My Road Not Traveled

Today’s post is part of the From Left to Write online book club. The idea of this book club is not to write a book review, per se, but rather to write a post in which the blogger connects that month’s book to an experience from his or her own life. April’s book is Lunch in Paris: A Love Story, with Recipes, a memoir written by Elizabeth Bard.

When you are a sophomore in college, tearing your hair out over what to major in, no one tells you that by the time you are 35, no one will know or care what you majored in. In fact, by the time you are 35, if your college major has nothing to do with your career, all it is is the answer to a weird little trivia question about you, like: What did you call your childhood security blanket? What street did your parents live on when you were growing up? What was your college major?

Well, what was yours? Religion? Anthropology? Classics?

So here’s my little trivia answer: I was a French major in college. Yes, a French major. My course schedule was filled with classes like “French Romanticism” and “20th Century French Poetry” — totally worth it for the time I impressed a poet at a cocktail party with my knowledge of Francis Ponge. I wrote papers on the portrayal of prostitutes in the stories of Guy de Maupassant and lesbianism in the novels of Emile Zola. I wrote my college thesis on the memoirs of 19th century French actresses and courtesans. If I ever become President or First Lady, someone will surely go to my college library and look that last fact up. Bonne chance, mes amis!

I actually spent my junior year abroad studying in Paris — that’s another Obscure Fact about Emily. I lived with a fascinating French family, who are worthy of a whole separate post, and studied at part of the University of Paris. My French was pretty good before that year because I had already spent two summers living and studying in France, but by the time I flew home in May of 1995, I was fluent. These days, I can still speak well enough to converse with my daughter’s French teacher and the guy from Togo who works behind the deli counter at Whole Foods, but, of course, my French is nothing like what it was.

Before that year in Paris, I had been certain that I would live my adult life in Europe. Romance languages were my passion. And it was like I was French in my heart. America! Who could be bothered with such an uncouth place? Pas moi! I was destined to walk the cobblestoned streets of Paris wearing a chic carré Hermès, discuss the issues of the day in perfect French over chocolat chaud at Café Flore, and shop for fruits de mer at the marché near Boulevard Raspail.

It was actually living in Paris that cured me of my desire to live in Paris. Don’t get me wrong. I had the time of my life studying abroad in Paris. I would do it again in a heartbeat. But it was not until I had spent a significant amount of time away from my country, and immersed in la vie quotidienne of another country, that I realized how hard it is to be an ex-pat. I remembered one of my high school French teachers telling me that while she had been in America for over twenty years, she was homesick for Switzerland every single day. At the time, I was baffled. After a few months in France, I began to understand.

During my time in Paris, I looked around and saw a way of life that was close to the one I knew but still so alien. I thought about what it would be like to live so far away from my family and friends; to always speak in a different language; to lack the cultural references of other people my age. I tried to imagine sending my kids to French schools, with their rigid tracking systems, lack of extracurricular activities and insane grading scale of 1-20 — except that no one ever actually gets a 20. Or even a 19. I knew that I would never quite be at home in France, or in French for that matter. And then I realized that the career I wanted, the husband I wanted, the family I wanted were all American things. So I came home, finished college and went off to law school. The life of an ex-pat was not for me.

Reading Elizabeth Bard’s charming memoir-cookbook, Lunch in Paris, was like getting to see my road not taken. Elizabeth ends up living as an ex-pat in France quite by accident when she falls in love with a French man and ends up moving to Paris to be with him. (While Elizabeth’s husband seems pretty dreamy, I never met a French man I wanted to go on a second date with, let alone marry. So maybe that was part of my problem.) While Elizabeth is plainly seduced by the charm and romance of Paris — as well as by the food and the guy — she does not sugarcoat the difficulty of adjusting to French norms. For example, during her father-in-law’s battle with colon cancer — which was diagnosed late and treated with a shocking lack of compassion by French doctors for whom “second opinion” is definitely a foreign concept — Elizabeth begins to realize that she has signed herself and her future children up for this same kind of health care. When she learns how disdainful teachers tried to squelch her husband’s career ambitions, she faces the fact that her children will be educated in the same rigid system. It’s a bit of a rude awakening for her. When I read those pages, I nodded sagely. See, I thought, bullet dodged.

But if I were to be as candid with my readers as Elizabeth is with hers, I would have to admit that part of me was green with envy during every single page of Lunch in Paris.  A dreamy French husband? An apartment in Paris? Shopping for perfect vegetables at gorgeous markets? That was supposed to be my life, dammit! And I can even speak French — something that Elizabeth struggles with for much of the book. As I have done my whole life, I made the practical decision and stayed home. Elizabeth went for the romance of an ex-pat life. Bien fait, Elizabeth. Et bon courage.

A “From Left to Write” Book Club post. In conjunction with the book club, I received a free copy of Lunch in Paris.  Buy your copy here.   You can find more bloggers’ reactions to Lunch in Paris by following the links on the From Left to Write website.  Follow From Left to Write on Twitter here.

Comments

  1. I stumbled upon your blog and enjoyed reading this post … I too was a french major, spent a year in France (not Paris though), but I was there 95-96. Although I did meet plenty of great french men (and dated one for 2 years) but maybe that’s because I wasn’t in paris. Anyway … thanks for the memories!

    • Rosemarie, thanks for reading. What city were you in if not Paris? Do you use your French today?

  2. rosemarie says:

    I was in Strasbourg and I used my french up until about 3 yrs ago. Now I try and talk to my baby in french! (at least he doesn’t correct me ;)

    • Oh, I love Strasbourg! I went there in December during my year abroad for the Christmas market. So fun. Also, so cold!

