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MOVING TO FRANCE

‘I moved my family to France despite never even visiting the country. I don’t regret it’

American fashion designer Mary Alice Duff moved to France with her family in August 2021 despite having never visited the country before, and barely speaking French. She told us what she learned along the way.

Mary Alice and her family enjoy a day at the beach, accessible from their apartment via protected cycle lanes.
Mary Alice and her family have moved to the southern French city of Montpellier from Philadelphia. (Source: Mary Alice Duff)

When the pandemic first triggered lockdowns in the United States in 2020, Mary Alice Duff spent months at a time working remotely in her family home in Philadelphia. 

As an escapist way of dealing with the pressure of running her plus-sized fashion label from home, she took to the internet. With her six-year-old tucked into bed, she would browse French real estate websites. 

“That had become my stress relief for dealing with Covid,” she said. 

What began as a way to relax after a long day gradually morphed into something more real. 

As they were getting ready to go to sleep one night, she turned to her husband, Alex, and asked him where he would live if he could choose anywhere in the world. Both of them had roots in Philadelphia stretching back multiple generations. He looked her dead in the eye and said “the south of France”. 

Mary Alice was delighted, but not entirely surprised – Alex had been trained as a chef in French-style cuisine and was always complaining about a lack of good cheese markets. 

“The next morning, I woke up and I was like, why don’t we move to the south of France?!”, said Mary Alice.  

For a year, the couple did “tonnes of research”: reading The Local; trying to decide which part of the country to move to; looking for an apartment; investigating transport links and schools; taking basic French classes and of course applying for visas. They also joined Facebook groups to reach out to foreign residents in France for advice. 

The family told all their friends that they would be moving to France and booked tickets. 

“It definitely with the motivation. It helps to make your goals public,” she said. 

In the last week of Mary Alice, Alex and their daughter, Alice, took the plunge and moved to Montpellier – despite having never set foot in France before. 

Mary Alice enjoys a day out in the Jardin des Plantes, one of her favourite spots in Montpellier.

Mary Alice enjoys a day out in the Jardin des Plantes, one of her favourite spots in Montpellier. (Source: Mary Alice Duff)
 

It was when they moved into their first place, a temporary Airbnb, that Mary Alice had her first culture shock. 

“Things are generally smaller in France, and I’m a big person,” she said. 

“I had to duck to walk up the stairs and the shower… I would say it was like getting showered in a coffin. It was so small I had to shimmy into it. It was awful.”

Mary Alice and her family love their new Montpellier apartment, where her husband, Mark, serves up delicious French cuisine.

Mary Alice’s new apartment is much more spacious. (Source: Mary Alice Duff)

With the help of a relocation agency, Mary Alice and her family eventually moved into a new home, just a short bike ride from the beach – much to the delight of the couple’s young daughter. 

“I’ve always said if I could ever live somewhere that has both a city and a beach I will be in heaven. I just never thought I actually afford it because those cities are usually like California,” said Mary Alice. “Then we found Montpellier.” 

Mary Alice and her daughter can cycle to the beach in no time at all.

Mary Alice and her daughter can cycle to the beach in no time at all. (Source: Mary Alice Duff)

But it was more than the beach that attracted the family to this city in particular town. 

It was less expensive than areas further towards the southeast, had good weather, nice architecture, a large international community and a bilingual private school, with which her daughter was “thrilled” with from the very first day of class. 

“I do think if she was in a public school, she would be much further along in French, out of necessity. But I thought it would be a little much just throw her in a public school without speaking a French. The transition felt a little harsh for me,” said Mary Alice. 

Alice Alexander, the clothing business, is doing very well by tapping into an undersupplied European market. 

“In Europe there are virtually no high quality plus-size options in terms of clothing. I literally haven’t bought a single piece of clothing here in seven months, because I can’t just pop into a shop and get something,” said Mary Alice. 

Her husband enjoys cooking French cuisine with fresh ingredients every day and the couple are enjoying the typically chilled out Mediterranean culture of long lunches and a slower pace of life. 

Mary Alice and her family find Montpellier a charming place to live.

Mary Alice and her family find Montpellier a charming place to live. (Source: Mary Alice Duff)

The family have begun to make good friends – both locals and other foreign residents – and are delighted how friendly and polite everyone is. 

