Living in France · Travel

Discovering Lyon and Scouting for a New Home

I’m incredibly grateful that Andrew’s employer flew us out to visit the area before we actually moved out. They call it a “look and see” trip and warned us not to expect to actually sign a lease on anything, so I think our expectations were appropriately set.

At first, I had told Andrew to go on his own, because I was still working (he was done with his previous job by then so had all the time in the world), there was still so much to do for the move, and I didn’t feel we could afford to leave the kids with my in-laws for so long. They were already going to be there for a LONG time starting with Spring Break, and Jonas and Adelina are one thing, but throw Gabriel into the mix and things get… pretty wild!

But I really DID want to go, and I’m glad we finally decided to go together; and SO incredibly grateful to his parents and sister and family who stepped up to care for the kids, I know it was a lot.

I will say, traveling sans kids is such a luxury. I listened to my gripping audiobook, watched whatever movies I wanted to, enjoyed my meal with my own lap to myself… and we got some lovely couples’ time together.

It was really good we went together because we got a decent feel for several different neighborhoods in the city (although, funny story… we ended up signing an apartment that wasn’t in any of them…), and even though we didn’t find a home this trip, I had at least an idea of things when Andrew got there ahead of us and visited a ton of places before starting his job.

When we learned we were moving to Lyon, my aunts figured out we knew a few people who lived there, and I got in touch with Bastien, who grew up in my home ward — and who ended up marrying the daughter of my aunts’ good friend! They were SO kind and picked us up at the airport, held onto some things we brought over (we took advantage of having an additional trip to bring over two extra suitcases with clothes, household items, etc. in advance so that we could bring home the empty suitcases and bring more when we made the final move. Oh, and Andrew’s violin! (it has to be a carryon, so it takes up precious space.) TOTALLY worth it!). We were very grateful to have them, they were so helpful.

And it was nice to see a familiar face!

Once we got to our AirBNB, we managed to not fall asleep immediately and made it to a reasonable hour before crashing in bed. Next morning was our first apartment visit. I’ve forgotten the exact order of things, but it was exciting to get into the city and start to explore!

Discovering the city of Lyon

One of the first things we did amid the apartment hunting was track down Andrew’s workplace — that’s Interpol on the other side of the river!

Living in Las Vegas the last few years, and Wyoming before that, I’ve entirely forgotten what it’s like to be in temperate weather. It was late winter/early spring when we got there (mid-March) and I kind of wished I had brought a heavier coat because it was pretty blustery and gray the whole time. As you can see, it was still a little muddy with a lot of bare branches.

However, there were some beautiful early spring flowers to be found, and it was fun being in a walkable city again!

As a former city administrator, Andrew was especially appreciative of the place-making and livability in this city. Tons of super convenient public transportation options (metro, bus, tramway, even a funicular), and bike lanes everywhere!

My first impression of Lyon, though, was that it was sort of a strange mix — I was surprised at how much more modern architecture and taller buildings there were around the city, depending on where you went.

My hometown Bordeaux — at least downtown proper, the historic heart of the city, is all beautiful ornate stone buildings and cobblestones, and there aren’t really a lot of very tall buildings (I’m pretty sure by design, to preserve its historicity). Lyon, by contrast, was… a little bit of everything. It has “arrondissements” like Paris (or like NYC’s boroughs if that makes more sense) and they all have their own flavor.

As I’ve gotten to know the city since then, though, I’ve come to discover how cool this place really is — and there’s still so much to discover.

For a super-brief simplified overview of Lyon: it’s a city that is split by two rivers that merge together, (at a place aptly named “Confluence”) the Rhône and the Saône — where the masculine (Rhône, on the right) meets the feminine (Saône, on the left). Near their convergence is called the “presqu’île,” the “almost island,” and then the areas north of that are up on a plateau and hills — there are other areas that are hilly to the West.

This kind of geographic mix probably accounts for all the different styles.

I love these little rogue mosaics, you can find them in unexpected spots all around town.

Vieux Lyon, the old city, is from medieval times and is gorgeous, very charming and touristy. It sits on a steep hill atop which you’ll find the Fourvière Basilica (which is gorgeous, although surprisingly new — it was only built in the 1870s!) and a sort of mini Eiffel tower. There are also Roman ruins nearby, including an amphitheater that overlooks the city. It is a really neat spot.

Or there’s Croix Rousse, which we had heart a lot about from expats in the city. It’s on a plateau kind of above the city, north between the two rivers. We happened to visit it on market day and enjoyed some incredible strawberries — I forgot how good produce is here!

Croix Rousse felt more modern and simple than what I expected, but also charming and like a small-town neighborhood. (I imagine it like SoHo vs Upper East Side or something — more young and hip, I guess?)

And we did eventually go into the more classic downtown, near the Opera and Hotel de Ville (Central city hall) and that looked more classically Haussmanien in style.

And look at those gorgeous blooms!

