Our first month in Clermont was definitely a character-builder. The interesting thing, though, is that I think we expected far worse. Over the last year or so, many people had shared stories from their first few months as ex-pats… some of these memorable experiences were positive, but somehow it’s the negative ones that stick out in your mind (we definitely heard some doozies)! Naturally, I pictured us living in some run-down apartment building out in some industrial area in the middle of nowhere, France, where we would know no-one and have no way to communicate, no car to get around in. Oh yeah, and no A/C. Well, it turned out that I was partly right.
The day we landed, Clermont was in the midst of a unseasonable heat wave (think mid-90s). We were met at the airport by several other ex-pats, wives of American Michelin employees who were absolutely wonderful. They helped us grab and carry our bags, file a claim for Wells’ suitcase that never arrived, brought snacks/food for our apartment and fans for us to borrow. We were also met by a “driver” that the relocation company provided who would load our many suitcases into his van and, after Chuck picked up the rental car, off we went.
Upon arriving at our temporary apartment, I was somewhat relieved. It’s funny how simple things like a washer/dryer and a kitchen with an oven can bring pure joy when you’ve been without both for a few weeks. It was definitely very sparse. Chuck and I joked that it felt and looked like an Eastern European safe house. Everything was white. There was no wi-fi, one of the 2 showers and the oven did not work for 1/2 of the month that we were there. It took us a few days to figure out that the dryers here in France have condenser units and therefore the water tank must be emptied out every 3-4 loads. And so we had wet clothes draped all over our white pleather couches.
After forcing ourselves to stay up until France bedtime that night, we slept for an insane number of hours. I’ve never seen our children sleep like that.
We happen to live with 1 super early-riser (6am) but, in general, the boys are always up by 7:00. That week, the boys didn’t even get out of bed until 10:30 or 11:00. They would sleep and sleep and sleep. And when they did wake up, they would just lie there. This. never. happens.
Speaking of sleep, one of the big differences here in France in the summer are the long days of sunlight. Summer days are so long in France that the sun rises before 6:00 am and can set as late as 10:15 or 10:30 at night! Sleep masks have been a complete game-changer for us- the day we left, our sweet neighbours, the Einsteins gave each of the boys a travel kit which had sleep masks inside. We decided to try them out on the plane and quickly discovered that this was the key to sleeping through daylight.
Our apartment faced a back alley which happened to be the meeting spot for many young people both before and after (read 7:00 or 8:00am!) a long night of partying, so there was always lots of noise on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights (and mornings!). Needless to say, there were many sleepless nights, but luckily our beds were super comfortable, and, along with a little melatonin, we were able to adjust to sleeping here quickly.
Michelin provides one month in temporary housing. There are a few different scenarios that can come into play here. The absolute best case scenario would be landing one day, signing your lease the next day and your shipping container with all of your things arriving within a day or two after that so that you can move in and avoid temporary housing. A less ideal scenario would be that (with factoring in when the shipping container leaves, arrives and sits in customs + when permanent housing is ready) we end up in temporary housing the full month. I laugh thinking about how many times Chuck and I would sit in Greenville and think about what a nightmare it would be to be stuck in temporary housing for the maximum amount of time that Michelin allows! Well, that’s exactly what happened. We landed in France June 20 and moved into our apartment July 18. We had become pretty “settled” in our temp housing and so, after a month, it was almost like moving out again, on a smaller scale of course.
After a few foggy days filled with slowly wandering through and exploring our new city, it was time for Chuck to start work and so the boys and I were on our own. Hanging around in the apartment without air conditioning and no wi-fi proved to be pretty miserable, so off we went.
We spent most days going out and walking up to the big square in the centre of town, Centre Jaude, taking trips to many different grocery stores to explore all the French food (and junk food!), trying different bakeries, restaurants, a flea market, visiting a big beautiful local park (Jardin Le Coq) which offered a nice shady spot for the boys to run around and play despite the very hot days.
One surprising thing I discovered in our daily out-and-about was how absolutely minimal the English speaking is here in Clermont. There is almost none. Every now and then, we would encounter someone that would speak a few words, but in general, not so much. As a result, there was really no period of getting comfortable with using my very limited French, but rather, I found that by having all the boys with me, there were many things we HAD to buy, do, etc and so I had no choice but to just jump in and do my best to communicate what I/we needed by using a jumble of any and every French word I knew. We were so fortunate to encounter many friendly people who were patient to listen or use a lot of body language, and luckily, about 90% of the time, we would accomplish our goal.
The boys spent a lot of time sitting and looking out the window at people, cars, etc. Everything was new, different, and often so entertaining for them!
Wells needed to start swimming lessons so we got adventurous and decided to tackle the public pool experience here in France- speedos, swim caps and all. The public pools here require everyone to wear fitted suit (read speedos for males) and swim caps. Something about its more hygienic. The boys and I were hot enough to endure the dress code, however I was unable to get Chuck near the pool. He says he will not during the 3 yrs we are here. We’ll see.
Our friends, the Sowinskis (Meeghan, Gant and Henry) were coming to the end of their 3 yrs in France and we were so fortunate to spend some very sweet time with them. They were so generous to us in every way- Meeghan literally spoiled us with all kinds of treats to welcome us to CF and they spent many hours with us “prepping” us for life here in Clermont. The boys were also able to see lots of Henry before he moved back to the US and they seemed to have an instant bond. They are already missing him like crazy, but are excited to keep in touch and spend time with him when we move back home.
We spent a lot of time with the some of the other American/Michelin/Ex-pat families doing things like laser tag, going to the movies, trampoline parks, taking day trips to 2 different nearby lakes where the kids could swim, paddleboat, kayak. We visited McDonald’s more times than I am willing to admit!
Of course, there were many housekeeping type items we had to do as well. We set up bank accounts, cell phone service, insurance, visited our new pediatrician so the boys could have their sports physicals (which are required in order to participate in any type of sports), bought a car, tour the boys’ school, I started French lessons, and we found our new church, an Anglican-Episcopal English speaking church tucked in a tiny old chapel up in the hills of a nearby town called Royat. We moved out of our temporary and into our permanent apartment.
Once we had a car and felt ready to explore outside of Clermont, we took a day trip to Lyon, a big city (2nd biggest in France!) about 2 hours northwest. The day was cut short a bit by the intense heat- 97 degrees that day- but we still were still able to convince the boys to climb up 350 steps to the Basilique Notre Dame de Fourviére, a huge church which sits above the city and offers an amazing view.
We were also able to travel to Biarritz for a long weekend to celebrate Bastille Day, (France’s Independence Day) which also happened to be Wells’ birthday.
All in all, we couldn’t complain. Life in France this first month went much more smoothly than we ever could have envisioned and for that, we were so thankful.