You can(‘t) go home again

“What do you miss the most?”  My friends smile, anticipating a favorite dish, a favorite place, or a particular time of year.  “Well, you guys, of course,” I say quickly, hoping to deflect the question from my true answer: “Nothing.”

Of course there are things that are wonderful that one could miss – but I “miss” them in the same way that I “miss” anything from a place I have been to – like missing dim sum in Hong Kong or missing walking the beaches of Sydney.  But I don’t miss anything in the “think about it all the time” way that I think they probably mean.  But in fairness to a country that played host to many happy years of my life, I miss walks in the Huntington Gardens in California.  Food trucks in Austin.  Baseball in Saint Louis.  Hot chicken in Nashville.  The squares of Savannah.  BYOB restaurants in Montreal.  Autumn in New Hampshire.

Next month will mark the beginning of my third year in Paris and I’m “in between.”  America is no longer “home” for many reasons but I still can’t believe I really get to call this place home.  I’m Parisian in my bones – in a way I always have been – and I marvel every day that I get to live in my dream city.  I’ve often been alone on a quiet street and stifled a laugh as I took in that crooked winding view of centuries.  Two years on, I still have “pinch me” moments.

Going to the United States has become a rather elaborate production.  As part of my visa requirements, I have to spend at least 270 days a year in France, so you can’t go back for too long – but if you’re going to cross an ocean, it’s 3 weeks’ minimum for me.  I’ve also hit upon the strategy of visiting my friends and family during “non-holiday” periods so I don’t have to share them with other commitments they have.  I’ve also find this makes for finding absurdly cheap flights (I just booked the cheapest Europe-America flight of my life recently).

I haven’t yet chosen to ditch 7 years of medical/dental/accounting services and technology and occasional travel stateside means I don’t have to.  The PPO (insurance plan) I once had in the United States cost $135/month and covered me for pretty much everything for years.  The “affordable care act” in America has not only cancelled that plan, but the closest current equivalent costs $570/month.  So I just pay cash to see my old doctors for my annual checkup, etc.

Dental insurance remains extremely reasonable ($35/month in my case) so it’s cheaper to retain it solely for your cleanings twice a year.  Just those two cleanings will cost more in cash than the entire annual premium for your insurance – and that’s assuming you have no other problems.  Do the math.

I couldn’t help but laugh at the times I would put a car into park and then stare mutely at the dashboard, wondering if I hadn’t forgotten to do something.  Not driving for months and months makes you a bit cagey when you do finally slip behind the wheel again.

***

The more assertive variation on the question “What do you miss?” is “When are you coming back?”  This led to a very long and fruitful exchange with a close friend in which I enunciated advantages I have now that effectively prevent me from returning to the United States for the foreseeable future.

