From Portland to Paris

An American girl near the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris.

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.

Paris2006

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.

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-girls

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.

Patricia Conover

Patricia Conover

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

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18 thoughts on “From Portland to Paris

  1. I loved learning your experience with something I would probably be too scared to ever do. I love boring and stable. After years of transition in the teenage years and now back to transition 20 years later with being divorced, I crave boring and stable. I love it. I miss it. But I am starting to think that if I can’t have the boring and stable I want, maybe new and entirely different would be a good thing.
    I was bummed to read you got scolded by a friend about the decision: I feel selfish for NOT giving my kids the opportunity to explore a different culture. I often — in my married years — dreamed of avoiding my kids’ middle school years in the local middle school by moving abroad and home-schooling of sorts for a few years. They could learn a new language and culture, we could learn and experience new foods, I could write abroad, my then-husband could teach abroad: It seemed like a perfect plan. It was a plan I knew I would probably never do because I am scared of moves — of “giving up roots” to “gain wings.”
    You’re story is inspirational and good food for thought. You should be proud of the bravery it takes to do what you did — with three teens!!! And the girls have their family. That is and should be an anchor at this stage of their lives. You didn’t move them from that! Think of how many fams in Portland (and everywhere) do choose to break families apart and move children from that secure anchor in their school years? I think it’s valuable that in addition to another culture, your girls are learning that stuff and surroundings are a sideshow and that people and relationships are what matter in this Earthly life — even relationships with those people passing them angry notes.

  2. Wow, what a life you’ve carved for yourself. Portland and Paris! Yes, we are a comfortable old sofa, us north westerners. While I envy your experience, I’m afraid I suffer from “couch lock” (what marijuana smokers who smoke to much weed say because they are so stoned they can’t get up off the couch). I am comfortably numbed by the old sofa. Cheers to you and your family!

  3. I like to play things safe. My husband is more adventurous. He dragged me 4 hours away from my family but that’s all the move I would consent to make. As much as I love to travel, I love coming home to the States. So glad we can live vicariously through you 🙂

  4. Bravo to you for truly living a life for yourself and your family! What lucky children to have this experience growing up (I assume they may feel lucky now, whereas I have no doubt they were royally pissed at first!). As a person who has lived her life in fear, I can only feel envy toward you for doing what so many others only dream of … thank you so much for sharing this story!

  5. Well-said, well-written, well-experienced! The twists and turns we allow our lives to take, as well as the twists and turns that happen without choice, are always fascinating. Couch-lover or adventurer, the way we move through these short years we get to enjoy…I love seeing the commonality. We do our best. But yes, Bravo to you and your family, Patricia for your spirit and close family bonds!

  6. Bravo for this brave decision! Most people often dream about such radical changes, you had the courage to carry it out. I believe this experience made you richer than anyone who has money but no guts to do so. I’m sure the wings are going to take you to more interesting places. Good luck! And thank yo for writing this inspiring text. It gives me the opportunity to think about my steps in life.

  7. Bravo to you for taking a risk. I’m sure your girls will thank you, if they haven’t already, for opening up the door to the world for them. As they seek their own adventures you will know you instilled that adventurous spirit in them. Your friends in Portland who had to bid you farewell likely say about you, as you likely say regarding your children, “I’m happy if she’s happy.” Thank you reminding me that the risk can be worth the reward.

  8. I wish there was more to read! I would love to know more about your adventure, keep us all posted about the publication date!

  9. I love the way you say this – “living in Paris was like dating the most handsome man in the room and finding out that he couldn’t carry on a conversation.” That’s how I often feel about our family’s decision to be based in two cities – Portland and San Jose. It’s been crazy, a lot of travel and not feeling rooted in any place or being able to sign up for a yoga class. I found I missed our Portland friends, New Seasons and NW 23rd, but I have been enjoying the beauty of Big Sur, a radio show in SF and being with family. (In a strange co-incidence, New Seasons also bought 2 stores in the area last year.) So hopefully, things could get better.

    It’s really wonderful that you and your husband were able to think out of the box, and more importantly – take action. Most of us dream, but don’t do anything about it.

  10. Reading Patricia Conover is a thrilling experience. Like another American ex-patriot in France, Janet Flanner, Paris correspondent for The New Yorker magazine from 1925 – 1975, Conover’s writing style is spirited and immediate, an amusing guide to the minutiae of life abroad.

    Stepping into Patricia’s parallel universe, the recounting of her adventures overseas becomes as real for the reader as the writer’s European fantasy became for her family, with all of its growing pains and eventual pleasures. Seeing the red-faced neighbor with the toothy grin, tasting the coffee, smelling the omelet frying in the pan, hearing the broken French of her teenagers, even as armchair travelers we touch the living energy of existence in Conover’s tiny Parisian apartment.

    Whether Paris, Portland or places now just imagined, I look forward to Patricia Conover’s continuing adventures and to her taking us all along for the ride.

    Janice Jada Griffin
    Artist, Santa Fe, New Mexico
    http://www.janicegriffingallery.com

  11. There are so many writers among the VOA contributors, but you actually wrote it out in your piece: “.. and I am a writer.” I am so jealous of you. Your writing is so evocative and precise and insightful (which is one of my favorite adjectives). Among all the subjects that my daughters are learning in elementary school, I value writing the most–and they know it. We talk about it the most at dinner. Their written assignments bring me the most joy. Who cares about spelling tests and powers of ten. I don’t really. But their thoughts put into words? They go straight to my heart. I have my own personal rules of writing of which I regularly remind my daughters, even though they have memorized them since Kindergarten: 1) Be honest. 2) Be on topic. 3) Be interesting. (Hmm, come to think of it, lately I’ve been preaching a fourth rule of sorts to them… No lists.) I follow those rules too, but clearly such simplicity can only take my writing so far. I think your writing is amazing. No wonder “you are a writer”!

    • Aki – You are such a wonderfully thoughtful commenter … I think I enjoy your comments and insights into each post as much as your “real” post! Thank you for being part of this community … you exemplify what it means!

  12. You are a superb writer. I want to read more of your work. I love the whole piece, every last bit of it. Your prose made me feel like I was there with you, having these experiences and feelings myself. I love this line most: “living in Paris was like dating the most handsome man in the room and finding out that he couldn’t carry on a conversation.” How many of our fantasies and wishes have felt like that once the novelty has worn off. Brilliant, brilliant line – it says so much.

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