How We Got Here

Written June 2007

In July we're moving to France for a year, maybe longer. How this came about is a lot like life itself: a collection of loosely-related events that together lead one down a very unexpected path.

The catalyst for the move may have come in 2006, when I made up my mind that we were going to spend the next summer in France. Or it could have started in 2003 when my wife, Stasha, and I visited Paris for the first time. Or 2002 when my boss asked me if I would move to England. Or 2001 when I went to Germany on a business trip. Or 1999, when we first visited London. Or 1995, when I first got on the Internet. It could go back further than that, frankly. But one has to start somewhere, and I guess that’s probably the right place.

In 1997 my wife and I were living near Oakland, CA, and both of us worked in The City. For those that don't know, "The City" is San Francisco. Not SF or "Frisco" (the name used by people that love NASCAR), but San Francisco. I was working for the China strategy group of a large consulting firm and was traveling to the PRC several times a year for projects. I was always on the lookout for a bargain airfare to China so I went to the United Airlines website and subscribed to "email specials". Shortly thereafter I began receiving a weekly email. The specials were all to exotic places like Omaha. For like $600. In February. So much for the Internet changing lives. Or even the way we travel.

But once you're in the database the emails keep coming. Two years later, in 1999, we were living in Palo Alto, CA, where I was studying for a graduate degree. One morning I opened my email specials and there it was: London, nonstop from SFO for $270. Roundtrip. We had to leave the next week, but so what? We could go if we felt like it. We were students and it's a free country. My parents, who lived about forty miles away, agreed to watch our daughter Abby. I booked the flights and soon after we were off.

Both Stasha and I had spent time in China and I'd lived and traveled extensively in Asia, but this was the first time either of us had crossed the Atlantic. It’s hard to believe that it was all new to us only eight years ago. But it was. We spent four days in London and I decided right then and there that I might never again go back to China, where I regularly saw children (with their mothers) walk into my hotel, take off their pants so they were naked from the waist down, and urinate in ashtrays. In London I was like Ariel on The Little Mermaid
, which my daughters have watched six million billion jillion times: it was a whole new world.

After we returned home I tried to get back to London as quickly as possible by doing a summer internship there. I had an interview with the London office of a consulting firm but then decided I'd had enough of consulting and wanted to try investment banking. The only offer I got was for Goldman Sachs, in Hong Kong or New York. So we went to Hong Kong, where we spent the summer making memories of watching children urinate in the street

In October 2001 I had finished school and was working in the software world. I had to fly to Frankfurt for some meetings with a company we were trying to partner with. Driving down the Autobahn with 14th century castle ruins visible on the hillsides surrounding the local villages was truly the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I was traveling alone and several times I just exited the road so I could drive to the castles and take it all in. I got home and said to Stasha, "we're moving to Europe."

A few weeks later I had more meetings in Germany and went back. Stasha came with me and we spent a few days in Bavaria, which is even better than central Germany, except that we got lost almost every time we got in the car. This was in the pre-GPS days. While there, one night we visited a town called Rothenburg (fully-named “Rothenburg ob der Tauber”) and shopped for Christmas presents as snow gently fell on the cobbled-stone streets that are basically a thousand years old. It’s hard to describe what I felt at that time, but knew I had to get permanently closer to this kind of beauty and history. But the partnership I was working on crumbled and the opportunity to move to Europe, if it ever existed, was lost.

A year later my boss came to me and said "We need to grow our European business. Would you consider moving to London for a year and helping out?" We had just moved into a brand new house that had taken eight months to build. Everything was basically still in the garage. We now had a second daughter, Sophie, and our son Sam was less than five months old. Abby was going to start school that fall. "I'm sorry", I said. "Your timing is really bad and Phoenix is too great of a place to ever leave."

