Chez Soi

Adventures of a Year Abroad

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On Charlie Hebdo, et al

I’ve been wanting to write about the Charlie Hebdo thing ever since it happened, but every time I go to organize my thoughts, they kind of squirm away. So, fine, disorganized it will be then…

I remember where I was sitting when we learned of the news. It felt like the whole cafe had their phone buzz at the same time. I was sitting with Curt at a coffee shop (Cafe Loustic) in the 2nd arrondisement, with our new friend Rahaf. I remember what she said, and how we felt, and how good the dirty chai was. We had just finished sharing with her that we’d be staying for another year. We were a little excited, a little hopeful. And then it felt like *our* city was being attacked. That feeling as we were going to the metro to get our kiddo, that the gunmen were still at large, somewhere near us. Maybe just around that corner.

That night we learned that the person who had let the gunmen into the building had just returned from picking up her kiddo, and at gunpoint had to decide to save her child or her colleagues. We did a post on FB so friends would know we were okay. We didn’t go out that night, but had a quiet evening watching it online. This is a picture from that night taken by Jessie Morgan (Rahaf’s husband and photographer/ videographer extraordinaire). Thru them, we felt we were there.


The next day, Curt and I went to the National Assembly building which is super close to where we live, to listen to the church bells ring at noon. This was the fifth time in national history that the flag had been lowered to half-mast. 3 times before for the death of dignitaries, once on 9/11 and then for this.
That night, we picked up Kiddo from school and took the 15 minute metro ride to the Place de La Republique. People were humming at times, chanting at others. It was just a bunch of people, self-organized, not the official march that would happen on Sunday. I remember one couple very solemnly holding some candles. We held up our pencils. When the crowd was singing together, I looked down to see that kiddo knew all the words. I later came to find out that what he and everyone else was singing was the national anthem, La Marseillaise. How did you know the words, I asked him? He just shrugged his shoulders, with a “how do you not” kind of look. [Whatever can be said of this experience of living abroad, I will say that this was a moment I’ll never forget. He was of this place in that moment.]
We walked around, to some historic sights like the Arc de Triomphe (which by the way, has a depiction of La Marseillaise on it). (that’s what that decoration is on each side…) and it said, “Paris est Charlie”. (Paris is Charlie)
On Friday, two days after the attack, the city seemed threatened with surround-sound sirens. I couldn’t concentrate. And then our local church in the neighborhood just kept ringing the bells. I think they were saying “it’s going to be okay”. At least that’s what I took it to mean. Friends at the American Church had to evacuate the building, as did International schools since htey were considered targets. Fear filled the city in a way that’s hard to describe now. Since I could concentrate, I spent the day online. On that day, a friend I had met through my Harvard Business Review writing posted on his twitter feed:
Liberté is wounded, but it will survive. Egalité has long been struggling. But it’s Fraternité we must look after most now. – gianpiero petriglieri
He got something like a 100 retweets in a few minutes. It seemed to capture the sentiment. The Saturday version of the NYT was online with a weird op-ed running the NYT by Marine LaPen, a French politician, who said that we have to clamp down on immigration. Which made me wonder if I had misunderstood the situation, because these were not immigrants. These were french-raised people. That reminded me of the 9/11 moments of confusion, where terror propaganda passes for truth. I was struck by how much France struggles with religious differences. I searched around for pieces to understand the issues. This one, written by Nabil Wakin tried to explain the shootings to his “american friends”. The big thing there is that “free speech” is a broadly defined term by every culture. The other broad observation, was that people wanted to pin this on a “bad guy, and how universal that sentiment is around the world.
On that Friday, it came to pass that a young man helped a great deal to safety in a Jewish grocery store. He later became a citizen of France, in thanks. The fact that he was muslim, an immigrant, he became a symbol of hope. That’s kinda cool but also sad that it was needed. The eulogy delivered by brother of one of the shot police officers reminded us of a fuller truth. I had the clear idea that it was the fact that this was *muslim* driven actions that were being discussed, than terrorism. It struck me more than ever that terrorism comes in all shapes and sizes, from ISIS to Ferguson to Hebdo. Across religions, across colors.
There’s a big push to anti-immigration going on from what I can catch in LeMonde. France has already banned the burka from public places, and its treatment of their immigrant population has long been a blot on its reputation — like slavery is in the US. The explicitly anti-immigrant party, the National Front, gained 25% of the vote in recent elections to the European Parliament, the potential for a step backwards in history is not-too-far.

