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Courage and Croissants

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Prologue: Hot Croissants

Live in the present
launch yourself
on every wave,
find eternity
in each moment 

Henry David Thoreau, American Author and Poet (1817-1862)

 

As the clock tower strikes 7 a.m., we awaken to sun shining through the long rectangular window of our upstairs bedroom. Shadows of small, swift, black swallows dart about as though they are playing hide-and-seek, and the smell of the fresh, cool lavender drifts in with the breeze.

Our three-story stone house is situated smack in the center of a quaint village in the south of France, which prides itself on being tout commerce (having all necessary services). There is one of every shop one needs for daily living, all compacted along narrow cobblestone streets. Jig-jagging old stone houses and shops, built two and three stories high, lean against each other in solidarity against the winter mistral winds.

Our home sits around the bend from the village’s pâtisserie, boucherie, and fleuriste. It is across from the Mairie (Mayor’s office), with its three flags flowing in the breeze: the European Union flag, with its cobalt blue background and circle of twelve golden stars; the red-, white- and blue-striped French flag; and the local red Occitan flag with the golden Cross of Languedoc, a badge of independence for people of the region. The street leads to the 11th-century Catholic cathedral poised tall at the crest of the hillside just above the Grand Rue, whose tolling clock tower can be seen from miles away. Nestled down the hill are the village school, the small grocery store, and the Bar du Marché—a place for a café, a glass of Côte du Rhône or a workingperson’s hot lunch.

Slipping on shorts, T-shirts, and flip-flops, we run down the narrow stone road to the pâtisserie for our first hot, buttery croissants right out of the oven. Nibbling away, we saunter silently and slowly back up the cobblestone street, gazing at the antiquated stone houses that interlock like a puzzle. We can’t stop grinning at each other. Our next-door neighbors poke their heads out the window and yell, Bonjour,” asking why we were arriving so late in the season.

“We are staying for a year!” we tell them, with broad smiles on our faces.

“Bravo!” our neighbors reply, expressing their pleasure.

Our neighbors aren’t chic, sophisticated Parisians, but rather a mix of artisans, masons, electricians, doctors, teachers, storekeepers, chefs, and farmers. It is an active village of about two thousand people, with one American couple and a few English families who had moved south for retirement, the sun, or the same change in life we had come here seeking.

For the next year or more, this would be our home.

It was more than we could ask for.

 

****

 

Two years earlier… 

 

The

re must be a different way, I thought, as I sipped my Evian water and nibbled on a leftover energy bar as my Mercedes SUV idled quietly. I was surrounded by sleek BMWs, Lexuses, and Porsches, all stuck on Highway 101 in Silicon Valley—a thoroughfare lined with industrial parks, glass-and-steel buildings, billboards that no one read, and big-rig trucks. The radio announced an orange alert for the Golden Gate Bridge—in the aftermath of September 11, there were constant alerts, scares, and warnings—and I sat, immobilized, in the evening rush hour traffic. I tried to stay calm and relaxed, but my frustration was slowly mounting. I felt irritable and desperate. Even though I had left my client meeting two hours ago, I was still far from home, and I could forget about making it to the gym.

My cell phone light was beeping. “You have twenty-three messages,” the automated voice said. All twenty-three had arrived since noon. The first message was from a client.

I cringed thinking about waking up at 4 a.m. to catch a 7 a.m. flight to Los Angeles.

 Privately I wondered whether the client was worth that extra effort.

After listening to the twenty-third message, I called my husband Jean-Pierre (Jean for short—pronounced more like Sean or John in the French way) to discuss what to have for dinner: a frozen, pre-packaged meal or take-out from the Chinese restaurant? Scribbling sideways on the back of the envelope propped up against the steering wheel, I wrote, “Buy fresh vegetables.”

“I just got out of an emergency meeting,” he said. “We have to lay off another group of people tomorrow and I have to stay late to get the layoff packages ready. Go ahead and eat without me.”

“Okay—but I have to fly out early tomorrow, so if you aren’t home by ten, I may be asleep. And don’t wake me,” I told him, “because I’m exhausted.”

“Leave me a note so I know where you are,” Jean said. “Give a kiss to Zoé-Pascale and let’s make a date for Friday night. I love you.”

