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.

Springtime in Paris

Fifteen years ago, this month, I quit my job and set off for Paris. On March 19, in fact.

It was everything I dreamed it would be. And more.

A lot led up to that trip. Like many who work in the health care field, I was Burnt. Out. I was angsting my way through a quarter(ish)-life crisis. I hated the idea of turning thirty and being in a situation that felt closer to hamster-on-a-wheel than to the bright future of a rewarding career and the balanced life that I’d envisioned in grad school.

In high school, I signed up for French as my second language but my mom refused to sign my electives form until I changed it. “You live in southern Arizona. You’ll never have any occasion in your life to use French. You need to learn Spanish.” So I did. And then I married a Frenchman. I like to remind her of this.

I’d long been fascinated with the French language and with France. Before I went to graduate school, I’d taken a month to backpack through Europe. France had been one of the best parts of my trip. Later, while living in San Diego, I met a bunch of French exchange students who I bonded with, and so I picked up a language CD and started trying to impress them. My French, then, was decidedly not impressive.

Mostly, I ached for adventure. Other than my month in Europe, I’d been living a nose-to-the-grindstone sort of life. My employer at the time considered a three-day weekend (where I clumped my work into four 10-hour days to get Friday off) a vacation that he had benevolently granted me, despite the hardship it entailed on his business. This was better than my first job where I was told a few weeks in that while they couldn’t authorize any vacation time as they were much too busy of a clinic, they would gladly consider allowing me to take an hour or two of my vacation time, as I earned it, if I needed to see a doctor or dentist.

It didn’t take long for me to realize something needed to change. I’d worked since my senior year of high school – all my summers and spring breaks were filled with jobs, and by the time I was a junior in college, I was working 20, sometimes as many as 30 hours a week while taking a full load of classes. Spring Break partying on the beach had never been on my calendar.

The French exchange students I met were having the time of their lives – traveling, learning a new language, experiencing a new culture, meeting friends from all over the world. Some were in college, some were older and learning English to help with their careers. I did some research and saw that I, too, could do something similar, in France. In Paris.

To get there, I threw myself into work: I spent more than a year working two jobs (plunging myself into even higher levels of burn out, exacerbating the very problem I was trying to escape), diligently saving, eating cheap, wearing worn-out clothes, and doing whatever I could to maximize my savings. I was determined to be doing something amazing for my upcoming thirtieth birthday.

The whole idea defied the puritan nature I’d been raised to have: work hard, and play, maybe, if you have time. When I told my parents my plan, they were… unimpressed. My Dad’s first comment: “I don’t understand why you’re doing this. How is this going to help your career?”  I answered, “It won’t. That’s not what this is about.” They were concerned, I get that. After all, I’d gone to grad school and had a good job that payed well and offered a promising career. I’d arrived. Right? My parents worried I was throwing that all away. As a physical therapist, I knew I wouldn’t struggle to find a job when I returned (I didn’t). I knew I’d be okay. I also knew that I wouldn’t be okay if I continued on as I was. I was exhausted. I needed more than the day to day grind. I needed an adventure. I needed to find some joie de vivre.

To complicate things, the dollar sank rapidly in value against the Euro during the first year after France adopted it, so my plan for a six month trip had to be pared down. I also had a new boyfriend – a French guy who by our third date I was pretty sure I was going to marry (he’s now my husband). Still, giving up this chance of a lifetime, this dream, wasn’t a consideration for me.

I quit my job. I sold most of my furniture and moved the rest of my stuff into storage (i.e. my sweet new boyfriend’s apartment). I left my car in the care of my parents. I consolidated my student loan bills and left a series of checks and payment stubs with my boyfriend who had kindly agreed to mail the checks I’d pre-written to pay all my bills while I was away. This was before online payments, Facebook, smartphones, and all sorts of other technology that makes this sort of stuff a breeze now. I didn’t even have a digital camera – I was still using film. And a dial-up modem. And a flip phone that had no chance of working in Europe.

Then; I did it. I went to Paris. I studied French. I traveled. And I had the time of my life.

I also kept a journal and wrote long emails home.

So, in honor of this 15th anniversary of that amazing time in Paris and beyond, I am doing a series on my trip, using excerpts from my journals and emails, as well as some photos – presuming the scans come out.

I’m looking forward to reliving this trip, and to sharing it with you!

 

 

 

Paris, je t’aime

Last summer, we bravely traveled with our 4-year-old and 3-year-old to Iceland and then France. Drumroll … it was fantastic. They proved to be amazing little travelers: movies and a steady stream of snacks, toys, and duct tape (okay, kidding on the last one) kept them, and us, happy on the plane, jet lag didn’t last long, and they met different beds, foods, and activities with enthusiasm for the most part!

