I went to Paris for the first time when I was 11 years old, and immediately fell in love with pains aux chocolats and croque monsieurs, the Disney store on the Champs Elysee, and the thrill of being in a place where everyone magically spoke a different language. It was my first international trip: fitting, since France was the one foreign country that my mom not only loved but returned to again and again.
My mom grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, the daughter of first-generation German-Americans. She won a Rotary Club scholarship to spend her junior year of high school in Normandy, excelling even though she had never taken a French class before her departure. She opted to major in French and English at a state college, and returned to spend her junior year of college in Montpelier. Although she only ended up teaching French for a few years after graduation (she was recruited by the FBI in the early 1970’s for her language skills and her gender, and later moved into corporate security and real estate), her French remains flawless and her love of the country has never waned.
She took me to France for the first time when I was 11, and then sent me back to spend the summer with family friends when I was 16—and thus began my personal love affair with France. I studied in Paris for a summer when I was 19 (after I quit an au pair job in the countryside when I realized the village didn’t even have a bakery, let alone a bustling bistro).
“I like to think that when my mom purposefully gave me a French name, she also instilled in me a love of France.”
My mom and I went to Paris for a week each January during my long winter break in college, taking advantage of $500 RT Air France flights from San Francisco to Paris and the annual soldes. My parents encouraged me to study abroad—I was even accepted to my first-choice program in Provence—and yet, I (foolishly) opted to live in the sorority house and drink cheap beer and stay with my college boyfriend. I dropped my French minor because of the overwhelming American accents of not only the other students but also my teacher. I argued with my mother that while I couldn’t get a journalism degree by just reading newspapers, I didn’t need a French degree to be able to converse in French.
And yet, six months after graduation, I broke up with my college boyfriend and thought: if not now, when? So I booked a ticket to Nice, quit my cushy PR job and settled into eight months of paradise on the French Riviera. I lived with an older French woman in a simple but art-filled fifth-floor walk-up with views over Place Garibaldi; we started every morning with a cup of tea, half a grapefruit and a piece of toast with her homemade jam. I spent my mornings taking French classes, my afternoons assisting in a cooking school and my evenings bartending. Whenever I had a day off, I’d either head to the beach with a stack of French magazines or hop on the 1 Euro bus to explore a new seaside village: Antibes, Monaco, Eze, Villefranche. I jaunted off to Paris and Corsica, I visited my family friends in Provence.
“Looking back now, as a woman who lives in New York City and who has explored far beyond France’s reach, I still cherish my experiences in France more than any other.”
This January, my mom and I decided to revive our annual trip to Paris: we stayed in the same apartment in the Marais, wandered the same cobblestone streets and poked our head into the same tiny boutiques. We started our mornings with café crèmes and crusty bread with jam, opted for a glass of rose at lunch. Sometimes it was, ahem, difficult: the last time we traveled together, I was 21 and still very much dependent on my parents to help with my education expenses. Five years later, I have a job and an apartment, far-flung travel experiences and a whole life 3,000 miles away from my family. There was plenty of advice I didn’t ask for and the peculiar challenges that come in a mother-daughter relationship, but after a day of re-adjusting to each other’s speeds and quirks and desires: it was a fantastic trip, where my mom and I got to hang out in our mutual favorite city.
One of the things that I really wanted to do (honestly, it was all for the ‘gram) was climb up the Arc de Triomphe. My mom gamely agreed, even though that spiral staircase is tough on my knees—let alone her 63-year-old legs. But we went up and at the top, I asked if she ever thought she’d have seen that view so many times: at first when she was 16, on a school trip to Paris, and then when I was 11, and then again when she brought my stepdad on his first trip to France, and however many times in between. She shook her head and laughed: never as a 16-year-old from rural Pennsylvania did she really think she’d be back in France, let alone so many times.
Looking back now, as a woman who lives in New York City and who has explored far beyond France’s reach (from Australia and Vietnam to Iceland and Jordan), I still cherish my experiences in France more than any other. Perhaps it’s because I speak the language and am well-versed in the culture, but I also like to think that when my mom purposefully gave me a French name, she also instilled in me a love of France. She passed on that particular trait just as she did her hair color and blood type and aversion to peas. And for that—and for how my experiences in France have twisted and turned to where I am today—I’m forever grateful.