Friday, September 28, 2018

A life uncommon: part IV

I followed my bliss all the way to Paris on September 7, 2001, arriving with an overstuffed suitcase and a heart full of hopes, dreams, unavowed fears, and the inexplicable assurance that I was where I was meant to be. In honor of the 17th anniversary of that leap of faith, I have decided to write a short series of posts recounting the little-known tale of my love affair with France. 

Read part I here, part II here, and part III here.

The long and winding road

Business school it would be. Ever the perfectionist, I buckled down and gave the admissions process all I had. I asked a couple of alumni to hook me up with some advice; I read several books on culture générale, which is key to French exams of all stripes (realizing in the process that my education had some rather large holes in it); I bought a severe-looking suit and practiced my “business voice.” In the end, I wasnt accepted by one Grande Ecole—but by two. So I said a fond farewell to my boss, who had done everything in his power to help me gain admission, and went off to buy some cool French school supplies, including plenty of that liney lined paper (why ever does it have so many lines?), certain that this would finally be my big break.

I suppose disappointment was inevitable. My undergraduate years remained decidedly rose-tinted; there was little chance I could ever relive them. I had imagined that this elite French institution would be the equivalent of Harvard, that I’d be rubbing elbows with the intellectual aristocracy, that classes would be as fascinating as they were inspiring.... In short, I wanted graduate school to be more than a means to an end; I wanted it to be an end in itself. Alas, non. My classmates were indeed brilliant, but the reigning atmosphere was hardly scholarly. The first week, I stepped into the schools stately cobblestone courtyard only to be met with a scene worthy of a carnival. An inflatable fun house crowded the entrance; music blasted over loudspeakers; students in giant chicken costumes waddled about, distributing rolls of toilet paper. I feared that I’d unintentionally slipped into a parallel universe.

Unfortunately, that was only an introduction; the carefree attitude that reigned in the courtyard seemed to reign in the lecture hall as well. Students would meander into class oftentimes well past its start, strolling right beneath the professor’s nose without eliciting so much as a grumble. Many of those seated were hardly any better: some blatantly perused the morning newspapers; others texted sweet nothings on their phones; still others surfed the web on their newfangled laptops. Many didn’t show up at all. Yet the lecturer would continue lecturing, not seeming to care one iota. If anything, the lack of respect appeared to be mutual: one professor quite simply fell asleep during a series of (clearly unimportant) student presentations. I know that turnabout is fair play and all, but COME ON. What is actually happening here? I wondered, unable to shake the sense that somehow, somewhere, somebody had made a mistake.

In hindsight, it’s obvious that the mistake was mine. I embarked on the graduate school adventure believing that I had an open mind, when in truth I had a very fixed notion of what the experience should be like, and was profoundly disappointed when reality did not live up to my lofty expectations. That’s on me. But in my defense, I know what superior education looks like—and that wasn’t it. Anyway, things kept on keeping on for months, and then suddenly coursework was over. We took a whirlwind trip to India, zeroed in on a thesis topic, and poof! We were granted the right to brandish the school’s hallowed name and watch the internship offers roll in. By that point, I’d set my heart on going into wine and spirits marketing, but in light of all that I had witnessed that year, I was highly skeptical of the school’s reputation, however illustrious, being able to work its magic and land me an internship … until it worked its magic and landed me an internship—in marketing; in the wine industry. Mind. Blown.

As it turned out, I rather enjoyed wine marketing. Plus, the start-up I went to work for decided it rather liked me back and, heaven be praised, after proving my mettle as an intern, I was offered a full-time positionand along with it A NEW EMPLOYEE VISA! Betting everything on a business degree had actually paid off; I couldn’t believe it. My graduate school had not given me what I wanted, but ultimately, it gave me what I needed. Perhaps I had been too quick to criticize (I said perhaps). In any case, I ended up remaining in wine marketing for a little over three years. The company met a sad fate, but it taught me invaluable lessons about management, mismanagement, wine, and most importantly, copywriting. My boss—and I will forever be indebted to him for this—recognized a certain affinity I had for the written word, and often gave me copywriting projects. With time, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps I was meant to take up my pen and make a living out of it. Hmm.

