The story of how Kristin Espinasse came to spend her life in France reads like a perfect Hollywood rom-com, complete with classic chance encounter that leads to love at first sight, shocking plot twist that could have ended the romance and wandering off happily ever after into the Provençal sunset.
Kristin tells the tale in her book, Words in a French Life, an account of her life in France that, despite being completely based on her real experience, would make a good novel: young Kristin grew up in Arizona, and had studied French for two years at university when, in 1990, her teacher told her about an exchange program in Lille.
“It was a complete culture shock,” says Kristin. “And it only lasted two months, which really isn’t enough time once you have come all of this way.” Luckily, one of Kristin’s classmates had plans to stay on and travel south to Aix-en-Provence. “She was much more adventurous than me,” says Kristin. “But she had already paved the way and figured it all out, so I followed her! We signed up to a language school, they helped us get student housing, and off we went.”
Making the most of every opportunity to learn French, Kristin took in the sights and sounds of Aix, including its nightclubs.
Enter the tall, dark stranger – Jean-Marc Espinasse. They danced, they flirted, and Kristin went home with a business card with the words Roy d’Espagne on it. Unsure in her beginner’s French about whether she had just bagged herself a royal husband, she got back in touch with her new Prince Charming.
Jean-Marc turned out to be an accountant, not the King of Spain – Roy d’Espagne was just the name of his building. But the spark had been lit. “It was very lucky,” says Kristin with a twinkle in her eye. “If this friend in Lille hadn’t scoped out her own future… I owe her a thank-you to this day.”
After a whirlwind week of romance, Kristin had to go home to finish her studies. Meanwhile, Prince Charming sent postcards almost daily, telling her about all the places he was going that would have been better in her company. Rose-tinted glasses firmly soldered to her face, Kristin got back on the plane to fulfill her romantic destiny.
By this time Kristin’s studies were finished and Jean-Marc had found her a job at the Chamber of Commerce, teaching English. “I was the worst teacher in the world,” she says. “You should have seen the look on their faces. I’m so up in the clouds…”
After 10 months of living in France, reality was starting to set in. “I wasn’t really fitting in,” says Kristin. “I was resistant to the French lifestyle.” What once seemed so romantic suddenly became just a boring daily routine. The American in her started missing some home comforts: “There’s a canicule, but there’s no air-conditioning… Then you’re bagging your own groceries at the store, waiting at the bus stop to go home while the mistral wind is flying all around you… It started to really get on my nerves.”
Kristin’s homesickness generated friction with her relationship, and after months of listening to her complain, Jean-Marc bought her a one-way ticket home.
With a mix of sadness and resignation, Kristin left her French adventure behind. That was that. Or, it would have been if not for love getting in the way – slowly they started writing to each other from across the Atlantic again. “He would write me this nice long letter and it seemed like we were getting back together,” says Kristin. “Then I’d turn it over and he would be saying ‘but it was for the best’! That was torture.”
In the end, Kristin’s dad pushed her back into France’s arms. “My dad had come to visit me in the flat I was sharing with my sister in Arizona, and he just said ‘no, you don’t seem happy here’. He told me to give France another try, even though he would really have preferred me to get a good paying job and settle down.”
She was not returning for love, as that door was seemingly closed, but Kristin still told Jean-Marc about her plans. “I thought I should let him know that I was going to be around, just in case I bumped into him on the street and gave him a heart attack!” says Kristin.
The couple soon took up where they had left off. They thanked their good fortune that their story was not over. The authorities, on the other hand, weren’t too pleased with Kristin’s return. “I set off a red flag when I flew back in, because I hadn’t let them know that I had left in the first place… They thought I was some kind of fugitive!” When Kristin called to extend her carte de séjour, the answer she received was that she had 30 days to leave the country. After overcoming all of the obstacles in the way of their romance, it looked like administration would kill their chances as a couple… Soon they were speaking to a lawyer, whose advice was to get married. “We looked at each other, and thought ‘Yeah!’. We knew we wanted a future together, so we went for it. He’s the perfect husband for me. It’s been really enjoyable for me to write the story of our life for 15 years now.”
Write what you know
Kristin’s writing started in the form of a blog. After teaching, Kristin worked at a vineyard for a few years, but she felt unsatisfied. “They were squeezing me like an orange,” she says. “I could feel inside of me that this wasn’t really, what’s that word in French..? valorisant. You’re doing all of this work, but it really doesn’t amount to anything.”
