A Different Kind of Year

How it started Part 1

It began with this thought:
What if I move to France for a year?


In January 2017 I rented my house for six months, first going to California where I spent my time visiting my mom, brother and sister in law for about six weeks, and painting rocks on the beach.


While there I planned the second part of my time away, deciding to live, paint and study in Bordeaux a place I had never been to and where I didn’t know anyone.  I enrolled in french immersion classes at L’Alliance Francaise, paid, took their placement test and found a great apartment. 


I arrived in Bordeaux in the beginning of March and immediately started classes, five days a week, four hours a day. Each class level has up to 20 foreign students and concentrates on varying subjects which change every two weeks. It was an amazing opportunity to speak freely with each other about the topics we were studying; immigration, art, health or identity, all in french of course.  It was particularly interesting discussing the French and American elections while studying justice, our election had just finished (NOT MY PRESIDENT prefacing  every statement I made) and their election ongoing. My days consisted of class, food shopping, homework, dinner, more homework, wine, maybe one or two episodes of Un Village Francais before finally bed. Lots of studying was required, and there were tests!  This place was no joke….


My mother came to visit for about two weeks. We drove throughout the Dordogne and Aveyron regions, visiting prehistoric sites and ancient villages, eating lots of duck and foie gras, drinking wine, watching the Crown on my iPad in the hotel rooms and amazingly not arguing that much. 

During my last month of classes, I had incessant insomnia, a strange skin thing and a ferocious cough. I chalked it up to allergies, every tree was blooming in the city, the pollen out of control and once it warmed up, Bordeaux became a really humid and moldy kind of town. That spring the temperature alternated between 50-60 degrees for a few days and 85-95 for the next few. It was unpleasant, everyone was suffering. Thank God AF had “climatisation” air conditioning….


With all this occurring I had a hard time concentrating on my studies and most mornings would approach my teacher before class saying, don’t expect much from me today je suis crevée et ma tête ne marche pas, basically I’m brain dead

Truth is, my French is good, but I didn’t do as well as I wanted to. I have high standards and french grammar is tough even with a working brain….especially for Americans….do we ever really learn it in school? This nagged at me, even after my last class when my teacher told me all I needed was more conversation and not to ever change my gringo accent because it is cute…..

Then I headed off to visit friends, spending my last two weeks in the Basque Country before heading back to the US.

I lived in Bordeaux for exactly 90 days, the maximum stay without a visa.  These days one is only allowed to be in France for 90 days out of every 180. Gone are the times when one could cross a border for a week or so and come back in for another 3 months.
Three months seems to be the pivotal point, when you are living in a foreign country.  It is when everything is finally familiar, you know the lay of the land, maybe have some friends, certainly have a routine, and start to feel comfortable. Leaving was a frustration, it felt like I was just beginning.


So maybe it was then that the idea to stay a year subconsciously began.
Or when leaving the country and the French customs officer took forever to stamp my passport…was he silently calculating the exact number of days from my entry to my departure?

Or maybe it was on the plane home,
or when my tenant handed me seven envelopes from the French government, saying …..so sorry Sally, unfortunately I recognize these envelopes, (he lived in France for 10 years….) I think these are speeding tickets, were you driving over there?
And I paid them thinking…. what if I ever wanted to go back, and drive…..would they turn me away at the border….for speeding tickets? Things being so much more official these days.

Or maybe it was when I got back in my house, after a month of couch surfing.
All I know is one day the thought was there, and not going away.


It took a long while to figure out, the how when and where to go.  I had obligations. I had to work. The process began when I was finally back in my house in July and could start my art projects. I had a mural to paint for Hartford Hospital that fall, pottery and painting commissions to do and my job at the farmer’s market.

The mural was my friend Mary’s idea. In autumn 2016 her mother was diagnosed and treated for ovarian cancer, then she too was diagnosed with the same cancer, and was undergoing treatment into the winter of 2017. While getting chemo she described staring at depressing grey cement walls surrounding the dead garden outside the treatment rooms, and said, I’m going to get Sally to paint a mural here.


And she did. I came up with a concept, did sketches, wrote proposals and a budget and researched materials.  We face-timed while I was in Bordeaux, she sent me pictures and measurements of the walls and the dormant winter garden. I asked my French friend Catherine (Catou) Guillaud if she would collaborate with me on the project, and she said yes.  So we began planning, spending about six months refining the design, drawing more, painting mock ups, comparing notes and working out the details. When I returned to Brooklyn in June Mary and I drove up to Hartford and presented our project to the hospital.  A week or so later our mural was approved, with a start date of early September 2017 for the first garden and the possibility of painting the connecting garden in Spring 2018.


It was an immense and intense project, but probably one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done. Catou came to New York for six weeks. Every Sunday night or Monday (5:30 am) we drove up to Hartford from Brooklyn, and back again late Thursday or early afternoon on Friday.
The traffic was brutal. We stayed at Mary’s mother’s house. We did this for a month, painting 6-8 hours a day. It was exhausting but we finished!  Catou and I were very happy with the whimsical garden mural we created, so was Mary and everyone else, especially the other cancer patients who watched us work and saw the mural transform the space outside their windows.

And since we were on track to paint the second garden in spring 2018 my timetable was determined…. the earliest I could leave would be mid-late August 2018.

By late fall 2017, “what if I live in France for a year” was no longer just a thought, it was the objective.