I love how the French word ‘chez’ describes home. It even sounds welcoming: Viens chez nous. Come over to our place. And you don’t go to the butcher’s shop, you go ‘chez le boucher,’ ‘chez le boulanger,’ etc. You learn this one early in French as it’s a classic mistake to say ‘au’ instead of ‘chez’ when referring to shops with a person behind the name.
The concept of house and home is very dear to the French. And to me: I’ve always been a homebody. They call this being ‘casanier’ in French. I like having a place to hang my hat. This means I’m not a huge fan of travel and indeed, cannot travel light. My husband always laughs when I carefully unpack my clothes in hotel rooms; he’s perfectly happy living out of a suitcase. But for anything longer than a weekend, I pack a pillow and have been known to bring the toaster.
Ever since I arrived in France I’ve been like Dorothy, tapping her heels and saying ‘there’s no place like home.’
My first chez moi was in the seventh arrondissement of Paris, a one-bedroom sublet with a partial view of the Eiffel tower (you had to crane your head out of the kitchen window to see a bit of it sticking up over a neighboring rooftop). It was furnished in someone else’s taste (there was a lot of pink). We lived there for less than a year and it never really felt like home.
Fast forward to Lyon, 3ème arrondissement. Our family’s first home in France was a roomy 3-bedroom apartment on the rive gauche of the Rhône, not far from the business centre of Lyon. Long on old-world charm, it had dizzyingly high ceilings with crown moldings, antique fixtures and floor tiles, herring-bone hardwood floors….but was rather short on modern conveniences (the ‘central heating’ was a single gas heater, centrally located in the front hall).
Although we were only renting, we (read: my husband) scraped off several layers of flocked and flowered wall paper from every surface (including the ceiling) and repainted before moving in. We had no balcony but our bedroom window overlooked a treed inner courtyard. It was only a few blocks to the nearest park for airing kids and dogs. We stayed for five years – long enough to feel almost at home.
Next stop: home ownership. After so much time in the city, we were ready for some fresh air. For several months we searched for something we liked and could actually afford. In the end, we bought a piece of land in a small town half an hour outside Lyon, found a builder and chose a plan for our new house. Building was cheaper than buying an existing house as you got a break on taxes.
Our first house was a typical new French single-family home. It was a brick construction set in a small housing development (lotissement) where several other families had each built a different house. It looked out over les Monts du Lyonnais on one side and a small farmer’s field on the other. It did not have finished closets, kitchen or bathroom fittings. Those little extras are considered as part of the décor; most new houses here are delivered as empty shells. But we had a roof over our heads and could really see the skies for the first time in years. I felt like I’d arrived in Kansas.
Small wonder I never wanted to leave. But the day came a few years ago when we decided to uproot (for absolutely, positively the LAST time) and move on. More precisely, 160 kilometers northeast.
Our new house is on the French side of the border with Switzerland (after so much time and effort integrating here, I wasn’t ready to abandon la belle France). It’s located in another small town in the countryside, overlooking Lake Geneva on one side and the Alps on the other. We also built this house, buoyed by our first experience, equal amounts of optimism and, perhaps, foolhardiness. It’s similar in many ways to our first house – but on steroids.
It’s an A-frame wood structure with a lot of glass – based on what some call a ‘flat-pack’ or prefab home but customized and built by a professional builder (neither of us being handy with tools or implements other than those used for cooking.) It was a much bigger project – this time we were able to get a built-in kitchen and finish the closets. Even after a year and a half, we’re still working out some of the bugs.
As lovely as our new home is, it took me awhile to get over our old house. The one where our kids grew up, where we struggled through the lean years and put down roots. But I’m finally beginning to feel chez moi. Now that I’ve unpacked the toaster.