Did you hear the one about the psychiatrist from Newfoundland who quit her job and ran away to France to clean toilets?
It’s not a joke — it’s St. John’s native Bobbi French’s true story.
Earlier this year, French, 42, was a practicing psychiatrist at Halifax’s IWK Health Centre, specializing in helping teenagers with mood disorders. Although she loved the work she was doing, French had never realized one of her lifelong dreams: to live in Europe.
“I was working with these teenagers who were doing such great things, like travelling in Europe and studying all over the world, and I had never been able to do any of those things, because I was studying or in debt or something,” French explained. “They were really inspiring.”
So inspiring, in fact, that last September, French sold her house, her car and most of her possessions — “I kept my husband, though,” she said — quit her career and moved to the tiny town of Semur-en-Auxois, in France’s Burgundy region. The couple had previously been to the village on holiday, and decided it was a good place to start a life in Europe.
“I had never lived in another country, so I wanted to go somewhere where I could be immersed in the culture. Besides, Paris is very expensive, and I didn’t particularly want to come to France to live in a one-bedroom apartment,” French explained.
Understandably, a lot of people thought she needed a psychiatrist when she told them what she was doing.
“I got a lot of interesting faces from people,” she said with a laugh.
French’s husband, Neil, had lived in France in his early 20s and speaks the language. He kept his Halifax-based job in advertising, and works over the Internet. He and French have just started working for a company in Semur, managing vacation rental homes.
French said she doesn’t want people to think she retired rich from her medical position and spends her days eating bon bons in the garden — she went to France to work. For now, though, her job consists of cleaning the rental homes’ bathrooms.
People say to me, ‘You’re not really cleaning toilets, though, right?’ Oh, yes I am,” she explained. “Don’t get me wrong, it was my profound privilege to have been those teenagers’ doctor, and I miss the kids, but I don’t miss the system of medicine.”
The health system in Nova Scotia is similar to the one in Newfoundland and Labrador, French said, and when she read about local specialists resigning over their issues with the government, she recognized many of them as old friends and classmates.
“I could really relate, because the situation in Nova Scotia, with specialists being paid half of what the surgeons are paid, is the same. People don’t realize that when patients have to wait a year to see you, it’s hard on the doctors, too. When I was sitting down with the family of a teenager who was suicidal or who had schizophrenia and they said, ‘We’ve waited a year to see you,’ all I could say was, ‘Yeah, I’m really sorry about that.’
“No amount of cleaning toilets will pay me what I was earning (in Halifax), because I was making a really good salary, but I was working a lot, I was always tired and I was always waiting to go on holiday. That is not living, it’s breathing. I loved helping people, but I think there are many different ways to help people.”
If she and Neil stay in France, French doesn’t think she’ll return to practicing psychiatry. Not only would she have to learn the language, but she’d have to become an expert in the way teenagers speak, since language is an integral part of her job. She doesn’t think she’ll ever return to Halifax, either, and said if she’s going to move back to Canada, it would be to St. John’s.
Although they originally committed to spending only a year there, the couple is in the midst of buying a house in Semur. French hopes to do some travelling around Europe, and is keeping a hilarious blog of her daily life at www.findingmeinfrance.com, where she comments on things such as learning to navigate French appliances, the differences between French women’s winter fashion and her own, having to cut her long, blonde hair short and let it go grey because of a lack of a hair stylist in her town, and “learning to say the French ‘R’ without hoarking on people.” The blog has quickly gained popularity, earning French followers around the world.
“I was trying to figure out why it was so interesting to people in places like Africa or Tennessee, but I think it’s because people think they couldn’t do the same thing,” she said. “I think everyone could do it. You just have to have the will to give things up. The idea of it is scary, but it’s fine. It’s so fine.”
French also has a Twitter account at www.twitter.com/bobbiinfrance.