In her frustration, Kristin turned to something she had been doing her whole life – writing a diary. Except this time, she joined a writing group and started her own website to publish her thoughts. “I didn’t realise that what I was really doing was blogging,” she says. Looking for something that would bring readers back every day, Kristin noticed that her Francophile readers in the US and UK were hungry for details about her French life – she decided to call her blog French Word-a-Day. Each day, seven days a week, Kristin would take one French word and explain it by applying it to her everyday experience in France. People started reacting to her posts and soon she had over 25,000 readers to send a newsletter to.
The feedback she was getting from her group, BIC-HOK-TAM (“Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard, Typing Away Madly” explains Kristin with a grin) helped encourage her to collate her posts and print her own book. “I never looked back,” she says proudly. “The books just got better and better, and I still couldn’t believe the people reading my blog were buying them.”
Word of mouth and book sales grew the blog’s popularity even more, and one day, Kristin received that email. “The subject line said From an editor at Simon & Schuster. That’s a big company!” Her excitement is still palpable today. “A young lady based in Beijing, Ann Mah [who went on to write Mastering the art of French Eating], was looking for information about France when she stumbled upon my blog. She sent it to her friend in the US, who thought it was charming, and they culled what they liked and published it!”
It was a dream come true. But one Kristin hasn’t wanted to repeat. “I really believe in self-publishing,” she says. “I already have a readership and although I’m grateful for the recognition and especially the confidence a professional publisher gave me, I’d rather send my books out into the world myself.” The important thing was that now, thanks to this validation from a big-time publisher, Kristin was officially a writer.
Call of the wild
The main adventure Kristin has documented in her books is the couple’s foray into the wine industry. When Kristin came back that fateful second time, the couple settled in Marseille, where Jean-Marc started his career as an accountant. “He quickly realised that being in an office in a three-piece suit crunching numbers all day was not his thing,” says Kristin. “He was more of a nature kind of guy.” They answered the yearning for the outdoors by helping out Jean-Marc’s uncle, a winemaker in Châteauneuf. “We went together, and I was miserable because of the amount of work,” recalls Kristin. “Little did I know that it would be our future!” Jean-Marc had caught the wine bug.
Because Jean-Marc had a business degree, his beginnings in the wine industry were in the offices. “He worked his way down to being a farmer!” jokes Kristin.
In 2007, the Espinasse family took their life among the vines one step further, and Jean-Marc started his own vineyard. Kristin presents me with a bottle of deep blushing rosé. The label reads Mas des Bruns. “This is Jean-Marc’s first wine,” she says proudly. “Once you plant the vines, it takes three years for the grapes to be ready for rosé, 10 for red.”
The plan had been to wait the 10 years, but life took a different turn last year when Jean-Marc suffered severe depression. Documenting it in her writing, Kristin watched as her husband’s dream to expand his vineyard by digging into the overgrown terraces on his land was crushed by extension permits and red tape. “His heart just dropped,” remembers Kristin.
Jean-Marc was already exhausted from years of farming, depending on the weather and so many other variables, and this administrative setback was the straw that broke the winemaker’s back. “I had watched him wring himself out with work,” says Kristin. “I often wondered how he could continue, but this just stopped him in his tracks.”
After a year of introspection, the couple decided it was time to sell the property and start a new chapter. The timing seems right, anyway, now that their two children have moved out to pursue their studies in nearby Montpellier and Aix.
Enter 19-year-old Jackie, who walks in to the kitchen all trendy top-bun and off-the-shoulder top. She smiles and says, in an extremely cute little half-accent, “are you English?” I tell her my story, that I’m like her – half and half. “Oh cool,” she says, “more English or more French?” For her part, Jackie feels more French, having being born and bred in the south of France. The same applies to her 21-year-old brother, Max.
From the wooden farmhouse table at which we are chatting, I look past the window seat and onto the abandoned vines beyond the lavender and sunflowers.
Next door, in the tiny but impeccable kitchen, a bell jar covers trimmings and tea bags ready to feed Kristin’s permaculture garden. As she stirs honey into her tea, she talks about the lifestyle she herself has built: “I am totally into the self sustainable movement. I find it endlessly fascinating. Not everyone understands it… I saw the look on a friend’s face once as she saw the garden. I explained that it’s organic, and has no pesticides. She said, ‘I would rather eat chemicals than have this mess in my garden’. It’s a choice.”
In the beautiful organised mess of the garden, where fava beans, artichokes and prickly pears grow together in harmony, lies a metaphor for the Espinasse story. But now that the winds are changing, perhaps this could be an opportunity to start a new chapter in America?
“Jean-Marc and the kids thought this would be a good time to go back to the States,” says Kristin. “But I’m really drenched in the French lifestyle. I don’t think I’d want to leave now.”