  1. Physical health – I finally gave in and got a fitbit to document what I’ve always suspected: I walk a moving average of 10 km/day.  I do this at various speeds, up and down stairs, on cobblestones or grass, all around this city.  Not only did this regime of walking contribute to my losing 30 lbs/13 kg when I moved here, but it has established a new weight standard which would be impossible for me to retain in most American cities.  During my recent visit to Kansas City, I experimented by refusing to take and elevators and as often as I could remember I parked my vehicle as far away from a store entrance as possible.  I even tried not to use carts to carry my purchases.  With these “extreme” measures I couldn’t even get close to 4km/day as an average.  I’m simply healthier here in Europe.
  2. Access to Europe – I used to treasure an annual trip to Europe to see places new and old.  But now that I live here, all of Europe is at my doorstep, for pennies, either by flight, train, bus, or ridesharing (think uber but for long distances).  When living in America I experienced a variation on these sorts of fun possibilities only during my two years in New Hampshire, when Boston, Philly, NYC, and even Montreal were just road trips away, and in some cases, by train or bus too!  On this recent trip I had some business up by Chicago and elected to take the train (Amtrak) but perhaps had forgotten that there’s only one departure a day and when it gets delayed, it really gets delayed.  An engine on the train coming to Kansas City blew up in Arizona and they had to run another engine out there from California.  It delayed my journey by 7 hours and Amtrak had to pay to transport me to and from a hotel and put me up in it so I could connect to the bus to Rockford in the morning.  Not too shabby a recovery from the taxpayer-supported Amtrak, but a far cry from the dozens of departures and arrivals all around Europe every day.
  3. Constant challenge of language – Every day I make progress in French, but my work and life brings me into contact with the whole world.  During the summer I had a date with a Brazilian girl who didn’t speak English and we laughed our way through our makeshift Spanish and an occasional assist from Google Translate.  Expressing yourself in a foreign language is one of the most difficult, fun, rewarding, humbling, and interesting experiences in life.  You get opportunities like that every day here.
  4. A built life – Next year I transition from my visitor visa to one that puts me on the path to citizenship.  I continue to maintain that the EU passport is simply the most valuable passport obtainable by the average person in the world.  The only ones more valuable are the Vatican and Swiss passports – and they are very, very difficult to obtain for various reasons (as an aside I was recently asked at a dinner party what I liked most about having an American passport and I replied that it was the knowledge that Navy Seals will come for me if Somali pirates ever commandeer a vessel I’m on.  I’m sorry, no country can top that!).  I’ve started something wonderful here, and it would be nuts to leave it – especially when I’ve gone through all the hard stuff.  Indeed, as I looked over the list of requirements for my dossier for my new visa – which will be far more difficult to obtain than the visitor one – I said to a friend, “Is this it?”  The list had 28 requirements.  I realized after 2 years I am simply unfazed by the French government.

So my answer to my friend was, “Why would I come back?  I’m healthier and happier than I have been for many years, possibly more than I have ever been in my life.”

The caveat is, of course, family.  My nieces and nephews continue to grow by leaps and bounds and I measure their skill in their improvements in art and coloring, parcheesi, and sports.

On more than one occasion I’ve heard someone say, “I have to live here, because I love my family.”  I get that, I truly do.  But ultimately I moved because I placed my happiness first.  Of course I’m happy when I am with my family – but I know that part of the reason I get to contribute to their lives, bring them presents from all around the world, and share great stories with them, is precisely because I’ve built and chosen an intentional path for my life that doesn’t defer a dream life to some unknown future that no one has guaranteed that I will live to obtain.

There’s no right answer here and I’m not proposing that I have the right one.  I can only say that I can spend more quality time with my family now – and treasure it more deeply – because I know our opportunities are so precious and limited – and because I am well and truly happy, and that speaks volumes to children.

***

There’s nothing more satisfying than waking up every day knowing in your bones that you are on the right path.  And while two years isn’t yet enough for me to claim “Parisian” status yet, it does feel like home.

***The picture is of one of the fountains in one of the many lovely squares of Savannah, Georgia.***

My 35th.

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”

-Thornton Wilder

I was born at 4:04am Singapore time on March 28th, 1979, nearly two weeks past my original due date.  That meant that around 21h00 on the 27th, Paris time, that my 35th year had commenced.  I wanted to give you a 24-hour snapshot of the day, which was not really different from many Fridays in Paris, except for the fact that I had completed most of my work projects for the week and had no students to tutor.

***

21h00

It was the end of the month so I was sending emails to my staff at Word Works, as well as to some vendors and one follow-up with a potential new client.

I tidied up some things, checked my watch again, and decided to be early to my movie at UGC George V on the Champs Élyseés.  It would also allow a leisurely walk and I sometimes left too late.  I took a small volume of Robert Frost’s poetry in tribute to the bit of Winter that had stubbornly stayed on these last few days.  I also brought my language journal.  The Grand Budapest Hotel would be subtitled in French, and I would be able to jot down a few new words as they flashed across the screen.

It was quiet as I stepped onto my street.  Paris is, in many places, quiet after 8.  Even more so in my neighborhood, the 17th arrondissement.  I was equidistant between Wagram and Monceau, but Line 2 and Monceau suited me well for my destination.

I clicked along in my high-top black leather shoes that told of my approach along the old cobblestones.  I had the beginnings of a smile on my lips for any stranger who might make eye contact with me.  I hadn’t become Parisian enough yet to completely avoid eye contact!

