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

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