended up as an assistant in local high schools, and I also taught at the local university and Sup de Co (now called Excelia [1]). After I obtained French citizenship, I sat the CAPES d’anglais and then taught in secondary schools.

Q – Had you found adjusting to a permanent life in France difficult? Please explain.

A – It wasn’t easy, I will admit. Sometimes I think the differences between France and the U.S. outweigh the similarities.

Fortunately, my then-husband was there to guide me a bit, but I feel like I learned more from his mother. She was a bit kinder in her explanations of customs and nuances of language.

When I think back to those first weeks and months of adjustment, I realize I was going through depression, quite likely due to culture shock, but also because my mother died suddenly just a few months after I moved to France. There was also likely some degree of seasonal affective disorder as well because I moved to Normandy in January, ha!

Q – What were the cultural differences that you found the most striking at the time?

A – I remember being reprimanded about electricity and how expensive it was, and that one didn’t just throw an item into the dryer if it got damp.

I was 22 and I had never really had to think about electric bills. That really made an impression, because even now, I’m aware that there’s been a rate hike in France, and I’m endeavoring to run the dishwasher and washing machine during les heures creuses. [2]

Another thing that struck me was that you’re not supposed to touch the produce at the farmers’ markets here. You tell the vendor what you want, and they handle it for you. You can specify which fruits or vegetables you want, but you don’t touch them. After I moved back to the States, my future husband chuckled at me when I pointed to some peaches at a Farmers Market—he knew about French market etiquette—and he said, “You know, you’re allowed to touch the produce here.”

Q – In what ways would you say those years of your first stay in France had transformed you?

A – Oh my gosh, in what way did it NOT transform me? During my first two and a half years in France, I lost my mother and exactly two years later, I became one. My mom died on Easter Monday, and my daughter was born on Easter Monday. All this before I was 25, too!

Those experiences would change anyone, though; they are not France-specific. Living here definitely opened my mind a great deal.
– I gained fluency in French, and to this day, I’m proud of my language skills. Just this morning, someone told me I barely had an accent, which feels really good after 17 years away.
– What else? I gained a lot of empathy, but perhaps this is just something that happens as one ages.

There but for the grace…” You know?

– I wish I could say that living here boosted my self-confidence but it really didn’t. I often felt like I’d never measure up. (This may have also been situational, I realize. Let’s just say there’s a reason I got divorced.)

I’ve come to understand that my impostor syndrome is strong, and I’m old enough now that it doesn’t cripple me the way it used to.

To discover more read Part 2
[ which will be linked here very soon – as soon as it is published]

If you have comments or questions for Alison please leave them below in the comments section.

[1] A business school in La Rochelle[2] Night hours when electricity is cheaper

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About the Contributor

Elisabeth Sauvage-Callaghan

I am a native of France, and a retired French university professor living in the USA. I return to France every year and love discovering new places I have not yet visited. I am interested in issues of bilingualism and expatriate identity. I enjoy good food, great books, and all kinds of music.

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