Getting There

 

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Along the Seine

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.

My Husband is an Immigrant

My husband is an immigrant.

He went to one of the best high schools in Paris, and then one of the best preparatory schools. He graduated from the top university in France (Ecole Polytechnique) for math, science, and engineering. He came to the US first as a visiting scholar, and then was invited to return for graduate school. Soon, Hewlett Packard snatched him up. That great brain of his helped create some of the first all-in-one printers and some of the first digital cameras. Now, he works for Google.

He came to the US because of the unique opportunities our country offered. Like many immigrants, he stayed because he felt welcomed, challenged, and knew he could have a career here that would surpass what was available to him in France at the time. So here he stayed, collaborating with other immigrants, working alongside American-born engineers.

Would he have followed the same path today? Would our technology industry, strong as it is, be attractive enough to great minds like my husband’s despite the current administrations’ policies and attitudes toward immigrants?

A dear friend who is also married to a French man said to me recently, “Carol, we’re one Freedom Fries incident away from our husbands being the next ‘bad hombres.’” (Mauvais mecs, if you want the French version.)

Remember Freedom Fries? After 9/11? Because I do. I remember the subtle and not so subtle comments and jabs I received about being married to one of “those French guys.” The traitors who didn’t support Bush’s Iraq invasion. The ones who should be thanking us for eternity because they aren’t speaking German right now. The ones who should be rubber-stamping all US policy, not daring to stand against us citing something like principles.

While I don’t purport to sit here in my privileged life and compare rude insults made to my husband and me during those years to the instability and terror immigrants and refugees face now, to the families being threatened and torn apart by the travel ban and ICE knocking on their doors, I will say that I got a glimpse of being the vilified “other”, and while I recognize that for us it was mild, it was still, well, awful. And it was hard not to be scared.

My husband’s father was born in Tunisia, where the overwhelming majority of the population identifies as Muslim. We wondered, during the Freedom Fries years, if we were one terrorist attack away from my husband’s nationality and his father’s birthplace marking him as a threat to the USA. We wonder, now, how many of our enemies are emboldened by #45’s recklessness. How many more of our allies he will offend. How that will play out for us, here, foreign and domestically born.

How far will this vilification of otherness go? What level of inhumane, undignified treatment will we accept as a country? How long will so many dehumanize those who are deemed not “one of us,” not deserving of “belonging”?

Like it or not, immigrants are the reason our tech industry has led the world. Many of our engineers, many of our greatest minds, came from countries now banned. Steve Jobs, founder of Apple; his parents fled Syria. Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, is a Russian refugee. Immigrants founded a disproportionately high number of companies in this country.

My life with my immigrant husband and our two children is filled with more love, joy, and adventure than I ever imagined I would experience. That, and French fries. He isn’t the “other.” A nameless, faceless, maligned immigrant who shouldn’t be here. He’s a human being, a husband, a father, a hard worker, a brilliant mind, and a now a US citizen who still holds hope for the country he grew to love when he first came here more than 20 years ago. Despite it all. I hope this country doesn’t let us down.

My husband was featured in an article in our local paper. You can read that here:

http://www.dailycamera.com/boulder-business/ci_30823391/boulder-countys-foreign-born-tech-workers-cast-wary

 

Solidarité

Like so many, I am deeply saddened by the events in Paris. I could delve into my thoughts on the politics of the situations we as a changed, evolving world face today, the ideology of how to improve things, my own pessimism regarding our ability to ever bring peace to this kind of fight, or the grief that those who have lost must feel so acutely. Thankfully, none of our loved ones were hurt. To talk of my own grief for a country I love seems self-centered at a time when so many are so personally affected.

