As with a lot of life-changing events, things just happened when I pointed myself toward France.
France was a goal, but I didn’t address the specifics beforehand of how to go about where to stay in France, what to learn, how to earn a living or even whom to meet.
I did, however, become European (as European as someone could be who wasn’t reared in Europe).
The first thing I thought to do on my way to France was to get my Irish citizenship and then obtain an Irish passport. I thought this might make it easier to travel, as well as to remain either in France or another European Union country. I didn’t know where I’d end up, but I figured it would probably be over there across the Atlantic.
Ireland allows people of Irish descent to become citizens of Ireland if their parents or grandparents were Irish (and if those parents or grandparents hadn’t renounced their Irish citizenship if they’d become citizens of another country). Several of my cousins had done a lot of the legwork for the citizenship application – such as obtaining a birth certificate for my maternal grandfather from the small town of Killawullaun in County Mayo – and I simply needed to do my own regarding necessary documentation for my parents and myself (long-form birth certificates, marriage certificates, death certificates). Eventually I was entered onto the roll of foreign births and applied for a passport, which I received. It all took about a year. By the time I had the Irish passport in hand, my plans had begun to take further shape, although nothing was definite.
Sometimes you forge ahead without thinking too much of what you’re getting at. In the months after that buyout that permitted me to leave the Wall Street Journal, I knew that I wanted to change, to challenge myself, and to use this opportunity of a newfound freedom to explore the world beyond the bubble of a newspaper.
My attitude toward work or career, or whatever my self-worth was regarding what I did for a living, had changed. I had for a while defined myself by my work. Because I was a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, I thought that position had given me a certain cachet. But it doesn’t really – no position ever does – unless you shape your opinion of yourself only according to what others think of you and how quickly your phone calls or emails are returned, or how many freebies clutter your desk.
I’d long realized that everyone at a newspaper spends too much time justifying himself – why a particularly story works, why it doesn’t or didn’t, why a source was reliable, why a source was unreliable, whose fault an error really was and what a person really said that didn’t jibe with what he said that he had said that didn’t get printed as he claimed he’d said it. You’re often too close to people of power and assume you’re powerful too (power doesn’t interest me; presence does). You live in fear of being caught out. I also considered myself something of a fraud as a reporter. I liked the work but I had the sense that I was existing in a parallel universe, a shadow reality based on other people’s ideas of what was interesting or fresh or, worse, competitive.
I’d also increasingly begun to find the insularity of working at a newspaper similar to that provincialism I had recognized as a result of living my entire life in New York. Very little had challenged my suppositions (office politics aside), beyond an editor telling me why a story would be approved or not.
At the same time, I wasn’t sure if I were seeking escape by moving abroad for a little while, or trying to assume a new identity – which wouldn’t have been a bad thing – but it didn’t really matter. It was I who had to change, rather than where I lived. But again, sometimes you do need to force yourself to awaken to someone else’s point of view, and going overseas for a while as something other than a passing sightseer might be the thing.
So I decided to go (or make a go of going), and even though the plan wasn’t clear, I’d already taken a step toward making this an actuality with that new passport. I didn’t need a different passport to travel to or stay in France, but perhaps I needed that new Irish one to convince myself that another me existed whom I’d just uncovered.
I wanted to live in France, at least for a while. I knew that I didn’t want to do it as a tourist. I knew that I wanted to learn the language well enough not only to speak it with the French, but to understand it when I heard it on television or in movies or in song, and to read it. These were lofty but unshaped wishes, vague goals that I nevertheless arrived at as if I’d actually planned them.
And once I was there, once I unlocked the door and entered that under-decorated apartment that was less charming than I’d hoped it might be (once my dream of a Parisian apartment had become a reality), I was even less sure of what I was doing there, or what I would be doing. But for this one thing: as short as my time would be in Paris on my first visit, I knew almost from the start that it wouldn’t be my last, and that I’d have to come back sooner rather than later. All of a sudden I saw possibility, though I couldn’t articulate a single thought regarding it.
Before I’d learned the basics of the language, before I’d begun to make friends, before I’d considered Paris another home, I could see that even without a plan of action, I was where I needed to be. Because at once I knew that I didn’t know anything, or assume anything, or expect anything. And that felt somehow not only liberating, but right. I discovered that I’m never happier than when I live in the uncertainty that leads to change.