Sunday, April 3, 2011

Paris - Plus Que Ca Va?

Growing up, I was fortunate as a child to live abroad. I spent time in Belgium, where my dad was transferred at eight years old where you adapt to things easily and find the joys in them - or at least I managed to.

We lived in a 500 year old farmhouse with stone floors and windows with no screens. Our street - Chemin du bas Ronds Bac - was a one lane cobblestone road. There was a barn up the road where I could take the apples and pears that fell from the trees in our yard to feed the horses.

I attended an international school where I was taught French - and within a year, I was pretty well fluent - and had ex pat friends to keep me company. We had a giant chalkboard in our kitchen to write the daily shopping lists. And my mom bought fresh bread and meat daily.

It was heaven.

Or at least it was heaven for me as an eight year old. For my parents being told they could only rent a house and had no opportunity to purchase (government regulations prohibited foreigners from owning property - at least back then), it was probably more difficult. The lack of closets - we had to purchase wardrobes instead - was a completely foreign concept and probably much harder for my parents to adapt to than it was for me. And a lack of screens in the very tiny windows that simply swung open was probably a nightmare for my germophobic, bug-hating mother.

I adored it, and I couldn't wait to go back to Europe - or my romanticized version of it - when I was in high school and my French class took a trip there. And I adored Nice. I fell in love with Lyon. I basked in the beauty of Versailles. I loved the oldness of it. The food was superb and not too filling, but always - always - fresh. It was clean and open and full of memories I could feel just waiting to happen to me.

Then we got to Paris. It was crowded and dirty and smelly, and the people were rude, and this was not the France and Europe I loved. I was taken aback, as I'd always dreamed of coming back to live and work in France after I'd graduated - and I was practical enough even as a junior in high school to know that any job I'd find would be in Paris and not in Avignon.

Sure, it was great to wander the Musee d'Orsay, and Notre Dame was awe-inspiring, but ... it just wasn't the same. It felt like a standard big city to me and lacked the charm and joy of what I'd found in Europe before that. It was expensive, too, and it felt made for tourists - and I didn't want to be a tourist.

I haven't been back to Paris since then.

I took another year of French at university my senior year of high school, but I never took a single class at Northwestern. I didn't study abroad, and I've never been on vacation there again. My dreams of living in Europe with a zest for life and not a desire to work 24/7 waiting for the next promotion, somewhere people loved food and cooking rather than simply eating and convenience, they were gone, and I gave up.

I look back at this now with the benefit of years in the future, and I regret a lot. I love who I am now and my family and where I am in my life, but I still play a little "what if" - knowing how easily my life could have been different. Reading the book Lunch in Paris made me realize that the Paris I saw as a high school junior was just one Paris - and one that tourists see, not the one that people live on a daily basis.

What if I had continued my language studies in college? What if I had studied abroad - maybe not in Paris itself, but perhaps in Austria or Switzerland or Morocco even? What if I had loved it and found a job there - somewhere? Or what if I'd pursued the opportunity with the consulting company I used to work for of taking a job in one of their European offices when it was offered?

I've learned since I was a mere junior in high school that every town or city has its face that it puts up when you first arrive. But first impressions aren't everything. When you live somewhere, you make your own life, finding your friends and your favorite haunts. You make a way for it to suit you - and the secrets that only a native knows are suddenly what you're living.


It will never be for me, but I know I'll encourage the wee ones to explore towns and lives and cultures outside where we are right now. And maybe, just maybe, I'll give Paris another chance.

This post was a part of the "From Left To Write" Book Club where we read books and write posts inspired by them rather than writing true reviews. Our book this month is "Lunch in Paris" by Elizabeth Bard, which I received from the publisher as part of this book club. There is no compensation involved, and all opinions expressed are my own.

And yes... yes, I would definitely recommend this book!

$25GC to Moe's Southwestern Grill up for grabs here


Susie April 4, 2011 at 7:53 AM  

I can so relate to having a dream that gets ruined.

