I have a new habit that I acquired during my days and weeks living in Paris. I like to watch the TED talks. A lot. I sometimes laugh and usually cry. They move me. One talk in particular recently reached out and grabbed me. Philanthropist Jacqueline Novogratz's speech, Inspiring a Life of Immersion, delivers a core message about living a life of purpose. She highlights stories about people that she has met through her work- people who have immersed themselves in a cause or a community of some kind. Although we have not been living a life of philanthropy in Paris, I was able to relate her message to my family's own immersion in both a cause and a community this past year. Novogratz's talk is rich with nuggets of wisdom that spoke to me particularly because each little quotable gem represents the very things that my family and I have been lucky enough to struggle with, dabble in, chew on, and embrace for an entire year.
"Nothing important happens in life without a cost."
Soren and I found ourselves in the unique position of being able to pick up and move our family overseas for one year. Lucky? Yes. Brave? Definitely. Financially sound? Not really. It depends on one's values I suppose. Would we have more money in the bank had we stayed put? Lots. Could we have invested it, purchased Soren's mid-life crisis car, and continued playing the game of Keeping Up With The Jones'? You bet. Was this a foolish expenditure? Not even. I would trade any and all stock purchases, returns on investments, and even Soren's Porsche that sum of cash could have brought our way for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity this past year abroad represents.
We are somewhat more cash-poor, but infinitely rich with cultural relativities and sensitivities, a new language, a deeper appreciation for food and wine, an increased zest for life experiences of all kinds, lifelong connections with previously unknown relatives and new friends, and a reaffirmation that we love all that is good about where we come from. As the MasterCard commercials state, "The cost of all this? Priceless."
"What is the cost of not daring, what is the cost of not trying?"
Looking back to the time, almost three years ago, when Soren first mentioned the idea of living abroad, quicker than I could reply, "No way," I had already created my mental list of the reasons why not: Too disruptive to our daughters' education, we can't afford it, I don't want to leave my friends and family, Raelyn’s interest in soccer and Nola’s love of guitar are too important to stop now. Plus, what about our cat, our house, and who will make sure our plants don't die? But where is the fun in this kind of thinking? And, after all, this was Paris we were talking about, not Omaha or Duluth.
Gradually, I began to listen to the brave part of myself, the daring part. The part of myself that, although rarely, can and does function without making mental lists that compare pros and cons, lists that- for all practical purposes- are my attempt to control the world around me and make it appear more predictable than it is. I instead decided to embrace the part of myself that can tolerate the unknown. I listened to the part of me that endured my three hour tattoo session. I tapped into the part of me that learned to swim so that I could complete two triathlons despite my dislike of swimming and my fear of the open water (which shifted to fear of swimming amidst duck poop). I called upon the part of me that rides up and down mountain trails on my bike despite my fears that I will topple head first into a ditch. And I trusted the part of me that gave birth to two children despite what my obstetrician calls my incompetent cervix (as a woman, I think I already had enough complexes about my body, thank you very much doctor).
For me, not daring, not trying, not pushing myself outside of my comfort zone costs me my spirit. My true spirit (when I don't ignore it or invalidate it) yearns to stretch beyond complacency, the status quo, and even the simple satisfactions that contribute to my American life. Now that I recognize this about myself- more clearly than ever before- the exciting question is, "What's next?" For me, this question is like the 'free, with purchase' hook that marketers use and, in this case, actually is better than advertised.
"Your job in life is not to be perfect. Your job is to be human."
I pretty much suck at speaking French and my daughters- Raelyn especially- do not hesitate to let me know when they are embarrassed by my accent, mispronunciation, or my incorrect use of the masculine and feminine definite article. I have been known to smile my way through this year with strangers, thinking- rather naively- that showing some teeth during situations where the language barrier is getting in the way will help my cause. This flawed assumption is cultural in nature. We Americans tend to smile a lot in an attempt to establish an immediate feeling of friendliness; the French do not. So instead of communicating with my smile, “I come in peace and isn’t my butchering of your language cute and endearing?” I am instead letting them know that I am a foreigner ready to take our connection, however brief and superficial, to the next and, as far as they are concerned, unwelcomed level. I have learned two things about this: Not to take their stone cold stares personally and that their reactions are no less human than my goofy smiles.
"Sometimes, the most important things we do, that we spend our time on, are those things that we cannot measure."
I can count the number of countries we have visited this year. I know what my new favorite food and wines are. I can name each of the French friends and relatives whom we have met. I know how much one euro really costs me in U.S. dollars. I know I have three minutes to make it down to the station to catch the next Metro train after I hear the previous one pass under our apartment building. I am familiar enough with Paris to help a lost tourist (a French one, no less) navigate their way. I can give a percentage to the amount of French that Raelyn and Nola now speak, read, and write. All of these new experiences and changes are measurable and we certainly spent a lot of our time focused on them. But are they the most important?
Hindsight is, as they say, 20/20. Yet, I am still too close to my Paris experience to truly understand the essence of what has been most important for us individually and collectively. Sure, I can recognize surface level transformations that have occurred this year – for instance, my daughters speak French now and have accumulated a European wardrobe - but what shifts lay beneath the surface? To what extent will living abroad shape my girls’ future attitudes, my desires, our assumptions, or Soren’s motivations in life?
When I moved to Paris, I had a decent sense of knowing what I didn’t know and therefore proceeded to ask the right people and/or learn by trial and error. But, even more profound for me is the recognition of another truth that was unknowingly present upon our arrival: I don’t know what I don’t know.