I asked a lot of people what this means, for them. I mean, what did a march together mean or what does it mean to say #jesuischarlie. Some say that they are defending the rights to say what they want. Others feel it is to stand up for freedom. Otherwise, say it is to say we will not be divided. I learned a lot about the people not necessarily by each answer but by the multitude of answers. That is France, at this day. People did not feel that they had to say the same thing.

And yet I could see that the sentiment was different amongst those who are of Algerian decent. If you were cutting the data by that sort, you’d find a different result. In The Times Charles Bremner said, “the whole French establishment has been reluctant to acknowledge the residue of anger felt among a former colonised people. It denies the flaws in the doctrine of assimilation that requires the six million immigrants and their descendants to meld into a supposedly colour-blind national family.”

But even to see that some of this was optics. On Sunday, there was a big “manifestation” held in the same Place de La Republique. This time, would leaders were flying in. Again, the city full of sirens mostly to get people here and there. I stayed home because i was coming down with something (again) but the boys went. I watched on Twitter. And probably had a better view than the boys. Curt described how at some point, his group was halted and then moved and then all of a sudden some very well dressed people came and stood in front of them and there were photos. It’s weird to think that whole thing was so staged… but apparently it was. In The Daily Express Peter Hill said “can’t help thinking that the line of world leaders at the front of Sunday’s Paris demo was one giant selfie, a photo opportunity not to be missed by politicians shouting: ‘Look, we are with you – so vote for us.’”

On Twitter, people were taking jabs at that front line of politicians many of whom don’t believe in the definitions of free speech that were supposedly being celebrated that day. I read on Twitter that France jailed a 16yo for posting a cartoon, in fact literally a Hebdo cartoon w/the Muslim swapped for white guy. Oy.

In some ways I found the dissonance of ideas reassuring. The one thing I’ve learned of the French is they can have an opinion. And they are willing to discuss and debate and think rather than be punked into action.
I really don’t know all of this means, really. And so perhaps this post is not valuable. But I wanted to record what we experienced, with some of our memories still fresh before it fades away.
As much as we experienced it and it changed us in ways we can’t quite describe what it all means. Things of the heart can be that way sometimes.

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42 Reasons to Never Visit France


My friend Brian Keating sent this reminder of reasons not to visit France. Which reminds me of me last week. I was in NYC and Austin without the family, while my sister-in-law was visiting Paris. When I called home, I asked: did you show her the river, and the Notre Dame? Did you take her to Poilane, did you feed her a croissant, etc.

I love this place (there’s lots to love) and it’s good to share that which you love. Neri left today after what seemed like a low-key visit but I’m hoping she took a little bit of love home with her.

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The Waiters

We are in the USA this week, our first visit since leaving for Paris. We’re marveling at the differences. Kiddo keeps trying to turn on the lights from the outside of the bathrooms (for those of you who don’t know, french bathrooms have the light on the outside…)

But also:

Temperature: 1 degree in Paris, 22 in California.
Salsa: nowhere, everywhere.
Sunshine: rare, prevalent

Curt says everything seems really big: Supermarket aisles are really big, so are products. (People also.) Our son in law has a 48 can box of beers in the garage, and we’re amazed.

And, the thing that I really noticed is how much the waiters say their name to us here. I hadn’t really noticed this much before I left but knowing a waiters or waitresses name is not appropriate or necessary in France. It struck me as overly familiar or something. Food service in Paris is a career. People take great pride in it, and they earn decent money, and so there’s not a solicitousness in the hopes of getting a bigger tip. It’s built into the bill, into the normal transaction. There was a great piece written up about the “notorious French waiter” while we were here, worth reading:

But the one thing California has that Paris does not?
Our Kids and Grandkids!!!! This one is saying, he’s on top of the world.

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Bi-Lingualism Changes Childrens’ Beliefs

In an interesting piece of research that my professor friend Tim Kastelle sent me, it turns out that learning a second language helps people know that your experience shapes you, and thus reduces stereotypes and prejudices.

It’s what one learns, rather than what one is born with, that makes you into whom you are. Interesting that I’m writing a book on a similar thread here in Paris.

I remember when we first got inspired by this idea to move abroad, and help Kiddo to have a more global mindset. A book a friend recommended helped us navigate a short sabbatical of 9 weeks. It was called “the Family Sabbatical Handbook”. It helped us navigate simple things like health care and how to set expectations with kiddo. But mostly it gave us some kind of roadmap so we didn’t feel we were trying to figure it out from scratch. We found several people who had done it before we did and they inspired us to keep going.

But one thing we’ve never needed to be convinced of is how much this is a good thing. To see anew, is a gift. For kids and for us old foggies.