There are also plenty of suburbs, and the country further out is gorgeous. (We went to visit some members we’d gotten in touch with in advance, they invited us to their home way out in the countryside and it was a magical green valley — but also SUPER far out, I can’t imagine commuting an hour into town that often.)

Fun fact: the airport here is named after Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, which the entire world knows as the author of Le Petit Prince, and who is a native of this area. He was also a huge lover of aviation, (hence why the airport is named after him) and — I didn’t know this until I looked him up this last trip — disappeared on a recon flight over the Mediterranean during World War II. He was quite a character, and I’d love to learn more about his life and work. He actually wrote one of my favorite quotes on love:

“Aimer, ce n’est pas se regarder l’un l’autre, c’est regarder ensemble dans la même direction.” // “Love does not consist in looking at one another, but in looking together in the same direction.”

Anyway. Back to house hunting!

Hunting for a home in Lyon

We had thought about living outside of town in a house — much more space per euro, but higher commute times, far away from church and everything, would DEFINITELY need a car… and by the end of our trip we were pretty set on living in town. Which would likely mean some sacrifices.

Side note: Andrew and I made so many jokes with the peppy voiceover of House Hunters International on this trip.

“Andrew and Lydia are looking for a four-bedroom apartment in the lovely city of Lyon, France. Lydia loves the old-city charm of high-ceilinged apartments, but Andrew doesn’t want to give up the American comforts of furnished kitchens and modern bathrooms. Will they be able to come to a compromise and find a place that’s close enough so Andrew doesn’t have to commute longer than 30 minutes to work? Find out after the break!”

But seriously, that’s basically exactly how it all went down! We saw some pretty unique places. Like this industrial loft place — pro, lots of light and air conditioning (!!), spacious living room. Con: only two bedrooms and a really bizzarro entrance through unfinished concrete stairs behind other buildings…

It had potential and brand new bathrooms and kitchen but… too weird, and definitely not enough bedrooms.

We visited this next one early in the morning — it was a group of roommates that were about to move out and one of them was kind enough to show it to us before work.

If you only saw these two photos, you would think it was pretty dreamy, right??

I was super hopeful about this one. It was HUGE, compared to a lot of downtown places.

But… it needed a lot of work. The bathrooms were… pretty terrible (think a toilet attached to the ground in a closet). The kitchen needed most of the appliances, and the rooms were big but, other than this living room, really dark and creaky. Everything was very old and needed serious work — and the kids were likely going to destroy 100-year-old doorknobs at the first tantrum.

If we were only going to be renting, we wouldn’t be able to make any of those improvements. And then… there’s the fact it was on the sixth floor, with no elevator. (The building is gorgeous though, right?!)

Oh, and it was expensive when you consider none of the utilities were included (power alone was like 300 euros a month for that place…). So, we eventually had to pass on it, but it was sad, because by the end of the trip I was thinking maybe it was the best we’d be able to find! At least it had space! If were buying and could fix it up the way it deserves, it could’ve been awesome. But the elevator thing would’ve been rough…

We headed over to a nearby café to discuss it over some excellent breakfast.

(It was seriously incredible. That’s fresh-pressed orange juice.)

We visited another nice little place the next day with three bedrooms across the river, in “Caluire” which is technically a suburb but basically part of the city. It was right on the river with a view of Andrew’s office on the other side!

It had potential, but once again, the kitchen and bathroom situation were.. rough. The kitchen had basically nothing — blank slate. I do mean nothing — we would’ve had to buy a fridge, stove, oven, cabinets, table/countertops… this is pretty common in Europe, although you CAN find furnished kitchens more and more these days.

And then the bathrooms… the main bathroom was OK — tub was worn but it was all relatively modern. Only one toilet… and the second bathroom was a dog wash. I kid you not. It was in a weird closet off the hallway and the shower head was basically a hand-held hose at waist-height. What the heck was I supposed to do with that thing?! (I mean, other than wash dogs.)

What a waste of space, I would’ve preferred a closet! The view out the back window was pretty incredible though.

We ended up passing on this one too — in addition to the sketchy bathroom/kitchen situation, I didn’t like that it was apart from town and the neighborhood was on the edge of a busy street.

Can you tell there were a lot of emotions going on during this process?? Ha!

Finally, we saw one more apartment, for which we had super low expectations going in — there were only 2-3 photos online. We got there early for our visit, and the neighborhood was DREAMY. It was on a plaza with a gorgeous cathedral and little playground, in the loveliest neighborhood in the heart of the city.

There was even a statue of Joan of Arc — it must be a sign, right?! (I was obsessed with Joan of Arc as a kid — still am, to be honest). It was SUPER close to Andrew’s work, too. And there was a bilingual preschool just around the corner!

When we got inside, I was really pleasantly surprised. It was lovely, had a lot of historic charm, and the kitchen was quite nice!

