a modest proposal

French Grey Photography by Brian Wright 004
Photo by French Grey Photography

When I told people I was getting married, the first question was usually the same. After squeals of delight or a delay of stunned silence (the most common reactions), friends asked, so how did he propose?!, setting me up to recount a juicy story.

But I didn’t have one. Victor hadn’t proposed, not officially. The reality of living thousands of miles apart from May to September meant that many important conversations had been conducted through screens, hindered by poor Wifi signals. “Will you marry me” was to be postponed for a time we could make actual eye contact, seal the deal with a ring.

Though there was nothing official about our engagement, I did possess a physical symbol of my commitment: the new wedding dress hanging from my closet door. Mom and I had found a boutique in Kansas City–her idea–and rushed out to see what we could find. I was grateful for the enthusiasm and support. I thought the news might be greeted with some hesitation, but as far as I could tell, Mom was nothing but thrilled.

“I’m so grateful you’re supportive,” I told her. “Some people would say it’s too soon; I didn’t know how you would feel.”

Mom said it kind of made sense. My relationship, though quick if judged by the calendar, lacked nothing in depth. It consisted of a lot of travel and a lot of long-distance communication, both highly-effective ways to get to know someone quickly.

“Anyway,” said Mom, “you met in, November, was it? That’s not unheard of.”

“Uh. April, actually. Mid-April.”

“Oh my… For some reason I had it in my head as the fall. Wow, that is quick.”

“Mom!” I laughed, hoping it was too late for her to change her mind.

She’s right, of course. About 7 months past the day we met, Victor and I will be standing at the city hall of his hometown (a village of about 4,000 outside Paris) proclaiming our commitment.

I can say that because we actually have a date! This wasn’t the case at the bridal boutique, where I sheepishly tossed out some idea of a wedding date and startled when the lovely owner referred to Victor as my fiancé. I have a fiancé? I felt like I was acting, like Mom and I were doing undercover research for an exposé on the bridal industry. We weren’t going to actually leave with one of these brilliant gowns…

And then I was zipped into some of the most beautiful creations I’ve ever seen, confections of silk and lace in every subtle shade between eggshell and cream. After just a few try-ons, I wiggled into the dress of my dreams, modern and sophisticated and undeniably romantic. Just like that, I was holding a glass of champagne and smiling for pictures.

I was the bride.

As the weeks passed, my dress hid in my closet like a secret, shrouded in its white zip-up bag. I let my family and friends in on the news slowly, one at a time. I still didn’t have anything resembling details.

I’m engaged, I’m not kidding, I’m returning to France, and this will happen…soon.

For such a big life change, it had really come out of the blue. It wasn’t until later that I remembered how this whole discussion of marriage had come about in the first place.

A job application.

Yep, a job application. Sent by my fiancé–an engineer who makes his living hiring other  engineers for an electronic systems company–to me.

I’d been floundering in the job search. Never my idea of a good time on the best of days, my current task was even more challenging than usual: find a good job in the South of France from my parents’ living room in Clinton, Missouri. What’s more, I needed to find a business willing to undergo the complicated and taxing process of hiring an étrangère. 

Yeah right.

As I’m not an in-demand tech guru or a genius engineer, my options were limited. I was cold-emailing schools before they let out for the summer. I even considered au-pairing, unsure if it would be a good way to find my way or a step backwards.

One afternoon–frustrated, tired, scheming–I opened my messages to discover there was a man in the South of France in want of a wife. Curiously, the right candidate needed to possess an amalgam of qualities that seemed to refer specifically to my personality, appearance, and experiences. Suspicious.

The job search continued (and was successful!). But the threat that I’d be compromising our young relationship if I couldn’t soon find something on the same continent did not.

 

I’m getting married!!!

swf seeking family of four: the almost au-pair

 

Will they like me? 

Will they think I’m attractive?

Am I showing enough personality? 

These are all questions that sprung to my mind as I surveyed my bio. I felt waves of confidence–then shivers of self-doubt. But my work, for the moment, was done.

I had carefully selected five or six photos, chosen for the version of me they projected. I had curated a mix of “fun,” “professional,” and “good hair day.” I had spent two hours distilling my experiences, qualifications, and goals into a few breezy paragraphs.

Now came the hard part. Waiting to be noticed.

I wasn’t looking for eligible bachelors, but married Frenchmen with children.

In other words, I was the newest addition to Au Pair World dot com.

img_9091

Au pairing was a backup plan, on the advice of my business-manger boyfriend. I’m not so good at initial plans, not to mention backups. I have rarely had too many choices.