I'm kidding. We rented a house in the English countryside and bought a car that got exceptionally good gas mileage, since “petrol” was about $8.00 per gallon. Abby started her formal education at the Tavistock Primary School and quickly began "speaking in British" as Stasha and I called it. We cut her hair shorter than it had been in the US and bought her school uniforms at Tesco.

is like heaven, only much more expensive. The food was mediocre and the weather was pretty cold, but the architecture is beyond description. We lived in a small town about ten miles from where King John signed the Magna Carta at Runnymeade in 1215. Quite close to our house was a thatched roof cottage that had been continuously inhabited since the 15th century. It had really low ceilings.

English people are great: some of the best people there are. They love to laugh, mostly at their teeth, and are mostly incredibly nice, and for the most part they know their place in the world: their long history helps them understand it all. For an American, England offers a glimpse into what our lives might be like if some relative a hundred, two hundred, or three hundred years ago hadn’t gotten on a ship bound for Ellis Island. And I have to say, that glimpse wasn’t half bad. It was a great year.

In April of that year Stasha and I flew from London to Paris for our wedding anniversary. Despite her having taken seven years of French from junior high to college, she had never visited France. Since the cab picked us up at 4:30 for a 6am flight that Friday morning, I woke up as late as possible and wore my slippers in the cab. I was bound to forget something. I just didn’t think it would be my shoes.

I walked around Paris in slippers the whole weekend and we visited every site we had time for. I even wore my slippers with my sport coat at dinner. No one said anything.

There are few things in the world that are actually better than advertised. Like a hundred small villages in France and Italy, Paris really is better than people say it is. During that year in England we went back three more times. Neither of us ever got sick of it.

Unfortunately, as 2004 approached, it was clear we were going to have to come back to the United States. We missed the US and liked the thought of living in our own house again, but our preference was to stay in Europe longer. Unfortunately my company had changed its strategy (this happened a lot, for no discernible reasons, other than the CEO was basically an idiot) and, since they had sponsored my work visa, we didn’t feel like we had the ability to stay in the UK. But, wanting to stay in Europe, our last two months Stasha and I subscribed to some real estate websites and spent huge amounts of our free time on the web, looking for a home to buy in perhaps the only place in the world that's better than England: France. I wanted to renovate an old church in Normandy; she wanted to buy a small run-down castle at the foot of the Pyrenees, neither of which was particularly expensive. We would put the kids in French school to learn the language and culture. Maybe we would come back to the US someday, maybe we wouldn't. We strongly considered it but in the end were too afraid and didn't think we had enough money. Instead, in February of 2004 we moved back to Phoenix.

But we still talked about spending a summer or two in France and trying to give the kids an opportunity to learn another language. To us, this seemed like the best gift we could give them. The US is a big place, and its three hundred years of western cultural development, combined with complete geographic isolation from the region that gave it its current identity is one of the things that makes it great. But there is a downside to that isolation: most Americans spend their lives disinterested in other cultures and countries, and the idea of learning another language is ludicrous. "Everyone speaks English anyway, so why bother?" Or, "If English was good enough for Jesus then it’s good enough for me." The problem with this, of course, is that it’s hard to know who you really are until you have at least experienced something different. Spending every day of one’s life in Nashville (and a weekend a year in Vegas) doesn’t teach a person very much.

The talk of France never went away, but with kids getting a little older it was becoming increasingly difficult to consider a normal travel experience as a family. Putting children in hotels for two weeks on vacation is like taking them to Ruth’s Chris Steak House: you’ll pay a fortune just to have them cry about how they really just want a Happy Meal.

Only in France, with the dollar at historic lows against the Euro, it would be like $700 per night, since we now have four children. And there was no way we were going to pack and unpack every few days. Kids need to sleep in the same bed as often as possible. We needed to stay in one place, get a huge van and just drive to nearby sites during the day.

