Home is Where the Heart is

When it comes down to it, what really makes a place a home….I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently.  Almost two months actually.  I began to write this entry in the middle of November.  Then when I was back in Washington, DC for 3 weeks to get my French visa.  Sidenote: For potential expats out there, if at all possible, get your visa before you leave for overseas and save yourself the confusion that is the subject of this post.  From what I understand talking to other expats, a degree of it is normal.  However, absolutely everyone I have talked to who had to pick up and return to get their visa a few weeks into the “settling in” process have experienced similar levels of angst. Anyway, the flurry of action items to tick through while in Washington made it almost impossible to think clearly so I put it off until I returned.  Well, it’s been over 3 weeks since I have been back, Christmas is literally days away, my mother has arrived for a couple of days, and I am still grappling with what the term “home” really means.  So, now, as I listen to the Motown’s takes on the holiday hits staring out at a fog wrapped Eiffel Tower, I am just writing whatever comes to mind.  I suppose that is the purpose of a blog after all.

As I mentioned, I recently got back from spending three weeks back in DC.  I struggled a lot during my trip, my life only beginning to take some shape in Paris while being so firmly identifiable and recognizable in Washington.  I started to cry again.  After a whopping 2 weeks in Paris of not crying, this took me by surprise and I didn’t understand why I was acting like this.  People asked me a lot, with great amounts of excitement in their voice, what it was like living in Paris and all I could bring myself to say was, “It’s wonderful but hard.”  They then followed up with the inevitable, “But why?” And I struggled to put my finger on what exactly made it hard so, oftentimes, all I could really say was, “Well, everything.”  As I had more meetings / drinks / dinners where this came up, the only analogy I could think of to help them understand was, “If there was such a thing as being half pregnant, this is what it would feel like.”  You see, my life still continues in many ways back in Washington.  I still pay my mortgage and taxes there.  I still bank there.  I still receive mail there.  However, I have the beginnings of a life – the future of which remains to be determined – here in Paris.  I pay rent here.  I now have a bank here (that only took 3 months and will be the subject of a future post, I am sure).  And, thanks to the holiday season and coming from a city that still believes in the value of a paper Christmas card, I have received mail here.  Sidenote: If you are an American who has a friend who has recently moved abroad, keep them on your holiday card list.  I cannot tell you how much it has meant to me to receive similar holiday greetings and cannot express enough gratitude to those friends who kept me on their list and went through the pain that I know is involved in sending mail internationally.  It kills me that I won’t be able to get mine out this year.  But, each card that I have received here has truly helped me begin to think of Paris as my home. All of this is to say, the past several weeks have had me think a lot of what makes a home.  Is it your past? The groundwork that you established and relationships that you built up over time?  Or, is it your future?  The risks that you take for the potential that can be realized.

When I was back in DC, I spent most of the first half of my trip running around my house like a whirling dervish, packing this, organizing that, and thinking through the various different plans I need to make for when and if I rent my house.  For various different reasons (which I may or may not go into in future entries), I decided not to make this decision yet.  To put it off until the end of March. In part, I feel the need to create a safety net for this move – a strong line, if you will, back into my old life. In part, I just haven’t had the mental or energetic capacity to get everything in a place where a total stranger can come in and take up residence for the next year (give hopefully a few years, take a couple of months).  I have lived in this house for 9 years.  It was my dream property.  The first for me to buy and own on my own.  And, I have had a hard time wrapping my head around someone else living there, especially amidst the decorations that I spent so much love, care, and time pulling together.  (We all know that even the best renter of a fully furnished house will do things to it that will invariably irk the owner.  I say this as a current renter of a fully furnished property who spent the first day in it moving the furniture and paintings around to meet my aesthetic.) Now, I can make a strong argument(s) for why this isn’t the best approach to take. But, as Julia Roberts said in Pretty Woman, I’m a safety girl.  And, for a number of reasons, this is at least the safest course for me: to move to Europe and begin a new life, literally, one duffel bag at a time.  

