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!

 

 

 

Et alors… quoi de neuf?

My long hiatus has been unintentional.

Sort of.

Truth: What is going on in the U.S. has thrown me for a serious loop. When I began my blog years ago, I wanted to write about the often funny, always interesting, and sometimes exasperating differences between French and American culture, and to share anecdotes from my own life on what it’s like to be in a bicultural, bilingual marriage with kids. I enjoyed comparing our two cultures and poking fun at each of them.

November 2016: suddenly, those differences don’t seem so funny or cute anymore. Many of them seem pathetic and even dangerous. Even the smallest topics I consider writing about feel hypercharged. I, like so many others, feel like a stranger in a strange land in my own country. I often find myself defending the US to my foreign friends, and I’m weary of trying to defend what I don’t identify with nor agree with.

I always intended this to be a personal blog where I shared my story, my family, my experiences. While I’ve touched on politics, it was never intended to be a political blog. But isn’t the personal also political? Can any of us afford to ignore the political these days? To pretend it isn’t a part of us, a part of our culture? And of course, deeply important to the course our country and the world takes? Wouldn’t it be irresponsible to pretend otherwise?

I struggle, too, to find balance between actively doing my part to make the world a better place and still finding time to enjoy life – those little moments with my kids, the joy I find in traveling, the laughs I share with friends. I consider posting a few photos from a recent trip and I pause, feeling guilty that here I am, lucky enough to travel around the world with my kids, while others in my home country are suffering unimaginably.

So, I’ve spent much time wondering over this last year and a half how to continue this blog.

But I’ve decided to try. Rick Steves writes about Travel as a Political Act. My experiences traveling, meeting and talking with people, even the times I’ve been confronted with angry, vocal locals once they find out where I’m from, have made me a better person, of that I have no doubt. My mind has opened, my world view expanded. My ability to empathize and to see a perspective other than my own improves each time.

So, I will continue on. Some posts may be fluffy travel posts full of pictures of gorgeous locales. There will still be funny anecdotes about the culture clashes of being in a French-American family. Some posts may be political. I may lose followers. And that’s okay. C’est la vie. C’est comme ça.

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

 

Spring and Les Villes et Villages Fleuris

Spring is here. When I lived in San Diego, the arrival of spring meant days were now 72 degrees instead of 68; time to put away the scarfs and boots and break out the flip flops. Here in Colorado, spring means green blades of grass breaking through, blossoming trees, tulips, and then this:

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That’s my backyard two days ago. We got 17 inches of snow. We went sledding, built a snowman, had a snowball fight…. Spring along the Front Range means your what-to-wear dilemmas look like this:

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I’m done with the snow. I stored my snowboard mid-March, got a pedicure, and started wearing sandals. Visions of flowers and beaches and hot sun toasting my bare legs are dancing through my head.

Alas. I’ll fill my thoughts, instead, with Les Villes et Villages Fleuris de France.

This was a new discovery for me last summer. As we drove into a village in Bretagne, my husband pointed to a bright yellow sign and exclaimed, “Ah, un village fleuri !” and he went from mildly cranky/exasperated Frenchman-driving-car into happy, relaxed, joie de vivre Frenchman mode.

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The Concours des villes et villages fleuris is an annual contest in France where communes are evaluated for their aesthetic beauty. When the label began in 1959, it focused mainly on the beauty of the green spaces and floral displays, but now communes are judged in three categories: “la qualité de l’accueil” (the quality of the welcome and ambiance to visitors and residents), “le respect de l’environnement” (looking at the respect shown to natural resources and preservation of green spaces, as well as events that celebrate nature), and “la preservation du lien social” (how do the green spaces and gardens promote social interaction and utilization of those spaces within the commune). In all, it is an attempt to look at the overall quality of life impact on those who live in and visit the commune.

No limits exist on the number of communes that can be awarded, so it isn’t a true competition. The label earned can be anywhere from 1 to 4 flowers, or the prestigious gold flower, given annually to 9 communes. According to Wikipedia, as of 2015, approximately 12,000 French cities, towns, and villages have received the award. Four flower status has been awarded to 226 of those.

To learn more, here is the link to the French site.

http://www.villes-et-villages-fleuris.com/accueil_1.html

And here are some of my favorite flower pictures from France:

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!

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.