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Falling in Love

I used to come to Paris for just a few days when I needed a mental refresh. I used to wander the seats, sit at cafes, fill journals with fresh ideas, and walk and walk as I heard my own thoughts more clearly. I fell in love with it, and who I was when I was here. It wasn’t just the food or the wines or the walking (all things worth loving) but that here I felt freer. Unlike other big cities, I was not afraid here, and it’s as if I could leave fear behind. Unlike other places, I did not feel alone here even when I was by myself.

It’s changed since moving here as a Family.

At first it was worrying about how Kiddo was transitioning. Then it was dealing with the new obligations and demands of setting up our place. And of course we brought with us existing worries and concerns about deadlines and commitments. But I remember what it was to fall in love here. With this place, with myself. And I hope we can find a way back — not just me, but us — with the act of being present and relishing every day for what it is — lovely.

An essay written as “Book of Home” here captured that early sense of being in love:

Here are some of the things that make falling in love wonderful:

the wild rush of feelings

the sense of possibility and potential, fettered only by a distant reality on a horizon

the glorious, unexplored territory, not yet homesteaded by domestic routine and minor irritations

It’s easy to lose the sense that love is a verb, as much as it is a noun. It is a choice. To say you will love “our place” is to say you will be present to it, to witness it, to explore it. To CHOOSE to be in love.

We appear to be coming around the corner on language and logistics. And have decided to stay for another year. Maybe soon, we can remember what it is to fall in love.


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Love Builds Up

As we all learn French, it’s clear that Kiddo’s immersive 9 hours a day in all-french school is paying off. His professors comment on how well he’s progressing, and last week he got an 18/20 on a french quiz. 2nd highest score in the class. And the only non-native speaker. It’s awesome to see.

Which is not to say he’s fluent, yet He still has to look up things, as vocabulary may not be exhaustive but he can basically do most things now in French. It’s quite an accomplishment to do in 6 months.

Curt and I are lagging behind (imagine that!) as we forget a bunch of things we learn and it seems not to stick as well. Kiddo has taken to correcting us. It doesn’t seem to bug Curt as much as it does me. At one level, I want the help but it also gets exhausting because at some level you have to try in order to get better. When both of them correct me word by word, sentence by sentence, the criticism gets to me, and I get pretty frustrated (when Sarah was here, it was 3:1 — oh what fun!).

The funny thing is when we’re in public settings, like getting seating at a restaurant, I’ll practice my french while all three of them hang back.

All this especially bugs me when I say something well (enough) for someone to completely understand me …He then says, “well, mom, another way you could have said that.…” As painful as I were peeling off my own skin. I’ve taken to clenching my hands to not respond out of the pain. It makes me not want to try. And to keep showing up, vulnerable, and trying means exposing oneself to all this criticism. I wish I didn’t take it that way. I wish I could see he’s really trying to be of help or to show all the things he’s learned. But the well has been drained from months and months of depleting experiences. I speak more french when away from the family now. And, when I finally get something right in French (not very often, mind you), I want to do the happy dance. The other day I bought a lipstick exactly the shade I wanted in all French, and I could have written a whole post on that joy. 😉

But we’re trying to work through this criticism-as-a-constant-thing.  This Sunday, I was struck by the phrase in a Corinthians lesson at the American Church in Paris: “Knowledge puffs up, but Love builds up.” We talked about this over lunch post-church — a little chinese place we stop by sometimes on the way back to our place — and, now, we’re all trying to stop focusing on proving our knowledge and more on the love we have for each other. Build each other up.

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Differences of Locals & Tourists

It’s a funny thing that now that we’re residents of Paris, we resent the touristy things. We groan when an accordion player gets on the metro, but the tourists smile and find it quaint. Like we once did. We avoid certain spots in the city during tourist seasons (Christmas and summer) like St. Michel area because of the surge of tourists. Places we once used to head for…

My friend Susan McPherson just sent a list of 24 such differences and it’s pretty much on-point.

At the same time, yesterday, I was doing a walkntalk meeting with Katy Spencer at the Tuileries (or, fais un promenade!) and we spontaneously decided to do the Ferris Wheel (which is currently at the Concorde). So here we are, a little cold but captured in the late afternoon winter sun.

Acting like tourists.

Katy Spencer and Nilofer Merchant


What You See Anew

Now that we’ve been here for five months, the one thing we notice is the subtleties of manners.

In the US if you enter a store, you enter a store. No need to say hi, or make eye contact or anything.
in France, you enter a store, you say Bonjour at a minimum. But good manners would suggest eye contact. And if you start a conversation, you say, “I’m sorry to bother you but I am looking for something specific”, not “do you have x”.