I was carrying a water bottle with me.  I had brought it with me from the States.  People use them all the time there but here very few people carried such bottles around externally.  I had to remember not to set it down, lest I forget to pick it up.

I clicked down2014-03-29 13.37.30 the steps to my side of the metro station.  The timers read 04 and 10.  Four minutes to the next train, 10 minutes to the one after that.  I adore the Paris Metro.  I2014-03-29 13.37.43 often feel that it’s faster and better than a private driver.  Well…almost.

I sat down on a seat and cracked open my Frost.  Many American schoolchildren know “The Road Not Taken” but my real love for his poetry began in 1998 when I studied his work in his beloved New Hampshire at Thomas More College.  Poetry can be read a thousand different ways.  Tonight I flipped through somewhat indifferently.  I was looking for resonance so I could stop reading and reflect.  I found it here.

Caught up in my thoughts I automatically rose to get onto my train, then alight at Étoile, and then out onto the Champs, and almost carelessly walked past this, which I always try to stop and admire.  After a moment or two I did an about-face and walked to the theater.  I chuckled to myself as I had once remarked that only people in San Francisco read while walking, but I realized, nose in my book, that lots of people in dense urban settings do that.

I retrieved my ticket using my UGC card and descended into the lobby to wait for my showtime.  It was Lent and I had already had my two collations and main meal for the day.  I just tried to keep my eyes on Frost instead of the candy palace before me.

An efficient young man came up some time later and asked me in French what movie I was waiting for.  “L’hotel grand de Budapest.”  “vous pouvez aller maintenant.”  “Merci.”

22h00

I chose “orchestra” seating.  In some of the theaters in France, as in Singapore, where I first watched movies, they had “balcony” and “orchestra” seating.  For most of my life I’ve preferred orchestra.

I settled into my seat.  As I’ve grown older I’ve tried to avoid the rush and crowds of a theater by carefully selecting a showtime guaranteed to be less crowded.

The movie was typical Wes Anderson.  Fun and detailed backgrounds, signage, and models (Darjeeling Limited).  Some foreign language usage but no subtitles (Life Aquatic).  Cheekiness (Rushmore).  Relationships (Bottle Rocket).  Family (Royal Tannenbaums).

I walked home slowly and deliberately, almost as if in the opposite of a race.  In the hustle and bustle of the day you can’t always enjoy a walk and now as I had the streets to myself, my clicking footsteps slowed.

As I came out of the Metro and turned towards the treasure that is Parc Monceau I saw the sweep of a spotlight in the sky.  It was coming from the Eiffel Tower, of course.  In the evening a giant floodlight rotates at the top of that thing, imitating a lighthouse.

Look, I can’t get as excited about the Tour Eiffel as the newbie visitor might.  For many who have never been or will never go to Paris, it is the source and summit of their Parisian dreamings, if they have any.  My thrill comes when I show first-time visitors or my friends and watch their reaction.  Enjoyable, to stay the least.

What’s Paris to me?  Square John XXIII.  Place des Vosges.  Petit Palais.  The Diana Statue in the Louvre and at the Jardin du Luxembourg.  Kids and boats.  Any cafe.  St. Francis Xavier.  St. Etienne du Mont.  Notre Dame de Loreto.  The Orsay Clocks.  Alexandre Dumas.  Moliere.  Pastries.  Canards.  Notre Dame, original edition.  Pere Lachaise.  Sunsets on the steps of Sacre-Coeur.  Music on the Seine.

The sensory overload can cause some to switch off.  They go about their day oblivious.  And believe me this can happen as easily in Paris as in any other city.  But when you let Paris speak to you she’ll disclose wonders.

00h20

As I was almost to my apartment I got a text from a colleague who was hosting a podcast.  His show had started and his call screener had no-showed.  I sprinted up the 7 flights of stairs (when you walk it multiple times a day it isn’t as bad as it sounds) and called in to the studio and screened his calls for about 30 minutes as I got ready for bed.

I thought I would be tired as I tucked in some time later.  I had said my prayers and had been texting with a few friends.  I put on the beginning of the anticipated Nick Clegg/Nigel Farage debate, and fell asleep (not because I wasn’t interested but because I finally let myself go).