  3. I always thought I would live abroad at some point, not forever, just for a few years. It hasn’t happened yet and now I’m starting to think that ship has sailed now that kids are in the picture.

    Usually books like this drive me crazy with jealousy and regret, but I’m feeling OK with where I am after reading this one. Maybe it was the healthcare stuff, the job issues, language barriers, and overall sense of isolation that balanced out all the amazing stuff that would normally throw me into a fit of envy. And, for that, I appreciate her honesty.

    • Well, depending on your career and your husband’s, there still could be a chance for you to live abroad. My husband knows someone in his field who did an exchange in New Zealand for six months — I keep asking my husband if we could try that!

  4. I spent a year in Saipan after college. While we own Saipan (its citizens are Americans, the dollar is the currency), Saipan is (or was) very foreign (pre-internet, pre-unlimited cheap long distance). At first, it was my paradise, but after nine months it became my prison. I read the blogs of friends who moved and stayed there and wonder “what if”, but I knew I wasn’t meant to stay. I dream about it once a week, and would love to take the family to visit some day.

    • Oh wow! I was just reading about Saipan in Unbroken. Have you read that yet? Amazing book!

      • It’s on my wish list. I loved Seabiscuit and my degree is in recent Asian history. The book is right up my alley.

  5. And that’s the dilemma, isn’t it? I want Europe and the taste of Europe, but I want home, too… and for me, home will probably always be the States, even ignoring the fact that I’m married to a teacher who doesn’t really have a moveable job. I think I just need to win the lottery so I can vacation extensively. Maybe?

    • Actually, there are exchange programs for teachers…teaching on high school junior year abroad programs. Just sayin’.

  6. I agree with Lisa. I appreciate Elizabeth Bard’s honesty and acknowledgement that while she herself was enamored (mostly) by the life she chose to lead, it is not for everyone. I believe I like the concept of living in France but I doubt I would like the reality of it.

    • Yes, I think that was the beauty of the book. It was an honest and balanced account of the joys and the difficulties of being an ex-pat.

  7. I travelled enough abroad in my teens and early 20s to realize that America is the greatest country there is, at least for an American. The author has my respect, although this is something I would never do.

    Don’t beat yourself up or regret making a decision like many American women would.

    • Well, I am not beating myself up…just intrigued by the possibility of the other road.

  8. Thank you for the works of encouragement, Emily. I realized reading your post, that I rarely think about my ‘alternate life’ anymore – the one where I’m married to NY hedge fund manager and work in the rare book department at Christie’s…It took me ages to feel ‘just right’ where I am. I’m still as American as they come, but I do appreciate the richness of having both cultures to inform my life decisions!

    • I liked how you and Gwendal strove to take the best of both cultures and leave behind the worst. I also appreciated reading about your struggle with your professional identity in the book. You don’t need to be an ex-pat to struggle with that, especially when you’re a professional woman with young kids.

  9. How great that you were able to make those realizations, though! Imagine how many young women are dreaming of living in Paris, dreaming of a dreamy French husband and gorgeous markets, but will never give it a try. And for that reason, they may grow old thinking that there is something better out there for them that they didn’t experience. You were there, and were able to make an educated decision about what was, and what wasn’t for you! Thank you for sharing this experience with us! I actually needed to read this today! :-)

    • Well, that’s a good way to look at it. Thanks for that. I was lucky to be able to live abroad as a college student because that seems to be one of the only times that such a thing is even possible. I wish that our adult lives offered more chances to really experience another culture.

  10. I love reading all these posts!

    Life is never how we expect it, huh?

    It’s funny but I never had any burning desire to live abroad in my youth. I certainly didn’t ever think I’d marry a Frenchman. But one day I met a French guy here in the US–we eventually married. I’m fortunate that my husband, like Elizabeth, is content in where he is living.

    I truthfully don’t think I could ever live in Paris. It is a dream, of course, We go and stay with my in laws who still live there but after 3 weeks I’m beginning to miss home.
    I’m kicking myself I took Spanish rather than French in high school. Maybe I can take you with me next time we go? I need a female shopping buddy LOL.

    • Shopping in France, at least for clothes, is mostly a bust for American women. Everything is sized for teeny tiny French women. I’m a size 8 here, but over there, there’s nothing for me. Luckily, one can always shop for kids’ stuff or food.

  11. Your post make me think of my life as a road, with lots of little side streets running off of it, some that I ran down, before heading back on the main path, others’ that I knew existed, but walked right on by. Books have the ability to take us back down some of these roads. I think that’s why I love reading so much. It enables me to explore other ways of being that I just won’t have the chance to indulge in this lifetime. Thanks for your thoughtful post!

    • What a beautiful image! I wish we could have the experience of seeing what would have happened had we taken a different path — like that movie “Sliding Doors,” where a woman’s life ends up being totally different based on whether or not she catches a train. Alas, that’snot how life works. I did appreciate how this book gave me new insight into what my life would have been like had I made different choices.

  12. Hindsight is alwayus 20/20. My sister followed her college sweetheart to south America. While she appreciates the adventure of living in a foreign cow,Bret where domestic help is affordable,she’s definitely made compromises. Grss is always greener.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Emily from West of the Loop sees her road not traveled […]

  2. […] I was a junior in college, I spread the year studying abroad in Paris.  I had many wonderful, unique experiences that year, from traveling all over Europe, to eating […]

  3. […] project when baking with kids, and it freezes well, so it is a staple in my house.) But after reading Elizabeth Bard’s charming memoir, Lunch in Paris, I became intrigued by her recipe for yogurt cake, which is a childhood […]