Hundreds of articles with tips on how to travel with kids exist and are easy to find. We mostly follow the basics and it works great. The nice thing about visiting a place that you’ve visited before, like Paris for us, is that we didn’t have a huge list of things we had to do or see. We hit the streets with no agenda, really, other than to make sure our kids had a positive experience. We cut the list of what we would normally try to see in half, or more, plugged in a fair amount of downtime, and when the kids were interested in something, we stopped and let them check it out without rushing them. Too much.

Yet we still managed to show them many of the major must-see-on-your-first-visit-to-Paris sites.

Here’s one of my favorite pics:

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Captioned: Whoa.

Here’s us at Notre Dame (which is one of those names that I struggle to pronounce in both French and American English… growing up hearing about the Noder Dame – long a – fighting Irish has left a lasting imprint on my brain)

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HERE IS PARIS, BEFORE KIDS:

Us at Chez Lyon; not the Parisian cuisine one salivates for, but a fun tradition we started on our first visit to Paris together (make sure to appreciate my hubby’s sideburns):

600 and of course, moules et frites at Chez Lyon in Paris

PARIS, NOW:

When asked about their favorite parts of Paris, the kids site these posts and the metro:

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What you can’t hear are the whoops of pure joy.

My husband went to high school here. Seriously.

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Rose gardens at the Parc de Bagatelle:

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These two were doing everything they could to attract the attention of the female peacock between the two of them. Like a good French girl, she feigned indifference and sauntered away.

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We only spent a couple days in Paris… as much as I love Paris, with kids it isn’t the easiest place to be. Especially with Colorado kids, accustomed to large open spaces for free-ranging it, and especially for my two kids, who have two volumes: loud and louder. We spent most of our time in our beloved Bretagne …. more photos to come!

Bûche de Noël

We got this beauty at La Crêperie of Fort Collins. Without a doubt, worth the drive from the Boulder area.

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The Bûche de Noël, or Yule Log, is a traditional French Christmas dessert, made of frosted sponge cake that is then rolled up and decorated to look like, well, a log, often complete with a dusting of snow and a few mushrooms or berries. I rather like our panda. The tradition of this celebratory log goes back hundreds of years; its origins are in the celebration of the winter solstice.

For our part, we enjoyed a lunch of authentic, believe-you-are-in-Bretagne galettes and crêpes and Christmas music on the accordion when we picked up the bûche earlier this week.

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Tonight, I offer this as our pièce de résistance. To all my dear readers: happy holidays and bon appétit! May your stomachs be satisfied, your laughter be plentiful, and your joy be heartfelt. Happy Christmas to All!

Christmas Baking

DSC01405Among the things I swore I would never do if I became a mom:

1. Be a stay-at-home-mom.

Two kids in quick succession and I stepped away from my career – albeit temporarily – to (gasp) stay at home. Don’t tell anyone, but I kind of like it.

2. Feed my kids “kids food.”

“What is this ‘kid’s food’ nonsense? They’ll eat what we eat, the way we eat it!” the old me used to say. This was reinforced when I married a man from France, where “kid’s food” doesn’t exist. I stuck to my guns with Thing 1, then came Thing 2: the pickiest eater in history. My son will boycott entire meals, toss food disdainfully to the floor, or, my favorite: spit things out then scrape off his tongue with his fingers like his mouth has been violated. I haven’t given up entirely, but I admit I experience a small panic, even indignation, if we go to a restaurant and there’s no kid’s menu. Or dip of some kind. He’ll eat it if he can dip it. “Blueberries and ketchup? Whatever.” My new mantra.

3. Allow my child to kick the seat back in front of him on an airplane.

I was once the person on the airplane who avoided kids if at all possible. Whose flight experience could be ruined by a seat-kicking child. Now – hello karma – that kid is mine. I get it, poor lady who chose the seat in front of my son. I feel your pain, really I do. But when my son’s car seat is in place (No Way can we go without it, our little Houdini will wiggle his way out of any restraints other than a five-point harness) his knees are folded uncomfortably into his chest. He’s an active, exuberant toddler, constantly on the move. When nothing else can move, he kicks. My husband and I spend entire flights blocking his feet, trying to minimize the assault on the seat in front of him. I’m forever grateful to understanding fellow passengers, and I’ve found that the most gracious ones are those who have kids of their own. They’ve been there, too.