***

10h00

The morning provided a slow wakeup.  I had forgotten to turn on my space heater so I drew my blankets in closer to myself to stay warm.  Fridays were typically days off, anyway, so I was content to sleep in.  I flipped over, pulled up The Guardian’s Politics Weekly podcast, and heard what the Left had to say about Nigel vs. Nick.

One of the criticisms that crept into my don’t-want-to-get-up-yet ear was that “He (Nigel) clearly can get flustered and he made that crazy statement about the EU having blood on its hands over the Ukraine.”  The conversation proceeded apace, and Farage’s foil was the nearly professorial Clegg, who as a “professional member of the political class,” as Nigel is wont to call most MPs, was unflappable as he dodged parry after parry from the UKIP Leader.

“That’s because he’s a normal person,” I thought aloud, to no one in particular.  I was much like Nigel – a big idea person – content to leave details to those smarter than myself – confident in my ability to rather lead, motivate, and inspire.

11h00

I finally roused myself.  I made a petit dejeuner and sat in front of my computer to pay the regular end of the month bills.  Funnily enough, my landlady prefers to be paid via paypal, which makes paying rent a breeze.

I also ran down my budget vs. expenditures spreadsheet, now well into Month 5.  It was the first month my projections had actually hit their targets.  At some point I’ll write a post about the cost of living here.  In some ways, it’s expensive, sure, but in many ways having a constrained budget helps you realize just how little one needs to survive in a modern society.

I then turned to some personal and business correspondence, and made out my to-do list for the day.  It’s a simple system that works for me.  I make a list of 10 things that have to get done by the end of the day and what doesn’t make it goes into the “extra” list.  Whatever doesn’t get done that day, together with the extras, helps comprise the next day’s list.  Conversely, if I’m ahead of schedule I can pick off some items from the “extra” list.

12h00

My friend Justin FaceTimed me.  We would not change to Daylight Savings here in France until Sunday, so he was only 5 hours behind me in Florida.  It was 07h00 for him and as a coffee lover he was moving past the stupor which first light brings to lovers of the bean.

He’s a business partner and we discussed some matters while I packed up my messenger bag for the day.  Books, journals, iphone/ipad charger, ipad mini.  We switched to the telephone as he began his commute and I got ready to go out.

It was a truly beautiful morning.  I have a really cool list of cafes that purports to offer expressos for 1 euro or less.  This is generally reliable.  Indeed at Le Trois Pieces the other day I got a cafe creme (French for latte) and half a baguette for 3 euros 20.  But that’s to be expected deep in the 17th, where no English speakers or tourists lurk.  Here the locals will complain about high prices.  But hey, if you want to pay 8 euros for a coffee to get no better view than many other places in Paris, head to Saint-Germain-des-Prés.  There you can sit at Deux Magots and Cafe Flore and many other places famous for being famous, which specialize in parting tourists from their money.  For me, I’m done standing outside in a line to get into a club: paying to sit in a cafe that offered nothing spectacular, something quite similar, did not make my list.2014-03-28 13.18.47

2014-03-28 13.21.08 I set out, to-do list in hand.  My chosen cafe today was not far from my front door.

As always, I was treated to sites like this one.  But there’s ugly architecture in Paris too, pictured below it, just a block away.

As I headed down the street it turned into a “market” street.  This is great for people watching, but terrible for reading and writing, which were my intended activities for the afternoon.

2014-03-28 13.24.00 2014-03-28 13.25.58

So I turned around from that market street view, and looked at the cafe behind me, and spotted that open table at the end, under the red awning.  You have to confidently walk up and grab your spot in a cafe.  I lowered my bag and the waiter asked if I was going to eat.  No, “un petit cafe seulement” which is French for “I just want to order a coffee  and sit here for as long as possible.”  He apologized and told me that only the interior was available.

13h00

My timing was off.  It was lunchtime.  Of course they needed the tables.  I couldn’t go to my first or second choice cafe, so I was going to engage in flânerie now.  I wandered.  I still kept an eye out for a possible spot.  Everywhere was packed, however, and they don’t really even want to spare an interior spot at lunchtime unless you’re eating.  Totally understandable.

