Judy doesn’t realize how funny her texts can be. The other day she WhatsApped me, “The renters called and said the bed broke…?” She was simply telling me why she might be late.
Judy, an American, and her husband Jonathan, a Brit, run a best-loved Vrbo rental in Antibes. They affectionately call the one-bedroom apartment Place de Rêves (Place of Dreams) because it’s situated off Place du Revely, a secret garden in the oldest part of town. Even better, the seaside unit overlooks Port Vauban and Plage de la Gravette, two other spots on Antibes’ must-see list.
“People write beautiful reviews and other emails to me personally to say really, you guys made our vacay above and beyond,” Judy says with warmth. At first I intended to quote some of these reviews in this post, but having checked online, I wouldn’t know where to begin. Beneath the thumbnail photo of the perpetually tanned and upbeat Judy, the plaudits are effusive. The accommodation and its hosts are perfection.
Judy is telling me (and in some cases reminding me) about these details over the telephone – while climbing the StairMaster at the gym. We intended to do this interview while paddleboarding yesterday – yes, for transparency, she is a friend – but we ended up talking about everything else. (This, too, is normal. For years she has been a vital resource for this blog, filling us in on everything from the gilets jaunes to Antibes’ traditional festivals.)
Place de Rêves has garnered the most five-star ratings of all Vrbo offerings in Antibes’ old town, but for visitors to see perfection, the rental can’t be about location alone. Most clients are American and British, Judy says, so the couple have added touches from their homelands, such as washcloths, larger-format ice cube trays, and a flat sheet beneath the bed’s duvet – things you don’t notice until they disappear. They’ve also tossed in a piano, optional airport service, and a guest “starter kit” that includes wine.
Perfection, in other words, requires elbow grease. One regular in particular, Judy says, is “three times more work than any other client.” She mentions a plate of fish left out on the kitchen table, broken wine glasses, and a raining air-conditioning unit (from constant use with the windows and balcony doors open), which, long story short, led to the crack that continues to afflict the bedframe.
“So why do you keep renting to this person?” I ask.
“Because Jonathan is a saint!” Judy remains stunningly compassionate, and articulate, on the StairMaster. “We don’t have a hard time finding nice people, but he thinks it will be heartbreaking not to be able to rent her the place, and he doesn’t want to break any hearts.”
There was no such concern about hearts when Judy first moved to France 17 years ago. She has never counted herself a Francophile, one of the many Anglophone transplants who are fulfilling dreams of living in this land of storybook villages, endless croissants, and haute couture. Judy is here by chance.
“I never lived abroad,” she says. “I just studied abroad.” (She joined a three-month Semester at Sea program that circumnavigated the world.) “I just got placed here like I did in Dallas.”
The mention of Dallas is loaded. Originally from Ohio, Judy had followed her ex-husband’s high-tech career to Texas and California and then to the South of France. I remember those early years. Judy and I met in a French-for-foreigners class, where an instructor led discussions on things like le passé composé and l’imparfait (again), and Judy organized the socializing afterward. But beneath the fun was drama that left her effectively broke and powerless. When her ex left town, the need for knee surgery was the main force keeping her in France.
“I had to fight for my right to work here,” she says, still not puffing. Her voice grows stronger. “It’s such a fundamental need to work!” Her early, short-term visas had barred employment, and with every passing year her marketing experience became less bankable. Still the local préfecture had been reluctant to upgrade her status in case she became, as she calls it, “a ward of the State.” Judy is nearly bellowing down the phone now. “I would never do that because it’s not my culture! You go clean toilets! You make your own way!”
I have long admired her can-do. When we were paddleboarding (and talking) together yesterday, maneuvering some decent chop in Antibes’ bay, Judy suddenly exclaimed, “It’s a first! I love recording all my firsts!”
It wasn’t her first time paddleboarding or managing to stand up; we had been out there before. It was her first time back on the board since reconstructive knee surgery 18 months ago – the surgery that in some ways led to her current life in Antibes. After a long battle with French bureaucracy, Judy managed to get her first, 10-year carte de séjour, allowing her to live and to work in France. In her jubilation, I remember her declaring that having accomplished this feat, she could do absolutely anything in life.
