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Lunch in Paris: A life unlived

standard April 4, 2011 8 responses
M on our tiny balcony.

Our apartment was tiny, at the top of our eight story building, with a door so narrow a real couch wouldn’t fit through it. The kitchen was odd — beyond narrow, but with counters so high that I needed a stepping stool to do the dishes or stir dinner. We did all of our living in the main room — at times bedroom, dining room, living room, or office, depending on which direction you faced — and not only were we perfectly delighted with our tiny love nest, we were grateful for it.

France is a place of magic and wonder, cheese and amazing bread, love and passion, and a million other things that make people’s eyes get all wistful when I mention that I grew up there. When I tell them I lived in Paris they usually sigh.

Yes, Paris. City of love. Home to perfect baguettes and croissants. Amazing architecture and everything else you’ve heard about it.

And Paris, home to hair-pulling bureaucracy, ancient rituals and systems, and societal norms mired in tradition.

That last line is the reason we don’t live there now, the reason — much to M’s chagrin — we will never live there.

Paris doesn’t have much room for a bi-cultural couple. Doesn’t have much place for bi-cultural children to thrive.Trust me. I lived there as a bi-cultural child. One with flawless French and perfect wardrobe, who still didn’t quite fit in.

In the US it’s possible to embrace what makes you different and unique, in France, it’s best to buy the dark wool coat, tame your frizz and accent, and do your best to blend in.

I could have met a French man and blended completely. It could have been a happy life — if one completely different than the one I know now. But the day I fell in love with an American man I knew I was making the decision to ultimately leave.

I’ve never been able to explain it to M, never been able to put it into words. He lived there with me for 13 months and loved every single moment of our magical life. We had the perfect apartment, lived half a block from the best boulangerie, spent our weekends walking around Paris, discovering new neighborhoods and secret alleys. We ate amazing food, had lively conversations with my friends, and lived up being in the heart of the most romantic city in the world. It was all amazing, even the evil neighbor who filled the elevator with fetid cigarette smoke every day.

Compared to that my feeble arguments fall pretty flat. 

Then I read Lunch in Paris, and now I’m making him read it too. I’ve read books before that outline the cultural differences between France and the US. Many have made me laugh and nod my head emphatically. But never before has one put into words the reasons why I’m reluctant to live there.

I am a working mom to two little girls. I spend morning freelancing and working on a novel and afternoons working part time at a job that I became good at through sheer determination and experience — not education. In my spare time I’m studying to become a Life Coach. Right there you’ve read four things that I most likely wouldn’t be doing if we lived in France. I can’t even find the words in French to explain that last one.

It’s hard in France to deviate from the norm. Hard and rarely rewarding. I don’t want to live somewhere where I have to teach my girls how to fit in rather than how to let their innermost selves sing.

Today I explained to C that I rarely get embarrassed because I simple don’t let other people’s judgmental thoughts get in the way of me being me. She looked dubious, but really, that’s OK. I have a lifetime to show her how that works. Something I could never do in the land of wine, cheese, and croissants.

Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes

This post, written as part of the From Left to Write book club, was loosely inspired by the book Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard, brave American soul who moved to France, married a Frenchman, and embraced all the cultural quirks that caused me to flee. I didn’t take her path. I took my own. But I’m very grateful for this book that helped me put into words why I’m reluctant to go home.

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8 responses

  • My dear friend, you are home! Paris may have been your home in the past. But now, you home is where your family experiences love and life and joy and friendship. France and Paris will always be from where you came, you heritage, your past. But your home is where you don’t have to apologize for who you are.

    Your friend,

    Saving For Someday

  • I totally empathize! Though Louisiana is in the same country as DC Metro area (where I live now), it is 2 completely different places. My parents keep telling me to move back to La. because it’s less expensive and of course they’d get to see the grandkids more.

    I grew up in La. as a first generation Vietnamese-American. Know what that is like first hand, I have no desire to raise my Vietnamese-Black American children there.

    I know it was a hard decision for you but you seem very happy with where you are now, with family!

  • Thanks for your thoughts. (followed you here from twitter as I was intrigued!)
    My husband grew up overseas and doesn’t ever feel like he fits in. He wants to go back, but I’m afraid I would never fit in there and our kids would be in the same boat as he is now… Hard choices

  • Knowing your background, Jessica, I was especially interested in reading what you thought of this book.

    I have traveled, not like you, but traveled enough to believe in my heart that despite America’s problems, there are opportunities not known to people, women especially.

    Where else could I be born from a Jewish mother, a Catholic father, raised Catholic, married a Jew who is Agnostic and has been known to worship cat gods, all the while trying to raise a Catholic son?

  • My sister in law is an American married to a Dane who lives in France. I wonder if she has read the book! Their kids, raised bilingual in France seem pretty cool, normal teenagers, who wear too much black eyeliner and too tight abercrombie sweaters. I wonder how different their lives would have been in America?

  • You and Vanessa have such a complex and nuanced view of France. You guys have really seen it from both sides.

    I loved your descriptions of the perfect wool coat and taming the frizzy hair. I remember when I was living and studying in France feeling like no one there had curly hair! I was the only one. I actually cut my hair into a short gamine cut while I was studying abroad in a lame attempt to fais plus Parisienne.

  • My husband is Jewish and claims he feels that n calif. Is one of the most open, laid-back places. He feels more comfortable here than in Paris.
    Although whenever we discuss the remotest possibility of living there & raising our chidren he says to look at him, he grew up there and turned out ok lol.

  • So much food for thought…

    We are just at the beginning of the process you are describing in this post. We hope to give our son Augustin the best of both worlds, the joie de vivre, respect for time, nature and beauty that we love about France, and at the same time, instill the American spirit that says he can do, be, say, live anything he wants in life. He’ll always have two passports, two choices.

    Let’s see what happens when he gets to school. I might have to punch a creativity-crushing French teacher in the nose! EB

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