On the radio, accidents and traffic jams into San Francisco were announced. My mind went into action, plotting the fastest route home via side streets. Next, call the nanny to let her know we’d be late. My breathing finally began to slow down when I rolled into the driveway at 9 p.m., barely missing the garbage can. I grabbed my briefcase, laptop, and leather purse and scrambled down the path to the house. I dumped my load in the entranceway, our nanny whispered a quick “hello and goodnight,” and I ran down the hall to the baby’s room. Bundling Zoé-Pascale in the pink silk blanket draped over her crib, I cradled her close to me, carrying her down the narrow hallway, through the dining room alcove and into the kitchen, praying silently she wouldn’t wake up. With my right hand I reached into the freezer and grabbed the nearest frozen dinner, poked holes in the plastic wrap, and pushed the reheat button on the microwave. I scanned the mail on the counter, added the unopened bills to the increasing pile, kicked off my black leather Ferragamos, and tiptoed into the bedroom with Zoé-Pascale wrapped around my neck. I flipped through my crowded closet, shook out the black gabardine pantsuit just back from the cleaners, and hung it in the bathroom. In less than six hours I would be starting it all over again.

When had everything gotten so out of control?

Traffic jams; commuting nightmares; insane work demands; take-out food; lack of sleep; Starbucks addiction; airport hassles; payments to the nanny, cleaning woman, meal delivery service, drycleaners, bookkeeper, and masseuse; and little time with our precious baby girl: this is what our life had become. Outwardly, we were successful and inspiring; inwardly, we were completely drained. Daydreams involved sitting down at 6 p.m. for a family meal, or mundane tasks such as going shopping at Nordstrom’s—actually getting to try on a pair of shoes versus ordering them off the Internet late at night after a long day of work. There simply wasn’t enough time for our family, each other, or ourselves. We answered only to the demands of work. 

Jean and I had both been told that if we went to university and applied ourselves, we could have it all: great jobs, balance of work and home life, a spacious house, sporty cars, opportunities for travel, weekends filled with cultural and outdoor activities, plenty of money, and even children if we wanted. We were determined planners and goal-setters, and everything in our past led us to believe that we could have whatever we put our minds to. It was what we late Boomers had been raised to expect. The thought of life not turning out exactly as we expected was the furthest thing from our minds. And yet here we were.

When we first moved to San Francisco in the early 80s, we thrived on the drama and stimulation of city life. At our cores, we were both avid learners, and we gravitated toward the endless personal and professional growth workshops offered in the area. Though Jean was born and raised in South Africa and Namibia, and was often puzzled by how Americans do things, the opportunity for continuing his education and living in an international city comforted him enough that he was beginning to feel that San Francisco was his home. I was grateful that his adaptable and curious personality helped him to find his own way and made him willing to build a life with me in the San Francisco Bay area. 

Separated from my family by 500 miles, and from Jean’s by oceans and continents, we formed our own family of friends with whom we spent a great deal of time. We hiked, skied, walked on the beach, visited the wine country, and soaked in thermal hot springs. We ate in great ethnic restaurants, traveled widely, and attended movies, art fairs, and musicals. It was a time of opportunity, economic growth, and globalization, and we were young, successful, urban professionals.

Over time, we moved up the corporate ladder, acquired advanced degrees, and established ourselves in our fields through persistence and hard work. Our careers were demanding, but energizing and satisfying. Jean had evolved into a senior Human Resource manager and was enjoying the security of the job and the prestige of being a leader. I, on the other hand, had left a big training and management consulting firm to found a similarly niched company with a woman colleague before this had become popular. Working under the regime of the white male culture had left me cold, and I was thrilled to be an entrepreneurial, independent businesswoman living by my own rules.

Now, as we entered our mid-forties with a late-in-life toddler, we found ourselves talking about our quality of life and shifting priorities. The problem was not our purpose in life, but how we were living—working constantly and spending outrageous amounts of money outsourcing our domestic chores so that we could work more.

We began asking deeper questions. How do we want to live our life? What is most important now? The “American Dream” for which we had fought now seemed hollow inside. Sure, we seemed to have it all, but at what price?

Living at this insane pace for fifteen to twenty more years began to seem unfathomable. The post-dot-com business slump was forcing me to work twice as hard for half the income. Jean was tired of reengineering, outsourcing, and laying off employees and dismantling companies. Our country tilted so far to the right that we hardly recognized it. Reason was replaced with self-righteous arrogance and fervor, and the trajectory of a growing economy seemed precarious. More and more, life seemed too short to continue on a path that was not making us happy.

We realized that our choices were no longer ours—we were working just to support the lifestyle we had created with little time to enjoy it. The American Dream was costing us dearly; it was time for a major reevaluation of what was truly important.

The inevitable question that followed, then, was “If not this, then what?”

 

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