You can(‘t) go home again

“What do you miss the most?”  My friends smile, anticipating a favorite dish, a favorite place, or a particular time of year.  “Well, you guys, of course,” I say quickly, hoping to deflect the question from my true answer: “Nothing.”

Of course there are things that are wonderful that one could miss – but I “miss” them in the same way that I “miss” anything from a place I have been to – like missing dim sum in Hong Kong or missing walking the beaches of Sydney.  But I don’t miss anything in the “think about it all the time” way that I think they probably mean.  But in fairness to a country that played host to many happy years of my life, I miss walks in the Huntington Gardens in California.  Food trucks in Austin.  Baseball in Saint Louis.  Hot chicken in Nashville.  The squares of Savannah.  BYOB restaurants in Montreal.  Autumn in New Hampshire.

Next month will mark the beginning of my third year in Paris and I’m “in between.”  America is no longer “home” for many reasons but I still can’t believe I really get to call this place home.  I’m Parisian in my bones – in a way I always have been – and I marvel every day that I get to live in my dream city.  I’ve often been alone on a quiet street and stifled a laugh as I took in that crooked winding view of centuries.  Two years on, I still have “pinch me” moments.

Going to the United States has become a rather elaborate production.  As part of my visa requirements, I have to spend at least 270 days a year in France, so you can’t go back for too long – but if you’re going to cross an ocean, it’s 3 weeks’ minimum for me.  I’ve also hit upon the strategy of visiting my friends and family during “non-holiday” periods so I don’t have to share them with other commitments they have.  I’ve also find this makes for finding absurdly cheap flights (I just booked the cheapest Europe-America flight of my life recently).

I haven’t yet chosen to ditch 7 years of medical/dental/accounting services and technology and occasional travel stateside means I don’t have to.  The PPO (insurance plan) I once had in the United States cost $135/month and covered me for pretty much everything for years.  The “affordable care act” in America has not only cancelled that plan, but the closest current equivalent costs $570/month.  So I just pay cash to see my old doctors for my annual checkup, etc.

Dental insurance remains extremely reasonable ($35/month in my case) so it’s cheaper to retain it solely for your cleanings twice a year.  Just those two cleanings will cost more in cash than the entire annual premium for your insurance – and that’s assuming you have no other problems.  Do the math.

I couldn’t help but laugh at the times I would put a car into park and then stare mutely at the dashboard, wondering if I hadn’t forgotten to do something.  Not driving for months and months makes you a bit cagey when you do finally slip behind the wheel again.

***

The more assertive variation on the question “What do you miss?” is “When are you coming back?”  This led to a very long and fruitful exchange with a close friend in which I enunciated advantages I have now that effectively prevent me from returning to the United States for the foreseeable future.

  1. Physical health – I finally gave in and got a fitbit to document what I’ve always suspected: I walk a moving average of 10 km/day.  I do this at various speeds, up and down stairs, on cobblestones or grass, all around this city.  Not only did this regime of walking contribute to my losing 30 lbs/13 kg when I moved here, but it has established a new weight standard which would be impossible for me to retain in most American cities.  During my recent visit to Kansas City, I experimented by refusing to take and elevators and as often as I could remember I parked my vehicle as far away from a store entrance as possible.  I even tried not to use carts to carry my purchases.  With these “extreme” measures I couldn’t even get close to 4km/day as an average.  I’m simply healthier here in Europe.
  2. Access to Europe – I used to treasure an annual trip to Europe to see places new and old.  But now that I live here, all of Europe is at my doorstep, for pennies, either by flight, train, bus, or ridesharing (think uber but for long distances).  When living in America I experienced a variation on these sorts of fun possibilities only during my two years in New Hampshire, when Boston, Philly, NYC, and even Montreal were just road trips away, and in some cases, by train or bus too!  On this recent trip I had some business up by Chicago and elected to take the train (Amtrak) but perhaps had forgotten that there’s only one departure a day and when it gets delayed, it really gets delayed.  An engine on the train coming to Kansas City blew up in Arizona and they had to run another engine out there from California.  It delayed my journey by 7 hours and Amtrak had to pay to transport me to and from a hotel and put me up in it so I could connect to the bus to Rockford in the morning.  Not too shabby a recovery from the taxpayer-supported Amtrak, but a far cry from the dozens of departures and arrivals all around Europe every day.
  3. Constant challenge of language – Every day I make progress in French, but my work and life brings me into contact with the whole world.  During the summer I had a date with a Brazilian girl who didn’t speak English and we laughed our way through our makeshift Spanish and an occasional assist from Google Translate.  Expressing yourself in a foreign language is one of the most difficult, fun, rewarding, humbling, and interesting experiences in life.  You get opportunities like that every day here.
  4. A built life – Next year I transition from my visitor visa to one that puts me on the path to citizenship.  I continue to maintain that the EU passport is simply the most valuable passport obtainable by the average person in the world.  The only ones more valuable are the Vatican and Swiss passports – and they are very, very difficult to obtain for various reasons (as an aside I was recently asked at a dinner party what I liked most about having an American passport and I replied that it was the knowledge that Navy Seals will come for me if Somali pirates ever commandeer a vessel I’m on.  I’m sorry, no country can top that!).  I’ve started something wonderful here, and it would be nuts to leave it – especially when I’ve gone through all the hard stuff.  Indeed, as I looked over the list of requirements for my dossier for my new visa – which will be far more difficult to obtain than the visitor one – I said to a friend, “Is this it?”  The list had 28 requirements.  I realized after 2 years I am simply unfazed by the French government.

