My itch for adventure and yearning to get out into this big world of ours led me overseas right after college. Following in my mother’s footsteps and eager to pratiquer mon francais, I chose Paris and landed myself in a nanny program. It seemed as if all stars and planets were in alignment, and fortune on my side, because everything fell into place so perfectly. I was placed with one of the nicest and most reasonable families one could hope for. (And this is where I deviated from Mom’s path: everything that could go wrong on her journey did, whereas decades later my shining good fortune grew in opposite but equal proportion to her rotten luck during her time in France.) My host family lived in a town called La Celle-Saint-Cloud, which was about a 30-minute train ride from Paris and conveniently situated next to the town of Versailles. So I had the best of all worlds.
I was charged with two young ones, 2-year-old tomboy Josephine and 7-year-old Theophile. Their parents were sure that strong-willed Josephine would be my problem child, but it turned out she and I got along famously. I was even tickled by her young and naive faux pas, like the time she got into a fight with her cute little toddler best friend. As her friend ran off in a huff, Josephine called out after her, “Reviens, putain!” Which roughly translates into, “Come back, whore!” I don’t know how great a role model I was, since I would just giggle at all of the antics even as their parents would scold them. In contrast to his sister, Theo had an abnormally high IQ that sadly caused him to become quite high-strung and neurotic. He did become a handful, with his frequent temper tantrums and penchant for insulting Americans. Plus, I had to separate him from Josephine in the bath because he had this tendency to try to make her do obscene things. My duties were pretty light though, consisting of picking up the kiddies after school and watching them until their parents came home from work. They worked in television and, unlike over here, the television hours were a lot more regular. I’d tell the kids about America, and I introduced them to James Brown and the Beastie Boys. Theo loved to try to sing along to “Funky Boss”. And he did make me smile whenever he called them “supercool”, but pronounced “Soo-pear-cul”.
Another perk of my job was that I was treated to the occasional family trip to the South of France or the Alps. My first trip to Cannes, to visit Grandmere, left such an impression with me. It was gorgeous, even off-season. And I of course adore the film world, so it was a trip for me to walk La Croisette and trace the steps of glamorous stars from another era. I was at their version of the Walk Of Fame and literally on my knees, placing my palms into Sharon Stone’s handprints, when I heard an accented voice call out, “You’re Sharon Stone, too!” I turned around and was greeted by a horde of Italian sailors, who were on leave. Talk about something that was itself out of a movie. I let them show me around town for the evening, which was a hoot. The trip to the French Alps, where the family had a vacation cabin that was in the same town in which they held the Science Fiction Film Festival, was also an experience. I was sent to the slopes and dubbed “Movie Star” because of my sunglasses and big, blonde ponytail (hmmm, a running theme). The whole town and landscape, with its purple hues at night and futuristic architecture, did look like something out of a science fiction setting.
When we were back at home, I had weekends off, which I would use to explore the big city. And what a city! Paris was/is pure magic, from its architecture and cobblestone streets to its pink champagne skies at night. I was enthralled, and greedily grabbed every free moment and opportunity I had to explore it inch by inch. I took in all of the museums, the cafes, the river and the pastries (I easily put on some pounds). I’ll never forget seeing the Mona Lisa in person (she was so tiny!), going to Balzac’s house (embarrassingly, the idea was inspired by an episode of 90210, but I really did read Balzac) and studying the Impressionist paintings up close.
I was thrilled by walking the streets as I explored the neighborhoods of Montmartre (a boho artist’s dream, plus it housed the Salvadore Dali museum, which was so cool), le Marais (informally known as the Jewish district, with some of the best bakeries), the cathedral of Notre Dame (there was a great gelato place nearby). I would chat weekly with security guard stationed outside of the bank where I picked up money transfers. He was delighted that I was an American who spoke French, and he always had such warm words for me. Overall, it was Paris in the the 90’s, so it held that and Pret-A-Porter glamour of the supermodel heyday. Each neighborhood or district had its own distinct personality. The Latin Quarter was perfect for my student budget, with their prix fixe meals in all kinds of eclectic and vibrant little bistros. I was in heaven.
