UN, DEUX, TROIS…

You know how doctors say that you should use both sides of your brain to ward off Alzheimer’s and stuff like that? Like, as you age you should learn a new skill like knitting or Sudoku. Well, based on this move to France, I should live to be 100 with every memory intact. My brain is sufficiently stretched. And perhaps even strained. Here are some things I’ve had to make room for in my 40 year-old brain:

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A new language (French, of course)

A new money system (the Euro)

Writing out a French check — i.e. deux cent quarante trois euros, vingt centimes

(and also they use commas instead of decimals, and vice-versa. That’s a scary mix-up!)

Converting Celsius to Fahrenheit

The metric system- measuring in meters, etc. (should have paid attention in 3rd grade)

How much I weigh in kilos (I love this one- it makes me feel skinny)

How to work crazy public toilets

Washing clothes, Drying clothes, the oven (all of these have settings that don’t translate to our common settings—they’re all new to me)

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Metric measurements for cooking

A huge public transportation system and corresponding maps

Getting cash out of an ATM in French

Using the 24h clock for telling time. All times read like this, for example: School Party: 14h30.  Huh??

ALL NEW codes and numbers! Door codes, gate codes, ATM Pins, cell phone number, home number, Wifi code, favorite TV channels, bus lines, credit card number, my address!

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That’s a lot of numbers, people.

Heads up, people: We’re moving to FRANCE

Over the years, when Scott and I talked about living overseas, we did it in the same way you’d talk about one day visiting New Zealand: it was fun to dream about, and may not ever happen.  I never studied abroad as a student; Scott had studied at Oxford in England for a short time. (I kind of thought that didn’t count as far as living abroad goes—I mean they speak the same language!) Traveling was not a foreign concept; many of my summers were spent with my grandparents while my parents traveled abroad, mainly to Europe. And occasionally, I got to go, too. My first trip to Europe was when I was fifteen. I turned 16 in Paris. I never would have dreamed I’d live there one day.

 

The next time I’d go to Paris I’d be in my 30s, having spent other trips to France visiting the beaches in the south.  Scott and I went over for our tenth wedding anniversary in June of 2011.  We rented an apartment for the week, instead of staying in a hotel. Our apartment was in the 5th arrondissement, the Latin Quarter, just steps away from where Hemingway used to live with Hadley.  We walked everywhere and took the métro to and from dinners out. We ate crêpes on the street and really talked about what it would be like to live in Paris.  And so we decided to make it happen.

 

Our "We're Moving" card

Our “We’re Moving” card!

First it started with conversations with other Americans who had done it—packed up, moved schools, and shipped their families overseas. Then we talked to Kate’s school in Charlotte about a good timeline. We were thinking maybe 6 or 7 years in the future. They urged us to move up our date, to travel when the kids were in elementary school. And so the planning began.  First, Scott had to figure out a way to work.  Over the next two years, he would help to streamline his company and sell off ancillary projects, thus allowing him the flexibility to work from overseas.  Then, we all signed up for French lessons. As a family, we studied at École du Samedi, a wonderful school in Charlotte offered on Saturday mornings. We met French natives and also Francophiles who gave us lots of advice.  Scott and I also took lessons from Carolina Language Academy under our wonderful teacher, Liz Bertrand.

 

Then, we applied for visas, a huge undertaking that took months, about 400 pages of documents, and a last minute trip to the consulate’s office in Atlanta.  Finally, the visas were in hand and the plane tickets bought. Then came: How do you pack for a year??

 

Packing:

We rented a furnished apartment which included everything from sheets and towels to salt and pepper. So all we really needed to bring were our clothes and some personal items. Surprisingly, packing the kids was easy.  I knew they would outgrow their clothes in a year, so I either packed it or donated it. When we left Charlotte, their closets were empty. As far as toys, they were allowed to bring only what would fit in their roll-on carryon luggage. I couldn’t believe they agreed to this.

Packing myself was harder. I had a great group of friends come over one night. First, we cleaned out my fridge and pantry and they took all my perishables.  Then, we played dress-up in my closet and made all kinds of mix-and-match outfits to take me through a year in Paris—four seasons, and no real closets.

It was challenging to narrow it down, to say the least.  But as we got ready to leave, we each had a carry on suitcase, and we pre-shipped 8 large duffel bags and one box of books.

What we packed for a year in Paris.

What we packed for a year in Paris.

 

We arrived in Paris and our stuff arrived a few days later.

This might be a post for a different time, but people ask, “Do we miss all our stuff that fills a house back in Charlotte.” Short answer: Nope.  More on that, later.

 

 

 

 

Enfants Terribles

What do you get when you take two little kids and move them to a foreign country where they know no one, don’t speak the language, and dislike the food?  Enfants terribles.

 

Les Enfants Terribles

Les Enfants Terribles

Moving to Paris sounds like all wine and roses, but it has not been without challenges; for me, a huge one has been my kids. We knew it would be stressful leaving Charlotte (and most of our stuff) behind. But, you say, kids are resilient! Kids are adventurous! Ha.