In thinking through what makes a home, the one thing that this unusual moving, or non-moving, or cross-Atlantic straddling process has taught me is that the attachment to home is less about things and more about people.  Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of attachments to things.  My sweet mother spent days with me back in Washington as I catalogued literally everything in my house – what was to stay for a renter and what was to cross the Atlantic when I settled into a more permanent situation.  What was so interesting about that process was how little in my house was put on “to move” list, mostly art that I had either been given or had purchased in my travels.  I realized that the things in my house aren’t what made it felt like a home, but rather the memories that the house contained, either in the form of physical things but more abundantly the echos of the various dinners, gatherings, laughs, tears, and conversations that had taken place there over the years.  That said, I knew I needed to let that go, at least for now if I was going to really give myself a shot of making a real life over here.

All of this said, I will fully admit, I am mentally and emotionally sitting in suspension.  Probably more so than many who carve similar paths as I am.  I can see a future laying out in front of me.  However, for a number of different reasons, that future can’t begin to really unfold for several more weeks / month.  So, already being an internally oriented person, this period of time has had me thinking a lot about where one should consider “home” when you are in the process of transitioning one life to another?  As I have thought more and more about this, usually while walking the breathtakingly beautiful streets of Paris, I am coming to realize that home is truly where you decide to place your heart and hopes and, for now, that is right here in the City of Lights or the City of Love, depending on who you talk to.  For the purpose of making this city my home, it is certainly becoming both.

This experience thus far has brought me to the belief that very rarely is a home found.  Rather, more often, it is made after finding the place where you set your expectations about making it.  There is a conscious decision to settle in and realize, as much as is possible, the hopes and dreams that you have for it.  Your heart has to be really in it.  Perhaps that is why I have struggled for so many of the past few weeks.  Because for a variety of reasons (fear of failure, emotional and professional alike), I allowed my heart to not express its full desire to make this city and this country my home.  The funny thing about that statement is that I am only just realizing that this is what I have done and how I, in many ways, set myself up for emotional turmoil.  I allowed this fog to overshadow the gift that I have been given in life to have this time to explore – this country, this continent, the people and all they have to teach.  A friend of mine recently told me not to expect to make too many European friends while I was here.  Having lived for quite some time in Brussels herself, I was intrigued as to why she thought so.  Her rationalization: “Europeans see Americans as transient visitors to their city / country, so why invest?”  It made total sense to me at the time but only now coming to fully realize what that means.  So, as I look into the new year and the potential that I truly believe it holds, it is with a new mind and heart-set to make Paris my home…for whatever period of time I am to be here (yes, I know, I know, I know….one step at a time!)  

Adaptation

In a recent email exchange, a friend of mine said that “change is never easy” in response to comment I made about the experience of moving to Paris being filled, thus far, with extreme highs, extreme lows and struggling to find stability.  I knew that the process of moving to a foreign country was going to be emotional roller coaster.  I mean, moving generally is difficult and always presents unforeseen obstacles, why would moving across the ocean be any easier?  However, I have to admit that I was completely unprepared for just how wild of a ride this would end up being.

I’m a pretty analytical person.  I am also a pretty dramatic person.  There is a constant battle between my mind and heart, each constantly tugging at me and telling me they know the best way for me to approach the world in front of me.  [Note: I am sure those of you reading this who know got more than a little snicker out of these comments.]  Given my psychological disposition, the best way for me to face tough situations – be they professional or personal – is to break them down and “work the problem,” to really understand what is going on and absolutely every possible scenario so that I am not caught so off guard or breathless by the situation.  As I was preparing for the move, I thought I had done this.  I talked to attorneys, tax accountants, clients, former expats, friends, and family.  For a number of different reasons, I chose to stage my move over a period of months.  As confident as I was in the potential of the man for whom I was moving across an ocean, I do not do anything without a safety net.  So, I planned a return trip to Washington, DC (coming up in just a couple of weeks) to finalize my visa.  Since I was moving myself (as opposed to an employer moving me), I decided to hold off making decisions about renting my home until I had a better sense of where (and if) I would land professionally.  I knew I would hit points throughout the year where “tough decisions” would be made and I marked them on my physical and psychological calendar to tackle as they came.