Meanwhile, that other quest of mine, lamour, remained frustratingly out of reach. Then, in the autumn of 2007, just when I was beginning to think that the love of my life might actually literally be France, and was imagining what kinds of crazy hats I would wear as a spinster, it happened—I met someone. A human! Who liked me! And whom I liked back! I’d been single for 95% of my six and a half years in the so-called city of “love,” and then all of a sudden, here was this tall, handsome, French guy with beautiful eyes and really nice shoes, who was neither a sociopath nor dating someone else nor related to any of my bosses in any way. I pounced (and by that I mean I batted my lashes a lot and hoped for the best). And lo and behold, sparks flew. We moved in together the following year, were engaged a year and a half after that, and married in a picture perfect Franco-American ceremony in my hometown in the spring of 2011. What is it they say about good things coming to those who wait (and wait, and wait, and wait...)?

After jumping ship from the by then rapidly sinking wine company, I switched gears and joined a mid-sized design and communication agency. Over the next several years, I put my newly acquired managerial skills to the test—and realized I just didn’t have it in me to be a manager. In fact, I seemed to be singularly ill-suited to the entire open-plan paradigm. It was a sobering realization, but it was unavoidable. Much soul-searching ensued. And in the end, I came to the conclusion that while each stepping stone in my professional journey thus far had served a purpose, if I ever wanted to find the Holy Grail, I couldn’t simply take another step—I would have to take a leap. 

So I quit my day job, moved to the suburbs, opened a copywriting business, and had two children. 


Friday, September 21, 2018

A life uncommon: part III

I followed my bliss all the way to Paris on September 7, 2001, arriving with an overstuffed suitcase and a heart full of hopes, dreams, unavowed fears, and the inexplicable assurance that I was where I was meant to be. In honor of the 17th anniversary of that leap of faith, I have decided to write a short series of posts recounting the little-known tale of my love affair with France. 

Read part I here and part II here.


After a two-year honeymoon period, a bit of disenchantment slowly began to creep into my French utopia. Taking stock, I was 23, earning scarcely more than minimum wage, still single and not making any headway in that department.... But mostly, I was fed up with feeling inferior. I’d worked assiduously in college and had graduated with high honors—departmental distinction, Phi Beta Kappa, Summa-Cum-freaking-Laude for Pete’s sake! What was I doing fetching coffee and fielding angry phone calls from people I only barely understood? Where was the appreciation—and the salary—I felt I deserved? And where in blazes was l’amour? I had had enough of playing the endearing but inconsequential American ingénue. But then, what was the alternative? Quit? Go back to the US with my tail between my legs? Prove the naysayers right? No way, André.

My non-renewable work permit was drawing dangerously close to its expiration date when my boss invited me into his office and said that he would be willing to sponsor me if I wanted to stay. WHAT?! Sponsorship was the only way I could keep working legally, and it was a big deal. From the very beginning of my quest to live in France, people warned me how difficult it would be to find a sponsor—essentially a French company both willing and able to prove to the government why I should be hired and not one of the country’s many native job seekers. With unemployment a perpetual hot-button issue, a foreigner like me being given the go-ahead to “take” a position at a French company was far from a foregone conclusion.

Suddenly I didn’t mind fetching coffee quite so much.

Being sponsored for an employee visa meant going home to California for four months while the paperwork was being processed. It also meant explaining myself to my parents, who had never intended for that one semester of studying abroad to morph into my life’s calling. God works in strange and mysterious ways, I airily reminded them, promising that if one day France rejected me, then I’d move back to the USbut so far that hadnt happened; on the contrary, everything seemed to be falling into place. Being in California in the autumn of 2003 also afforded me the extremely unpleasant opportunity to experience the great Cedar Fire, a conflagration of epic proportions that destroyed thousands of houses and very nearly wiped out my entire hometown. My parents and I had to evacuate for 10 days, returning to a charred, nightmarish landscape steeped in smoke. That was not the high point of my visit home.

I flew back to France, chastened, in January of 2004—and proceeded to have my heart stomped good and flat by my first French boyfriend, who also happened to be my boss’s eldest son. That was not the high point of my return.

