Frenchies in New York

My first year in Paris, I had a group of American girl friends. We had dinner at each other’s apartments every Tuesday and shared ups and downs and a ton of fun in the city. Amazingly, years later, we keep in touch online and see each other when we can, sometimes in our respective cities and sometimes in a different country altogether. I was one friend’s conference spouse in Liège, Belgium and we made a side trip to Aachen, Germany after. Another girl saw the other during a long stopover in New York. Three got together in Greece. Once, four of us managed to reunite for a weekday lunch in New York.

This week a friend from the group forwarded us an email thread from over four years ago. I didn’t understand half the references we made in them (I would say you had to be there, but I was…), and there was some embarrassing stuff that reminded me why I should save some stories for oral telling and my diary. The excerpt below, however, is appropriate for sharing with you. I wrote it after spending a summer day with a friend and her boyfriend and their three friends, all Frenchies.

Today I hung out with French people visiting NY, and here were their observations:
No one smokes.
There are a lot of ads for storage space.
It is shocking that at a bar the server takes one person’s credit card to open a tab and doesn’t give it back till the end.
It is surprising that they could wear shorts to go to a fancy rooftop bar. (Most of the people at the bar were dressed up, but my friends were in shorts.)
It is freakin’ humid.
The subway stations are HOT.
They were surprised at how many people were wearing warm clothing like jeans and boots when it’s so warm today. (This really amused me, because this is what we always say about the French.)
The Nespresso boutique doesn’t have George Clooney’s face.

Two other things that happened that day:

My friend and I agreed to meet on Broadway in Soho. On the phone, I described to her where I was and couldn’t understand why she didn’t see the same stores. Turns out she didn’t realize that the little ‘W’ on the Broadway street sign she was looking at meant that she was on West Broadway, a different, but nearby street. And yes, it is confusing.

The six of us went to a rooftop bar, the first they had ever been to. We sat down and looked at the view of the city. One of the guys said he would go up to the bar to ask if we should order there or if we would be served at our table. He came back, a baffled look on his face. “According to the sign, you have to be a group of 21 to be served,” he said. That’s strange, I thought, until I started laughing. “Must be 21 to be served means you have to be at least 21 years old,” I explained. Understandably, this meaning wouldn’t necessarily occur to someone who is from a country where the drinking age is 18.

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Straight to the Heart

Let me start from the end. My last day in Paris this past vacation found me sitting at the bottom of the long staircase at Montmartre, crying my eyes out with the beautiful Sacré-Coeur Basilica in view at the top of the hill.

When I recounted this story to my friend a week later, back in our routine of Tuesday lunch in New York, he laughed and said, “That’s so Parisian!”

I had to laugh. I know he didn’t mean it in an unsympathetic way, and I wasn’t in an emotional state at that point. I guess it was quite an image. I hadn’t seen it from his perspective since I could hardly see through my own tears while living it.

No, I hadn’t fallen down the stairs of the Sacré-Coeur. I had had an unexpected negative interaction with a close friend, and in that moment, it knocked the wind out of me and seemed to put a damper on my whole trip, which upon reflection during my flight back to the States, had actually been full of beautiful and fun and pleasant moments in addition to the disappointing and frustrating ones.

Some vacation, eh?

I have traveled quite a bit, and I realize that my experience on this trip was due in part to my ties in France, which have loosened from being away but are still rooted. Ever evolving and changing but still existent. I was coming back to a place where I have history, a place that I love where people I love live, but once in a while who and what you love can hurt you.

From what I’ve seen, most expats and immigrants have a multifaceted relationship with their adopted country. It is enriching and spectacular and difficult and challenging to make one’s life in another culture. I admire those who do so to escape a precarious political situation, for their safety, or for a better life. When I moved to France, it was just for myself, and indeed there were still hard moments. I know that I was lucky in that despite the frustrations of applying for visas and getting paperwork through and dealing with administrative systems, I had a country to come back to where I have citizenship and the right to work.

Let’s go back to the bottom of the staircase. I thought of calling someone to talk to. Who would be available back in the States? Mon copain ? I considered. I wasn’t going to call my friends in France, who would be at work. As I sat there, lo and behold, a French friend called me to ask how my trip was going. The poor guy, who was probably expecting me to tell him I was gallivanting around Paris eating pastries, got a blubbering explanation of my tears. He gave me some words of strength and insight and comfort, and after patiently listening to me a little more, kindly told me that he had to get back to his meeting and that he would call me that night. He had phoned me during a break and they were waiting for him.

I contemplated what to do next. Nearby, a girl started to play the piano that was set up at the base of the staircase. It was composer Yann Tiersen’s song from “Amélie.”

How magical.

If you’ve watched “Amélie” starring Audrey Tautou, you will know why. There is a scene in this classic film where a character runs up this very staircase. We are held in suspense along with him as he darts up to the top, wondering and hoping to find what he is seeking. I love this song in general, and to hear it here—well, I hope you can imagine. It was the stuff of dreams.

Paris, what you do to me.

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Multiplication is the Answer

I think about my friend Donna around this time of year.