The one thing that I wasn’t prepared for when I hit the ground was the very thing for which I should have been the most prepared, given my wiring and full understanding of it.  Namely, all of the emotional safety nets and professional trip wires that I set up wouldn’t keep my heart and head from continuing to wage their war once “in country.”  In other words, when moving to a foreign country, no matter how much logistical planning you do, you are still going to hit a number of mental brick walls which you have no other choice but to break through, climb over, or figure your way around when adapting to your new life.  Rather than call them brick walls (though that’s exactly how they feel at times), I have begun to think of each of these as “stages of embracing a new life.”  

While I am sure there will be more to come, I have hit three stages to date and thought it was worth sharing my experiences with them.  

First, there was the “OMG, what did I just do to my life?” phase.  

Ok, it needs to be said that this has been the absolute hardest one for me to handle and it’s only looking at it in hindsight that I understand why it was so painful.  My decision to move to Paris was a relatively simple one.  I was at a crossroads both personally and professionally.  Despite my best efforts, I wasn’t advancing and needed to do something to create my own opportunities.  The Parisian presented a path to these opportunities, to become more global in my perspective.  So, I said yes to the move and then started one of the the most exhausting sprints of my life (well, with the possible exception of studying – and, I might add, passing – the Virginia Bar).  I spent 3 months packing up a life I spent over a decade creating.  I barely slept.  If I was lucky, I slept maybe 3 hours a night.  I filled my days and nights with all manner of professional and personal tasks.  Professionally, I was tracking projects of clients to hand back over to the firm I worked for, filing business documents to create my own firm to house initial projects presented to me, and monitoring job sites of all manner of employers (from NGOs to VCs).  Personally, I was saying goodbye to old and dear friends, studying french, tracking bills to ensure that none would be missed, and scheduling maintenance appointments for my house over a year in advance so that I wouldn’t forget them when on the Continent.  

By the time I landed in Paris, I was emotionally drained, physically worn out, but exhilarated to see the love of my life (whom I hadn’t seen in over 3 months) and just get this party started.  I would like to say that our first weekend together was just as romantic as our relationship had been up to that point.  I would like to say it was but that would be a lie.  Our first few days together was a crash course in just how difficult communicating in two different language can be and just how quickly things can escalate when neither party involved has the energy to find a common ground of understanding.  [Note: I would learn through my first expat friends – who were my first glimmers of hope in this move – that a friend of theirs actually wrote a book about this. Laura Collins’ When in French: Love in a Second Language is a good read and I highly recommend it if you are dating a Frenchman or generally interested in learning about the linguistic obstacles presented when you fall in love with someone whose native tongue is not your own.]  When the Parisian left for work on Monday, I did not say “je t’aime” as we promised each other we always would.  Rather, they were two more choice and, well, far less romantic words in English.  I’ll let you figure out what they were.  It’s not that hard.  I closed the door behind him – almost on him, really – and promptly broke down in tears.  

All I could think was, “What did I just do?  What did I just do?  What did I just do?”  I had left a stable, lucrative, albeit increasingly stale, job in Washington, DC.  I had left a core group of friends with whom I had grown into my adult life and were established touchstones.  I had left family that were no further than a 2 hours travel, if needed.  I had left all of this for a man and a future that now looked like an impossibility.  I sank into a puddle and promptly called two of my dearest friends.  I can’t even remember what I said to them and have no idea if anything that I said was coherent or understandable.  I hesitated to tell my mother.  After a heart wrenching 24 hours, though, I finally told her.  The three of them saw me through this incredibly dark time.  They reminded me that Washington, DC would always be home, that I could come back, that no one would judge me for it.  [Note: As much as I appreciated the sentiment, the last comment is absolutely false.  Washington, DC is a tough town and I would have faced a shower of judgment for giving up so quickly.]

So, how did I get through this period?  Well, slowly.  It all started with a run.  A long one.  Along the Seine.  This has become my best form of therapy.  It’s hard to sink into an abyss of sadness when you are running along the Seine, passing Ile Saint Louis on the left, the Tuileries on the right, and the Eiffel Tower in front.  I then started to reach out to friends of friends in Paris.  I needed to talk to someone who had done this before.  To someone who understood.  It was during one of these coffees / initial meetings that I was told, “Paris is like a new girlfriend. When you first meet her, she is amazing and fills you with all these amazing ideas.  When you decide to make her a permanent part of your life, she can prove to be quite difficult, irritable, and sometimes presents parts of her personality that makes you seriously question your decision.  Just stick with her, though, because I promise you it is a friendship that will change your life.”  He then added, “Any time you think you can’t handle anything thrown at you here, just go outside, wander around, and remind yourself that the problems you are facing are because you are IN PARIS and many people would kill to have a chance to be in your shoes.”  These words proved to be the most transformative to how I mentally wrapped my head around, well what I ACTUALLY HAD JUST DONE to my life and work through this phase.  

