If you want to delve into the long story of how I came to live in a small town in the middle of nowhere Brittany, read on MacDuff.
Why learn another language?
Back in 2018 I quit my well-paying, career-building job in television and packed up everything I owned – which was not much – in my tiny studio appartement in Bristol and bought a one-way ticket to Vietnam. This marked the start of a journey that would bring me to France.
While traveling I met so many amazing people. Both locals in Asia and travellers alike – everyone has a story to tell, and the overwhelming majority could tell it in at least two languages. One night in Vietnam will stay with me forever.
I was in Cân Tho a small town along the Mekong river staying at a hotel that was made up of small wooden huts with thatched rooves that lined one of the rivers channels. In this area the rivers are rife with activity. Locals row past at all hours; picking up the kids from school, going to and from work, washing clothes in the river, fishing in that same river.
It’s a beautiful area and almost remote enough that you feel like you’re off the main tourist trail. The veins of the river envelop the region and I hired a bike from the hotel and cycled over many small wooden bridges and along the tree lined banks. Getting lost in this maze of dust roads and river crossings, I spent the day on the bike, observing at a distance. Stopping only for a fresh coconut or to dip my feet in a pool where a local women kept the kind of fish that like to nibble at your toes.
It was after this long day of riding around by myself that I experienced a truly remarkable evening.
This hotel is a kind of homestay cross with a hostel. It is family run and way out of town in the sticks and down the river so you can immerse yourself in the region fully. It is basic but has everything you need. That evening I showered, changed my sweaty clothes, and wandered across to the main building where there was a bar and kitchen and a living space. I grabbed a beer and wrote my diary watching the sun set through the trees and what was left of the light bounce off the muddy river.
Just as the sun had set completely and the 8 or so tourists that were staying that night had begun to gather for food and drinks the power cut out. And thus began an evening of solidarity, friendship and appreciation.
Immediately everyone grouped together in the living area. We pulled chairs close together and made sure everyone was alright and accounted for. The owner appeared and checked on everyone. Then he took a couple of men with him to fetch candles. I scurried off and came back with my headtorch. Once we had set up around a table of candles and the very kind owner was gathering snacks and said this could be a while, someone made the very sensible point that we should probably all grab a beer out of the fridge before it warmed up too much.
I discovered over a beer that I was there with 3 couples, a young man traveling solo and the owner of the hotel. The youngest couple and the solo traveller were all French. The next couple were from Russia, but the husband was a British expat. And the older couple, who were in their late 50s early 60s were from the Netherlands. The hotel owner – of course – was Vietnamese.
I can still picture all of their smiling faces, dimly lit with candles and torches on that warm January evening. We played cards, exchanged stories and planned to take a boat the next morning together to see the Cai Rang floating market – a must see in southern Vietnam. We were all chatting away and enjoying ourselves in English for a long time. Until suddenly realised that aside from myself, the common language amongst the group was in fact French.
The switch was made slowly but naturally. Vietnam used to be a French colony, so the hotel’s owner had learnt it from his grandparents. The couple from Russia had lived in France for some time and spoke quite fluently. And the couple from the Netherlands? They’re from the Netherlands – why wouldn’t they speak English and French like they were born there! I shifted from my loud boisterous talking and laughing to actively listening and watching the group slip in and out of the two languages. Following the story, but not fully understanding. It was fascinating to me.
It dawned on me that I felt the same way as I had all of that day prior. Biking around, observing life in this part of the world and yet removed from it. A foreigner, taking pictures for my scrap book, smiling and nodding, wanting to but unable to participate. Here I was again. In a much more familiar environment, with people I recognised and could engage with. Perfectly comfortable and happy but then just as quickly; cut off from the conversation and missing out on a part of life I so wanted to experience.
As soon as the group realised that I was the odd one out. The Brit that only spoke the Queens English so to speak. They switched back, instantly, easily, and graciously. They were such open, warm people and we spent an excellent few hours together on that pitch black night along the side of the Mekong river. I’ll never forget it. And from that moment on I was determined to learn a second language.
Bumping into my dream job
The second reason my life in France began was because upon returning to Europe I decided that I wanted to traverse it by bike. Part two of the long story. I originally planned to do John O’Groats to Lands End in the UK but there was something much more appealing about taking a train down to the South of France, sticking a baguette in my pannier bag and practising my rusty GSCE French while making my way up the Lot river.
An unprecedented rainy June in Scotland suddenly made the other option ever more unappealing. Also, I was lucky enough to discover a fantastic guidebook for cycle tourists called ‘France en Velo: The Ultimate Cycle Journey from Channel to Med’ by Hannah Reynolds and John Walsh. Just the introductory chapters online made me excited for my first real taste of France. I’d been to Paris on a school trip and to the south of France for a beach holiday when I was a child but I didn’t really have a flavour for the culture and the country in the sense you can get when you travel by bike.
