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

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