For example, I didn’t know that I didn’t know about bathroom etiquette as a guest in a French person’s home nor that my smiles will rarely win me any friendliness from French strangers. And, I didn’t know that I didn’t know my Paris life will now cause me to yearn for city living and prompt Soren and I to seriously consider buying an apartment in San Francisco. I didn’t know that I didn’t know the amazingly wonderful French friends and relatives that I now can’t imagine a life without. Can I quantify this new knowledge and qualify it as important? Indeed I can.
"Focus on honoring what is most beautiful about our past and building into the promise of our future."
Soren has a robust and complicated family tree. Delving into the French side of it this year has been an engaging focus for us. Exploring the former Paris and Antibes stomping grounds of Soren’s grandmother and great grandmother has tickled our sense of wonder about France in the early twentieth century. We feel lucky to be embraced and welcomed by the staff at Puiforcat, the namesake store of Soren’s great grandfather just off the Champs Elysees that continues to sell his exclusive art deco silver designs. We experienced shock and awe from learning more than we ever knew before about the French Resistance for whom Soren’s Jewish grandfather fought during WWII. These are significant pieces of my daughters’ ancestral past and how fortunate they are to have both the oral stories and now the actual sights to accompany them.
We have had the pleasure of meeting many of Soren’s French relatives this year; no less than thirty of them, in fact. They have been warm and gracious, helpful and curious. And nice enough to speak English- sometimes- for my benefit. Our French elders have added context and details to stories we already knew and also told us ones we did not know about the Kaplan and Puiforcat relatives that came before us. Raelyn and Nola have come to know their French cousins by playing Elastique, going to Euro Disney, and picnicking in Parisian parks. These new personal connections help to provide meaning and purpose to our lives by bridging the past with the future. For this we are forever grateful.
"It is a long baptism into the seas of humankind, my daughter. Better immersion than to live untouched... yet how will you sustain?"
One question that keeps coming up for us is, “How will Raelyn and Nola continue learning and speaking French after our return home?” I love the idea of my girls sustaining and building upon their acquired language skills. But is this a realistic goal? Again, I think it boils down to personal values. I’d love to be able to say that I will be hiring a thrice weekly private tutor or driving them to and from the Alliance Française in Berkeley for classes. But, my guess is, upon returning home, their interests in music, dance, sports, and friends will leave little time for much else outside of school.
Part of my family’s immersion this year was all about experiencing work/life balance. We have enjoyed our leisure time consisting of travel, visiting with family, sleeping in on weekends, and not running errands on Sundays. Therefore, I am reluctant to commit ourselves to yet another obligation for fear of returning to our harried and overscheduled American lives. Is it possible to sustain both their language skills and a more balanced life in America? Je ne sais pas. I am most likely inclined to allow for a more relaxed pace of life and let the French language build upon itself when Raelyn and Nola enter French class in 7th grade and blow their teacher away with their perfect accents. Learning French, although an important piece of my girls’ experiential puzzle this year, is only one of several dimensions that have helped to create the depth and breadth of their life of immersion in Paris.
Upon returning to our American life, how do I sustain an atmosphere for my daughters- one that continues to broaden their horizons, create additional pathways for compassion and empathy, generate a thirst for knowledge, and inspire a life of purpose? For starters, keeping the spirit of exploration alive by behaving like tourists in our own state and country shouldn’t be too difficult (as long as I manage that darned life balance thing; I am a Libra after all). Additionally, volunteering, donating, and continuing to be good neighbors, friends, and family members will maintain the connectedness that we, as humans, crave. Finally, honoring our true selves by acting upon our innermost desires rather than what others- or even ourselves- think we should be doing. Had I not regarded my true spirit with the honor it deserves when Soren proposed a move abroad, this blog would be non-existent for Paris would have remained untouched by us and we would be untouched by Paris.
We have completed our mission that we set out upon one year ago. The cause was basic: To expose ourselves and our children to another way of living. Our selected community of Paris and our French relatives was a no-brainer. Our new French friends are icing on the cake.
Above all else, my daughters have hopefully been touched, not so much by the differences between French and American cultures, but by the similarities. For when we peel back the layers of cultural norms, we’re all simply human, needing connection to something larger than ourselves that provides meaning and purpose to our lives. I don’t know if Raelyn and Nola will sustain their French. At least I know that I don’t know this. What lies before me as I enter my final handful of days in my Paris life is the knowledge that I still don’t know what I don’t know. But I have been deeply touched. And that is enough glorious knowledge for now. To what degree will reverse culture shock affect each of us upon returning to our American life? Only time will tell. And I bet that, when and if I do know, it will feel profoundly important.
Jean Emile Puiforcat
|Lise and Taha (Puiforcat family)|
|Sarah, our American babysitter.|
|Marion, our French babysitter.|
|Bachelier Family (Kaplan family)|
|Friends Bejamin and Annette.|
|Annie and Claude with grandson Mathias. (Puiforcat Family)|
|Picnicking with David, Nathalie, and Mathias (Puiforcat family).|
|Cousin Florence (Kaplan family).|
|Friend Lucas, son of friends Sara and Laurent.|
|Soren after private sale at Puiforcat.|
|Sylvia and Gerard with grandchildren (Kaplan family).|
|School friends Katie, Wafaa, and Lucy.|
|Cousins Franck, Kathrine, Marion, Pauline, and Laura (Puiforcat family).|
|Friends Juan Carlos and Mariel.|
|Olivier and Valentine (Kaplan family).|
|Friends Fabienne and Patrique|