Since I was part of a group in this program, regular meetings with the other girls and the program coordinator took place as part of the package. There were also weekly language refresher classes at the Sorbonne, lucky me. A psychic had told me the summer before that I would make it to France and that she saw me with a female companion while there, which turned out to be Cheryl from Washington D.C. She was also part of the nanny program. We met at the first gathering and instantly hit it off. She soon took me under her wing. Cheryl was staying right in the heart of the city, in her own little apartment by the Arc de Triomphe, floors above the family she was employed by. Which meant that I had a crash pad for the weekends, along with a partner in crime who was as game for anything and everything as I was.
We would load up weekly on liquor at the grocery store, which did elicit more than a few frowns from the checkout clerks, and then would fill our flasks and hit the town. Together we took Paris, hitting up clubs like Le Bains, frequenting bars like OZ, which was full of Aussie expats, or the Derby, which appealed to the English set. On one of our more daring outings, we met two locals and agreed to hop on the backs of their mopeds. At least I got a helmet, I’ll never forget the look on Cheryl’s face as her hapless guy gave her a stocking to wear on her head for protection. They flew off into the night as he carried out a political rant.
I would have to say that my encounter with Cheryl at this point in my life was my first big awakening. I was still such a fragile flower back then: thin-skinned, with no real sense of self, very low confidence, plus I had an innocence and naivety that I am simply in awe of when I look back on it now. Cheryl was my complete opposite: wise and experienced beyond her years, with this incredible confidence that astounded me. She would strut into a room and own the whole damn place. Her motto, which she uttered regularly, was “It’s my world.” And the gorgeous, young French guys responded in kind and fell to her feet. I, on the other hand, seemed to attract the formal, septuagenarian set.We started to make a running joke of that.
One day, Cheryl simply looked me dead in the eyes and said, “You know what your problem is? You’re a pretty girl but you carry yourself like an ugly one.” Bam, there it was. Truth. And my first real eye-opener. That phrase has stuck with me over the years and I can trace back to this “Aha!” moment and mark it as the point where I very slowly started to turn it all around. Although the transformation was slow and subtle, this was where I began to build self-awareness and some confidence. I believe that souls – angels, karmic teachers, or whatever you would call them – tend to show up in our path at exactly the right times.
And in between karmic “Aha’s”, there was Steven Tyler. Cheryl and I, accompanied by my Aussie friend Angela (we had met in French class) decided one day to pay a visit to EuroDisney. We were being our silly selves, hitting up all of the rides and making a spectacle of ourselves on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in particular. We were jumping off of the boat and splashing all around, so when the ride ended we kind of looked and smelled like wet dogs. We ended up standing in front of the entrance to the Alice In Wonderland maze (kind of symbolic, I later realized). Angie and I were facing the entrance as we chatted with Cheryl, who was facing what was behind us. All of a sudden Cheryl’s jaw dropped and she said, “Oh my God, it’s Steven Tyler”. We whipped around faster than you could say Dreamweaver and yup, there he was. Let me tell you, Steven Tyler looks amazing in person, far better than you’d think. He positively glowed, and we joked that he smelled like male roses. This kind of put us to shame, because we smelled like pirate water. He and his entourage, which included several kids who also bore those famous lips, stopped to chat with us for about 20 minutes. He was so kind and gracious, even posing for pictures. I was especially happy because I had been running around Boston for the four years I’d lived there, trying to meet him. Even my boyfriend at the time had high-fived Steven Tyler on Landsdowne Street. So my moment had finally arrived, I only had to come to Paris to experience it.
So that’s how my time in France carried on. As I reeled from the revelation that Cheryl had given me, I supplemented my unfolding journey of self with trips and experiences. There was the girls’ trip to Amsterdam, visiting all of the chateaux of the Loire Valley (we would joke by the end of that trip, “Oh lordy, not another chateau!”), dealing with the girl from the nanny program who became a Hare Krishna, and my many trips to neighboring Versaille. I’d walk the grounds, from the grand halls to the gardens to Marie Antoinette’s little farm houses. And I honestly felt so at home there.
I served out my term as a fille au pair and afterwards had many adventures backpacking around Europe, continuing the process of discovering and experiencing. But soon it was time to head home and plot out the next chapter of my life…