2016-12-27 17:10:15
Personal Journeys: An American in France Finds Adventures in the Day-to-Day

The other night at dinner, with moving boxes and packing tape covering every surface of the house, Riley, our 6-year-old daughter, looked up from eating and, after more than two years of going to school in France and playing in France and growing up in France and learning to speak French, suddenly asked, ever so earnestly, “Daddy, why did we come to France?”

My wife, Jessica, and I looked at each other. It seemed like such a simple answer — we came because The New York Times had offered me a fantastic job over here covering European sports — but the truth had more layers. The real answer had more to do with the opportunity to do things and see things and try things and be things. It had to do with taking chances.

Before we left, everyone talked to us about how we would love Paris because of its sights, lights and smells. And we did love it. It is a city of ethereal beauty and exquisite butter. It is special.

But our experience here was not about Paris. It was about Rueil-Malmaison, the city about 20 minutes west of the Arc de Triomphe where we lived, high on a hill, in a white house with a green fence and a green lawn and the most stunning magnolia tree I have ever seen in the backyard. We had apple trees back there, too. And a grapevine that snaked up the window of my basement office.

Our experience was eating that fruit and marveling at those flowers. Our experience was Hannah, our younger daughter, who was 3 months old when I left the United States, taking her first steps in that house and Riley learning to ride her bike on the street outside it. Our experience was the kind, warm and caring friends who came to visit us there, to sit on the balcony and drink wine or to sit in the living room and laugh.

Our experience was me squeezing into the tiny bathing suits French pools require men to wear. Our experience was a camel ride on vacation in Marrakesh. Our experience was trying to fill prescriptions at a French pharmacy and buying bread at the French market and, one fine, fine night not so long ago, going bowling at a French bowling alley where a man in the next lane over punctuated his strikes or spares (or gutter balls, sometimes) by turning to his friends and shouting, “Voila!” (with an American expletive added for good measure).

We saw other cities, other cultures. I went to amazing destinations like Cyprus, Dubai, Georgia and Kazakhstan, and wrote stories from Reykjavik, Pazardzhik, Nazareth and Tirana. I kept a list of my datelines and it is long, with many consonants in unusual places. As a family, we went to Barcelona, Cannes, Morocco and Picardy. We ate from tagines. We swam in the sea. We watched “Frozen” a lot. We went round and round and round on so many carousels. We gobbled crepes. Then we gobbled some more.

We were also scared. Our first year here was different from the others, because it was before Charlie Hebdo. Suddenly, we learned how hard it can be to be American here, to be Jewish here. After that tragedy, I went to the center of Rueil for a rally and listened as thousands sang La Marseillaise and chanted for peace. We were hopeful.

Then, 10 months later, France was ripped open again by terrorists in a horrible, violent and unimaginable way, and the scars are still fresh, the hurt still lingering.

I had a credential for a game that November evening at Stade de France, where three men wearing explosive vests tried to enter the stadium and then blew themselves up, but, fortunately, I did not go. For weeks, Jessica and I thought we heard gunshots at night when it was just a car starting up down the street or some kids setting off fireworks. At Riley’s school, there were military men with machine guns at the front gate and inside the halls and roaming the campus perimeter. She saw them every day, on her way to lunch and gym and French.

It was not what we, or anyone, had envisioned. The armed guards are still there, too. People often forget, but the France we are leaving in a few weeks is one that is still in a government-ordered state of emergency. There are metal detectors in malls, outside stores. There are police officers all over. There is still tension. There is still fear.

The difficult times, though, are what make an experience real, makes it something more than a long vacation. We did not visit France; we did not come for a wedding or a honeymoon or an anniversary or a holiday. We made friends here, bought groceries here, got sick here, got better here. We learned to drive a manual car here. We lived here. The expat life seems glamorous from the outside and, in many ways, it is. But it is still just that:

Life.

That is why Riley’s question, even if it seemed odd to be coming years after we arrived and with the moving boxes stacked up all around her, was so, so, so perfect.

Why did we come to France?

We came for an adventure. And it was.