Each run was a conversation with myself.  At first I thought, “I’ll just do this for 3 months.  I’ll approach this like a life sabbatical.  I’ll take French lessons, cooking classes, and walk the streets, and then go back to ‘real life.’  Three months is a decent effort.”  I then said, “Well, if I am going to do 3 months, I might as well do 6 months.  That’s enough time to see what I can make of this experiment.”  I was constantly anxious, though.  I was unable to sleep, eat (which is a real shame in a town known for croissants and nutella crepes) and prone to tears.  I couldn’t even drink red wine (I KNOW) as it tasted like battery acid to me.  Trying to sort these feelings out, I reached out to a former client who had become a confidante in the transition process due to her experience with risky life changes and asked, “Does the anxiety ever end?  I don’t know if I can do this longer than 6 months.”  Her simple response was, “I wish I could say it does but it doesn’t. You need to give yourself more than 6 months.  You really need to give yourself a year to see what you can do.  There are more than a few of us here who are cheering you on and believe you can do this.”  Shortly after that, my (perhaps interim, perhaps long term, but that is an entry for later) apartment came through for a year.  Being a believer in signs, I promptly completed all the documents I needed to pull together for my year long French visitor visa and said to myself, “Ok, I am going to give this for a year.  I will do what I need to do to build a life – both personally and professionally.  If things aren’t working by then, at least I will have given it a serious try.”  And like that, the “OMG, what I did just do to my life” phase came to a close.

Oh, I realize that some of you may be asking, “Well, what happened to the Parisian?” Things also began to normalize there too and he is still very much in the picture.  But that’s “not the point,” as he is prone to saying.  But it has certainly helped.

I had maybe 2 days of good rest, though, before the “OMG, I need to get a job ASAP” phase set in.

For most people, this phase may present the most anxiety.  For me, though, it has been the easiest one to handle.  Don’t get me wrong, this was and has been an incredibly daunting and blood pressure driving phase.  But, I have been through this before and have seen it work out.  Well, not in this exact same situation but a comparable one.  Let me back up a bit.

Nine years ago, I had just turned 30 and settled into an awesome pace of life.  I was the Chief Intellectual Property Counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee and negotiating a bill that would prove formative in shaping my career.  I thought I knew exactly where I was going and how I would get there. Just over 6 months later, though, the ground underneath me seemed to be constantly quaking. The Republicans had lost the Senate. [Note: I understand that if you are reading this and don’t work in politics, this might not seem like a huge thing but it can be a very big deal if you work for a Committee.].  The Senator I worked for switched political parties quite unexpectedly, leaving those of us who worked for him on the Committee unsure of whether or for how long we had a job. And, most importantly, my father was diagnosed with glioblastoma and passed away less than a month later.  I was reeling from everything life was throwing at me and trying to figure out where solid ground could be found.  

Rather than sit back and wait for everything to happen to me, I decided to be proactive.  I flew out to California and met with everyone I had worked with during my years with the Committee.  I spent two weeks there, having only nine meetings when I first got on the plane to San Francisco.  Over thirty meetings later, I had lined up what would become my next job at the Intel Corporation.  Now, I understand that these situations aren’t totally analogous. What it taught me, though, is that if you stare into an abyss of the professional unknown, sooner or later things will work out if you talk to enough people.  And that is exactly what I decided to do when confronted with the overwhelming sense of – well, for lack of a better phrase – “holy shit”ness that waves over you in this phase.

