When you dream of moving to Paris, your imagination conjures up all sorts of mental images of what it's going to be like. You will visit the Louvre and float down the staircase with the Winged Victory statue behind you, in a red gown with a chiffon scarf floating behind you, like Audrey Hepburn. You will dance with a romantic stranger along the quay of the Seine with Notre Dame in the background, like Leslie Caron. You will stroll with a baguette under your arm, looking impossibly chic. You will sit in a café with a glass of vin rouge, watching the passers-by, while some handsome Frenchman at a nearby table watches you. Your life will be a combination of souvenir postcards and Hollywood movie moments. Mais oui!
Mais... non, not so much.
Real life in Paris (or anywhere else in France), as any ex-pat will tell you, is a combination of extraordinary moments that are exactly (or pretty darn close to) what you had imagined, plus mundane every-day living (you still have dirty dishes and laundry to do, still have to take out the trash, get your teeth cleaned, pay the bills), and a series of incredibly frustrating experiences that make you wonder how you could ever have thought living in France was a good idea.
But then, just as your frustration threatens to overwhelm you to the point where you want to call Air France and book the next flight out of here, you will have one of those extraordinary moments or experiences that remind you what it is you love about this place and why you came here. They're the experiences that make you determined to stay. Because as frustrating as it can be at times (and OH! can it ever be frustrating!), there is no place like France, and no city quite like Paris. Once you're hooked, you're hooked for life.
In honor of The Bold Soul's TENTH BLOGIVERSARY (February 25th), here are some of my own extraordinary moments and experiences from the past eight and a half years of living here. They're the memories I treasure, the experiences I crave, the reason I put up with the stuff I hate (like the dog poo PICK UP AFTER YOUR DAMN DOGS, PARISIANS!) They're in no particular order as to date or importance -- well, except for the first few. For reasons which will soon become apparent.
- Stepping off the 89 bus and meeting Georges for the first time...
- ...and our 26-hour marathon first date that followed.
- The first Valentine's Day with Georges, where we picnicked on the Pont des Arts (before "love" locks - why do you think this crusade is so personal to me?)
- When Georges proposed to me on "Melon Beach" in Saint Raphael... automatically making Saint Raphael one of my favorite places in France. I'm lucky I get to go back there a few times each year, to visit Georges' sister and spend some time on the beaches.
- Going to the Pont des Arts on the day after I moved to France in November 2006, and standing there looking at the city all around me (again - NO LOCKS, JUST PARIS) and thinking: "I have finally, finally DONE IT!" I was never prouder of myself in my life, up to that point.
- Any time I see the change in light play off the white stone buildings in the late afternoons. It's magical. I just stopped typing, just now, to watch the change in afternoon light on the building across the street. It glowed!
- Whenever the Eiffel Tower "pops up" into my view as I round a corner. I just never get tired of having it appear, like it's following me.
- When I am coming back to Paris after being away, and riding in a taxi from CDG airport - and I have my first view of Sacre Coeur. It tells me, "Welcome home!"
- Walking past a boulangerie and smelling the fresh bread and croissants. How do they DO that, create such wonderful stuff?
- Same with the gorgeous pastries in the bakery windows. They are an art form.
- And outdoor markets full of fresh produce and wonderful cheeses. Yum!
- The moment you bite into a macaron. 'Nuf said.
- Walking in the Marais or parts of the Latin Quarter where the medieval buildings still exist, leaning lopsided over the street. Or whenever I spot, through a window, original wood beams on the ceiling of an apartment.
- Visiting the chateaux. Any castle. Any time. Anywhere in France. Crumbling or restored, I don't care. I want to see more, more, more. Love them. (I am so American that way; we don't have castles where we come from. Just shopping malls.)
- Speaking of chateaux, being in Leonardo daVinci's home, Clos Lucé. I've seen it twice. Still one of my favorite things I've ever seen in France.
- Cathedrals. I am not religious and was never even Catholic. But show me a Gothic cathedral or an old stone French church and I am there, marveling at the architecture and what it took to build them without modern methods, taking photos of the stained glass, looking for the requisite statue of Jeanne d'Arc that is found in nearly every church in France (I've decided she is my Patron Saint of Kick-Ass; plus my middle name is Jeanne), and then lighting a candle in memory of my grandparents (or lately, for my own good health).
- Provençal villages. I want to live in one. I want to BE Peter Mayle (female version) and renovate an old stone farm house, complete with the quirky, unpredictable builders and the neighbor-farmer who takes care of my personal little vineyard. I got to visit several villages in Provence in 2007 thanks to Linda and her husband who invited me to visit them for my 46th birthday. There were fields of scarlet poppies and perched villages with narrow winding streets. Now I want to go and visit more. They are just too adorable. Can't get enough.
- Strasbourg. I've been there three times: once on my own during my Grand Tour in 2007, another time I went for the day during the big Christmas market to meet a writing client from the US who was visiting relatives in Germany, and finally Georges and I went there to spend one of his birthdays. I just love it, not only for the quaint Alsatian architecture but also because it feels like a very livable city.
