All Roads Lead to Paris
By Lisa Czarina Michaud
Originally published in Global Living Magazine – Issue 24 | Summer 2016
If you were to ask me as a teenager what I would be doing when I “grow up,” living in Paris would certainly not be one of my first guesses. Living there, I would say, would defy who I am because Paris is too good for me since I’m not the type of girl who ends up in Paris. By fashion magazine standards, you could say that the girl who ends up there is impossibly chic. She gets whisked away by some enviable romantic tale. She does not worry about things like having saddlebags and delinquent tax returns. And she definitely would not be friends with me. But somehow I did end up in Paris despite stumbling into town like a bad date you regret bringing to a cocktail party. Because I learned that the girl who I imagined doesn’t exist and Paris isn’t too good for me, we just had to get to know each other better.
So, what brought me to the land of scarves and strikes? It was not an obvious evolution, as I was not known as a Francophile who had a penchant for Eiffel Tower trinkets. I did not belong to the French club in high school. And if I really want to embarrass myself here, I will admit to not even being required to take a second language in school. After a series of evaluation exams that focused on equations, it was decided by the administration that learning French would prove to be too strenuous for me, and I was put into a learning collective ambiguously called “Resource Room.” My disappointment in not even being given the opportunity to learn another language was placated by being told that I would not need French when I was older.
Unbeknownst to me, my future did not care about evaluation exams and the mathematics they rode in on, and had its sights set on France; it just took me a few years to recognize it.
My unwitting exploration into French culture came at an early age by way of food. Coming from a European family involved in the food business, there was always something from afar set on the table. While we are Italian, my grandparent’s bi-annual sojourns to France to meet with farmers in the countryside would result in sampling foie gras, duck rillette spreads, ashy Montrachet goat cheeses, creamy Brie de Meaux, and escargot (whose shells I would then place in a flower pot.) Naturally, our house was not the popular one to eat dinner at, which made me resist our European roots and my family’s involvement in food. None of my other friends’ refrigerators smelled like a French barn, nor did they go to school smelling of cured meats, because their families did not double their garages as a makeshift salumeria boasting a morbid collection of hanging jambon cru, proscuitto and soppressata.
Fast-forward to my 20s to a time when it would make sense that I would continue in the trail of my foodie family, I chose an industry that some may describe as the exact opposite of food: fashion. My first corporate job stood out as the jewel of my previous jobs of waiting tables and developing film. It was at the fashion house of my favorite designer… and all of my bosses were French. At meetings as they discussed among themselves in their native language, I would chuckle at the irony of being told that I would not need French as an adult. After several years, a position opened up in the company that, based on my experience, was seemingly tailored for me. But there was a catch: It was based in the Paris office. Could I be fancy and work in fashion in Paris? I wondered for a few weeks before I decided that I could be fancy, or at least pretend to be, and arranged a meeting with my bosses in the hopes of being recommended. It was then that I was told once again that I would not be able to learn French. This time it was my advanced age of 27 that was going to be my obstacle, because apparently we are not able to absorb another language post-adolescence. So, when I was younger, I was too stupid to learn French, and in this instance I was just too old.
While I did not get the job, I had already built up the idea of living in Paris. After stumbling across a video online of my paternal grandmother who lived in Paris for thirty years singing with her jazz band in the 60s on French television, and learning in the comments section that she had died that week, I went for it. I moved to Paris by myself. Unable to deny what I considered to be an inexplicable pull to the City of Light, as I flew overseas, I wondered if my makeshift plan would be the road to my final destination or merely a detour, a story for my grandchildren about the time grandma briefly moved to Paris?
I am just going to come out and say this: moving to Paris without a visa, a job, much cash or even friends is strongly advised against. Moving to Paris and sharing a studio apartment with a French guy who moonlights as a fashion model is just dumb. But that is what I did, and well, things got weird. Perhaps I would leave that detail out from the grandchildren.
The weeks turned into months turned into years with scenes made for a movie (a midnight bike ride along the Seine) to the bloopers reel (losing my shoe a week later in the Seine and hopping halfway home on one foot.) I went through different visas, taking on different odd jobs here and there just to stay in Paris. And as any expat will tell you, life abroad has this cyclical element to it. You meet people, you say goodbye to people. You live in apartments, you leave apartments. You find love, and you lose love. Like constructing a quilt: each patch represents a block of time passed that you thread together, which eventually presents a fuller understanding of all of these little experiences.
Six years after making that midnight trek across the Atlantic, I finally have my answer to why I moved to Paris: I had important people to meet. My son, whom I recently gave birth to, and of course his father. Today we live in the 12th arrondissement. I am bilingual because apparently my brain can process a second language. And I’m thankful for my introduction to French food at such a young age, which has made the transition smoother than it could have been.
Just like I was told I could never learn French, I was also told I could never live in Paris. But I followed my intuition, because I knew there was a reason to keep pushing forward, even on days when nothing made sense or I felt like I was steering off course because, as it turned out, all roads led me home… to Paris.
[Photography © Aurelien Michaud]
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