An Irishwoman’s 35 years in France: ‘I have had a career, four children and two marriages’

Life is better in my 50s, writes Anne-Marie Mullen of her years as an emigrant

Anne-Marie Mullen with her husband Serge and her children Charles, Sebastien, Antoine and Juliette Sans-Arcidet

Anne-Marie Mullen with her husband Serge and her children Charles, Sebastien, Antoine and Juliette Sans-Arcidet

 

Anne-Marie Mullen is from Rathfarnham in Dublin. She went to school in St Louis, Rathmines, then studied tourism in Cathal Brugha Street, leaving Ireland in September 1986. She is head of customer services for Air France in Toulouse Airport and lives half of the time in Bordeaux and half in Toulouse. In September she will move to head office in Paris. She has four children: Charles, 28, Sebastian, 27, Juliette, 23 Antoine 20 and recently got married.

When I decided to au pair in Paris I was 21 years old and had ready worked for a few of years as a receptionist in Ireland. After only doing a year-long certificate course when I left school, I felt the need to “ better myself” and my mother suggested perfecting my French, which was already a language I loved and spoke a little.

Who would have thought that 35 years later I would be the mother of four half-French, handsome grown offspring and getting married for the second time? A far cry from from the young Irish girl I was in the 1980s when I left and certainly a far cry from how I envisaged my life when I left school. Up until now it has been an incredible adventure, with so many joys and quite a bit of pain, but with faith in life, tons of energy and a positive attitude life goes on and is better in my fifties. Living abroad has made me more open-minded, I have learned so much and I have no regrets, I would not have done things differently if I had been given the choice.

In September 1986 I found myself on the 23-hour ferry to France with a massive suitcase and only a few pounds in my pocket. The third of nine children, my lovely father had a good job, but the money had to go far and we had to be able to fend for ourselves once we were old enough. I had been more or less financially independent from the age of 17. Today we assist our children so much more but in the 1980s, parents made their children responsible at an early age. So I left my loving parents and numerous brothers and sisters and some great friends in Dublin and in Galway too, where I had worked between the ages of 18 and 21.

My au-pair family were lovely, the mother was just about to give birth to a fourth child, beautiful girls called Marguerite, who I cherished as my own for the nine months that I spent with them. I lived in a Chamber de Bonne (a type of single room French in a middle-class house or apartment building) and came down to the compact Parisian apartment every morning to clean and take care of the children.

Over the months, I walked the streets of Paris and after three months knew it like the back of my hand. I loved every step

We had lots of culture shocks between us, that lovely family and I. They were surprised I had never seen a frozen quiche and that I served one to the kids frozen not knowing what to do with it. I was surprised by the food, which was so different, but I grew to love it and cook it quite well. I also learned to prefer wine to beer. I was shocked that Christmas only lasted 24 hours and that the family expected back at work on St Stephen’s Day, that the city became empty for most of August and that the school day was so long. That a certain machismo too that placed a lot of importance on the sons. I had not known that where I grew up in Ireland.

I went to school three evenings a week, classes were a mixture of French people and foreigners, from the Iranian photographer who took some great photos of me for free, to the labourer in his fifties who needed to learn to write properly to keep his farm going. There was also a flirty young teacher who was thrilled to have a young, energetic girl in his class. Despite their attempts, the only falling in love I did that year was with Paris. Over the months, I walked the streets of the city and after three months knew it like the back of my hand. I loved every step. From the small streets of Montmartre to the Mouffetard outdoor market and along the Seine. The Marais, Bastille, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Notre Dame and spending an hour or two reading in Shakespeare and Co, the bookstore on Paris’s Left Bank. I spent hours simply admiring the beautiful city I felt honoured to live in.

The world being a small place, I twice bumped into my teenage friend Paddy, playing the guitar in the Metro. He is now a well-known musician in Paris.

My special grandfather made me promise to visit his special place, La Sainte Chappelle, a wonder of stained glass windows, peaceful and spiritual in the middle of the Latin Quarter, incredible. Then on my own, I discovered Pigalle and its multitude of difference. I was a little too innocent, but highly curious and I was open-eyed before the spectacle of sex shops and all that went with them.

Naturally, the young Irish girl that I was went to mass on a Sunday morning in the L’église de la Madeleine, majestic and intimidating near the Boulevard Haussmann, or in the simple small ancient roman church on Île Saint-Louis. In the sunny summer afternoons I would stroll around the Latin quarter, allow myself a Berthillon ice cream and sit on the Pont Neuf as I listened to an American busker sing When a man loves a woman. I loved Paris, in autumn, in winter, in spring. I still love beautiful Paris.

Anne-Marie Mullen with her husband Serge and her children Charles, Sebastien, Antoine and Juliette Sans-Arcidet
Anne-Marie Mullen with her husband Serge and her children Charles, Sebastien, Antoine and Juliette Sans-Arcidet

Then June came and the end of my au-pair job, I was not ready to leave France. I landed a job with the national airline for the summer and after moving back to Dublin for a few months, I decided to settle in Paris. I got a ground staff job with the airline in Orly and then moved to Charles de Gaulle.

My wonderful life in France gave me four incredible children and a great career as I moved up the ladder managing large teams, doing project management and now I am head of customer services in Toulouse and heading back to work in Paris taking up a new position, but living in Bordeaux. I have been with this incredible company where anything is possible, for 33 years, I have had a career, four children, a divorce, tons of friends and now a second marriage.

I am Irish, and feel the strength of my roots each day. My children, especially my eldest who has done internships in Ireland and who roots for Ireland in rugby if not in football, are profoundly attached to their roots. I love to go home to my parents’ home in Rathfarnham, the house they moved into three months before my birth.

My incredible father, loved beyond words and missed beyond measure, left us in February, 2021 and I have not been home since, but will do so next month and I cannot wait. I dream of hugging my darling mother, my idol, the most incredible Irish mummy who taught us to stand straight with our shoulders back and never forget who we are and where we came from. That has served me well in many circumstances.

Over the years I have cried on missed birthdays, Christmases, births and funerals, I have missed and will always miss Ireland deeply and with passion, but my place is here, in France and now in Bordeaux where my happiness is complete.

At 56, a special French/Italian civil servant has shown me that not all French men are macho and who made me realise in life, a bit late, that the most important quality is kindness. Reader, I married him surrounded by my four children and seven of my eight siblings who were thankfully able to travel to share my special event. I was a young bride in Saint-Émilion that day, beginning a new chapter of the life of a young Dublin girl in France.

If you live overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do