An American girl near the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris.
By Patricia Conover
The school year was just beginning in 2005. Kirk and I had lived in Portland for a little over ten years. Our three children attended three great schools. We had wonderful friends we loved and meaningful work. We owned a house and a car and furniture and all the stuff middle-aged married people are expected to own in America.
But the adventurous spirit that originally drew us together in a Manhattan bar sometime in the murky nineteen-eighties and then propelled us nearly 2,500 miles to Portland was reawakening. We dreamed of new vistas. We talked endlessly about where to move next on long scenic drives to Neskowin or Seattle, but we couldn’t figure out whether to return to New York or venture forth to a whole new country.
Kirk is an architect and I am a writer. While daydreaming about our next great place I occasionally checked out the employment ads in other countries. The ugly economic slowdown was just beginning to show signs of arriving, but there were still jobs to be had. An ad caught my eye: Architect Paris.
I smiled. My husband and I had spent our honeymoon in Paris and we had returned several times since then. We were both Francophiles and dabbled in French history and culture. Two out of three of our kids even had French names.
But Kirk loved his job at a Portland architecture firm known for its collaborative work and outstanding design. I knew that he would have a hard time leaving it. And it had taken me more than ten years to build a reputation in the northwest. I was finally being hired for writing gigs in California, Oregon and Washington.
Sigh. I emailed the ad to Kirk and immediately forgot about it.
Kirk and the girls on a 2000 visit to Paris.
Several weeks later, Kirk told me that he had scheduled a job interview for the position I spotted. We were beyond thrilled, but we agreed not to talk about it with anyone until arrangements were finalized. Sometime in the spring of 2006, Kirk was hired and we began planning our move to Paris.
Family and friends were surprised but supportive, although one friend lectured me about how selfish we were to take our kids abroad while they were still in school. She was the only naysayer: Everybody else was delighted by our news, especially our children.
The next months were spent packing, collecting documents, procuring passports, requesting long-stay visas from the French consulate, renting our house, finding a place to live and applying to French schools.
The day drew closer. We gave away most of our possessions and furniture, and, because our first apartment did not permit dogs or cats, our sweet pets went to stay with generous animal-loving friends.
We boarded our flight to Paris and never looked back.
Until we realized that we had traded our real life, a life that we loved, for a fantasy life in Paris.
Paris is beautiful. To my mind, it is the most beautiful city in the world. But during those early days, living in Paris was like dating the most handsome man in the room and finding out that he couldn’t carry on a conversation.
We missed our family and friends. We had traded a four-bedroom house for a tiny apartment. The girls were absolutely miserable. Many of their French teachers were strict and seemingly without sympathy. The whole educational system was completely different and difficult to fathom . Our level of French was abysmal. The red tape bureaucracy to stay in France was never ending. Everything was strange: The language, the food, the culture, and the people.
But then something clicked.
We had been told repeatedly that one is not truly “at home” in Paris until a French person extends an invitation to dinner. This invitation may take years to materialize. Sometimes, it never arrives at all.
The French adore writing angry notes. They tack them up in the apartment hallway, push them into mailbox slots, or tape them to the front door. We began to receive hand-written notes complaining about how noisy we were. The neighbor who lived directly above ours signed the notes.
In truth, we weren’t that noisy by American standards, but three teenage girls lived in our apartment. That tells you everything you need to know.
Kirk Conover with daughters Madeleine, Genevieve and Cameron in Gordes, France in 2006.
I was afraid that we would be deported. Every time the doorbell rang, I thought that it was the police. I constantly shushed the kids, forbade loud music, pleaded with them not to shriek every time they got a facebook “like” and harangued everybody about taking their shoes off as soon as they came inside.
One day, someone pounded on the door at 10:00 a.m. on a Saturday. I looked through the peephole. It was our note-writing neighbor, red-faced and angry. I cautiously opened the door.
In rapid fire French, my neighbor asked me why I was moving furniture all day and torturing cats at night. He swept past me and into the living room. Our seventh grader was sprawled out on the couch, watching a video. Our high school freshman was creating a masterpiece omelet in the kitchen. Our college girl was working on a paper at the dining room table.
All three girls began speaking to him in French at once. They apologized profusely for any inconvenience. They promised to be more quiet and subdued. They promised be more French.
Charmed, his cranky face broke into a toothy smile.
“I love Americans,” he exclaimed. He forgave us for all our imagined sins. He told us that he would return in a moment and rushed out the door. In a few moments he returned to introduce his wife, son, and daughter.
“We would be honored if you would have dinner with us tonight in our apartment,” he said warmly.
A herald of acceptance had occurred, and we had only been in the country a few months.
Thus, our real life in Paris began. Slowly, with effort and determination, our French improved. We made friends and confidently explored the gorgeous architecture and the landscape. We shopped at the outdoor markets and drank black coffee with our croissants. We arranged to bring our dog to France. Although the education was rigorous, our kids began to thrive. I wrote more and it became easier to publish my work. Our family traveled inexpensively to more countries than we could ever have imagined because the whole of Europe was accessible to us.
We had turned our lives upside down, but we had opened our hearts and minds to fresh experiences and opportunities. With that open spirit came disasters as well as successes. There were growing pains, but we learned to be adaptable and flexible. We learned how to improvise and be resourceful. At a time in our lives when many people become set in their ways, we moved ahead into uncharted territory. We never again accumulated “things.” We accumulated experiences.
We fell in love with Paris all over again.
Time here lurches forward more slowly because every day is full of new and unexpected lessons.
Ultimately, the best part moving to France is the fact that we’ve all learned to keep learning all the time. As difficult as moving from Portland to Paris was, we feel as though we would do it all again.
We gave up our roots but we gained wings.
Now that our youngest child is attending college, Kirk and I are contemplating our next move.
We regret nothing.
Watch a video of Edith Piaf singing France’s unofficial anthem,“Non, je ne regrette rien” ( “I regret nothing”): http://youtu.be/Q3Kvu6Kgp88
Patricia Conover is a writer. Her work has been published in numerous publications, including The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Oregonian. She has taught writing and communication courses at several French universities, most recently at EFAP Paris, L’École des métiers de la communication. She is currently working on a book about the expat experience in France.
Editor’s note: Patricia’s first career was in publishing. After moving to Portland from New York, she pitched three story ideas to me when I was an editor working in a suburban bureau for The Oregonian. I didn’t know what to make of this young mom who had no journalism experience and wore a Snugli carrying her youngest child (now off to college). Soon enough, her work gave me the answer: “You’re a writer.” Indeed, she is.
Tomorrow: “A magical island wedding” by George Rede