Being a foreigner, the opening smalltalk with French people is actually fairly easy. The problem is that I tend to bore myself with the same responses, a story I have edited and shortened over time so as to have a clear, concise response without rambling on too long.
The problem is, the answer really never is a simple one.
I don’t remember where my obsession with Paris/France came from (yes those two were synonymous for a long time for me). If I dig back through my phases of my childhood, the first time a francophile interest can be found is at the age of six, when I got very into Ludwig Bemelmans’ Madeline book series. Madeline was a French orphan living in Paris, in an ivy-covered orphanage with a view of the Eiffel Tower. I had the doll, I had the ornament, I saw the film. I was even jealous when my friend had to get her appendix taken out just like the character.
When I was fifteen, my dream came true. My family and I flew to France, spending a week in Paris and a week in Provence. I hadn’t studied French yet, so I practiced how to say “Voici, mon passeport.” over and over again, as I was so proud to finally have a reason to need to present my passport to someone. The trip fulfilled my expectations and then some. When we returned I felt a sort of reverse-culture shock, feeling like my life in the U.S. would never be as great as my time in France had been.
The fall that followed I began to study French in school, both for pure interest but also as it was mandatory to study a foreign language for a minimum of two years in order to get into college. At the end of my first year I convinced my French teacher to let me go with the more advanced students on a one week trip to Paris, Normandy, and Brittany, as she only went every few years and I was itching to go back. Though it was a whirlwind trip, being back in the country was a sort of comfort. I inhaled Paris’ distinct smell, I felt overconfident in my very limited French, and I got to see another part of the country.
When I registered for my first quarter of classes in college, I wasn’t sure what I should take. Because I had taken three years of French at my high school, it was possible to be put directly into second-year university French, so I did so on a whim, thinking I might minor in French if I liked it.
As time (and my level of French) progressed, it became clear to me that I wanted to study abroad in France for a summer. This left me with two options: Paris for one month with a program ran by my university, or Montpellier, a city in the south of France, for two months, ran by the local university. For me, the choice was clear. I saw Paris as a place where I would be unlikely to improve my French as there would be many English speakers/bilinguals, and I wanted as much time as possible in the country.
My two months at Université Paul Valéry will go down as one of the best summers of my life, and many other people in my program still feel that way today. Though I may have studied with a bunch of other Americans and foreigners from around the world, toured around every Sunday on a bus, and lived in a student residence in a single room, I still got a taste for French life. The Friday night weekly wine festival, Les Estivales, was a guaranteed good time, with different regional producers each week. Our French teachers tried to teach us about not only language but also culture in a practical sense. Best of all, I ate out at restaurants often, and got to practice what I learned in the classroom hours before. The summer was wonderful for reasons that had nothing to do with the language as well, like the hot sunny days at the beach and going out on the weekends with no drinking age requirements. In any case, leaving was anything but easy. As I took the train to Barcelona with one of my best friends I had met that summer, I began to cry, thinking that this couldn’t be it. This couldn’t be the end of my time in France. I needed some sort of hope to make the tears cease. So I comforted myself with the idea that two years from then I could maybe come back. I could come back after I finished my undergraduate degree and be an au pair/nanny, like my friend was currently doing. Little did I know that this coping device was actually planting a seed.
Skip forward a year and a half later, and I had already started to do the research on how to be an au pair. I had been saving up money for about a year and continued to do so once I finished school. With a degree in European Studies and minors in Architecture and French (the summer in Montpellier I found out I didn’t get into the Architecture major), the plan for what was next job-wise was murky. The only thing that was clear was that I missed speaking French and I missed France and I still had a dream to live in Paris for at least one year of my life. It seemed the time was now or never.
The same friend that had been an au pair before was doing it again during my time of beginning to look for a family. After finding lovely families in the suburbs of Paris, she told me that she would be leaving her family in the 16ème to start a masters in the fall and could set me up with an interview with them. When I finally got the eagerly awaited email from my future host mother saying, “Si tu es toujours disponible, nous serions contents que tu sois notre JF au pair à compter de la fin du mois d’août 2014 jusqu’en juillet 2015,” I was ecstatic that my dream was coming true.
When I bought a one-way ticket, part of me saw this as a one-year plan, but part of me hoped I could find work afterwards. I knew that visas were complicated and that I was probably being naïve about it, but the thought crossed my mind.
My first month in Paris was terrible. I realized I had never moved to completely new city and started from scratch. So to do this in a new country was a whole new level of lost and loneliness. I had overestimated my level of French, as it had fallen back to the level of second year university French, even though I had taken a third year. My communication with the children I took care of was limited and my host father would sometimes speak to me in English just so it was clear. I felt foolish that I had previously thought because I had studied abroad in Montpellier and I knew two or three people in the city that I would be fine. I would wake up in the morning and cry when I realized where I was.
Finally I starting meeting people. They may not have been French, but they were other au pairs with my same struggles, and it made me feel more at ease. After three months of feeling homesick, right before I was about to go home to Seattle for Christmas, I started to feel a change happening. I had began to slowly discover the city by walking, visiting museums, and having habitual spots I would go to. When I came back after the holidays the change felt solid. Paris began to feel like my city and Seattle was in the past.
In the spring that followed, I debated and debated about what I wanted to do when my visa was up in August. I had lengthy conversations with my best friend (who was also American) talking about the pros and cons of staying, and what I would do if I stayed. I felt the pressure to move on, be an adult and get a job or at least be responsible and get a masters. But I wasn’t ready to leave yet and my French wasn’t good enough to go to school here. I finally decided I would study French intensively for one more year and then that would be that, I would go back to the U.S. I was nervous because it meant I would have to look for work, housing, and renew my visa on my own this time. But I also knew that it meant that it would integrate me more into the French lifestyle.
This turned out to living with many French roommates. In the beginning I would wake up in the morning and go into the living room and barely be able to speak or understand in French. Though my skills had progressed, it still wasn’t something that came natural to me. My thoughts about Paris from years before had been correct, which meant in my first year many people would hear my accent or see my confused face and start speaking English to me and at times I would be so fed up I would speak in English back. On the other hand my job was mainly in English, which was actually disappointing. Once my classes started, having class four days a week for four hours a day reminded me of the rhythm of Montpellier, but this time I was in the highest level class.
In October, only two months after renewing my visa, I began to look into masters in France. Doing a masters was something I never thought was for me. I felt so burnt out after my undergrad, along with being disillusioned with the higher-education system, that I had ruled it out. But I knew I was going to want to stay in France longer and I knew I would need to look early. As this year progressed I began to meet more and more people and my language capabilities grew exponentially. I was becoming attached and building a network. Paris was beginning to truly feel like home and I couldn’t see myself living anywhere else. If I could get a masters in France, then maybe I could get the holy grail, a job with a work visa.
So here I am now, a year later, in the middle of a masters in Geopolitics, hoping to be able to stay in France indefinitely…