So instead, I’ll talk about why I love France. It’s in part the obvious: the beauty – both natural and man made, that exists throughout the country. The fabulous food. But it goes much beyond this. While listening to NPR today, I heard a guest comment that we (Americans) have certain things we admire about other countries. We admire the Germans for the machines they make – their cars. The Swiss for their watches. But when it comes to the French, we love the way they live. We idealize it, bien sûr. We also poke fun at it (another strike? Geez!). Yet it is the French way of life, the joie de vivre, the bon appetit, the je ne sais quoi that we so admire and wish to emulate. For the French celebrate life. Art. Family. Food. History. French culture is a celebration the things that make being human great. The essence of humanity.

So I continue to celebrate France. France, Paris, Je t’aime pour toujours.

 

Passport to Paris: A touch of France in Denver, Colorado

Denver Art Museum

Denver Art Museum

Last weekend we visited the Denver Art Museum’s Passport to Paris exhibit, advertised as “More Monet in Denver than ever before.” I love the French Impressionists, so there was no doubt we were going to go, even if it meant dragging a three-year-old and an eighteen-month-old through an art museum. Between pushing buttons on the audio tours for the kids to keep them entertained (“Mommy! She stopped talking again!”) and pulling my daughter’s curious fingers away from priceless works of art (“NOOOOOOOOOO! Off limits! Eyes only!” Cue hyperventilating  Mom all too aware of angry glares from other patrons) we managed to see most of the works displayed in the show’s trio of rooms.

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The rooms: Court to Cafe, Nature as Muse, and Drawing Room, focus on French art from the late 1600s to the early 1900s and include a fascinating look at how art and society mirrored each other through these dynamically evolving centuries. The show incorporates 50 masterpieces from the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, 36 landscapes from the impressionist artists from the private collection of Frederic C. Hamilton – on public display for the first time, as well as drawings on paper from master artists of the period. Here are a couple of my favorites (no photography was allowed, so I had to scan them from postcards I bought):

Claude Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil, 1873 by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Claude Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil, 1873 by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

The Beach at Trouville, 1870 by Claude Monet

The Beach at Trouville, 1870 by Claude Monet

If you are in the Denver area and interested, the show is here through February 9, 2014, and tickets can be purchased online or at the museum. Click here for more details.

Bastille Day/ La Fête Nationale

Arc de Triomphe on Bastille Day

Arc de Triomphe on Bastille Day

July 14, Le Quatorze Julliet, marks the French holiday we know as Bastille Day. Not surprisingly, the origins of this holiday are un peu compliqué. Two key events in the French Revolution share this date.

The first: In 1789, the people of Paris, fearful that their representatives would be attacked by the royal military of Louis XVI and desiring ammunition and gunpowder for a possible battle, stormed the Bastille, a prison in Paris that held citizens under not so just cause and without rights to appeal. Often, prisoners were held there because of anti-royal writings.

One year later, on July 14, 1790, there was a huge feast to celebrate the conclusion, or so they thought at the time, of the French Revolution. Apparently the feast lasted 4 days and concluded with fireworks, fine wine, and running naked through the streets.

Pétanque in Provence

Pétanque in Provence

While we didn’t run naked anywhere, we did celebrate the holiday. We kicked it off with a pétanque tournament; I was partnered with a lovely Englishwoman named June and while we held our own, we were eliminated early in the tournament. It’s quite possible that my problem was I didn’t have a cool straw hat like most of the experienced players. No big deal, I was hungry and I forgot how long those games last! The French-American Chamber of Commerce sponsored a barbeque, concert, and pick-up soccer and volleyball games, so we had plenty of time to eat and play with San Diego’s French and Francophile community. It was a perfect southern California day: sunny, a cool ocean breeze, bright blue skies.

Here are some photos from the Bastille Day Military Parade a few years ago. It proceeds down the Champs Elysees and lasts for hours. The year we were there, Sarkozy was president. As he rode through, the crowd around us started whistling and my first thought was: they really like their president. Then I realized my mother-in-law was shaking her head and shocked, astonished, that people would dare whistle like that. Turns out whistling in France is quite rude; basically the equivalent of booing. So probably best not to whistle at a French girl.

If you ever go to the parade, get there early, bring lots of water, a snack, definitely a camera, and don’t bother to try and claim any territory like you would in a parade here – you’ll be scrunched and pushed out of the way.

