We heard the same question over and over again.
“But what are you going to DO there?”
I don’t know why it took us aback. I guess it’s a natural question when your friends find out you’re quitting your jobs, blowing your savings and moving to Paris, France from Texas, USA just for the heck of it.
Yes, here we are in Paris, me, my husband Darrin, and our two cats. What are we doing here? How could we quit our good jobs? Why did we come here?
Long story short: just ’cause.
Americans have been coming to Paris for so long – and writing about it, too – that Darrin and I are beyond cliché; we’re downright embarrassing. Most folks come on some great personal quest, to find “themselves”. Others come to write that great novel they’re certain they have hiding deep inside them or to study in the footsteps of cultural and literary icons, or to become a great artist or musician. Or, at the very least, they come to stroll on the Seine and be inspired, scribbling important notes about life in their well-worn, leather-bound journals.
If anything, we’re here to lose something: our need to ‘go’ 24-7 in a very American way. Our unique ability to acquire second and third jobs and refer to them as “hobbies.” Our inability to sit still. The last thing I want to do in Paris is be ambitious. That would ruin all our fun for sure. No leather-bound journal for me.
And where better to learn to sit still? Paris, France, land of café, land of the three-hour dinner, land of drinking wine at lunch. A place where “turn and burn” isn’t in a waiter’s vocabulary, and a cup of coffee will buy you a bistro table for as long as you’d like to sit there. There’s something wonderful about Paris’ 2.2 million people, who actually shut down most of the city’s businesses on every holiday. They know when to say ‘when’.
My personal love affair with Paris goes back to when I was a snotty 12-year-old who didn’t want to go to Europe with her parents and big brother – regardless of the fact that my parents had scraped their savings together for years to make this Griswald Family European Vacation a reality. Me? I wanted to go to camp. But back then, 12-year-olds didn’t have rights, so you just went where your parents told you. I’m sure I had a lot of sass, and I remember wanting to go shopping a lot, but even through my brattiness, I still “got it”. In fact, I got it so badly, I couldn’t get over it. I adored all of Europe, but I loved Paris the most: from its plastic Eiffel Towers to its ancient stone gargoyles – and especially its public transportation.
In Paris, my parents let me run wild. And when I say wild, I don’t mean “Girls Gone Wild” wild. What I mean is Mom and Dad let me ride the metro all by myself. They gave me a little money and turned me loose in a foreign country at 12 years old for a few hours each day. These are the same two people who refused to let me cross the busy street in front of our house in suburban Los Angeles without them watching from a nearby window. They still marvel at what came over them in Paris. Was it jet lag? Was it the wine? They said for some reason they were just certain nothing would happen to me. “It just seemed so safe,” they explained. I’ll tell you what it was: it was great! I ruled Paris at 12 years old. I was a master of the subway system. The city was mine, all mine!
Yes, Paris symbolized freedom to me back then, and it remains so now.
Fast forward about 26 years when my dear friend Eric was offered a job transfer to Disney Paris. He asked me if he should go. I don’t think I actually said “Duh!” but, really, who asks such questions? Naturally, I told him to get on the plane. He said his family wasn’t all that enthusiastic. I told him if he didn’t get on that plane immediately, I’d take his job.
So although I hadn’t been to Europe since that life-changing trip with my parents, I figured knowing someone in Paris was a fantastic reason to schlep my newly-acquired husband to a foreign country he didn’t even know he wanted to visit. And then the really bad news: I advised him that he would likely have to live without ketchup for a week and eat his fries with a knife and fork. And that his steak would be rare. And to pack a lot of black clothing.
We got on the plane for that trip and I cried before we even got off the ground. Not sure why. Maybe I sensed we were on the cusp of something larger, even back then. After the overnight flight, we got off the plane, too excited to be tired. I asked Darrin what he wanted to do. He said he wanted to see the Arc de Triomphe, you know, that little number Napoleon had built at the top of the Champs Elysées. So I took him. And as we came up out of the metro, he just sort of stopped and stood there looking at it. Silent. And I stood there staring at him staring at the Arc, thinking to myself, “Oh God please don’t let him hate it here…Maybe I should buy him some ketchup.”
And then he turned to me and said, “Wow. This is amazing. This alone was worth the trip. We could go home now and I’d be happy.”
By the evening, he was eating a leek quiche starter and letting Eric’s girlfriend Lynne feed him gizzards off her fork, who explained very French-ly, “This is beauuuuutiful. You must taste it.” And he ate it. And sort of even liked it. And he didn’t ask for ketchup.
And so another happy Paris customer was born. For a few years, we kept returning to Eric and Lynne to visit. Eric, an insatiable traveler, would scold me for not going elsewhere in Europe. So I began to feel guilty about this thing I had with Paris. I would book trips to Italy or Amsterdam, and then they’d turn into trips to Paris because I’d find a great deal on a flight. So at least I would have an excuse for continuing to return. Like I really needed one.