Let’s start at the beginning. Our kids’ ages at the time we decided to move (4 and 6 at the time—now they are 6 and 8) worked in our favor. Too young to know they have an opinion. If they do have an opinion (contrary to ours as parents), it’s overruled. That part was simple—there was no backlash on the moving itself. Next, narrow down toys to only what would fit in half of a carry-on—basically about 3 each.  A few tears were shed over that until they realized we would get them a few new things here (like Legos and some French books). New toys always trump old toys. Now, joy of all joys: the overseas, overnight flight.  I dreaded it like… well, like anyone who has to fly overseas with two kids. I had already experienced it once: last year we took the kids to Paris for their first visit. That flight was a NIGHTMARE. And it was a living nightmare because we, and the people all around us, got no sleep. We had explained to the kids ahead of time the OOE (Order of Events). There would be boarding (you MUST buckle your seatbelt), dinner, a little TV time, and then sleep.  Sweet Kate followed all the rules, as firstborns typically do, and promptly settled in for a nap. Then there’s Charlie. Charlie didn’t like his seat. He didn’t want to wear his seatbelt. He didn’t like the food. He wanted the TV ON ON ON. Lots of raised voices (him) and SHUSHING (me). I practically kissed the ground when we landed in Paris.

This time around, I came (better) prepared. In other words, I didn’t care what he did or what he ate as long as he was quiet. So, Charlie ate candy for 9 hours and watched 9 hours of TV. Tom and Jerry over. And over. And over.  (A side note: I think this is where my previously “responsible parenting” style of only allowing tiny amounts of sweets and limited TV backfired. They sat in front of the airplane TV for 9 hours like crack addicts.)  My husband especially enjoyed this flight, because he slept the entire way (did he cheat on me and take an Ambien??) while I made at least 17 trips to the lavatories with varying kids.

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At last, Paris. We landed around 7am local time, which is 1am Eastern time. Everyone was exhausted (except Scott). We had to clear customs, get baggage (we shipped most of our luggage separately), install boosters in a cab, and head to our new home. There, we find the “inspection” about to commence (before we can move in). Kids must stay up another 3 hours before being allowed to explore, and then crash in, their new rooms.  Just for reference, it takes kids this age about a week to fully recover from jetlag. Combine that with the fact that the sun was not setting in Paris until nearly 11pm and it was like having a newborn again.

Anyway, once we got settled in our apartment, I naïvely figured it would be smooth sailing for the kids. But both were harboring some pretty intense anxiety about the move. Both were worried about the new school (and for Charlie, this was “big school”—he was starting kindergarten. Transitioning from a school day of 9-12:30 to 8:30-4:30.). There were lots of tears weeks before school even started. In addition, Charlie had persistent anxiety about not being able to speak French. Everywhere we went, he would worriedly ask me, “Will they speak English? What if I can’t understand them? What if I get lost?”  The getting lost thing was something we had talked about. Paris is a city of 2 million people. It is the most visited city in the world. We don’t have a car and take public transportation everywhere (bus and métro). So I didn’t want to scare the kids, but Kate and Charlie needed to understand how important it was to stay with us at all times.

We experienced some pretty big regressive behaviors on all fronts. Kate’s worrying made her introverted and moody. She exhibited some fidgety behaviors. Charlie’s anxiety and fear manifested itself in nearly daily mega-tantrums and meltdowns. Those of you who know him will find that hard to believe about my sweet, laid-back boy. But he tested my patience so much I would have to take a parenting time-out so I wouldn’t toss him into the Seine.

Charlie most frequently acted out on the streets. When something (anything) set him off, he would pull out of my grasp and run away. It became a game to him– but for me it was terrifying, as several times he was swallowed up by crowds of people walking near the Eiffel Tower, or he came perilously close to stepping in front of a city bus. Once I caught him I would hold his arm so tightly I was afraid I’d leave finger marks. I would get looks of pity mixed with disgust from passersby.

Two separate times, when he was only mildly misbehaving, I had people tell me how awful my kids were. Even in French, I understood. Instead of enjoying this beautiful new city, I dreaded going out.

Inside our apartment was no better. My stress was compounded by the fact we are in a large apartment building, surrounded on all by sides by French neighbors who would probably like to see us deported. Even on good days I am asking the kids to lower their voices. It is quite different than being in a single family home, where screaming and stomping I can just ignore if needed.

So, ready for the happy ending yet?!! Things are MUCH better. School, while exhausting for the kids, provides some needed structure—and playmates. Charlie now revels in the multi-culturalness of his school and how many different languages are spoken.  As parents, we are challenged to Keep Calm and Carry On. We adopted some new parenting techniques via Love and Logic. Mainly, picking our battles. Kids won’t eat dinner? OK. Not my problem. They won’t wear their coats? OK. They might get cold!  The kids also get an allowance now and that has (mostly) ended the “gimmes” when we go out. “Of course you should get that doll/Lego/toy/whatever!  How long will it take you to save for it?” And, finally, we slowed our pace and gave them more down-time. I realized I had broken my own sleep-training rules and Charlie was not getting enough rest.

They are also feeling more confident living in this city. They know the names of our bus stop, the codes for our building, and how to find our apartment.  We still have our moments (I broke up a shoving match between them today IN CHURCH) but here’s hoping 2014 will be the year of Enfants Magnifiques.

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