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!

New Digs

It was never my intention to so thoroughly neglect my blog. It just happened: one week, then one month, then months…. I have felt guilty and the need/desire to blog has always been on my mind, but the longer I neglected it, the easier it was to not come back to it.

One of my excuses: We bought a house and did a huge remodel. Yep, we are sinking roots in Louisville, CO! Just outside Boulder, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, a place with mild(ish) seasons, gorgeous hiking trails and camping places, fantastic schools, and lots of great friends, new and old.

No way I could resist this:

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Or this:

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Louisville is a slice of classic small town Americana charm with a dash of liberal “republic of Boulder” and a good layer of whatever-you-want frosting. Music? Art? Sports? Beer? Parades with dogs and cute kids? A fire station that gives your kids a tour if you pop in to say hi? Summer Street Faires that draw names like the Gin Blossoms and Los Lobos? Free horse and carriage rides around downtown? Fine Dining? Fantastic burger? It’s all right here, in my adopted home town.

I hope to never move again – this is it for me. No more packing, no more boxes, no more house shopping, done. I told my husband: we aren’t leaving here until we’re too old to get up the stairs. His response: “Then we’ll just get one of those electric carts to slide us up and down. We never have to leave!” We love, love, love our new house, and Louisville, and my husband is working for Google and, well, Google is GOOGLE. Best company to work for, hands down.

This, of course, was before we realized that Trump becoming president of the USA wasn’t an impossible joke, but a frighteningly real prospect. That could be such a disaster that a move to the EU would be a real consideration. Seriously, ‘Merica, WTF?

As for the remodel, I became an HGTV junkie and my daughter kept begging to come to the house when they were “breaking stuff” so she could see it. As it goes with remodels, things are never as easy as they initially seem they will be, but long story short: we are in and our house looks fabulous. We even have a guest room, a true guest room, for the first time ever! The theme (a room with a theme!) is, of course, Paris. Here’s a photo:

Paris room

My husband and I have a running joke about how in every American movie with even one scene in Paris, the Parisian apartment or hotel room always, always, always has a view of the Eiffel Tower. We watch for it and see who can be the first to call it out: VOILA, TOUR EIFFEL ! HA HA HA! So here it is: Our room with a view!

One of the pillows has this lovely Audrey Hepburn quote from Sabrina (where, ironically, she has a view not the Tour Eiffel but of Montmarte): “Paris is always a good idea.”

Agreed, Audrey, agreed.

New home, new desk, new year, new plans… more to come. I won’t promise to be fast with my next post, but I will say this: when I’m not writing about A French American Life, I’m living it, and that’s the point of it all anyway, right?

 

 

Ten Things I Love About France

Because it’s all about lists these days, right? In no particular order:

1. Walking the streets of Paris – the entire city is a work of art. I love to simply stroll along the avenues, people watch, gaze at the architecture, find unique spots in each quartier, inhale the scents, leading to #2…

Latin Quarter

Latin Quarter

2. The smell of a patisserie. I’ll never forget the time I was strolling down a narrow street and was stopped in my tracks by a rich, buttery scent pouring out a patisserie door. I stopped, whispered, “Oh. My. God.” Closed my eyes, and stood there inhaling deeply, unselfconscious until I paused, looked inside, and saw the pastry chef watching me with an amused, and pleased, smile on his face.

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3. Flower boxes on windows.

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4. Fields of lavender right next to fields of sunflowers in Provence.

Abbaye de Senaque

Abbaye de Senanque

435 More sunflowers!

5. Provence. For its beauty, its romance, its cuisine, its otherworldness.

6. Riding a bike through Bretagne.

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7. Eating galettes and drinking cool apple cider on a hot day in Bretagne.

IMG_1790 8. The French language. For all the grief it causes me, I love the sing-song beauty of this romantic language.

9. The Impressionists.

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

10. And Paris. I really love Paris. Cliché? Perhaps. Still, to me, she will always be romantic, mysterious, something I will never quite touch nor truly understand, yet a place where I come alive and life beats forward at a quicker, more exciting, more beautiful pace.

I love Paris in the spring time
I love Paris in the fall
I love Paris in the winter when it drizzles
I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles

I love Paris every moment
Every moment of the year
I love Paris, why, oh why do I love Paris
Because my love is here

I love Paris every moment
Every moment of the year
I love Paris, why, oh why do I love Paris
Because my love is here

She’s there, she’s everywhere
But she’s really here

         -Cole Porter

011 Same as G Belmon painting

La Politesse, and a Few Tips on How to Get Along With the French

Arc de Triomphe on Bastille Day

The French can be unfailingly polite.

No, really, I’m being serious.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, everyone who has traveled to France comes home with some story about a rude Frenchman or Frenchwoman who treated them horribly and worse, seemed to enjoy it. It’s almost like we look for those moments now: it’s a rite of passage. We need a commemorative “I survived talking to a French person” T-shirt.

