I’m writing a series of posts on a trip I took to France 15 years ago. This is the first installment.
Soon after I graduated from my physical therapy program and moved to San Diego, I met a group of French exchange students. I began to study French from a CD (which does not get you far, I quickly discovered) and managed to squeeze in a ten-day trip to visit them in France. There were four of them, all male, one of whom I had a brief, whirlwind romance with. I joked that my visit was my own French ElimiDate (does anyone remember that show?). Having four great-looking French guys show me around France was, well, no complaints here. The romance was short-lived, but in the way that life works, it rekindled my passion for France and the French language.
I signed up to take French night classes before a long stay in Paris was on my radar. The classes met in a small language school perched atop a row of shops and constructed of wooden planks. Trees and potted plants crowded the wooden patio between the small classrooms, giving the sense of being in an enormous tree house. Postcards from France and posters of basic phrases and verbs plastered the walls of our classroom, hiding the peeling, yellowed wall paper. Lumpy chairs circled a glass coffee table, the wine-colored shag carpet was thick and clumpy. It looked, and smelled, like a grandmother’s musty living room. But it became my twice weekly escape to the exotic.
Madame Loiseau hailed from Bretagne, France, and she guided us patiently through each lesson, gently correcting our errors, never wincing or criticizing our eardrum-grating accents. We learned the basics of conversational French while reading a play created for our class about Angelique, an American girl traveling to France to write a book on Paris (to which the douanier says, “another book about Paris? There are already enough books about Paris!”). She encounters a suave Frenchman named Jean who sweeps her off her feet, saying things like “How lucky I am to have met such a charming young lady,” and “tomorrow we will celebrate the ‘tu’ (meaning the decision to drop the formal ‘vous’ in favor of the more familiar ‘tu’) with champagne and a kiss.” Ooh la la.
But my favorite Jean quote was: “In France, we always say, ‘I work in order to live, but I don’t live in order to work.’”
We toured Paris with Jean and Angelique and we always ended the class by singing a French song. My favorite was Joe Dassin’s Aux Champs Elysees. That spirited little tune, with its trumpeted “ba-da-da-da-da” evoked cobblestone streets and sidewalk cafes, wine and cheese, leisure and beauty. Cliché though that song might be, it still put a grin on my face every time I belted it out with my class.
My initial plan involved about 3 months in a French Language Immersion Program followed by traveling around Europe for another 2-3 months. Springtime in Paris: it had a nice ring to it. Songs and movies have been made for this simple yet lovely phrase. I would head over the Atlantic two weeks before I turned thirty. Thirty. Wow. I don’t know what I thought I’d be doing when I turned thirty. I’d always assumed I’d be “on track” with life, have a career I cared about, perhaps own a home, perhaps be married, perhaps have children. I certainly didn’t think I’d still be searching for myself, still trying to figure things out. Thirty sounded too old to be doing that.
In retrospect, perhaps I’d already “found” myself. After all, I knew without a doubt that I would not be doing something ordinary for my thirtieth birthday. No coworkers singing happy birthday over a Von’s grocery store cake during lunch break. No party where I drunkenly stumbled into the start of my fourth decade. I wanted the Tour Eiffel framed by green blooming trees and blue skies. Cobblestone streets, creperies tucked beneath tall stone buildings, windows with overflowing flowerboxes. Planning the trip took some of the dread out of the big three-oh looming before me. Now, I actually looked forward to it. Paris. That’s where I would turn thirty. Rejecting the notion that it was time to settle down, be responsible, start adulting. No, thirty would be a reawakening for me. In the city I loved.
After researching I chose a program: Eurocentres, located in the heart of Paris: The Quartier Latin. I opted to live with a host family; mostly because it was the cheapest option. Plus, part of me was nervous about traveling alone. I’d done solo traveling and it had led to some of the most empowering and beautiful moments of my life, as well as some of the most frightening and disempowering. The idea of a home base where people would notice if I didn’t show up seemed… smart.
Because life likes to throw curve balls, while I was working 50-60 hour weeks, saving every bit I could, and fully committed to my plan, I met a guy. A French guy. And I fell madly in love. I knew it would be awful to leave him to take this trip I’d been planning. I also knew that I had to.
A few weeks before I left, I got my confirmation letter from the program. I studied it and then showed it to my boyfriend, Stéphane, wanting his confirmation that I’d understood the French correctly.
“I think they have a four-year-old,” I said. I’ve always loved kids, but I was in a stage of life where little kids were a whole lot less interesting than a club pumping out the best hip hop or a quiet Saturday morning in bed with a good book. I was trying hard to not be disappointed that I would be living with a four-year-old.
“Um, no.” Stéphane was looking over the letter.
“No kids?” I said.
“No, they have four kids.”
“Four kids? What? Are you serious?”
I immediately envisioned getting roped into being an au pair, unpaid. Shit.
The rest of the news was good: I would be in an apartment along Boulevard Malesherbes, in the 8th arrondissement, which meant nothing to me at the time but turned out to be a rather swanky quarter very centrally located, close to metro stops, Gare St. Lazare, and a gorgeous park (Parc Monceau).
Saying goodbye to Stéphane was excruciating. I hadn’t had many moments of second guessing the decision to take this trip, but second guesses bombarded me as he drove me to the airport. Why would I leave San Diego, and this amazing man who I was completely in love with? What kind of nut job would risk a relationship with the person she wanted to marry? We’d tiptoed around the subject once or twice, but in my mind, I knew. I had no doubt in my mind that I wanted to spend my life with him. So of course, by the time we got to the airport, I was sobbing. It’s testimony to the strength of our relationship and his love and understanding of me that he gently told me, “Of course you should go. You’re going to have a great time. We’re going to be okay.”
I remember looking back at him as I walked through security and hating that I was leaving him, considering running back, knowing I was open to the changes that would happen in my life over the next months and what that might mean for us while desperately hoping we would survive the separation. (Happy spoiler – we did).
Irresponsible had never been a word I’d used to describe myself. Well-organized, yes. A planner. Solid and reliable. I’d done my due diligence on this trip in terms of planning, saving, and preparing for it.
Then, I quit my job and left my home to embark on adventure with no plan for what would happen after. Only the awareness that I would, in all likelihood, be blowing through the entirety of my savings account. I felt a giddy pride in letting the spirit of adventure take over, in defining what my life would be outside of the conventions and expectations I had previously roped myself down with. In approaching my life with a “who knows what will happen next.”
It felt reckless and I loved that I was doing it.