Here’s my Bastille Day workout, designed to help you stand your ground in the crowd of parade revelers:

1. Medicine Ball Squats: Take a wide stance and squat down, maintaining even weight on each foot, while thrusting the medicine ball straight out in front of you, arms parallel to the ground. This will help you keep your position and should you need to, shove back.

2. Lateral Deltoid Raises While Balancing on One Foot: To help you ward off those pushers that come at you from the side while maintaining your balance. You can’t risk falling at the parade, they’ll never let you stand back up.

3. Lunges with Biceps Curls: It’s hot. Really freaking hot in Paris in July. If you are American, and as such a Water Bottle Addict, you’ll be lifting that water bottle to your mouth for at least three hours straight. The lunges are to help propel yourself forward with force after you’ve been shoved and maneuvered to the back of the pack.

Me, waiting for the parade to start

Me, tired from getting up early, waiting for the parade. We started out in front then got shoved to the back before the parade even began.

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Best seats on the Champs

Best seats on the Champs. They were drinking champagne.

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The firemen, the most popular group in the parade

The firemen, the most popular group in the parade

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Beautiful Saturday at the Farmer’s Market in Little Italy

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Intimidated by trying to find parking, I’ve never visited this farmer’s market. But my daughter and I were in Little Italy this weekend so we checked it out. It’s huge, maybe even bigger than our usual one in Hillcrest. The views are fabulous:

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The music sophisticated:

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And they have crêpes. Authentic ones, from Fabrison’s French Crêperie Café, also located in Little Italy. This restaurant has great food, and their crêpes are the real deal: the savory ones are done with buckwheat flour. Hard to find outside of Bretagne, but this is the way a savory crêpe is meant to be. I split a Nutella crêpe with my daughter and chatted with Fabrice, owner of the café, about the challenges of raising kids in a bilingual household (his wife is American) and what we do to try to make sure our kids are learning French.

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Here are a couple more photos. Spring is blooming in San Diego!

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French Nationality, and More Bretagne

 

My husband and I are working on getting my French citizenship. Surprise: there are many complicated steps to the process and the instructions are difficult to decipher. At times, the steps seem convoluted simply for the sake of being difficult. So we emailed the man in charge at the local embassy. He will only communicate via email; he will not accept phone calls or appointments. In our email, we tried to clarify a few points we were confused on after our research on their website. He sent us a form letter back, politely inviting us to refer to their website for answers to our questions.

 

Oh, the French.

 

Today, I go to the Alliance Française to take an exam that will determine if my French is at a level adequate enough to become a citizen. Will I be worthy?

 

The hope is that if I am a citizen, our family can easily go to France for extended periods during which I can work there, and that all of us will have the right to move freely, or stay, in France and Western Europe. Plus, I think it would be really cool to have dual citizenship.

 

So, I’ll post some more photos of my beloved Bretagne, and then get back to the stack of paperwork that is French bureaucracy at its finest!

One of the great things about traveling in Bretagne, especially when you get away from the bigger cities like Nantes or Rennes, is that much of Bretagne is visited mainly by French tourists, if at all. It’s off the beaten path enough that it remains more authentic, untouched.

 

Flowers growing on an old stone wall

Flowers growing on an old stone wall

Sunset at low tide

Sunset at low tide

Locmariaquer

Locmariaquer

St. Cado, one of the most photographed homes, because the tide isolates it

One of the most photographed homes in St Cado because the tide isolates it

Quimper

Quimper

Quimper

Quimper

Benodet

Benodet

Concarneau

Concarneau

German bunker from WWII

German bunker from WWII

Hay! Hey! (That's for my brother)

Hay! Hey! (That’s for my brother)

Fresh caught oysters

Fresh caught oysters

Locmariaquer

Locmariaquer

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Mmmm

Mmmm

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Catch of the day at the outdoor market

Catch of the day at the outdoor market in Locmariaquer

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