“It is a legitimate thing here to say hi to people when you’re walking down the street, go into a shop or get onto the bus. Where I come from, if you shout across the bus to say ‘thank you, bye’, everyone would be like, ‘what’s wrong with this person?!'”. 

Mary Alice’s French is a work in progress – but this hasn’t posed too much difficulty so far. 

“I’ve lost this self-consciousness when it comes to the language. I am willing to try to get my point across. Even when French people start speaking to me in English, I keep speaking in French because I’m not going to learn if I don’t try,” she said. 

“People in the south are so friendly. Every time I go into the shop and try to explain myself, they take their time. Sometimes we take out out phones and Google Translate with each other. We’re fine. There’s enough tech.”

Mary Alice believes sometimes in life, you simply have to take the plunge.

Mary Alice believes sometimes in life, you simply have to take the plunge. (Source: Mary Alice Duff)

Mary Alice believes that sometimes in life, it is worth taking a leap of faith. 

“Me and my husband’s original agreement with each other was we were going to try for two years, and if we were both miserable, we could say ‘Okay, we’ve had enough,'” she said. 

“I would say my biggest thing is you just have to try and you have to be willing to fail. You have to be willing to make a fool of yourself and for people to say, ‘Are you crazy? Like, what are you thinking?'”

“There is nothing worse than wondering what could have been.” 

If you want to practice your French listening skills and learn more about the story of Mary Alice, Alex and Alice, you can watch a documentary about their story, released on TF1 on Saturday, here

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FRENCH HISTORY

Where to find France’s 12 Statues of Liberty

Most people think of New York when they think of the Statue of Liberty, but in fact there are representations of the famous torch-bearer all over France too. Here's where to find them.

The Statue of Liberty stands tall above New York.
The Statue of Liberty stands tall above New York. France has many replicas of its own. (Photo by BRUCE BENNETT / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

The Statue of Liberty, towering 93 metres tall on New York’s Liberty Island, is a global icon. 

It shows the figure of Libertas, a Roman goddess, holding a torch in her right hand and the US Declaration of independence in the other. Shackles and chains lay broken at her feet. For centuries, the statue was seen as a symbol of freedom for immigrants crossing the Atlantic in search of the American dream. 

READ MORE Eleven things the French have given America

The statue itself was gifted to the United States by France in the 1880s as a way to commemorate the alliance between the two countries that stretched back to the American Revolution against the British – during this conflict, France sent more soldiers than the Americans and the British combined. 

It was the brainchild of a French political thinker and anti-slavery activist, Édouard de Laboulaye, who thought that the United States deserved a gift after abolishing slavery. He believed that America should serve as a beacon of liberty to the rest of the world – France at the time was ruled with an iron-fist under Napoleon III. 

The statue itself was designed by a French sculptor called Frédéric August Bartholdi, while the engineering was handled by Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel tower fame). Pieces of the statue were constructed in Paris and shipped to New York and before being assembled.

READ MORE Campaign launched to fund new Statue of Liberty in Brittany

Considering the French concept and craftsmanship behind the celebrated design, it is perhaps no surprise that replicas of the famous statue soon began springing up all over France.

France has at least 12 copies of the Statue of Liberty – or La Liberté éclairant le monde (Liberty illuminating the world) in French. 

Here is where you will find them: 

Paris 

The most famous replica of the Statue of Liberty sits on the Île aux Cygnes on the Seine river in the city centre. This version was actually a gift from the United States to France in 1889, to celebrate 100 years since the French Revolution. The tablet carried by Lady Liberty is different to the New York statue and carries the dates of the US Declaration of Independence and the date of the storming of the Bastille – 14th July 1789. 

This statue was originally faced East, giving the lady a nice view of the Eiffel Tower – in 1937 however, she was turned towards the west to face her older sister in New York. 

 
A replica of the Statue of Liberty stands on Paris' Ile de Cygnes during sunset

A replica of the Statue of Liberty stands on Paris’ Île aux Cygnes during sunset (Photo by LIONEL BONAVENTURE / AFP)

Because the statue on the Île aux Cygnes is easily accessible via the Grenelle bridge in the 15th arrondissement, it is regularly used by people trying to make a striking visual protest.

