Robert Jennings is a Canadian expat living in Aix-en-Provence. He is our Tripper of the Week….
Tell us a little bit about your background.
I was born and grew up in rural areas near Ottawa, Ontario, the capital of Canada. I moved to Montreal, Quebec to study creative writing and English literature. Montreal quickly became home base for me and I realized that I really wanted to work on my French to become completely bilingual (this is really important in a province with an overwhelming francophone majority). I therefore enrolled in the “lettres et sciences humaines” program at the Université de Montréal, a French-language institution. It was there that I met my girlfriend Cécile, there on exchange from France. We are now living together in her hometown of Aix-en-Provence.
You’re currently living in France. How are you liking the life of an expat?
The thing is I’m not really on holiday here. I have to pay rent and feed myself just like back home! Being an expatriate makes all of that a lot more complicated. Everything functions differently here. In particular there are very rigorous job contracts and as a foreigner I
can only (legally) work under certain conditions. Having been a bartender in Montreal I applied for similar jobs here. Since there are no tips in France I just make a lot less money!
The cost of living is also a lot higher here than in Montreal, so I have to be much more
careful with my money. On my days off I try to do day-trips to various places in the south of France, but an 80€ TGV to Paris or Barcelona is something I have to save up for.
I guess living in another country has made me appreciate the simplicity of my life in Montreal. But that is a great learning experience in itself and a more authentic travel experience in some ways. Someone who is just visiting France for two weeks will walk away with postcard memories of churches, museums and restaurants. I have to go to discount grocery stores and hunt for bargains and student rates! But this is how most people in France live. They don’t all wear berets and sit in front of fancy cafés…
Of the places you’ve traveled, which ones have been your favorites?
My favorite city in France so far is Avignon. It’s just my first impression but the arts community there seems to be really active (not just wealthy as in Paris!). There are very edgy contemporary galleries and small venues that seem accessible to students and people with a more modest income. I particularly liked the Collection Lambert, a contemporary exposition space that has a very modern and fresh approach to the arts (there is no lack of stuffy conservative museums in France so this one stands out). Avignon is also a walled city and the site of the Palais des Papes (several Popes chose to live there over the centuries).
The Cathédrale Saint-Sauveur in Aix has become a sort of favorite spot for me as well. It’s a huge encyclopedia of architecture ranging from antiquity to romanesque right through to the 19th century. I can spend hours at a time pondering how the structure must have changed over time as various styles have implanted themselves.
You’ve crossed France by rideshare, then again by train and bus. What was that like?
When I arrived in France I crossed the country southward from Paris to Aix using an online ride-share service (covoiturage.fr). I got to see the countryside, highway infrastructure, gas stations and roadside stops. Even though France is pretty hip about mass transit, many people in France aspire to own cars in very similar way to North
Americans. As someone without a driver’s license I often look up complicated train and bus connections to go to various destinations. If asked, my French friends will simply answer, “Mais il faut la voiture pour y aller!” (You need a car to get there!).
I have occasionally been able to get lifts to go to small beach towns like La Ciotat and Cassis, but more often I take the train or bus. Cécile and I went to Avignon, Orange, Mèze and Sète so far by train and there is a 1€ shuttle bus to Marseilles that runs on a 10 minute schedule. Tickets can be very expensive for more distant destinations unless you buy far in advance. If you’re travelling alone, trains and busses are still cheaper (it’s easy to pay 20€ in tolls and gas prices are almost twice as much as in North America). Overall, the trains are pleasant and comfortable, and they stop even in small towns. Greyhound and
Amtrak services (or Via Rail in Canada) are pretty pathetic compared to the Société nationale des chemins de fer (SNCF)!
What has been your most memorable experience with locals during your travels?
I spent my birthday at a friend of my girlfriend’s house in the countryside near the Montagne Sainte-Victoire (the one in the Cézanne paintings). He took me for a tour of the local vineyards by four-wheeler (a detail which oddly reminded me of my rural upbringing). It’s a breathtaking landscape. The mountain looms over miles and miles of grapevines baking in the hot sun of Provence. The soil is dry and and the terrain is rocky and harsh, a startling contrast with the agricultural wealth of the region around Aix.
The French have a hard time understanding the two linguistic identities of Canada. They are vaguely aware that French and English are spoken there. Many have relatives or friends living in Montreal or have travelled there (a very popular immigration or study destination for the French). They sort of assume that most Canadians are bilingual
and that both languages are spoken most everywhere (a situation very specific to Montreal). As it turns out, French is only spoken in Québec and certain neighboring regions. You are much more likely to hear Mandarin than French in places like Toronto, Calgary, and Vancouver!
They also have a whole wealth of stereotypes about North Americans. Apparently, we love big polluting cars and bad food (I’d just like take this chance to point out that I’ve been served some pretty stale croissants and foul espresso, and that most of downtown
Aix-en-Provence simply doesn’t recycle!)
Where do you plan to Trip next?
As soon as I’ve put some money aside I’d like to go back to Paris (I was only there for three jet-lagged days) and visit more of the North of France. In the meanwhile I’ll try and catch the end of the the photography festival in nearby Arles and maybe see the Côte d’Azur
while the good weather lasts.
Connect with Robert via his Tripping profile.