Well into my trip, I had made it as far north as the Loire valley when fate stepped in. I didn’t know it then but my reason number two for moving to France happened on a lunch time stop in Brissac-Quincé in the Loire region. By this point I was feeling strong on the bike. I was getting more miles in every day and the terrain was changing around me. A little flatter now than it had been further south. I was following rivers and country lanes.
The Loire is a region of castles, rivers and as it turns out mushroom museums. It is green and luscious, and the castles are very pristine with more of a rich relatively modern feel to them than the ones I saw in the south. I stopped in Brissac-Quincé because there was a market on and there was a nice grassy spot overlooking the castle next to it.
I meandered round the market and picked up a couple of things to snack on. Olives, cheese, bread, tomatoes. I love French markets because everything is fresh and local, and I love the hubbub surrounding it. It’s mundane and exciting at the same time. A real bustling local market seems such a rarity in the UK but it’s one of the reasons I fell in love with France. They cherish these local traditions and support each other in the community. It’s also a great place to practise your French with no nonsense people who just want to get on with their day – a little intimidating but you need confidence to learn.
There I was on a grassy knoll enjoying my picnic when a van pulled up and two guys started assembling a picnic next to me. They busily set up a table, tablecloth and then an array of French treats. Then as soon as they had finished with it a group of cyclists with matching bikes and jerseys arrived on mass and a wash of American accents descended on the market square. I listened intently as I heard them describing their ride and asking questions about the town and the food to the two men.
They all then wandered off into the market to explore. That’s when one man noticed me lurking with a mouth full of olives. They asked about my bike and where I was headed. I told him my plan and a little bit about me and asked what kind of operation they were running here. They were a tour company who run trips across Europe. He was a friendly guy and quite cute too which didn’t hurt. Next thing I knew he handed me his business card and said that the company was always looking to recruit people like me. Nonchalantly, I said I’d look into it.
I think at the time I was just enjoying the conversation with a cute American guy that loved cycling and took the business card to be polite but little did I know this moment would change my life. Sitting here writing this years later, I still have that business card tucked away in my purse. It’s faded and soft at the edges now but I carry it with me everywhere as a reminder that you never know what’s around the corner and you should go for something if it feels right.
The romantic part of the story
I ended my ride my cycling through Brittany to reach St Malo. I knew that a friend I had made in Asia lived somewhere nearby and this had been a solo adventure so I relished the thought of raising a glass with someone to mark the finish line. No. Not just someone, but the ruggedly handsome man I’d shared an evening with in Laos. That sounded like a success story to me.
Once I reached the coast there was no stopping me. I got a glimpse of Mont-Saint-Michel rising up out of the sea to my right as I skirted the coast and an immense headwind hit me. I continued, undeterred until I was right alongside the water. People in campervans with surf boards strapped to the roof beeped and grinned at me as they passed. The coastline twisted northwards and I stopped in a local bar tabac for a coffee as it had started to rain. After warming my hands on my coffee and thanks to the boost of caffeine I cut across the peninsular – the final stretch.
Saint-Malo really is quite a sight, and it was a fitting destination to end my journey. Now a popular tourist destination fitted out with numerous hotels, bars and restaurants in the Intra-Muros or ‘the town within the walls.’ Everything leads either to the port or the beach. You can be walking down an ordinary road and suddenly after turning a corner you’re standing along a huge stretch of sand; the channel looming in front of you and the intra-muros inviting you in. There is no question as to why this was such an important town in the history of exploration, importation and war.
My main problem when I arrived after cycling around 115km that day was the campsite recommended in the guidebook. I arrived and was notified that the season for camping hadn’t started yet and they were campervans only. This was supposed to be my triumphant finale! And I was looking at the possibility of having to remain sweaty and disgusting until I managed to wander onto a ferry home. This would not do.
The least the campsite bloke could do was give me the wi-fi password so I sat there in the reception, helmet still wonkily sat on my head with the straps flailing by my ears, and searched for an alternative. I decided to bite the bullet and pay for a hotel. What better way of celebrating the end than with a real bed? I wouldn’t have to sleep on my self-inflating roll mat in a sleeping bag. I could treat myself to a duvet and sheets. What luxury.
I found dinky little bar on a corner with rooms above it. It was cheap and cheerful with a shared bathroom. But the owner was lovely and let me lock my bike up in a little shed round the back. My room was just big enough for a double bed and a desk pressed up against the window that had a kettle on it with a cord that didn’t reach the plug. Now I was on a roll with the treats. Too tired to explore Saint-Malo that evening I ordered a Domino’s pizza to eat in bed – I was so exhausted I imagined I would wake up face first into it but I didn’t care.