It only had three bedrooms, but a bigger living room with a dining room closed off by French doors — we could’ve made it a dining/home office room or something. However, once again… super sketchy bathrooms (one of them was like… a weird unfinished closet in the main bedroom with a tiny shower basin… and then there were were sinks with exposed plumbing in each closet…)

I didn’t take a ton of photos because I filmed a lot of these places to go back and look and think about it all. So, in no particular order, here are some of the videos I shot on this trip if you’d like to see more “behind the scenes” and get more of a feel for the city. (apologies for the vertical format — although it works great if you’re on mobile!)

Honestly, by this point, that last apartment was at the top of my list if we could just get past the bathroom situation. It was light and airy, it had decent space and felt cozy enough, and it was in a great neighborhood. We figured it would be good to at least apply and see.

Complications when moving to France

We hopped on over the realtor’s office to see, and learned they wanted guarantors. (Someone who can basically co-sign for you — they want someone who has tax statements i.e. is established in France) Well, we don’t have anyone in France with enough income to cover a family of five. Could we buy some kind of insurance, or pay an extra month down or something?? Nope, they weren’t having it. “Come back with guarantors.”

It was infuriating, because we met the income requirement (this last apartment was priced surprisingly affordably!), but this realtors’ office was playing hardball on guarantors. In dealing with several other realtors, we knew it wasn’t a universal requirement — some were thrilled that Andrew was with Interpol, for example, or others were more than happy to see our salary or my permanent work contract (in France, a CDI, contrat à durée indéterminé is the gold standard, it’s pretty hard to fire someone with it and it has no term) — but some of the more established places require guarantors and this was one of them.

I realize we can count ourselves lucky that this was one of our bigger problems on the trip. For example, we’d heard it was really hard to get a bank account there, especially for Americans because of IRS laws, but Andrew’s employer had an appointment with a preferred banker set up for us on this trip. That was huge on its own. You can’t get housing without a bank account, but you can’t get a bank account without an address… and the cycle goes round and round. Other friends of ours went through neobanks or family. So I’m grateful in the end that some aspects were definitely smoothed over for us.

At this point you’re probably thinking, “wait, Lydia, aren’t you a French citizen???”

Yup. You’d think this would be easier. But because I’ve been gone so long — since I was 18 — I’m basically out of the system and have to start from scratch. I closed my bank account (to avoid monthly fees for an empty bank account) when I moved away and have had to restart all my social security/healthcare paperwork from zero. It really is almost like being an expat myself, all over again.

Thankfully, we have kept our civil situation up to date (we registered our marriage certificate and kids’ birth certificates as they happened with the French embassy in the U.S. and kept passports up to date) so we at least had that. But it’s still a very strange situation to be in. People have often been kind and helpful though, I think they see me as a prodigal son ha ha!

Trying to find a home

By the end of this trip, I was really in love with the more historic apartments — those gorgeous parquets en point de Hongrie, chevron-patterned hardwood floors, had my whole heart. And the older the apartment, the bigger they tended to be, which is a huge plus for our family.

But finding one that had the historic charm AND decent kitchen and bathrooms was proving really hard to do within our budget. We just weren’t prepared to live with hundred-year-old plumbing, especially in a rental situation where we couldn’t do anything to improve it. Having three kids is hard enough with the house making things harder.

To be honest, I left this trip a little discouraged and very worried we’d have to compromise on something that really mattered to me.

And at the end of the week, it was also really special to have all this time together, and we loved getting to explore this city together. We ate lots of good food, visited both church buildings in town (revisiting some spots from Andrew’s mission in the process as well!), and discovered the parc de la Tête d’Or, a huge park in the heart of the city (kind of similar to Central Park).

We laughed so hard at this place above — Andrew saw they had Dr Pepper (it’s a lot less widespread here, but it does exist) and asked for it, but the girl couldn’t understand what he was saying, presumably because he’d pronounced it in English. So then he said “Docteur Peppeurr” in the most stereotypical, exaggerated cartoon-y French accent you can imagine, and she was like “ah! Docteur Peppeurr!” and grabbed him one off the shelf. We were dying!

We ended the trip with a dinner out in Vieux Lyon with my childhood friend who had picked us up. It was SO good and such a cool ambiance — when I followed the address, it took us down what looked like an abandoned side street and I started wondering what in the world we were doing.

Suddenly, to our left there was a door with a sign out front — but sadly, the sign said full for the night. As we stood there disappointed, a server appeared and asked if were des gens biens, (good people, ha!) and with a wink he waved us in and conspiratorially led us down the stairs into the stone-carved underground restaurant! It was really cool and we had a lovely evening — and good food of course!

We left for home tired, and still very unsure about the future, but we had managed to accomplish two things: open a bank account in France, and get a feel for the city and an idea of what to expect. And: I didn’t get any photos, but we also visited the COOLEST international school for the kids — it’s a French school with international programs, basically the same program I did in middle and high school, and I fell in love. I’m so excited they have the opportunity to be in such a cool environment.

Speaking of kids: we were very happy to come back to ours and hug them tight.

Next, it was time to pack up and send Andrew off to France for good… to be continued!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s