France, Ciggies, Living and Fidelma Cook

The question “what do I want to be when I grow up” often comes to my mind. As a freelancer, nothing is certain. Though, these days, that can be said for most any job, freelance or permanent, or for most anything in life. I have gotten lazy these past few years as flexible work-from-home writing jobs arrived in my inbox at just the right time thanks to the recommendations of friends, those I’ve known either through other friends or various jobs. But I know at some point I’ll get lucky again, be in the right place at the right time or have to get out there and relearn how to pound the online pavement.

Having recently read – yes, read, not skimmed – a food blog I subscribe to, I was reminded of the feeling I had when I first began mine back in the beginning of 2005. Only a couple of months before, I was pulling my hair out, smoking way too many cigarettes, drinking way too much coffee and wailing over the shite, depressing temp jobs I was forced to accept to keep rent paid and bills down. “I want to write,” I whined. “So write,” snapped my then boyfriend. Oh. The next day I brewed a pot of coffee, put a new pack of cigarettes at my desk and began frantically reworking my résumé. I was a writer at heart after all. I could do this. I then sent my snazzy new one-pager off to all the jobs in the area I wanted, not the ones I knew I was already qualified for. And I got one. Not at a desk in a stuffy office. Not filing papers in a basement. Not making cold-calls in a dimly lit fluorescent hole in the wall. Nope. With a culinary company as a proofreader and sometimes writer in a beautiful design-centric building.

After a couple of months of this dream job, I found out that nothing is perfect. They were going through a massive transition that took them from the dreamy mom-and-pop real-chef-style kitchen company I loved and admired to an over-marketed, over-saturated corporate beast. “If you don’t like it, you can leave,” warned the CEO during our fun-filled, post-Christmas pizza party, right after they fired about 12 people. It was during this time that, because of the nature of my proofreading job, I was left with plenty of time to peruse the new wave of culinary blogs I adored, and start my own.

Back then I was adamant about keeping up with the times, with my articles and with sharing my love of food with, well, anyone who wanted to read about it. To me, a blog was a diary of sorts, something personal, yet still share-worthy. About eight or so months later, when my newfound confidence, a breakup and a job offer sent me packing to Manhattan for V.I.P. adventures as a French chef’s personal and executive assistant, I kept up with my blog, this time dishing out all the crazy times and beautiful meals I was lapping up in the Big Apple.

Years, tragedies and moves later, I look back and see where I was going, what I could and couldn’t handle and how many lifetimes I’ve lived since then. Tonight I am in my Louisiana apartment, sipping herbal tea, finishing one of my many Christmas/birthday present books and wondering what 2017 will bring. I am thankful for being here in this moment. I also wonder what life has in store for me, for my future. I often get a bit lightheaded thinking of my next move, panicking over real-life adult decisions. What to do as I’m getting older, where I will live, what career move I will make, what kind of writer will I become, or will I venture into something completely different. I also feel a tinge of nostalgia for that innocence and excitement I had when I first began this blog.

I have always thought about moving to France, for like ever. I lived in Paris for about a year, and spent a few months as an Au Pair in both Bouc-Bel-Air, France – a small village outside of Aix-en-Provence – and Waterloo, Belgium – near Brussels. I was born and raised, for the most part, in Louisiana and have lived and traveled around the world. But to me, home is Europe, somewhere. And yes, like so many others, I fall into that cliché of wanting to own a bed and breakfast in France, bike-riding distance to a village, and a train ride away from Paris. But then there are the people, and the laundry, and the waking up early to make breakfast. Hmmmm … I would also love a small, but not miniscule, apartment in the heart of Paris with herringbone wood floors and floor-to-ceiling French doors that open up to a Juliet balcony that is stable enough for me to look out onto the outdoor market and passersby below. Finances might have me knocked out of that one. And what about that perfect beach apartment in the southwest of France, close to Spain, Bordeaux, vineyards, mountains and, again, the train to Paris?

I don’t think I’m alone in dreaming about all of this. In fact, the book I just finished about an hour ago tells me so. Published in 2009, Fidelma Cook’s French Leave (or yes, I’ll have another vin rouge s’il vous plaît) is exactly what I needed. Aside from her move to France, her no-nonsense writing, her preference for city life and her respect for Michael Douglas‘ character in Falling Down drew me in and kept me hooked until the very end. It isn’t one of those oh, I met a beautiful French man who whisked me off to France and we had gorgeous babies and made perfectly photographed southwestern culinary masterpieces. I like those too. I’m a dreamer. But as I get older, I get achingly more realistic. That blows, but it doesn’t have to. Regarding a memoir I began writing eight years ago, I also wonder about writing truths, no matter how brutal, about friends and family, something she mentions and refers to via Graham Greene‘s quote as “a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.” So be it, she says.

French Leave is real, full of all the worries and concerns and fears and wine and hilarity that a single woman-of-a-certain-age might confront when contemplating a life transition, namely to France. Fidelma Cook is a journalist for The Herald, living in France for the past 10 or so years with her fluffy Afghan Hound Portia. I ran across her column after Googling French towns a single woman might move to. I’m not looking for love, just someplace safe and calm, with intelligent life nearby, but not too close. And after reading a few of her pieces, I quickly became an avid fan of her column and Twitter account. Ms. Cook is an optimist who smokes cigarettes, drinks copious amounts of wine and sounds exactly like someone my mother would have loved to hang out with. I don’t blame her. I would too. Not only that, but there were quite a few excerpts in her book that touched on what I have been feeling these days.

p.123 after having been invited to a town club in France:

“My heart doesn’t just sink, it drowns in a deep pool of perceived old age when mentally I’m still 18 and crying for someone to rescue me, but they’re all so old they can’t swim to my aid. I’m too young for this I scream in my head when smiling my thanks to her.”

p.139 talking about her mom, and the fear and loneliness she feels in this moment:

“Bent over this oil-cloth table under the gloomy light, slurping red wine and clutching my mobile, I fantasise about phoning her number. Of course she is long dead, but I wonder if I could remember our old house phone number then maybe she would pick it up and hear me crying again on the line. And maybe she would tell me to ‘stiffen my backbone,’ and ‘get on with it.’ And maybe I could tell her that I was a little lost, in France and not sure any more about how I’d got here and why …. And then maybe she would tell me to pack ‘those’ bags and come home. And this time I would. I could come home now because I had nothing to prove. And I really wanted to come home.”

French Leave was published in 2009, but it couldn’t have landed in my mailbox at a better time. No publisher sent this to me to review. Nor am I getting any money or perks out of it. It’s simply something I wanted to share, to blog about.

I am glad to have found Fidelma Cook’s column and French Leave. Not only are they informative and touching, but also delightfully entertaining and one woman’s welcome, honest account about following a life-long dream. Through these pages, did I discover what I want to be when I grow up? No. But as long as I keep the dream alive, keep an open mind, and not let fear hold me back, anything’s possible.

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