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Family and friends in Boston thought I was possibly certifiable for wanting to return to Paris after having barely unpacked. What was wrong? Had they changed? Boston is a great city. Didn’t I realize what I’d be sacrificing? Life of an expatriate has definite downsides as well as pluses. Some perceived my wanting to return to Europe as a rejection of them and their values.
The reality is that Boston and they hadn’t changed at all. But during my absence, I had developed profoundly different aspirations and needs which weren’t solely fast-track professional. My husband’s European consulting gig was continuing, so he would be commuting from one continent or the other. Our children were already launched from the nest, so, there were no problems with ‘failing parents’. We were relatively foot-loose and fancy-free.
Being my business card was no longer my persona. In Boston, I was a member of a prestigious club comprised of the city’s 100 leading women in business. I wanted to reconnect before making the decision as to whether or not I should stay in Boston. Professionally, I was taking a big gamble on my future. You know the adage, “out of sight, out of mind”—would I ever be able to work again?
During the first two weeks after our return to Boston, I met for lunch with one of the club’s members each workday. Lunch was religiously called for noon which, in my opinion, is an uncivilized hour. At 12:20, my companion would breathlessly appear at the table nervously glancing at her watch. She’d announce she had to eat quickly since she had a 1:00 pm meeting. Everyone wore the dress-for-success suits – which filled my wardrobe, in mothballs, during our Parisian sojourn.
The conversations didn’t vary. No, they didn’t want a glass of wine or a cigarette (please remember, this was 18 years ago before the two—especially smoking—were considered taboo). What was my new job? What could they sell me? What could I do for them? If men are reputed for being networkers, they’re novices compared to high-powered career women.
I was glad to reconnect but quickly realized our relationships lacked substance. Not one woman asked how Paris and living in Europe had impacted our lives and what we did and didn’t learn, much less liked. It was as if until I was wearing a new business card, I was invisible.
I don’t mean to imply they didn’t travel or weren’t intelligent. Quite the contrary. But their lives were so focused on their careers and families that they didn’t have time to expand their horizons. Trips to Europe or African safaris were meaningful, but qualified more as shopping or photo opportunities. Many spent part of their summers at Cape Cod, Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, Maine, Vermont, etc. It was a relatively easy commute and there aren’t many American executives who have five weeks (plus) of vacation each year.
Our friends in the US lived privileged lives of working hard, earning good money and being able to do pretty much what they wanted. But, when it came to quality of life, I had my doubts. How big a house you have and what type of car you drive isn’t the be-all and end-all. All of the talk of real estate transactions and who was using which designer no longer held my interest the way it once did.
I hadn’t gotten enough of a fix of living in Europe and being able to experience a different culture within a couple of hours of Paris. The luxury of exploring ancient civilizations and culturally different societies by hopping on a short-haul fight couldn’t be beat. Perhaps it’s because I’m such a visual person that Greek and Roman history didn’t become real to me until I was standing on the ruins.
Each day, I was challenged to make a meaningful life. I found Paris to contain an extremely small Anglophone community. I became involved in US politics, which take on a special importance when living overseas. I frequented book readings at The Village Voice Book Shop and other venues and was privileged to hear writers whom I’d probably never have met in the US. WICE was an incredible resource where I took advantage of some classes including the writers’ workshop.
There was still a glitch in my life despite all of the good things that came with living in Paris. I needed my own identity and raison d’etre. I knew I had to get a job in spite of not having working papers. After spending my 14th day in the Prado in Madrid, I called a former colleague at the (then defunct) Washington Star and asked him if he could use any columns from Europe. Dear Richard said sure and I started writing for the newspaper where he was working. Once again, I had the excuse to ask all of the none-of-my-business questions for which I was famous.
When Victor had a business trip, I’d accompany him, but was no longer resentful when he spent days sitting in offices while I was all over the city. If it weren’t for the money, I definitely had the better deal.
Writing (once again) became my vocation as well as my passion. Having sat on both sides of the desk (as a PR and Communications professional and a journalist), I preferred the latter, even though it often costs journalists to write.
If only I’d known Born to Shop Suzy Gershman when I first came to France perhaps I could have been her shopping assistant. Instead, I became an ongoing contributor to the International Edition of USA Today’s Expat Abroad column, The Washington Times, design and travel publications, and even the Meat Packer’s Association trade magazine.
Then came Bonjour Paris – a history unto itself. But hey, everyone has to have a gig and mine has been more than interesting.
© Karen Fawcett