Yet the truth is, there is much politesse in the French culture, we just don’t understand it  because their social rules are different from ours.

I’ve witnessed arguments between strangers where despite the obvious disagreement, they continue to address each other as “Madame,” et “Monsieur.” Usually without sarcasm. Ever had a homeless person hop onto your metro car to ask for money? Their speeches often mirror each other, and usually begin with a grand, “Mesdames et Messieurs, pardonez-moi de vous deranger.…” Translation: Ladies and Gentlemen, please pardon me for bothering you…. Even the term used for the homeless is more dignified than the word “homeless.” It’s SDF, or “Sans Domicile Fixe.” Translation: Without a fixed home.

Whenever I travel to France, it’s as if a flip switches in my head and I go into French mode. Things that would drive me crazy here become tolerable, because I’ve spent enough time there to understand why things are as they are, and to better know what to expect.

Kind of.

Who am I kidding. There are some things the French do that I will never understand, no matter how many times my husband or my French friends try to explain them to me (or deny their existence). At any rate, here are a few examples of things you can do to make your next trip to France run more smoothly:

When entering a store, always greet the shopkeeper with a “Bonjour.” While here in the US it’s not uncommon to enter a store without acknowledging, or being acknowledged by, the employees there, in France it’s considered incredibly rude. Same for leaving. Make sure you say, “Au revoir.” Toss in a “Bonne journée !” or a “Merci !” for good measure.

Flower shop in Paris

Flower shop in Paris

Try out some French, even if it’s only to say, “Pardonez-moi, mais je ne parle pas Français. Is it okay to speak English?” After all, the French have grown tired of people walking up to them and barking out a foreign language. I know I’d grow tired of it. I’ve been scolded by patients incensed that I don’t speak Spanish fluently, and that never brought out my benevolent side. Ease into the conversation, and the French are much more likely to be okay with speaking English.

Personal space there is very different from here; the French require much less of it. So if someone is bumping right up against you without acknowledging that they’ve jostled you, don’t take it personally. It’s all normal for them.

Chances are, the waiter is not ignoring you. The French like their meals long and uninterrupted. Unlike the US, where tables must turn over quickly in order for the restaurant to make money and the waiters to make adequate tips, in France, if you reserve a table, it’s pretty much yours for the night. A waiter won’t bring your bill unless you ask for it. To do otherwise would be rude, the equivalent of asking you to leave.

Just because the French person you’re speaking with isn’t grinning and enthusiastic, it doesn’t mean they’re annoyed with you. Well, they might be. But it’s more likely that it’s just a cultural thing: the French don’t grin and get enthusiastic in conversations with strangers. They are more reserved and tend to hold back until they get to know you. Give them a chance to warm up and you may end up making a great new friend. I’ve been told by my European friends that they knew I was American because I’m always smiling. I see this as a good thing, but I’ve also come to realize that the huge grin that comes so easily to my face is hardly a universal trait.

Ladies, enjoy the French version of customer service. I posted on this previously, here. Now’s not the time to go indignant feminist – let those shopkeepers flirt with you and treat you like a queen for a few moments. It’s really fun.

As for forming lines – they aren’t going to do it. This is one of the areas I have the hardest time with in France. After being shoved around trying to claim my coat at the counter after parties, swept past repeatedly while waiting in line for a toilet, and literally shoved off metro cars, I finally realized I had the necessary skills to survive, all learned during my years of playing basketball. It’s all about claiming space, blocking out, and moving toward the ball, or as the case may be, the toilet. Don’t be afraid to get wide, or even throw out a forearm to ward someone off. When it comes to lines in France, expect nothing less than pure Darwinian survival of the fittest.

Another tip: get out of Paris. Paris is gorgeous, stunning, there’s tons to see and do, but it’s still a big city. And like any big city, people are in more of a rush, stress levels are higher, people are more closed off to outsiders, and fatigued of tourists. That’s not to say that pleasant Parisians don’t exist – they absolutely do. But if you want to experience a little more joie de vivre, more bienvenue, hop on a train for the countryside.

I hope your next encounter with a French national goes smoothly. If all else fails, a French shrug (see this post here) and a resigned, “Eh ben,” are perhaps the best responses.

Me in a lavender field

Try a visit to Provence. Beautiful country, friendly locals!

Happy Halloween!

I love Halloween. We’re ready for our first Colorado Halloween, complete with crisp fall weather, a ground strewn with fallen leaves, and jack-o-lanterns that got put out too early and became squirrel feed.

Here are some of our better efforts from a few years ago (we had a pumpkin carving party with some French friends):

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And here’s where we got our pumpkins this year:

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If you happen to be in Paris and are longing for a taste of Halloween, check out Patricia Parisienne’s post from today – great ideas abound!

Now get out there and scare up some treats!