As confirmation of just how tired I was, as soon as I ordered the pizza, I realised that I have chosen ‘pick up’ instead of ‘delivery’. Shit. And the thought of trying to navigate the French language over the phone at this point was exasperating just to think of. So, I walked. It was a 20-minute round trip and the longest 10 minutes of my life coming back. Being hungry, tired and carrying a pizza is a bad combination. I managed to have the self-restraint not to stick my head into the box on the walk back, but I devoured it embarrassingly quickly at the hotel before promptly falling asleep.
As for bumping into my friend from Asia and anything romantic happening. I couldn’t reach him until the following day. Turns out, all it took was an actual phone call but I’m the foolish millennial that is dumbfounded when someone doesn’t check their WhatsApp notifications 24/7. Once I’d recovered and after a deep night’s sleep in a real bed. I called.
I had met James on a slow boat from Thailand to Laos. We were picked up by the same company who shuttled people to the border along with a cheerful American called Alex. Me and Alex got on immediately, he was extremely easy to talk to, always jovial and had that uniquely American enthusiasm that I am now sure irritated the hell out of James. Whereas James and I exchanged a few words but not a lot and it wasn’t until we were on the boat that sparks started flying. And when I say sparks. I mean we were almost instantly at odds with one another.
There was a small group of us sitting together on the boat. It was a two-day trip along the Mekong River with an overnight stop in Pak Beng before reaching the town of Luang Prabang. We settled in and started getting to know each other. When I started discussing my love of cycling and how although backpacking through Asia had been a whirlwind and exactly the sort of adventure I’d hoped for, next time I would love to do it by bike. James was sitting behind me and I didn’t even realise that he was listening, but it was at that point he chose to make known his thoughts on cyclists.
“You know what I do when I see a cyclist on the road. Run them over and then reverse.”
I spun around, quick as a flash and exploded with,
“I beg your pardon?”
The smirk on his face is still in my memory. And I hear that same giggle time and again when he winds me up. This is his sense of humour. And this was the first time I had the pleasure of being wound up by this smug, smarter than he looks, pain in the arse. I don’t recall the rest of the conversation but I am almost certain I fell hook line and sinker for his little game and exploded at him with all my thoughts, feelings and strong held opinions while he sat back and relished in the devastation of his remark.
We had a love, hate relationship for the rest of that trip. And yet, we were drawn to each other. Time and again I caught glimpses of an intelligent, caring, independent man. He did not back down when a strong headed know-it-all woman went on and on about what was right and wrong with the world. He did not shut me down, but he challenged me. And when we were finally alone, he was incredibly forthcoming and open about his life and asked me genuinely about mine. I was struck by him, but I was also quite convinced that he didn’t think all that much of me. That was, until our final evening together.
We messaged each other and decided to meet up just the two of us. Our first date. But in my mind probably our last – he was flying to Vietnam the next day. I would never see him again. After a brief jaunt around town we had something incredibly spicy to eat and then settled into a bar for the evening. There was a large television in the bar playing garish music videos with a tall fan blowing hot air around next to it. The most exciting thing for me was that this bar served European beers. After 5 months of drinking Asian lager. I don’t care what country you’re in, it all tasted pretty similar to me.
It was on him, so James chose a Belgian beer called La Chouffe. And since that moment I think it has become my favourite beer. The price difference between that and a BeerLao was insane. BeerLao was usually around 8000 kip and La Chouffe was closer to 50,000. But before you think we’re idiots for spending that much just to have a little taste of home here is the conversion: 8000 kip is 66 pence, and 50,000 kip is £4.14. I think I am safe in saying it was absolutely worth it.
It was a nice evening. We talked and talked. I learnt more about him and him about me in that one evening than we had during the last week and a half we had been traveling together. He was easy to be around and I found him attractive. Not very tall but he was taller than me (that’s not difficult). He was blonde but not too blonde. There was a prominent mole on his right cheek. And he had sort of an unassuming ruggish handsomeness about his face but with piercing blue eyes. As for the conclusion of the evening – I’ll just say, it was a night to remember.
They say absence makes the heart grow fonder and it had been a month or so by the time I called James from my pokey hotel room after riding 1000 kilometres through France. I was nervous. I really wanted to see him again. When he realised he had missed my messages and I have already been in Saint Malo overnight he was there in under 30 minutes. And that was that. When you know, you know. Reason number 3 for my move to France showed up at my hotel bar in St Malo and he’s not been able to get rid of me since.