Four years in Paris

© Jessie Kanelos for

After graduation, my adventurous friends were on their merry ways to NYC.  The others were moving back into their Midwestern childhood bedrooms to ‘save money and figure it out’.  But something else was in store for me. I had always squaked on about moving to Paris to learn a new language and escape the inevitable recession.  My mom wrapped up the big surprise in a hot pink cardstock card she had crafted the night before.  There was a clip art pic of a girl walking a wiener dog leaping in front of the Eiffel Tower. Sure enough, the generous graduation present from my parents was a one-way ticket to Paris.  It was as easy as that.  A little clip art and a Bible verse sent me on my way. I carefully packed my giant red suitcase with all the Eiffel Tower-embellished giftshop trickets my friends and family overloaded me with in anticipation.  As I waved my parents goodbye at O’Hare, I settled into Economy class, keeping my Tour Eiffel journal close to me as a witness to my adventures.  It was time. And I had no plan other than a contractual agreement to watch a mysterious 4-year old for one year of my life.  The mini bottles of wine could not come sooner; I was terrified.

When I landed, I quickly regretted not learning a word of French beforehand.  Before I left the States, I purchased French for Dummies, which was not the most becoming read on the Metro.  I impatiently tried memorizing “Quelle heure est-il?”», breaking it down both phonetically and musically, but nothing stuck in my untrained monolingual brain.  I thought answering ‘oui’ to everything would give me a little more conversational momentum.  But alas, the conversation quickly switched to English.  And a full analysis of the Bush presidency was demanded of me.

But I was quickly thrown into a routine of my own.  When I wasn’t blow-drying this small child’s hair, cutting chicken cordon bleu into bite-size pieces and learning to say « non! », I was out-and-about roaming the streets.  I quickly learned that my ‘Midwest does Carmen Miranda’ wardrobe got scary tongue-wagging attention from strangers.  So I muted my color palette.  I replaced my polyester ruffles with knits.  Unlike America, where a little eye contact could get a friendly ‘howdy-do’ from a passing stranger, that quickly backfired.  Every guy I made eye contact with all of sudden had something extremely important to tell me.  I thought not speaking French would be a free pass out of these situations, but they all went down a laundry list of languages they spoke until finding the right one.  Nevertheless, I learned to sink my head low and keep my smile to myself.    I also grasped that pointing out someone’s baseball hat from my hometown sports team ignited more hassle than it was worth.  So I quickly felt that Paris was not the kind of place where I could make friends just anywhere.  But I became fast friends with other au pairs for much-needed happy hour cocktails and a little childcare catharsis.  In retrospect, we didn’t have much in common other than the English language and controlling host mothers, but at the time we really needed each other.

In my solitude, I quickly connected the streets I knew with all of the tiny, winding rues in between. Unlike what some expats say, I didn’t find Paris’ cobblestone streets to have the power to rejuvinate my soul.  I can’t say, « I was neither feeling life nor death.  I was just feeling » or whatever Margo Martindale utters at the end of Paris, Je T’aime.   Although I felt like the city was still permanently closed to me, as I walked the streets more and more, the more I discovered the beauty in the fine details and the history.  I crashed vernissages, evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of the pain au chocolats of the 12e, and took note of places I would return to when I was making more than 300 euros a month.

My time in Paris has almost passed its 4-year mark.  Although I have only set foot in France for a little over half of it, I am still surprised that I am permanently and legally here.  It would be too easy to classify my relationship with Paris as love-hate.  It’s a bit more like one among siblings.  Through the powers of fate, I am connected to this person although it has been irritating me endlessly since the very beginning.  But as time goes by, I can look at our shared experiences with clearer eyes.  Although there are still tremulous ups and downs, this person (or place) is still a defining part of my personal history.  Come to think of it, my relationship with my own brother is far easier than a certain Paris, France.

So, here is to 4 years!

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Trim a branch, strike a pose.

One of the major differences between New York and Paris is the pockets of greenery scattered about Paris.  Once getting past heavy, Haussmanian doors with ubiquitous door codes (the right of passage to reach any French person, place or thing), the majority of apartment buildings hide a small garden, most likely amidst parked bicycles and garbage cans.

When I met my husband, I was instantly taken by his own private petit jardin. (“He’s got a car, an accent and a garden!  Instant upgrade!”, exclaimed my 2009 self).  Living on the ground floor, it fills our apartment with clean air and a terrific breeze from the nearby forest, the Bois de Vincennes.  And it allows me to indulge in an urban impossibility, compost.  As of late, it is a bit unkempt.  Case in point, winter rolled around before we had the chance to cut the grass.  Ideally, I would love to plant sweet pea seedlings.  However, as any photographer/stylist duo, we utilize gardening simply for impromptu photo shoots.  In my one-track mind, dress-up always trumps gardening.  Trim a branch, strike a pose.

What’s your gardening philosophy?

What Me Hungry?

I’m still in the French Alps.  Remember I mentioned eating 5-course meals gracefully?  Well, I thought raclette, being a single-course and all, would be a good breather.  Mind you, it was my first time.  But alas, at the end of the day, it’s just a glob of melted cheese.  Poured on top of potatoes, accompanied with charcuterie, it is hearty, mountain food at its best.  But I feel like I really should have skied or chopped wood beforehand to truly enjoy it.  It’s a good thing we did not order a cheese fondue for the first course.  After 4 days of eating 3 courses (onion tarte, boeuf bourguignon, caramel tarte) at lunch and 5 courses at dinner (veloute de cepes, escargot, filet de lotte, fromage, royal chocolat) my moderation is finally sinking in.  Does this mean I’m becoming more French?

Anyway, I love a multi-course meal.  It’s always been treat since I first discovered the soup, salad, entree, jello/rice pudding option at the local Chicago Greek diners of my youth.  However, after 5-courses, I am usually on the brink of explosion.  And what’s a proud member of the clean-plate/waste-not club to do?  But here is what I have learned from experience.   Although everybody loves a generous plateau of Alpine cheeses to choose from, choose either cheese or dessert.  Or eat a small portion of each.  Incorporate vegetables when possible, if given a choice.  Stay hydrated during the day.  And move around as much as possible.  I’m starting to feel a bit of empathy for food critics…