Acting on an Idea of France


A boulangerie in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

I didn’t have anything to prove when I started my new life in France – or I should say, when I started to try spending my time between Paris and New York, and creating parallel lives here and there.

I simply wanted to force myself out of what I knew. It wasn’t a challenge as much as a goal: not to remain how, or even what, I was. It wasn’t a midlife crisis as much as the realization that I could continue to grow.

You can become provincial anywhere. Even in New York, even in a city that prides itself on its differences from elsewhere. I grew up in New York, was schooled in New York, and had always worked in New York. I’d met and become friends with people who’d come to New York from elsewhere in the world and the United States: Kirkcaldy in Scotland, Londonderry in Northern Ireland, Glasgow, London, Rome, Calgary, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires. But I hadn’t moved anywhere. I’d traveled widely, but I had stayed put.

I’d mentioned to friends and acquaintances in New York what I’d planned to do. About a third said, “I can’t do that. I have too many responsibilities.” Another third asked, “Aren’t you afraid?”

I couldn’t really add anything to the statement. People have or make their own responsibilities, in whatever form those may take (family, job, reluctance).

As to the question, my answer was always “no.”

I wasn’t at all afraid, which rather surprised me. I had been afraid before – to change, to budge from what might be different or uncertain. And even the people I’d met and befriended who’d upended their own lives to try something new in a foreign country hadn’t convinced me, or even yet inspired me, to do the same myself. The provincial New Yorker in me had kept me insecure about my worth by holding onto stasis.

But I was no longer afraid. Perhaps because I didn’t want to keep at plugging along, after having worked in an office, in a cubicle, at a job, even an interesting one such as being a reporter at the Wall Street Journal. I’d taken a buyout from the Journal and had begun to earn a living on my own. I was already feeling relieved of the burden of living under the baleful glare of editors who’d turned into middle managers fearful of losing their own positions at a company that had been acquired by a big media conglomerate. I recognized in their fear the death of a future. And by negotiating and receiving a buyout, I was given an inadvertent push toward adventure, if I wanted it, and something more than a life of looking over my shoulder to see what might defeat me.

And I was free, at least for a while, to think beyond the next quota of story pitches and the sense that an unexplored life would remain unexplored.

France had long tempted me, an inchoate dream of otherness. A few years earlier, when I’d visited my friend Edmund White at a house he’d rented in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, in the south of France, my encounters with shopkeepers who spoke genial French to me despite my inability to converse in their language had somehow awakened a curiosity that would lead to action.

I still recall the good-hearted baker who, when I’d requested “une boule,” a round load of bread, according to what Ed had instructed me to ask there on a little shopping excursion into town, had corrected my pronunciation. I must have said, “un bull,” and she, pursing her lips into a circle, had corrected me, “Une boule. Une boule. Un-e boule,” in a way that had made the pronunciation lesson charming rather than humiliating. And the next time I saw this kindly, thoughtful boulangère, I asked for, quite slowly, “une boule,” and received not only the bread but a beaming smile and a “très bien.” She’d planted in me the germ of an idea that I might still be teachable.

A few years later all I was aware of was that I’d planned to live a few months in France to begin to discover something other than the life I knew, or what I’d assumed I knew. I was open to possibility. That in itself was a change.

When I got out of the taxi on the Rue Brézin in the 14th arrondissement that first dusty, sunny morning, I sensed that Paris could be home, even though I hadn’t yet made it a home.

It felt like New York, but slower. It had a familiarity and a strangeness that appealed to me.

And I had somehow begun to turn into a person who welcomed strangeness.

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