Vowing not to cast any more pearls before any more swine, I soon resumed my lighthearted Parisian existence and tried to shrug off any dreams of professional grandeur. After all, even if I was confined to office work, how could I dare complain when I had the City of Light? Henri IV himself had had to make a sacrifice or two in exchange for herParis vaut bien une messe! Still, that nagging voice in my head wouldn’t quit. “WHAT are you playing at?!” it hissed. “You have no money! Your career is going nowhere! You can’t bury your head in the sand forever! TICK-TOCK.” Finally, I had to admit that the voice was right. I couldn’t stay at that job any longer; it just wasn’t enough. And while it had enabled my French to reach heights I’d never imagined, and had certainly taught me the fine art of getting along in a French company, I was thirsty—very thirsty. I yearned to excel, to achieve, to stop scrubbing the proverbial floor and put on the damn proverbial glass slipper.

But in a country where it is customary to name-drop one’s alma mater early and often, sometimes going so far as to include it in one’s signature, acquiring the proper academic credentials is nothing less than imperative if one is to entertain even the faintest hope of squeezing one’s foot inside the door of any major company. And as far as my American accomplishments were concerned, France neither recognized them nor cared; in the eyes of the Powers That Be, I was pretty much a nobody. I would be less than candid if I said that didnt hurt, since it did—rather a lot, actually. But like it or not, I had to accept the fact that if I ever expected to achieve any semblance of égalité with the French, I would have to humble myself before the gods of academia and return to school, in France. Wounded ego notwithstanding, part of me was relieved: thinking about graduate school felt good. As the daughter of two teachers, the classroom had always been a second home of sorts; maybe returning to school would at last grant me the opportunity to shine in a country that I felt was still waiting for me to prove my worth.

So it was settled—I would trade in my highly coveted employee visa for a lowly student visa. It is difficult to express the magnitude of the gamble that such a decision represented: I was essentially giving up my safe status as a worker bee and betting my entire future in France on a Masters degree, or rather, on my ability to persuade another French company to go through the whole employee visa sponsorship process again once I had completed said Masters degree (was I crazy? Yes ... crazy like a renard!).

Going back to school also meant assuming a fair amount of student debt, which only added to the already considerable pressure I was placing on myself to make this degree THE magic bullet. Id lived in France long enough by then to know that the outcome of my wager would hinge on two factors: what I studied and (more importantly) where I studied it. The highly respected Grandes Ecoles (France’s Ivy League) were therefore the only acceptable prospects, but their admissions process was rumored to be draconian. To further complicate matters, it was fairly obvious that business school would be my best bet if I wanted to play ball with the big kids, but a business degree seemed somehow wrong for me. Tricky. Then again, I’d double-majored back in college: art history and advertising. Surely introducing some business acumen to either field would pry open a few sealed doors; I just had to pray that one of them would be the right door.


Photo by Lily Heise

Friday, September 14, 2018

A life uncommon: part II

I followed my bliss all the way to Paris on September 7, 2001, arriving with an overstuffed suitcase and a heart full of hopes, dreams, unavowed fears, and the inexplicable assurance that I was where I was meant to be. In honor of the 17th anniversary of that leap of faith, I have decided to write a short series of posts recounting the little-known tale of my love affair with France. 

Read part I here.

Afoot and light-hearted

My life in France began in earnest when the United Airlines flight touched down at Charles de Gaulle airport on a perfect September morning in 2001. Destiny, it seemed, was on my side; I’d been offered a living situation that couldn’t have been more perfect if I’d dreamt it up myself. Once again, it had materialized out of nowhere at precisely the right moment. A mere few weeks earlier, I was at a theater in San Diego with my parents and some family friends, lamenting the fact that I had no housing solution for my Paris work abroad program. At intermission, a couple seated in front of us turned around—they just so happened to know my parents’ friends and had obviously overhead my whining. “We may be able to help,” they said. And before long, I was holding the keys to a beautiful Parisian apartment a mere 10-minute stroll from the Arc de Triomphe. 

So, I had a place; I had a visa; I had a plane ticket. I just needed a job. The organization in charge of getting me to Paris kept records of every French company that had ever hired one of its participants, so I rifled through its binders and jotted down everything that seemed remotely interesting. But then came the moment when I had to actually call some of these people. Summoning the courage to pick up the phone and speak, in mediocre French, to a bunch of perfect strangers in an attempt to convince them to grant me a face-to-face interview was just the sort of thing we introverts have nightmares about. However, it was also necessary, so I swallowed my pride and did my best to not sound like a blithering idiot. A few near misses later, I struck gold—an American expat who owned an art gallery on the exceedingly fashionable rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré, virtually next door to the presidential Palais de l’Elysée, agreed to hire meME!—I about died.