In one of the cheesy Family Circus comic strips, a woman asks the mother of the family, “How do you divide your love among your four children?” The mom answers, “I don’t divide it. I multiply it.”

To me Donna was that comic in action, and I remind myself of both whenever I feel jealous of someone’s tie with another.

At her funeral, I remember realizing how far her reach extended. She had touched many individuals throughout her life. She had always made me feel special, and to know she had made others feel the same way brought home that there is not a finite supply of love. Caring for one person doesn’t have to diminish tenderness for another.

This should be obvious. I have family and lots of friends, a number of whom I consider close. Those in my circle are all important to me.

However, the same way a woman might criticize her appearance but be generous in assessing others, jealousy can creep in unwarranted.

Remembering Donna is like throwing a fist in the air and exclaiming that we have an immense capacity for feeling.

The second thing I sometimes think about since losing Donna: no one is replaceable. I’ve met smart, thoughtful people since her, and I have friends and acquaintances who support me and whom I root for. But no one is quite like her, and no one does it quite like she did. I suppose that’s awful and awesome at the same time.

Love is Kind

This time last year I would have already received a Valentine’s card from my friend Donna. She was already gone, but I didn’t know it yet.

This year I must content myself with reading her card from last year. The actual letter is safe in New Jersey, but I have a copy on my computer, too.108.donna.2015I remember, at the time of her passing, being struck by how kind my friends and family are.

– The friend who told me the news and later, attended the memorial service and recounted it to me
– The friend who had dinner with me when I arrived in Boston the night before the funeral, when I didn’t expect anyone to be able to meet up with me on late notice
– The friend who let me crash at her and her boyfriend’s apartment
– One of the career services people I knew who saved me from awkwardness after the funeral Mass; drove me to the cemetery, which was farther from the church than I realized and which I would not have been able to reach on foot; and dropped me off at a subway station so I could catch my bus back to New York
– The two friends who called me when I was in subway after the funeral to find out how it went
– My sister, who thoughtfully got a Mass card for Donna’s family
– My parents, who were supportive
– The friend who knew Donna too and with whom I could share stories
– The friends who sent me comforting words

Today I remember the envelope her Valentine’s card came in, with its pink script and matching pink postage stamp and pink return address label.

I remember sitting in her office two summers ago and her leaning forward with her whole body and laughing with her eyes all squinched up.

I remember sitting at my kitchen table and speaking with her on the phone before leaving for France.

I remember sitting in her office as a college senior, talking about the future.

I remember walking home to my dorm and talking to my college roommate about how awesome Donna was. I must have just had an appointment with her, and I can’t imagine what she would have said to leave me with that kind of enthusiasm.

I remember sitting in bed at night in Paris and reading her letter by lamplight and thinking, “Someone out there is thinking about me.” It made me realize how much value you can bring to someone from afar.

Today I think about her family and the people she touched.

Today I say to her, as I did a year ago, “Thank you.”

Thank You, French Cell Phone Plan

The other Saturday I took advantage of the sunshine that made it just warm enough to sit outside, a rare winter treat.

I chose a quiet spot in the Luxembourg Gardens and called my dad. Cell phone plans have made leaps and bounds here within the past five to ten years. All the major competitors offer calls to the United States at no extra charge, which means that with a regular cell phone I can walk next to the Seine and speak with my sister, who is in the States. My plan costs twenty euros a month and includes unlimited calls and texts in France, unlimited calls to all phones in the United States, Canada, and China and to landlines in many other countries, and data. It is amazing.

About a month ago a friend and I spoke about what happened to our relationships when we left our respective countries and came to Paris. She said that she cut off her ties there, not because she had any animosity towards her circle, but because she wanted to be fully present here. She was actually quite happy before she left, but now she is immersed in her Parisian life. Our conversation made me think of a fellow college student I knew when I studied abroad here; he was adventurous and liked Paris, but he spent a lot of time Skyping with his girlfriend in the States, whom he missed a lot.

I think it’s hard to have strong ties in your home country when you live abroad because you will feel a part of you is missing. On the other hand, I value those ties. As I told my friend, although my close friends and family are not physically in Paris, they are present in my life. At one point I realized that much of my emotional support circle is not here. However, I don’t think that depending on them prevents me from forming liens in my current adopted country. I have some close friends here and am always open to meeting new people and potential “kindred spirits,” as my friend Donna would say. At the same time, I don’t consider people replaceable. I’m of the mindset that once you find a good friend, you better hold on to them.

Certainly, I am not still in contact with every friend who has ever entered my life. Sometimes people are there for a specific period, even a very short one. Sometimes people are not good at keeping in touch or drop out of sight with no warning. I’ve learned to let those go. It’s precisely for that reason that the people who stick around are all the more important.

Later that day, after my foray in the Luxembourg Gardens, I took a long walk with a friend in her neighborhood. Then I had dinner with two other friends, the couple that hosted me during my first week in Paris while I looked for an apartment.

I leave you with a photo of the Luxembourg Gardens on a cold, clear day with an uncommonly blue sky for Paris.106.luxembourg