It’s been 6 weeks and two days since I landed in Paris and I have had over 100 meetings with policy and political peers here in Paris, Brussels, and London.  Now, 100 meetings was basically a standard work week in Washington, DC.  However, considering I knew maybe 5 people in UK / Europe when I got on the plane to Paris – none of whom work in my professional world – I am quite proud of myself (as evidenced by my writing about this) for really pushing myself “to get out there” in a way that I haven’t been forced to do in quite sometime.  Oh, and it goes without saying that I am eternally grateful to all of the friends, colleagues, and clients who have reached out to their network on this side “of the pond.”  

Now, I am far from being done with this phase and who knows when I will be.  I am a square peg of a Washington hack in the round hole of a European world.  I’m hardly the first Washingtonian to make this transition.  Most who have come before me, though, have a lot stronger backgrounds in the trade world.  This is where my deep background in issues impacting the world of technology and experience with the companies comes in handy.  It seems everyone – on both sides of the Atlantic – is trying to get a handle on the growth and importance of the technology industry.  It just happens to be that I have a unique set of experiences and perspective into this world.  I won’t go further into this but will note that I am working on a series of writings on Medium devoted to applying this perspective to issues and debates here in Europe.

All of this is to say that as I increasingly gain confidence in the fact that something will work out professionally, I have begun to experience the “OMG, why am I not embracing this more” phase.

There is one piece of advice that people keep telling me over and over again: “Everything professionally will work out so just relax and take everything you can in right now.”  I have given these words a lot of weight because, honestly, even if the professional situation doesn’t work out, I will forever kick myself if I don’t make the most of the situation I have created for myself.  That’s why I feel the need to share this phase.  I recently realized how much of my life I live in the future – constantly listing the things I need to do, thinking through all the possible scenarios that could go right or wrong and how to react to any one of them.  While this tendency helps make me good at what I do professionally, it also means I have a tendency to look past the beauty, joy, hilarity and exhilaration of where I currently sit and only focus on what is lacking.  Who knows how long this adventure in Paris or Europe will last.  I may only spend a year or, hopefully, I will find a new lifetime home to parallel the one I created in Washington, DC.  [Note: Washington, DC will always be a home in my heart, no matter how long I am gone.  I am hoping to figure out how to split time but here and there, but am already struggling with where to call “home.”  It occurred to me that this is something that all expats must struggle with at some point and will be the subject of a future post.  So consider this a preview of things to come.]  The only opportunity that is lost in my being here, though, is not absorbing every moment of it – every ray of pink light soaked in, every French word stumbled over and then learned, every sip of espresso enjoyed over both laughters and tears at the un-understably small tables that only make sense in Europe, and more.  

Even as I currently embrace this phase, I am constantly having to tell myself not to feel anxious about enjoying the experience more….Lord, what is wrong with me.  

Setting Up a New Life

Why play it safe when you can totally upend your life and everything you spent over a decade creating?

Earlier this year, I decided to move to Paris.  I decided to move here for a number of different reasons, many of which are hard to enumerate.  

I had lived in Washington, DC for over 15 years.  I had an amazing life – good jobs, wonderful friends, traveling whenever I wanted to – but I was at a stalemate.  Despite having everything that one could want, I was frustrated – professionally and personally – and wanted a challenge.  I wanted to expand my mind.  I wanted to learn something new.

I needed some time off to think.  After spending years exploring different possibilities, I couldn’t quite see where the path ahead of me led, or whether there was even a path.  I had talked about taking 3 months off, getting an around the world ticket, and traveling the world.  Picking the most random and exotic places I could think of and just going.  As wonderfully romantic that idea was, I couldn’t quite bring myself to book the ticket and couldn’t figure out why.  Something about it sounded too frivolous.  Like I wouldn’t be able to make something of it.  Sidebar: Given the fact that Madagascar was on the list of “random places to visit,” clearly this ended up being the right decision as it would have been really unfortunate to have caught the Bubonic Plague while embracing life. 

Now I know what you are thinking, “So, you decided to totally up and move instead?”  Well, yes.  I figured if I sank myself into another life, another culture, then I would really get something both personally and professionally out of it.  

We live in a world that is more and more international with each passing day.  The transatlantic “conversation” occurring between Washington, DC, Brussels and the various European capitals is increasingly important to the world I was coming from – namely, the world of technology policy.  After having spent over a decade and a half in Washington, DC, I figured I really needed to sink myself into the European world to understand the dynamics of the decisions they were making.