All that was left was to make some friends. And that prayer was soon answered too, in the form of a little group of Canadian kindred spirits pursuing dreams not unlike my own. Thanks to them, I finally discovered some of what Paris had to offer in the way of social life. I worked five days a week at the gallery and spent nearly every weekend travelling. Chartres, Amiens, Beauvais, Senlis, Laon…. I visited every great Gothic cathedral within a few hours of Paris, and then ventured further afield, almost exclusively by myself. I slept in youth hostels or cheap hotels, ate alone in carefully-researched restaurants, read my trusty guidebook cover-to-coverand savored every minute. When in Paris, my friends and I dined out, took in movies and plays, and drank quite a bit of wine. I was happy once more. Exceedingly happy. But despite that, a nagging fear remained in the back of my mind: what would I do in December, when my non-renewable work permit expired?

My first impulse was to level with my employer. As a fellow American and art lover who had moved to France in her youth, we had several things in common; surely she would understand my desire to remain in Paris. “Oh, everyone says that,” was her dismissive and frankly disappointing response. I bristled. This woman clearly had no idea who she was dealing with. Thankfully, one of my dearest friends, and a highly skilled problem-solver, pointed me to an 18-month “professional internship” program that would allow me to keep living my dream—just so long as I could find an employer willing to do the paperwork. Destiny went to bat for me again, and that elusive employer appeared in the form of a Franco-Russian publisher who had recently hired an Irish friend of mine and was looking for a bilingual assistant. Not quite the stuff of dreams, but hell, at that point I’d have accepted street sweeping if it meant I could stay.

And so my adventure was given the green light to begin a whole new season. This one was marked by another desperate search for an apartment, since my too-good-to-last rental agreement near the Arc de Triomphe had to come to an end. The Parisian housing market is notoriously difficult, and being a foreigner did me no favors. I visited something like 40—FORTY—different places. Many were reserved” or off the market before I got there; most were too expensive to begin with. Some were shockingly small; others were shockingly decrepit. One of the more memorable visits was essentially a crumbling hallway overlooking a cemetery. Nonetheless, I kept at it. In the meantime, I house-sat, crashed on the couches of friends and then friends of friends, hid out for a month in a bedroom in the suburbs, and tried not to lose hope. Finally, finally, my new boss’s wife put me in touch with the owner of a one-bedroom just behind Montmartre, who agreed to take a chance on me. Sure, it was an 86-step hike to the top floor of a not-so-nice building in a so-so part of town, but it was MINE ALL MINE! A new coat of paint, a few unlikely furniture acquisitions, an oversized Robert Doisneau print to reign over it all, and voilà! One happy, homey, truly cosy Parisian abode.

I was elated. Forging ahead. Living the dream. What could go wrong?


Friday, September 7, 2018

A life uncommon: part I

I followed my bliss all the way to Paris on September 7, 2001, arriving with an overstuffed suitcase and a heart full of hopes, dreams, unavowed fears, and the inexplicable assurance that I was where I was meant to be. Today is the 17th anniversary of that leap of faith. To mark the occasion, I have decided to write a short series of posts recounting the little-known tale of my love affair with France. We American expats are not so numerous as one might imagine. Those of us who go abroad and remain abroad all have very personal reasons for doing so. 

Here are a few of mine.


Their lined paper is so … *liney*, thought 8-year-old me, leafing through the French notebook I’d received from a friend who’d just returned from Nice following his dad’s short-term teaching exchange. Years later, in high school, I would choose to study French over Spanish, under the guidance of that very same friend’s dad (hi Mr. Johnston!). My parents joke that he is to blame for awakening my love for France, but really, the dream was there to begin with: I was certain that France was some kind of fantasy land graced by castles, cathedrals, and surely a bit of deep magic from the dawn of time. Attempting to master the language as an adolescent was a humbling experience, but after four years of grappling with irregular verbs and impossible strings of vowels, I was college-bound and had every intention of spending a semester studying abroad in Paris.


