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?


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