In the US, if you go to a restaurant, you are expected to check-in and wait to be seated ONLY if it’s a super tony place. In France, you are expected to say good evening, and that you are there for dinner, that yes you’ve made reservations, and would it still be possible. You assume nothing about whether they would like to serve you. You ask if you can join them.

About two months ago, I asked if I could have a pen from a cafe owner because I needed to write something down. I was with Alexa Clay and I was going to tell her some metro stop info. I was pretty proud of myself with “Puis-je prendre une stylo” but today I would say it more like, “Bonjour, Monsieur; puis-je vous déranger avoir d’une stylo?”. In other words, you don’t say, “May I have blah, blah, blah”, without first acknowledging that you are interrupting them and that you must acknowledge the trouble and your respect for them BEFORE you go onto your thing. You must first build a bridge of connection … IMG_1386 … before you can get something done.

This word, déranger seems to be crucial in this interaction. Just a few days ago, Lev Rapheal over at Huffpo, wrote “Being Polite in France Isn’t Complicated, But It’s Crucial.”

Oh dear, yes.

But you have to be pretty fluent to know how to say it. So I think he’s being a little dismissive of the language barrier.  We went into a book store in Auvers-sur-oise and the staff were having lunch and we felt bad about bothering them, but we didn’t say anything. Now we know more. Whether the words come out at a particular time is less clear.

Underneath (dessous) all this politeness is a general belief that all people deserve respect. You treat the cashier well, the server well, the storekeeper well, the guardian well, the ticket sales person, and so on. Not because of their rank or status in society but because all people deserve respect. Because it’s how you are raised. Because this is how the world should work. Now that I notice this with so much more subtlety, I keep noticing how much Americans don’t do this well, or AT ALL. They step up to a ticket booth and say “two tickets” not “two tickets please” or even “Bonjour, May I have…two tix, pls”.

Now it grates me. When I went back to the US for a meeting at Walmart in Bentonville Arkansas, about 8 or so weeks ago, I was in line at the Embassy Suites for custom omelettes first thing in the morning. I said hello to the young man, I asked if he could make me something with xyz, and after he said he could, I said, well, It would make my morning and thanks. He stood up a little taller, I noticed. And as I waited for mine to be cooked, I watched 8 people walk up to him and without acknowledging him at any individual level, they said “scramble” or “veggie omelette” but sans thanks, and certainly sans respect. It seemed to me I had changed, not America or Americans. Being in Paris helped me see something about the two places, that I didn’t see before.

Even without leaving Paris and having that kind of comparative experience, even Kiddo notices it. He rolls his eyes when he hears Americans talk. He wants to fix it for them. To teach them better. Curt has gotten much more conscious of his manners, though we all know we could get better at our interactions.

And if I was in charge of import/export stuff, THIS is 1 thing I’d like exported from Paris, to around the world. THIS, and the fromage. Well, and the chocolate. But definitely THIS.

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Getting Closer to History

Several months ago, I was reading some US author talk about “Lessons from The Eiffel Tower”. In it, he said, “it was designed at home, on the kitchen table…by someone who didn’t get their name on it, and that it had never been done before.”

Which is, at best, an oversimplification. (But, mostly, it’s just plain wrong.)

That same window of time, I was reading Paris the Novel by Ed Rutherford. It’s a fictional book that weaves both fictional stories and real history, over the course of hundreds of years based in Paris. While I found the book tedious at times (especially the back half), one story I loved was the building of the Tour Eiffel through the eyes of two brothers, Thomas and Luc Gascon.

The novel, even though partly fictional, tells some history of the Tour Eiffel.
That it was designed by by Gustave Eiffel, who had designed and built tons of things by the time he got to design the now historic icon. The thing any local will tell you is that Gustave had designed many things before this. They might mention the “Les Halles” in Dijon. Dijon is the birthplace of moutarde (mustard), and this covered marketplace was built in the mid-1800s. Or they might mention that Gustave designed and created the framework inside the Statue of Liberty, a gift to the US from the people of France in 1886, which was an engineering feat. Eiffel graduated from the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in 1855 as a civil engineer and specialized in metalwork. Initially, he made his name designing bridges for the French railway network, and some of his bridges are still around. And, so later  —  because of his already great understanding of engineering a particularly specific form-factor, and his understanding of metalwork for construction at scale — he got picked to design, build and is now known for his iconic piece de resistance, the Eiffel Tower, in 1889.
We’re planning/hoping to go to Dijon and Les Halles while there, sometime soon, when Daughter #1 is in town for Christmas.
In thinking of Dijon, it reminded me of Gustave’s history and I started to wonder… do these seemingly smart people intentionally over-simplifying global stories, for their own marketing type purposes. Or do they really not know any better?