So my answer to my friend was, “Why would I come back?  I’m healthier and happier than I have been for many years, possibly more than I have ever been in my life.”

The caveat is, of course, family.  My nieces and nephews continue to grow by leaps and bounds and I measure their skill in their improvements in art and coloring, parcheesi, and sports.

On more than one occasion I’ve heard someone say, “I have to live here, because I love my family.”  I get that, I truly do.  But ultimately I moved because I placed my happiness first.  Of course I’m happy when I am with my family – but I know that part of the reason I get to contribute to their lives, bring them presents from all around the world, and share great stories with them, is precisely because I’ve built and chosen an intentional path for my life that doesn’t defer a dream life to some unknown future that no one has guaranteed that I will live to obtain.

There’s no right answer here and I’m not proposing that I have the right one.  I can only say that I can spend more quality time with my family now – and treasure it more deeply – because I know our opportunities are so precious and limited – and because I am well and truly happy, and that speaks volumes to children.

***

There’s nothing more satisfying than waking up every day knowing in your bones that you are on the right path.  And while two years isn’t yet enough for me to claim “Parisian” status yet, it does feel like home.

***The picture is of one of the fountains in one of the many lovely squares of Savannah, Georgia.***

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NYC: Parisians’ Delight

I’m always curious to know what fellow Parisians think of their visits to my beloved United States.  Often they have been to America, and usually, they have been to New York.  Now, when most people tell me they’ve visited New York, I tend to ask, “where” because I don’t assume they mean NYC.  And I certainly don’t mean what Parisians mean, which is Midtown Manhattan.

While Midtown has its own striking features, it’s hardly “New York” and worse, it’s hardly worthy of the answer to my follow up question of “Why do you like it?” which is “Because it’s the most European city in America.”

The one time I was eating when someone said this to me I almost choked.  That statement is so untrue on a number of levels, and I usually have to ask a number of follow-up questions to clarify why my acquaintance or friend has come to such a strange point-of-view.  Some commonalities:

1.  NYC is the only American city he/she has visited

2.  While there, he/she never visited Brooklyn, Queens, or the other boroughs.

3.  He/she was there for a week or less

These circumstances, combined with an ignorance about what other American cities have to offer, or worse, an ignorance about European cities, inevitably lead some of these Parisians to an idolization of NYC which is unwarranted.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love the Cloisters.  And the High Line.  And Brooklyn.  The Park.  Washington Square.  The MET and all the things that make NYC great.  But it’s not our finest city.  That title firmly belongs in the hands of San Francisco (but that article is for another time).  For now I’ll confine my remarks to NYC.

The cityscape itself

NYC is part of an elite group of skyscraper cities, which includes Tokyo, Shanghai, Singapore, and the like.  There is nothing European about streetscapes and cityscapes of massively tall buildings that create wind tunnels.  Indeed, in Paris all such buildings are clustered outside the city limits, at La Defense, as if to say – build these if you must, but please don’t invade our living space.

I’m not arguing that skylines need to look like Florence’s, where the majestic Duomo and the competing Medici Tower dominate and all other buildings rise to about the same level, significantly below both those buildings.  But NYC’s cityscape matches none in Europe.

The melting pot

On this point it’s important to note that London and Paris, like NYC, fall into the category of “international cities.”  Surely you will learn about England and France, respectively, upon visiting those cities, but if you want to really know Britain, you need to go out into the shires.  Or to neighboring countries within the United Kingdom, like Wales.  If you would know France you should visit Bordeaux.  Or Bayeux.  Or Grenoble.  Or Strasbourg.  Those are all “European cities.”  But they are not multi-cultural melting pots.

London and Paris are playgrounds for those of us who love to learn about other cultures, but as “European cities” they are outliers.  Most European cities have a dominant language, ethnic majority, cuisine, and culture.  And at least, at the end of the day, London and Paris can claim their own culture too.  But what is NYC, but the cathedral of change and the bastion of commercialism and the consumer culture?  NYC is in its own way, a celebration of no identity and no heritage and no culture because of the mistaken belief that since all cultures are “equal” (whatever that means) that a melange of all is a culture in and of itself.  It’s not, and the banal and ubiquitous “I love NY” shirts is perhaps representative of what NYC can be at times: tourist hype.

The cost of living

One of the magical things about Wimbledon is that it’s still one of the major sporting events that you can buy tickets for the day of, at face value.  You’ve got to queue, but that’s really a minor inconvenience. 🙂  It allows the groundlings to mix with the elite who never needed to queue to have an assured place.

A European city still has a place for the least affluent in our society (and I’m not talking about the homeless here: they manage to find spots all over the world).  Paris is on the margins of affordability, but NYC is in another solar system by comparison.

This is all to say that my fellow Parisians might look for some treasures off the beaten path the next time they decide to visit the US.  This HuffPo list might be the place to start.

NYC: hardly the most European city in America.  It’s not even the most American city in America. 🙂