When she retired as an elementary school teacher in Seattle in 2022, Mary Jo Maddeford tossed around some ideas of where she’d like to live next — and she wasn’t afraid to let oceans get in the way. Somewhere in Portugal? Around Vienna maybe? Asheville, N.C., came to mind.

“I wanted a small town with lots of cute shops and restaurants, but close to some bigger cities,” Ms. Maddeford, 61, said. “And I’m a retired teacher. I had to look at my budget.”

Her brother, Lee, a pianist who has lived for decades along the shores of Lake Geneva in Lausanne, Switzerland, suggested Evian, the small French city across the lake at the foot of the Alps.

The draw for Ms. Maddeford was the proximity to her brother, a 45-minute ferry ride across the lake. She also loved the views of the lake from Evian, the charms of its medieval downtown streets and the easy train access to other cities including Milan, Zurich, Bern and many more. “You’re near everything,” she said.

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Evian, a resort town made famous by its natural spring waters, is an enclave of relative affordability compared with the Swiss cities across the lake that have long been magnets for bankers and cultural luminaries including David Bowie, Charlie Chaplin and Audrey Hepburn. Ms. Maddeford tested out life in Evian with some weeks-long stays in short-term rentals. Satisfied, she walked into the Century 21 office along the lakefront last year and introduced herself. She doesn’t remember exactly what she said, but it went something like this: “Bonjour. Je ne parle pas français.”

Eric Grivel, the head of the local Century 21 office, was used to dealing with French clients who move to Evian and commute across the lake to higher-paying jobs in Switzerland. Before the war in Ukraine, he also catered to Russians looking for second homes. But Americans, especially those who didn’t speak French, were more rare.

As in so many parts of the world, home prices had swelled during the pandemic in Evian. “It seemed like everyone was in the market, and at crazy prices,” said Sonia Faria, another agent at the Century 21 office. But as interest rates rose last year, the market slowed and Ms. Maddeford found herself with a healthy choice of apartments.

She set her budget at about $300,000, which she had in cash from the proceeds of the sale of her house in Everett, Wash. She wanted to avoid buying a car, so access to public transport was important. So was a view of Lake Geneva. And she needed a place where Ella, her 14-year-old Labrador mix, wouldn’t have too much trouble moving around.

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