Most importantly, I fell in love with a Parisian.  I know, I know.  How cliche can you be?But, it’s true.  He became my rationalization to make an otherwise wholly irrational decision.  I had never known a love like the one I found with this man and I wanted to explore it and see where it took me.  I figured, “well, even if it doesn’t end up working out, I will explore a world of emotions I have never known before.”

Now, let me just say that I’ve always been one of those people who have been able to get pretty much anything done in a matter of days. So, when I decided earlier this year to move to Paris to be with the man who I believe to be the love of my life, I thought “surely I won’t need longer than a couple of weeks to settle in and then I’ll get to finding my career”. Well, all I have to say is moving to Paris is hard….and the French are even harder.

Why, you ask?

Well, I will go through just a short list of reasons (most of which I expect to be recurring themes in this adventure I have decided to recount publicly)….

First, let’s take the language thing….well, it’s a lot bigger barrier than you can ever imagine.  No matter how many people speak English these days (and there are WAY more people in Paris who speak English than ever before) and no matter how much you try / how high your comprehension, conducting core activities….like say finding an interim flat, banking, talking to the cable operator because your WiFi is out, trying to tell someone that your dishwasher is leaking an enormous amount of water (all of which I experienced in the first week in my French flat)…when your French boyfriend is off at work is extremely difficult to truly communicate through broken French / English discourse.  

Second, there’s the whole, “making friends in your late 30s” thing….  I have had several other expat friends of mine recount to me the difficulty of this obstacle (for those of you who decide not to move to a foreign country after the age of say a college student, the best thing I can compare this to is “mom-friend dating” – at least from what I understand from my mom-friends, smile).  I was always extremely empathetic when I heard them recount the story of being lonely in a new land and in a new job (I’ll get to that one later), especially since I was lucky enough to have extremely good friends in Washington, DC.  Well, I never knew just how lonely it was until going through this and how much you crave social and understanding from other humans when you are having a down day (say, because you couldn’t communicate the fact that your kitchen floor is filling up with water).  That feeling is only further compounded by the fact that you can’t even communicate to total strangers.  So, in an environment (say work travel) when you might normally just go down to the hotel bar to shoot the proverbial shit with someone to satisfy that itch for bullshit and ridiculous story recounting, the fact that you can’t speak the language throws up an almost unsurmountable barrier and you just sit there shyly smiling at people (which I am positive just makes you look incredibly creepy to others).

Third, there is the whole “cultural norm” thing….  Ok, this one may not seem as obvious.  Every culture has its idiosyncrasies, right?  Obviously.  But by in large we navigate them, right?  Absolutely…..when you are there only for a few days.  That’s because the locals overlook the fact that you are totally breaking their rules and shrug you off as “at least trying” when you are there for a few hours / days.  However, when you move someplace and begin really interacting with people on a day to day basis, you have got to learn their norms, their way of doing things, etc.  It’s this way anywhere you go but especially with the French.  They are an extremely proud and extremely proper culture by nature.  I know we have all read that the “French are rude.”  It’s not that they are rude, it’s that they don’t appreciate when you don’t respect their way of doing things and will show you the same respect that they feel you have shown them.  Now, this is when having “the Parisian” with me has helped.  He has helped me navigate different levels of protocol for different levels of engagement, be it “how to treat a waiter” (basically like dirt, otherwise the waiter won’t respect you and will overcharge you) or “how to eat your meal….with family, with friends, in front of potential business partners.”  The French have all these subtle cues, which I find both simultaneously fascinating and daunting.  Think “interpersonal conjugation”….

There are many many many more reasons why this process is hard but, well, that’s what this whole website going to be about.  I had every intention of starting this when I was first on the ground in Paris but (for many of the reasons explained above), I am only now wrapping my head around what to write about (yes, as I finish my 4th week in Europe)….

And that is….I am using this to share my experiences…my tips….the tips other share with me…about Paris, about being an expat, about moving a political / strategic career to Europe, and (likely more times than not) about the totally ridiculous experiences that happen to you as an expat stumbling my way into a new life.  So, with that, I hope you enjoy whatever comes in the future days, weeks, months, and perhaps even years (woah, can’t even really think that far yet)….