- The American Cemetery in Normandy. Visiting this place was a profoundly moving experience for me. You see all those thousands of white markers and think of all those young men, and their sacrifice. There's a site with a live webcam where you can see for yourself, in case you don't get the chance to visit.
- Chartres. I still haven't walked the maze on the cathedral floor (you can only do that on Fridays) but I love both the cathedral and the medieval old town.
- Brocantes and vide-greniers. These are the professional antique fairs and neighborhood "yard sales" of France, and they fascinate me endlessly. I used to love antique shows back home (although I never went to other people's yard sales, preferring to unload my own junk rather than to take home someone else's junk) but here it's a whole other world of interesting old objects. Spring is coming, and that means lots more of these to visit, and soon!
- Café-writing. It came as a surprise to me that I often do my most productive writing while sitting in a noisy café surrounded by strangers, rather than in our own apartment where I can spend so much quiet time on my own during the days. I find that I prefer real French cafés with a bit of ambiance, but I can also get the work done in a Starbucks (although the Starbucks at Opéra has ambiance to spare!)
- A shared moment with a Parisian stranger. When I first came here, I knew no one, and my French was not even what you'd call conversational. In fact, when I first met Georges' kids I was appalled to discover I couldn't even have a proper conversation with his 6-year-old son. But every so often, in those early years, I would have some experience while out and about in the city where I would lock eyes with an old man on the street and we'd both laugh at something ridicule we had just witnessed at the same time. Or I would exchange just a few words with Madame standing next to me in line at the supermarket as we expressed our exasperation with the slow-moving check-out girl. Or - my favorite of all - when a FRENCH person would stop me on the street and ask me for directions -- and I could manage to direct them! Those moments made me feel like I was blending in, assimilating, becoming "one of them" for at least those brief seconds. They kept me going when at other times I would go home and cry because I couldn't understand someone who had spoken to me that day.
- The architecture. Even today, I have moments where I spot a particular building, or a balcony, or a fountain, and I fall in love with Paris all over again.
- The museums. OK, so it's not like I go to museums here every week. But I like having so much art available to me, in such close proximity, where it's so easy to go and see something creative. Growing up in a rural part of New Jersey, the wonderful museums of New York were an annoying hour and a half away (at least) by train or by car. In Paris, there are so many museums I will probably never visit them all in the rest of my lifetime. But it will be fun trying.
- Walking with no particular destination in mind. Paris is such a walkable city, and you can meander around for an entire day and never get bored, even if you have no particular destination. Some of my best days have been those where I roam around at a leisurely pace, looking in shop windows or exploring new quartiers.
- Getting my first Carte de Séjour (residency card).
- Getting my 10-year Carte de Séjour after three consecutive 1-year Cartes de Séjour.
- Getting my French nationality in 2013 which means, among other things, no more Cartes de Séjour, ever! My French passport also makes me a European citizen, which means I could live in any country in Europe without a hassle. Not that we're looking to leave France, but just nice to know we have options.
- Voting in France for the first time as a citizen. It was only for the Mayor of Paris but it was surprisingly emotional for me to know I have that right to vote here, as well as in the U.S. Vive la democratie!
- The fact that now, whenever I see old postcards of Paris in days gone by, or watch a movie set in Paris, I recognize all the places!
There are probably dozens more I could add to this list, and there are even more things to do and places to visit in the future. But voila! This is what I have loved best and enjoyed the most since starting my blog about moving to Paris in 2005 and then since actually moving here in 2006. While it hasn't all been perfect, in so many ways France has exceeded even my dreams, so I can't complain.
Mostly, as I think back on the past 10 years of writing this blog -- TEN DAMN YEARS, can you stand it? -- I am mostly proud of myself for having had the nerve to take the leap in the first place. I'd always wanted to do it since I could remember. I got sick and tired of thinking about it but not doing it. So I made it the #1 priority in my life, even though I didn't now exactly how I would pull it off. But I kept at it until everything finally fell into place and I got on that plane. I made it happen.
Our dreams matter. But what matters even more is our commitment to making them happen. If we don't, we're only cheating ourselves. This blog stands for something: how I finally stopped cheating myself out of the life I really wanted. Ten years on, that life looks different in some ways from what I thought it would be -- for one thing, I never thought I'd be anyone's step-mom, although that turned out to be one of the best parts.
But I'm happier here. I'm more myself here. And I have LOVE here, so much love that sometimes I can't even get my mind around how wonderful it is to be this much in love, as I am with Georges. As even my mother pointed out to me the other day in one of our phone chats, Paris is just where I am meant to be, where I was always meant to be. Georges is a big part of that, but it's also about me, allowing myself to be the kind of person who dreams something, and then DOES it.
I'm so proud that I never gave up on that dream.
To you, my readers, thanks for being a witness, over these past 10 wonderful, blog-able years, to me never giving up on myself. May you have a dream of your own that you're not giving up on, either.
With love and gratitude,
Lisa (a.k.a. The Bold Soul)