And by the way, who was going to watch our house while it was empty for two weeks (or more) while we were in Europe? Once when we were traveling in San Diego our water heater exploded. We found out when a neighbor called to say that thousands of gallons of water had poured into the street during the last day or so, and it was coming from our garage. I gave him the code and he went in to find it underwater. We weren’t going through something like that again. An empty house in Phoenix and hotels for the kids was not going to work. We had to find an alternative.

So last November I subscribed to a website I'd heard about: www.homeexchange.com. I think most people understand the concept: you join a site that provides you with access to listings of homes anywhere in the world (including North America), and you contact whoever you want to see if they’re interested in an exchange. I did my research before joining and concluded it was the best site available for this sort of thing. Perhaps I was right: within two days of joining I had exchange invitations from people in Germany, Holland, Sweden, and Northern France (“Le Nord”). Within three weeks we had agreed to a month-long exchange for the coming summer in our chosen destination, the Loire Valley, known for its chateaux. If you don’t know about the Loire Valley, go on Wikipedia and look up Chambord, Chenonceaux, Blois, and Saumur. This should give you an idea. Then start breathing again. At the time it baffled me that anyone would want to come to Phoenix in July, but this family wanted to do it and we were happy to oblige. We would spend four weeks exploring the Loire Valley and Brittany in their minivan (with GPS, so my wife and I wouldn't come to blows on virtually every trip), and at night would return to their house with five bedrooms and a full kitchen. It was almost perfect.

The only thing that nagged at me a little was that we would drag all the kids to France but would never see Provence. It would be too much for the kids to handle.

But a few months later – one day in March – I received an email from a new family, this one in Provence. I had forgotten to update our listing to say that we’d found our exchange for the year. Never mind that I couldn't read one word of French:

Si l'auteur du message a indiqué un numéro d'offre, un lien a été automatiquement ajouté à ce message. Par courtoisie, nous vous remercions de répondre à ce message.

Même si la proposition contenue dans ce message ne vous convient pas, quelques mots comme: "merci de votre message, mais nous n'envisageons pas d'y donner suite" évitent à l'auteur du message d'attendre indéfiniment une réponse et de manquer ainsi la conclusion d'un autre échange. Nous sommes à votre disposition pour tous renseignements complémentaires.

LE MESSAGE: good evening, we live in the south of france,(cote d'azur), and we would be really interested in exchanging: your home seems perfect, and what's more, april to august is just what we look for: I'm Virginie, my husband is Jean Paul, and we have 3 children. Just let us know... Best regards

"I'm sorry", I replied. "We've already agreed to an exchange with a family in the Loire Valley for this summer. Perhaps next year might work?"

He replied the next day:

I am Jean Paul the husband of Virginie:
It's a pity that we cannot exchange now; but we also want to spend a year in the usa. Than if you agree, we can see you when you come in France. We can meet you in the Loire Valley or in Mougins.

We have three children; I think they are younger than yours: Margaux is 6 years old, Maxence is 4 and Benjamin is 2 ; We have now the children in a small school at about 2 miles from the house. In France the school begin in september just to june;

I think we have a very pleasant life here in an area with nice weather, people sympathic, no delinquency. It's why we have moved here 3 years ago.

Best regards. JP

They were proposing that after we did the exchange in the Loire Valley that we go to Provence and exchange with them for a year. They showed pictures of their house, a sprawling French-Italian villa just outside a small village called Mougins. He attached a picture of his children, who looked like a lot ours.

I had been working for a small software company in Silicon Valley for a couple of years and, though I had quit a few months before to focus on some other things, the company had recently been sold and Stasha and I had flown to California that morning to celebrate with my former colleagues. I had taken a big chance to work for that company, and two years later it had paid off. I had learned a valuable lesson about taking risks and doing what you think is right when it feels right. Perhaps my wife had already learned it.

When I received Jean Paul’s email we were on a rental car shuttle at San Jose Airport. I handed Stasha my Blackberry so she could read the message. “Well”, I said. “Are you ready to move to France?”

“Sure”, she said. “Why not?” And she smiled.

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