Even though I have now lived here for four years, I know that I am still an American visiting France, and not a fully integrated expat. I feel like my French should be better and although I love living here, I can become frustrated with the “Frenchness” of France from time to time. Interviewing Ruby Soames for “American Notes”, it struck me how at home she and her family are in this country.
Ruby and her husband, Jon, both work locally while their two children attend a neighborhood French school and speak French and English fluently.
Ruby grew up with a foot in two different countries, which perhaps contributes to her ease in living in another culture. The road to France began when she was a student at the Lycée Français in South Kensington, London.
“Having started at the Lycée at an early age and devouring 19th-century French literature since the time I could read, I felt an affinity with France. For the French, nothing is too trivial to be turned into an art form – from walking into a shop to setting a table to designing a mini roundabout.”
Her mother was a model from Portland, Oregon, while her London-born father worked in film. For Ruby, the school year was spent in England but each summer she crossed the pond to her mom’s hometown. During those visits, she found American technology impressive. Gadgets like the Walkman would hit the market before they came to Britain and so she would return to school feeling ahead of the trend. She grew up loving – and defending – both countries equally.
In October of 2002, Ruby, Jon and their infant daughter moved from the UK to the Var and were off to an inauspicious start. They rented a house that was cheap but it ended up being a disaster. Among the more pressing problems: the window wells were a breeding ground for houseflies and there was no heating or air conditioning. The latter made more difficult due to the fact that it was one of the country’s coldest winters followed, of course, by one of its hottest summers – nearly 15,000 people died in France due to heat-related causes that year. They decided to put the rental behind them and head to Aix-en-Provence.
They took to Aix immediately, but not without some drawbacks. “It was beautiful but our whole life was spent in the car. I just didn’t get the point,” Ruby explains, still perplexed.
Aix marked significant changes for Ruby, including the birth of her son and a teaching job at the Institute of American Universities. (Ruby still commutes from Nice to teach a weekly course in comparative education). After living in Aix for eight years they came to Nice in 2010.
With different nationalities and cultures swirling around, I ask Ruby where she considers home. “Home is where I have my coffee in the mornings and where my family is … so, Nice.
“For me, London is for shopping and girlfriends, the US for travel and family – my father lives in Malibu – but in Nice I always feel like I’m on holiday.”
Even though she admires London – “I feel that right now, London is the place culturally” – she prefers Nice because people can still be original. “Plus here I can do exactly what I want, when I want. I can walk outside of my door and don’t need to depend on a car to get around.
“We came here to escape commercialism and big city life. We love living near the sea, the mountains and being connected to Europe – especially Italy where we shop for food regularly. Jon and I had both chosen transportable jobs – Jon’s a travel writer and I’m a teacher – because we always love to discover new things and have adventures.”
Having children is another reason why she and her husband favor France over England or America. “I wouldn’t want our kids growing up in London because I find it’s very uniform and there’s this culture of going out just to buy things.”
She also prefers the French educational system to the American or British. It is a tough system but free, and the couple both believe that the French schools make a better-finished product.
Ruby also advises anybody who is thinking of having a child to do so in France, if they have the option. “Having a baby in France is a much better experience. The hospital was like a hotel.”
Ruby wrote her first book at the age of seven but it wasn’t until 2010 that she had her first novel in print, thus fulfilling a lifelong ambition to be both a teacher and published author. The opportunity presented itself when Ruby won the Hookline and Thinker Novel contest, which she had heard about while studying for her MA in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester.
“The stories are judged by reading groups from all over the UK. I submitted my synopsis and three chapters in January 2010. After three months I was in the top five and invited to submit the rest of the book. After nearly a year, readers voted my novel as their favorite.”
Seven Days to Tell You (UK: Hookline Books) with its “McEwanish sophistication of style and structure (lots of flashbacks, skillfully handled)” was reviewed in Reporter 146.
“My characters in my books get to do all the fun stuff, and I’m stuck at home tapping away! Because my book was written in the first- person narrative, readers often assume it was my story – a heart surgeon marries a wild, sexy Frenchman who disappears for three years … people often ask me about surgical procedures or why I didn’t change the locks when my husband left!”
Look for Ruby’s latest novel, Provenance (UK: Hookline Books), due out this summer. For more see www.rubysoames.com
Ruby Soames: “I’m not a heart surgeon”
- PJ Heslin