Emily April 4, 2011 at 10:52 AM  

I am loving how this book club is helping me learn so much about my blogging friends. I didn't know you had spent some time in Belgium growing up. How cool!

Michele Spring Fajeau April 4, 2011 at 11:00 AM  

One of my dearest friends and fellow FromLeftToWrite bloggers (Sandbox Moxie) also lived in Belgium (same time!). Great post and a great reminder to get off the well traveled path to really see the world and all its wonder. Thx Michelle.

Pat April 4, 2011 at 12:56 PM  

I loved reading about your delightful childhood memories about living in Belgium--it sounds so idyllic! How long did you live there?

After I lived in a suburb of Dublin, Ireland for my junior year of college, I so longed to go back there and live...partly because of a young man I had fallen for, and partly because of the slower pace of life and the warmth and friendliness of the people. I looked into going to grad school in Belfast or in Edinburgh (Scotland), but it was not to be. I did visit Ireland a couple of times in later years and it was fun. But it's never the same when you go back years later.

Wonderful post, Michelle!

Tara R. April 4, 2011 at 2:55 PM  

A wonderful trip down memory lane. I would venture to guess that, that France or Belgium you remember is still there some where and I hope you still get a chance to find it again.

Shannon April 4, 2011 at 4:56 PM  

I hated Paris, too, but loved the rest of France that I saw in college. Prior to going, I dreamed of living there. I only spent a summer there because I was afraid of a longer commitment. I do regret not giving my dream more of a chance.

Heather E April 4, 2011 at 6:37 PM  

I had no idea you got to experience such cool things growing up. I have heard that many people have been disappointed in Paris. Bummer because it sounds just gorgeous.

I want to go to ITALY!

Lisa Hanneman April 4, 2011 at 8:46 PM  

My grandparents offered my husband and I the opportunity to live with them in Italy when we went to visit them for our one year anniversary. I was of the "absolutely not" mindset and focused on everything we had going on at home.

Looking back, I know we missed an opportunity there. But, I'm ok with it. Living with grandparents is not the way I want to live abroad. Like you, I've accepted my missed opportunities and am feeling good about where I am today instead of focusing on them.

Michelle April 4, 2011 at 10:22 PM  

Susie - Oh, that sounds so sad. I can only hope that everything else made up for it!

Emily - No kidding! That's definitely one of the best parts of the book club. Well, that and our lunch on Friday :)

Michele - Oh what a small world. I'll definitely have to look her up. How funny if our paths unknowingly crossed at some point.

Pat - I was there for a little over a year. Lots of factors combined to make it happen, but it wasn't the 3-5 years it was originally supposed to be. Now *that* makes me wonder what my life would look like now.

Tara - I am sure that what I remember exists somewhere. It's just not in the Paris that people rhapsodize about. I'd love to look again though....

Shannon - I'm so glad I'm not the only one; sometimes it seems like I am. If only we could try things again, no?

Heather - I was lucky, wasn't I? And go to Italy... someday. You know I'll tell everyone all about it!

Lisa - Wow... that would have been a really interesting opportunity. But I can see where living with your grandparents may not be the way you wanted to do it - especially then.

Lunch in Paris April 5, 2011 at 4:15 PM  

Ah, yes. With the move to Provence, I'm back in the land of no closets. Armoires, here we come...

The negociation between the fantasy and the reality of living abroad is something I confront on a daily basis. Only the fantasy is perfect, but the reality (even with the merde days) makes me really really happy.

Michelle April 5, 2011 at 10:12 PM  

Elizabeth - But there are so many different kinds of armoires! We had faux wood ones for us, and my parents had really cool mirrored ones. And they all locked - we don't have closets that lock around here. That was always fun!

septembermom April 6, 2011 at 2:13 PM  

I hope you get to visit that lovely place again soon! What amazing memories that you have. You could write a great romance based on those impressions, I bet :)

Michelle April 21, 2011 at 8:32 PM  

Kelly - Ironically, the French teacher at my husband's school sent out an email asking if anyone was interested in doing a family trip to France next summer. Ummmm... maybe? ;)

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