And then somewhere in the middle of all this, Darrin got his real estate license as sort of a side job. Somehow, real estate transactions became our hobby in the States. Renovating rat-infested houses, houses with exclusively pink interiors, houses that smelled like cat pee, yes, those were our little “hobbies” with which we occupied our weekends and weeknights. So perhaps it was only a matter of time before we bought a place in Paris. In October 2003, we closed on our tiny studio, steps from the Moulin Rouge and on the edge of Montmartre.
That was weird enough for most people. Who has a rental property in another country? Yep—us. And it was the best crazy decision we ever made. Except that the rental led to more vacations to Paris – but now they weren’t really vacations. They became reno-vacations, where we’d come home tired with plaster under our fingernails, having fixed up the place after some lousy renter sprayed pudding on the walls or destroyed a marble table by jumping on it or bleached all the bed linens. The best trip we had to Paris during those three years was the time someone booked our studio for when we were planning a trip, so we rented someone else’s apartment down the street. Now that was a great trip.
So with no kids or plans for any, why shouldn’t we just pack up and go and actually spend some time in Paris? Packing up and going seemed easy enough. Our Paris place was furnished, so the packing of four suitcases was easy. But the going, that was the hitch. It was the French visa application, the paperwork, the months of waiting for an answer, the figuring out how to get the cats to France with us and on which airline and how to get all the paperwork from the vet approved by the USDA. …And quitting our jobs for no really good reason. The to-do list went on and on and on and seemed to grow each day. Just shutting down our cell phones took three calls, and I just got a bill yesterday saying they only shut down one of our phones instead of both. And don’t get me started on renting out our condo, otherwise known as “the parade of freakshows.” And the bills, figuring out where to have them sent and how to pay them. All these details gave me “tired head”, as Darrin would say. I finally broke down on the plane ride over here. I think I just needed a good nap.
It was so, so, so much harder to get here than to be here.
Being here is easy. It’s a pleasure. Things are different. Good different, funny different and, of course, French different.
Good different: My favorite thing is not having a car. I know that’s sacrilege in Texas, but I couldn’t be happier walking nearly everywhere. We spent about $50 on transportation for both of us in the month of April. No gas, no car insurance, no car payment, no commuting. We have grocery stores within a block in every direction. Four bakeries to choose from for that daily baguette. Two metro stops and two bus stops around the corner. Freedom for me is a lot like when I was 12: being car-free.
Funny different: I initially underwent serious crime drama withdrawal. I watched them all back home – Without a Trace, CSI and of course Law & Order (all varieties!). Everything was going fine until we were in a department store and I saw Sam Waterston’s face plastered all over the display of televisions. I was immediately compelled to plop myself in front of a TV and hunker down for a few hours. Darrin promptly removed me from the area so I wouldn’t get sucked into what we call “the Law & Order vortex,” which would hold us captive for hours on a weekend back home.
French different: We went to a fancy little café/restaurant near the city center with some French friends late one Sunday afternoon. We sat in a lovely interior courtyard, surrounded by pretty people who use lots of hair product. Surrounding the courtyard were a variety of dining areas within the same restaurant, all very, very dimly lit. Apparently, that’s where we would have been seated if it was busy. Our French friends discreetly informed us they put the less-pretty people in the dark.
Some people think we’re daring for making this change, but let’s face it—we aren’t exactly jumping off a cliff. We have a place to live, all our utilities set up, a French bank account and most importantly, friends. Although Lynne and Eric broke up after an ill-fated voyage around Australia in a camper van, we were granted full custody of Lynne after the break-up. We couldn’t imagine life here without her, along with her new husband Stéphane and newborn son Gabriel. Of course, we miss all our friends in Dallas-Fort Worth. But with the offer of a free sofa bed to sleep on, we hope to have many visitors.
So for now, I am sitting still, which is a step in the right direction. And lately, we’ve been trying to walk more slowly. We meandered down the Champs-Elysées two days ago after a meeting, and then decided to forgo the bus and walk home from there, happening upon an outdoor antique market in town for just a few days outside the ritzy Parc Monceau. The next day, we took a long walk for no reason, and eventually found ourselves in front of a café we had been to on our very first trip to Paris together, Au Chien Qui Fume – The Smoking Dog. On the way home, we discovered a museum with free admission featuring an exhibit on ancient coins. We filed that one away for when Darrin’s dad, an avid coin collector, comes to visit.
And then as we continued home, there were the three semi-drunk young Americans who couldn’t find their metro stop and asked us for directions, thinking we were French. We walked them to their metro stop, which was, admittedly, hidden behind a church, but we knew where it was and looked like Parisian superstars for just a moment.
But mostly, we’re still us. Walking fast. Creating plans for imaginary businesses. Apartment hunting for places we can’t afford to buy.
Why did we do it? I haven’t found a precise answer that seems to satisfy people. We’ve only been here a little over a month. My sister-in-law thinks it’s a no-brainer: because you CAN, she says.
For now, that’s the best answer. We’ve got at least a year to figure it out. I’ll keep you posted.
C. Paula Caballero