Over that decade Judy remained a social hub and barometer of fun in Antibes. When I was hosting a Fourth of July dinner several years ago, Judy insisted we go shopping for decorations. (I still have the red-white-and-blue festoons and American flag napkins.) And when my mother celebrated her birthday here, Judy brought over the plush birthday hat with candles poking out the top. (Mum adored the hoopla.)
Now that Judy is starting her second carte de séjour, I have to ask about Brexit. Unsurprisingly, the situation has complicated matters for her and Jonathan. (They married five years ago on her favourite day, June 21, France’s Fête de la Musique, when throngs pack the streets up and down the country for nonstop music and revelry.) As a Brit, Jonathan can’t spend as many days in France as he used to. Meanwhile Judy needs to count her days in the UK, “and you absolutely cannot overstay your days of welcome anywhere,” she says. So the couple find themselves visiting friends in the US, and in February, when British Airways released a suite of cheap fares, they bought 15 sets of tickets between the France and the UK. Judy considers England a home now too – so much that she shipped her family heirlooms there from the US.
That was the detail behind one question I’d managed to slip in on the paddleboard. Judy and Jonathan watch World and Euro Cup matches on special screens put up in Antibes’ covered market area. Not that they’re football (soccer) fans, mind you. They just like the fun, and Judy especially likes the flag decorations. “So let’s say England was playing France,” I said, pausing my paddle to give the question some weight. “Who would you root for?”
“France! My adopted home!”
“Okay, then let’s say – and you sort of have to suspend belief here – but let’s say France and the US were playing in the final. Who would you root for?”
“Oh the US. Definitely the US.”
The answer surprised me a little. But maybe it shouldn’t have. Judy was the one who made me buy all those decorations.
My American-French-English friend is ready for my Stephen Colbert-style questions. She knows what they are ahead of time, having read a recent blog post. That said, when I pose the questions, she’s still pumping that StairMaster, so a little forethought isn’t a bad thing. So, Judy:
Peaches or figs? Figs.
Cats or dogs? Dogs. Really dogs. We’ve talked about getting one.
Jet ski or paddleboard? That’s tough. Jet ski, as in a wave runner, or really a jet ski? Okay. Thirty minutes wave runner and 30 minutes paddleboard.
Croissant or pain au chocolat? Chocolat!
Haute couture or haute cuisine? Are you kidding? I walk around in gym clothes all day. It’s very un-French, so definitely haute cuisine. It’s the reason I go to the gym.
Favourite smell? Lavendar.
Worst smell? A dead rat.
Sunshine or thunderstorm? Sunshine. I do love a good thunderstorm though – from the balcony.
Morning or nighttime? Nighttime.
Johnny Halliday or Céline Dion? Céline.
Baguette or saucisson (a dried French sausage)? Baguette.
Sandy beach or pebbly beach? Sandy. And I’d take sand over a ponton (concrete dock), like the jetty at Plage Keller or the sun bed areas at Royal Beach and the Belles Rives. The idea there is you don’t get sandy, so they’re more expensive, but I like the sand because it’s beachy.
Red wine or rosé piscine? I’ve become very, very French. April to October is rosé, always piscine with lots of glaçons (ice cubes). I’m the queen of glaçons. And otherwise it’s red.
Favourite French word? Inimaginable is a pretty word. Or baguette. I like how it has more meanings than the obvious one, like “chopsticks” and “side diamond” and other things.
Favourite English word? Entrepreneur. It’s a French word, but the concept is so American!
With this post, I revert to my original ideas for the last two questions. They hadn’t seemed appropriate to ask French nationals like Christelle and Caroline, but for Judy they make sense:
Favourite thing about living in France? Probably the fact that I’m always learning something. It could be a new word, or a subtlety of the culture, or something about the art or architecture.
Worst thing about living in France? The inconsistencies are frustrating – like when a store will be open. It’s tough on my work because some shops close between 12 and 3.
I’m happy to hear this final answer. Her bigger trials living here are over.
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