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May 1st was the 23rd anniversary of the day I moved to Paris for a six-month gig. For most people, it would be a dream come true. But I didn’t sign up for the life or even for the assignment. Even though I was born and raised in Washington and dated men (well, boys) who were in the Foreign Service Institute, I had no urge to pack my bags and move to exotic-sounding places.
This isn’t to imply I never left Washington. But we didn’t travel the way I’ve come to think of it today. My first husband had two weeks of vacation each year and we were into “stay vacations” with our son and a pool and tennis membership at the Washington Hilton.
So what was I doing in this foreign city where I knew no one and didn’t speak the language? Clearly, it was an act of insanity, plus a second marriage that precipitated the move. After all, who’d leave a perfectly good career (not to mention family) to careen across the Atlantic and not think someone might commit her to a mental institution? I kept asking why I was doing this and came up empty-handed. My colleagues repeatedly told me I couldn’t hop in and out of the job market. Was I committing professional suicide? And even if we’d planned on remaining in France on a long-term basis, working papers were hard to obtain and my skills didn’t translate. I had a headache and a clue—actually a dread—that it would be first of many.
Being a trailing spouse was a hard concept. Never considering myself a feminist (I simply did what I wanted to do—akin to a bull in a china shop), it didn’t add up that I wasn’t going to be in control of my present and future. Victor kept assuring me it was going to be a great adventure; we’d have so much more time together since I wouldn’t be punching a time clock and he’d be working in France where a 35-hour work week was the norm.
That assumption was the first of many misconceptions. Hello, Paris, au’voir, Victor. Off he’d go to the office in La Défense at 7:00 each morning only to arrive at our apartment on the Place des Vosges between 8:00 and 9:30 each night. The RER didn’t go to La Défense then and, even if it had, that was the year when the RATP, the subway, decided to strike.
We arrived on an Air France flight from Boston and were prepared to collect the few (and pitifully few) things we’d shipped to be waiting at the airport when we arrived. A van met us at the customs exit and off we went to the storage depot on the CDG grounds. Jet-lagged or not, I planned to make our rented apartment feel like ours with a few photos and other relics of home sweet home. Even though it was mid-week, everything was shut up and down tight as a drum.
Huh? What was wrong with this picture? No, I didn’t remember that May Day was a sacred (not entirely synonymous with holy) day in many places other than the U.S. I quickly discovered it didn’t simply mean making a fool of one’s self dancing around a May pole at the all-girls’ school I attended. Rather, it had much more to do with workers’ rights. OK, that was understandable albeit inconvenient.
That ride into the Paris is indelibly etched into my memory. Lord, did people drive like maniacs and the Seine looked nothing like the Potomac or the Charles River in Boston. The bridges were more ornate and the buildings were older than old with the patina of centuries of history, which the uncharitable called grime.
Ever practical, I wondered why everything was closed. What do you mean grocery stores don’t stay open all the time? Being in Paris, we found a restaurant. As I constantly tell Bonjour Paris readers, “You never need to go hungry in Paris unless you’re on a starvation diet.”
Fast forward: Paris and all cities in the developed world are so very different now. There are too many times when I’m in a restaurant that could be in any big city. But more important, I’m still living in Paris and really would have no reason to if it weren’t for my love of France and being in Europe. I’m lucky I’m in a position to return to Washington to see my son and his family.
My journey was accidental, allowing me to be the consummate tourist, and, having been an intermittent journalist who called up a former editor and begged him to let me write, I had the license to ask all of the “none of your business” questions.
When people ask me if I’d always dreamed of living in Paris, it’s easier to say yes, since it’s faster and more romantic to say you’ve realized a fantasy. The real answer is more mundane but more telling—that Paris became my dream. The longer I stayed in the City of Light, the more I appreciated so many of its nuances. That doesn’t mean I don’t become frustrated over things that make me see red.
I consider myself extremely lucky. The irony is that if I were going to choose a career today, it might be the Foreign Service, if I could cope with its structure and the bureaucracy. I’d do my duty and one day, I perhaps would be assigned to Paris.
I’m so pleased I was able to take the short cut and no matter where I am physically, Paris will always be my home. It’s stolen my heart and no one can take that away from me.
(c) Paris New Media, LLC
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