4. Emulate, in anyway, Betty Crocker or Martha Stewart.

After all, it’s so anti-feminist. Cliché. Expected, even. I had better things to do than be in the kitchen.

Thing is, though, I like to eat. When I eat, I want the food to be good. I don’t have the wallet nor the waistline to handle eating out all the time, so… I learned to cook. To play hostess. To make a room cozy and inviting. I get giddy, even, at the thought of the wide range of things that can come from flour, sugar, and eggs mixed together.

So. Freaking. Girly.

Yet, turns out I don’t mind.

I actually love cooking. I suspect more than one person in my life decided they wanted to be my friend because of something they ate at my house. I’m okay with that.

Christmastime, the oven spends more time on than off, my hands grow chapped, and the floors have a fine coat of flour as I bake an array of treats then box them up for gifts. I love every minute of it. I even pulled a baking (almost) all-nighter this year. So I’ve gone from studying all-nighters to partying all-nighters to up all night with babies to, now, Betty Crocker all-nighters.

Here are the sweets of my labors:

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Next up: Prime rib for Christmas Eve, and classic Swiss Fondue for Christmas Day.

I really love good food.

Photo Day: Christmas in the Alps

I haven’t been to France in over two years (a toddler and a preschooler on a plane… I wish I were so brave), so many of my photos are older. These are from a Christmas we spent in the French Alps, in a small mountain village called Samoens. A beautiful, charming place, where we stayed in a cozy converted farmhouse, read books (the house had quite an Asterix collection), and indulged in Raclette after days spent on the slopes. It was my first Christmas away from my own family, so I learned of some of the French traditions my husband grew up with. Midnight mass (3 hours! We Presbyterians shudder at the thought), bûche de noel (yule log), and real chestnuts roasting on an open fire served in the village at their Christmas carnival – it was charming and so different from my own traditions. It was here, too, that I first saw Le Père Noel est une Ordure. I sat there, perplexed and not understanding, while my husband, his brothers, and my sister-in-law rocked with laughter and called out lines before the characters. Now that my French is better, as is my understanding of French humor, I find it pretty hilarious, too.

Here’s the charming farmhouse we stayed in, taken before the snow came:

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Some photos of Samoens:

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Twelfth century church where we attended mass . We sang Angels We Have Heard on High, one of my favorites, in French:

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The Alps, near Samoens:

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Early morning frost:032 Frost

A visit to the nearby village of Annecy, with me obviously American in my running shoes:

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And skiing in Alvoriaz:

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Thankful to be a Bilingual, Bicultural Family

 Carnival time sneaks up on me each month! This month, the Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival is hosted by Sarah (my new neighbor – yay!) over at Bringing up Baby Bilingual.

It never crossed my mind growing up that I’d be part of a bilingual, bicultural family. Dreams of the future were hazy at best; I tended to dream big yet not concretely. But wow – I cannot imagine life any other way.

I’m grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to take, resources for, and access to French lessons both in the U.S. and in France, so I can help my children to learn a second language while learning it (struggling with it) myself.

I’m grateful to Amazon.fr and Amazon.ca for all the great books I’ve had delivered to my doorstep.

I’m grateful to have lived in San Diego and to have sent our daughter to the San Diego French American School. What a remarkable school and community of people.

I’m grateful that I’ve been able to spend so much time in France, and that we are able to take our kids there and share the French language and culture with them.

I’m grateful that my husband has such a fabulous sense of humor about the French language and culture, so that when I’m feeling exasperated, rather than take offense, he laughs and makes a few jokes about the “ridiculous French.” (Say this with a thick French accent and you’ll appreciate it, too.)

I’m grateful for YouTube and Roku, where we find movies (La Maison de Mickey) and all sorts of French music videos to sing and dance to in our living room.

I’m grateful that right now, my daughter still thinks it’s pretty cool to speak French.

I’m grateful that I, with a few minor exceptions, have had kind, patient, and encouraging French teachers that have made learning the language more akin to an imagined vacation overseas than the stereotypical browbeating, you’re-not-worthy treatment that makes for great stories down the road but aren’t all that fun in the moment.

I’m grateful for Sarah at Bringing Up Baby Bilingual and this page of hers that has made finding French in Colorado so easy for us.

I’m grateful for the community of bloggers I have found that help keep me motivated and inspired about this often difficult journey of raising children bilingually.

Most of all, I’m grateful for the world that being a bilingual family has opened to us. I’m a better, more tolerant, more open-minded, more patient, and I think more interesting person after learning how different languages, cultures, and families can be.

I love that we are a bilingual, bicultural family. I wouldn’t want it any other way.