I walked into a cafe and gestured to an empty two-top.  “C’est libre?”  The lady sized me up: “Oui, pour le déjeuner.”  “Non, je voudrais un cafe, seulement.”  She gestured to the bar and I was content to stand there, drink, and perhaps read for a bit.  As she began to pull the espresso she asked, “Voulez-vous installer sur la terrasse?” “Bien sûr.”

I wrote and read for a couple hours.  People would stare at me writing just as I would stare at their chiens.  Parisians love their dogs.

At some point a French girl in her mid 20s, in all black, sat down next to me.  She ordered a soda and started smoking American Spirits.  Smoking is under attack in France (just as e-cigarettes are on a meteoric rise) but don’t doubt that it’s still very much the national pastime.  If you do doubt it, sit outside at a cafe.  Smoke will find you – as you will the ash which now fluttered onto the pages of my journal.

She struck the typical pose – cigarette carelessly held between the index and  middle fingers of her left hand.  Sunglasses.  No frown but certainly no smile.  She was thinking – not really observing much.  I was positioned to observe without being obvious.

After smoking 3 cigarettes and downing her diet coke, she abruptly got up and crossed the street, off to her next destination.  She had paid for her drink when it was delivered, which is often the custom when you sit outdoors.

I checked my watch.  I had a podcast I was hosting at 16h00 and it was 15h00.  I wrapped up my work and walked out.  Among the sites I saw on the way was this.  Great advertising.

15h15

My sister messaged me saying the children wanted to wish me a happy birthday.  Sure.

FaceTime gave me a moment with her and two of the cuties in my life.  I got a happy birthday song and caught up a bit.

“What are you getting for yourself?” she asked.  I was looking for a scarf, I thought.  Scarves really are everything in this town and finding the right one, and tying it the right way, does matter.

I didn’t want her to buy me anything, so I told her instead, “Clare, I’m living in Paris.  That is my gift.”

So it was.  My last birthday in Europe had been 14 years ago, in 2000.  Despite the fact that we had been able to drink for months my friends insisted it was “legal in America” night and I made it home that night, despite the tricky cobblestones in Trastevere, thanks to the sturdy left shoulder of my college sweetheart.

16h00

The podcast had a few technical glitches but we got them handled.  I then had a call with a new hire for one of my businesses, firmed up some weekend plans with friends – the new Captain America was coming out a week earlier here in France and I planned to take advantage.

I got dressed for dinner at a great Indian restaurant (Vallée du Kashmir, in case you’re wondering).  And just like that, my first 24 hours of my 35th year lapsed.

Some years ago the Lees Summit Chamber of Commerce conference room contained 20 of us who were sitting in a meeting room trying to organize a “young person’s” group.  One of the first questions the group posed was “How old is young?”  A couple eminences grises had tentatively asked, “25 to 45?”

An attractive girl I had been flirting with snickered, and I raised my hand to speak.  At 28 I was less diplomatic than I should have been, and blurted out, “I mean honestly, who considers 40 young?”  The 20-somethings in the room nodded their heads and the few 40-somethings in the room wilted.

It’s an unfortunate American trait that considers youth the greatest time of life and seeks to chase it indefinitely.  At dinner this night I would hear the phrase “James Dean” float over from an adjoining table (in an Indian restaurant, in a Muslim neighborhood, in France) and as I recounted this anecdote to my friend I was told the French have this problem as well.

Whatever happened to aging gracefully?  For my part the oldest person is always the coolest person in the room.  They have great stories and so much more experience.

At 35 I suppose some would still consider me young – and since I had done so much (I had hoped) to disprove George Bernard Shaw’s (oft correct) “It is too bad that youth was wasted on the young,” it didn’t matter what you called me.  I still thought it was a laugh that anyone in their 40s would call themselves young, but I did feel truly blessed that, whatever age I had lived to, I woke up this morning in Paris, having accomplished almost everything I’ve ever dreamed of.

Time for some new dreams.

I want to thank my parents, who gave me life, God who gave me my soul, and my family and friends who give me so much love and encouragement every single day.