Amnesty International activists protest the continued operation of Guantanamo bay, behind the Statue of Liberty on the Île aux Cygnes (Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP)

Bartholdi himself also built a 1/16 scale replica of the Statue of Liberty for the Exposition Universelle of 1900. This model now stands proud in the entrance hall to the Musée d’Orsay – a bronze replica of this model can also be found in the Jardin du Luxembourg. 

The Statue of Liberty is pictured during a ceremony at the Quai d’Orsay museum in Paris. (Photo by THOMAS SAMSON / AFP)

There is also a life size copy of the Statue of Liberty torch – known as the Flame of Liberty – on the entrance to the Pont de l’Alma tunnel. It was gifted to France by the United States. The flame has since become a memorial to Princess Diana, who died in the tunnel following a car crash in 1997. 

The Liberty Torch in Paris now serves as an unofficial memorial to Princesse Diana.

The Liberty Torch in Paris now serves as an unofficial memorial to Princesse Diana. (Photo by ALAIN JOCARD / AFP)
 

Outside Paris

Bordeaux

Bordeaux’s Place Picard has had a turbulent history when it comes to the statue. In 1888, Bartholdi himself donated a replica to the city, which was mounted in this square. This version was seized and melted down by the Nazis during WWII. It was eventually replaced in 2000 and a plaque was later added to commemorate victims of the 9/11 attacks.

Since being mounted, this new statue has been repeatedly vandalised – and local legend has it that a prankster once organised a spate of stunts, arriving in the dead of night to dress it in a burqa, a Guantanamo prisoner’s outfit and in a housekeeper’s uniform. 

Nice

The Statue of Liberty in Nice is not much more than one metre tall. It was one of the first models of the statue ever made by Bartholdi, who began building small and progressively got bigger and bigger until the New York version was made. You can find it on the Quai des Etats-Unis on the seafront.

Barentin

You can find a 13.5 metre replica of the statue in the northern French town of Barentin, near Rouen. It was built as a prop for a film called Le Cerveau (The Brain), which starred the late actor Jean-Paul Belmondo. It is made out of polyester and resin and sits outside a McDonald’s. 

France gave America the Statue of Liberty - America gave France McDonalds.

France gave America the Statue of Liberty – America gave France McDonald’s. The two symbols come together in the northern French town of Barentin. (Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP)

READ MORE Jean-Paul Belmondo, icon of French New Wave cinema, dies at 88

Colmar

A 12 metre version of the statue stands in Colmar, eastern France, which is the city where Bartholdi was born. This replica was dedicated in 2004, to mark the centenary of the sculptor’s death. 

The Statue of Liberty in Colmar was given a new outfit by yellow vest protestors back in 2019. (Photo by SEBASTIEN BOZON / AFP)
 
Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer

A gold-covered iron replica of the statue can also be found in the French town of Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer, in the southern Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region.

It stands at 2.5 metres tall – just a little over the size of one of the index fingers of the original statue. 

Poitiers

Another model of the statue can be found in the south west town of Poitiers. It was built in 1903 as a memorial to Jean-Baptiste Breton – a French general who was guillotined for plotting against Louis XVIII (a French king restored after the revolution). 

Lunel

The original replica that once stood in the small town of Lunel, in south east of France, was melted down for weapons during WWII. A new version was inaugurated in 1989 to mark two centuries since the passing of the French revolution. 

Chaumont

A miniature replica can also be found at the Chaumont military base – this served as a  home to the US air force during the Cold War. Today, it is occupied by a French artillery regiment but the mini Statue of Liberty remains.

Roybon

An original replica made by Bartholdi himself is also displayed in the town of Roybon, near Grenoble. Local authorities are currently fundraising to renovate the now rather weather-beaten art work. 

The Statue of Liberty in Roybon is crying out for some maintenance work.

The Statue of Liberty in Roybon is crying out for some maintenance work. (Photo by PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP)

Châteauneuf-la-Forêt

Another Statue of Liberty can be found in the village of Châteauneuf-la-Forêt, near the city of Limoges. It rests atop a plinth inscribed with the names of village residents who lost their life fighting in the two world wars. 

International locations 

There are other Statue of Liberty replicas in Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, Ecuador, Germany, India, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Kosovo, Malaysia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Singapore, Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, Ukraine, the United States and Vietnam. 

Have you seen other representations of Lady Liberty in France? Share your sightings in the comments below.

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