But there I was, lingering around my hometown, waiting to hear back about a teaching job in France. Though I’d received a positive response to the candidature spontanée I had sent to a small school in Provence, it had been several weeks with no further correspondance.

My other job applications had gone unanswered. After a flurry of emails, I learned I could not enroll in a university in Nice. Trop tard. I’d missed the deadline.

I was content to wait around–at least I thought so–because combing through Indeed.com does not my favorite activity make. I was a bit stressed due to a lack of direction, but largely at ease, ensconced in a cocoon of novels and homemade cookies, with the distraction that comes from again living with a family.

Victor, living in the real world as he does, shattered my illusion. He reminded me that opportunities weren’t going to fall into my lap. It was only June, but it would soon enough be September–la rentrée, back-to-school time–and if I did nothing, the laissez-faire approach would surely leave me with just that. I (begrudgingly) appreciated the reminder.

Victor asked me if I’d considered au pairing. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. That was one job I knew how to do. It would provide me with a change of scenery, some security, and the chance to figure out a next move from within France: making the future job search a lot more fruitful.

My profile went live, and it wasn’t long before messages from interested families came rolling in. Several days later, I had my first Skype meetings.

Just like in the dating world, this was all based on chemistry. We smiled and asked each other the same few questions–what are you looking for?–but what we were really doing was looking for chemistry. More than any perfect response, the important thing seemed to be intuition, the pursuit of le bon feeling.

I got a little nervous before each new date, checking myself out in my laptop’s camera. Then I would laugh at the reflex. When you’re dating families, you don’t want to look alluring and attractive. Those are not the right words. Mary Poppins, maybe, is the right word. I needed to look polished, responsible, and like I was the kind of girl who could pull lifesaving, boredom-killing objects out of my sizable purse on a whim.

I did the interviews, quite a few of them, scrambling to keep the information straight.  There were several families that didn’t play hard-to-get. They told me straight-up: we’re interested. Call me. My experience with teaching, interest in the Montessori method, and ability to figure things out on my own (since I’ve already lived abroad) helped me stand out as a reliable candidate. And my status as an American citizen was in-demand.

And so all of a sudden, I had options. Offers. I could say yes, a well-considered oui, and my life would change. 6 months forward, I imagined:

Paris. Two little girls. Parents not much older than me. We hang out, drink wine on lazy evenings. With the girls, I sing silly English songs. We make gâteau au yaourt. I master the metro. I take classes at the Sorbonne. I ride a bike, shiver in the brisk Paris winter. (I make a note: I’ll need a new, warmer coat.) Victor flies up once a month to visit. We stroll around Montmartre, red cheeks and chocolat chaud. 

There it is, the skeleton of one future. Parisien me could be reality. She was close enough to capture with keystrokes. The funny thing is, almost all decisions are significant. It’s just that we usually don’t know that at the time. Sometimes we never put the pieces together. But I have always loved working backwards, identifying the little decisions that led to the massive change. Pulling apart the what-ifs.

Finding an au pair family felt like choosing my future. Like knowing, for once, what my decision might bring. Sure, it was a bit of an illusion. Still there was an agreeable feeling of power to it. I could research people’s lives and have total freedom to decide whether I wanted to drop in or not. How often do you get to choose a city, living situation, bedroom, and family in one simple move? The future was in my hands. Plus the pressure that went along with that.

I kept scouring profiles and doing interviews. I continued my rêveries, now with an outdoorsy family in Bordeaux, a big family living just across the German border, a single mom with two little boys living in a renovated farmhouse in the Alps.

I could be in Nice, (somewhat) warm all year round. Or I could have a red nose from ski sunburn. Or a big group of friends, students in Lyon. Or the ability to while away whole afternoons writing in a hidden Parisien garden.

img_9270

It all tempts me.

I see a dozen pictures. This would be your room! They tell me. Would your boyfriend like to come visit? Do you like cats? Do you like to cook? We hope you enjoy wine. We want you to speak English with the kids. We want you to speak French with the kids. Come to Portugal with us. Don’t worry about the housework. Do worry about the housework. We’d provide a bike. We’d provide a car.

I learn that some families are looking for a big-sister character. Others, a full-fledged nanny.

I meet a family I fall for. The kids have my heart with their smiles. I am at work imagining a future. I am ready to cease searching and commit.

The very next day, I receive an email from the school: “thanks for your patience,” essentially. “We’d really like to talk to you about that job.”