A bashful, hopelessly romantic, straight-A art history major like me never stood a chance of resisting France’s legendary powers of seduction. The flight from Dallas I shared with 39 fellow SMU students in late August of 1999 hadn’t even landed when already I sensed a shift in my personal space-time continuum. As the plane descended, I gazed down on a patchwork that looked nothing like the neat American checkerboard I was used to. This looked ancient. Mysterious. Old World. The airline lost my luggage; I barely noticed. I floated out of Orly airport and onto a bus, which took us to picturesque Fontainebleau. Everything seemed miraculous to me: the crisscrossed rattan of the chairs adorning every sidewalk cafe, the canary yellow mailbox adorning a street corner, the hardboiled egg slices adorning my first baguette sandwich. I wrote my parents a postcard from the gardens of the highly enchanting Château Vaux-le-Vicomte, looking out over a perfectly manicured lake dotted with perfectly manicured swan boats, and knew that some part of me had already decided. I wasn’t going back—this was True Love.

I have always preferred Paris in the autumn, perhaps because it was autumn when we first met. After a week of orientation outside the city, my classmates and I were driven into the heart of the Latin Quarter to enjoy a welcome cocktail with our host families. “See those leaves?” asked a visiting professor, motioning to the mottled foliage of the elegant chestnut trees lining Boulevard du Montparnasse. “That’s what we call autumn.” All of us descended from the bus, and I redoubled my efforts to resist gaping, open-mouthed, at everything inside Reid Hall, the stately 18th century former porcelain factory that would be our school for the semester. I clearly remember pinching myself, and then laughing under my breath because who actually does that? And then we met our host families. Mine was perfect, obviously. They were kind, and cheerful, and very forgiving of my pathetic language skills. Fun fact: I’ve remained friends with them to this day, and they still delight in reminding me how awful my French was so long ago. That’s what families do—even host ones.

For four months, I lived in absolute bliss. Classes were held alternately at Reid Hall, alternately inside the Louvre (!!!). Or the Musée d’Orsay. Or the Musée Pompidou. Or simply out and about in Paris. My inner art historian was euphoric. I walked all over the city, rain or shine, scrupulously recording each day’s discoveries in my diary each night. I took trips across France: to the east, the west, the north, and the south. “Everything here is so beautiful,” I gushed. People just laughed. She has it bad, they must have been thinking. They were right—from the Chagall windows in the Metz Cathedral to THE Impression, Sunrise at the Musée Marmottan, from the Roman amphitheater in Arles to the Rothschild gardens on the Côte d’Azur, from my first encounter with the Eiffel Tower in all her glory to the sensory rapture that is a Provençal market, I was gone, gone, gone. Smitten. Love-struck. Over the moon.

Reality slapped me across the face, hard, when the semester came to an earth-shattering close in late December and I had no choice other than to return to “normal life.” My mind reeled. The flight home was a weepy blur. My poor parents didn’t understand what was wrong with me; why wasn’t I happy to be home? Didn’t I have a good time? YES—FAR, FAR TOO GOOD! Those first few months back in the US were a masterclass in pain. I felt so heartsick I didn’t know what to do with myself other than search high and low for some way—any way—to return to my beloved France. I was treated to a lot of oh-everyone-says-that’s and oh-everyone-loves-Paris’s—which only cemented my resolve to not be like “everyone.” Halfway through my senior year, while my entire graduating class seemed to have internships, job offers, and juicy MA programs all lined up, my standard response to the dreaded “What are you going to do after graduation?” remained a falsely confident “Move to Paris,” which always drew a raised eyebrow, an awkward laugh, or a condescending “Good luck.” Except for one of my favorite art history professors, that is, whose unexpected response was an earnest “Take me with you!” Those words were really all I needed to hear—why stay and go the academic route like everybody was pushing me to do, when this professor whom I admired so much was clearly in agreement with what my heart had been telling me all along?

In the eleventh hour, as has so often been the case in my life, a way was made where there seemed to be no way. Right behind my university, no less, were the modest offices of Council Travel, which offered none other than work exchange programs, including to France, for recent graduates. EUREKA! Letter of acceptance in hand, I graduated Summa Cum Laude from SMU in 2001, threw a shaky French résumé together, and promptly moved halfway around the world—where I had no job, no friends, and where no one gave a damn about my degree, my accomplishments, or my qualifications. But those were mere details to me at the time. What mattered was that I’d proven the naysayers wrong-—I was libre to pursue the love of my life—France.


Illustration by Corey Egbert