Make it up as we go along
– The Talking Heads
August 1st is Swiss National Day: on this day in 1291, the cantons of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden formed a federal charter, the beginnings of what eventually became Switzerland. Fast forward seven hundred nineteen years: on the first day of the eighth month of 2010, we left California. I had been in the bay area since 1985; Annie, in those same twenty-five years, lived not only in California, but also Montreal, Japan, and Arizona.
We left a mid-peninsula ranch home, with its wonderful view of the bay, left friends, left family. Early that Sunday morning, Kieran, my brother Keith, and I, began driving two Ryder trucks across the country, down the 101 to the 152 to the 5 1With a nod to SNL’s The Californians. … Continue reading. Annie, Catherine, and Andre had flown to Montreal the day before. Kieran, then only fourteen years old, did not do any driving; he did, however, during the five day drive, send or receive 12,000 text messages.
Gavin Newsome was the mayor of San Francisco, Arnold Schwarzenegger the governor of California, and Barack Obama the president of the United States.
That August 1st we had no thought of moving to France. Our plan was to relocate to the Boston area: we would be closer to Annie’s family in and around Montreal, as well as mine, in Virginia and Maryland; there were a lot of technology companies in the area; and after so long in the Bay Area, there are only so many places you can move to. Boston was one of them.
My first trip to Europe was in June, 1980. The president of the United States was Jimmy Carter: a 1946 graduate of the Naval Academy, nuclear submariner under Admiral Rickover, farmer, politician, then a one term president, an office he wasn’t suited to, since then teaching, building homes at Habitat for Humanity. I’m not sure if something happened to me on that first trip across the pond, which started off in Rome, but that may have set the seed. I’d return in later years: 1983-1984, 2001, 2008, and 2009.
From that August until January, Boston was our focus: we talked to real estate agents from Milton to Lexington, I interviewed around, we bided our time, but nothing was happening. If a company liked me, I wasn’t particularly interested, and if I liked them, they weren’t interested. A rock, a hard place—we became very familiar with these.
Then…. Annie made a suggestion. Just after the New Year (now 2011), while visiting relatives in western Maryland, she suggested that since all our stuff was in storage, and we had a bit of cash and some runway on our credit cards, why don’t we take the time now, before getting locked into the mortgage-minivan-commute rut, take the time to go live in France for a year. She’d been doing some research: we could afford to live in the south of France, but only for a year. Then we’d have to come back.
No job, three kids, limited resources, move to another country. Romantic? Adventurous? Who is April Wheeler for $600, Alex? I have no idea. Why be dull? I was all in. I’ve never thought about this until now, as a I write on the anniversary. She and me are pretty different sometimes, but in keys ways, like this one, we were and are simpatico: first to leave California, then to double down, keep going East.
A few days later we left Maryland and started driving north, back to Montreal, but the decision crystallized into a plan after twenty minutes driving, talking about France. Why wait? I exited at Chambersburg on Interstate 81, got us turned around, and we returned to my sister’s house. Our legal residence was her place in Maryland, and from there we launched numerous forays on the French embassy in Washington, D.C. Why? To stay in France more than ninety days you need a special visa, which must be obtained in person, with your entire family. Over the next nine months, after two official visa applications (our first application was rejected), after numerous trips to the embassy, and after a shitload2An NIST recognized standard of paperwork, we got approval: we could live in France for one year, our kids could go to school there, but we could not work, and we had to provide our own health insurance.
We had a lot of help along the way: the Maryland Elders, the Virginia Elders, the Dickinsons, the Levacs, the Chambers, others, and also from some wonderful people once we arrived, but that’s for another time. I’m not sure if the grinding mills of the gods will give me the opportunity to reciprocate, but I’m watching and waiting. I remember. But most of all it couldn’t have happened without Annie. I swear to god I am ten thousand times in love with that girl. Love me ‘til my heart stops, okay?
I’d like to say I’d do a couple of things differently—lived in a nicer place in Marseille or hired tutors or sent the boys back to visit several times a year or bought a car right away—but with the future unknown, we were reluctant to spend anything. The move was especially hard on Kieran and Andre: they knew no French, they were leaving their friends, part of their family, all that was familiar to them. It was tough.
Now, on this 1 August 2020: London Breed is the mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsome is the governor of California, and Donald Trump occupies the White House. Although I had misgivings about what we chose to do, since 2016, I have been especially glad to be over here.
We’re settled in France; we might move one more time: maybe to Atlantic France, maybe around Nice. Who knows? We don’t, and as such we seem to be living the verses from the Talking Heads song (see above). I’m thinking that might be the title of the book about our moving here. Meantime, the kids are in some good schools, Annie is busy and content3The French word has a deeper meaning … Continue reading. I get to swim in the Mediterranean now and then, and work with a variety of smart, well educated people on some useful technology.
Still, some days, maybe most, I’m still not sure how I got here. I’m baffled and amazed. I like to think I might be smart, well educated, hard working, erudite, perceptive, can tie a Windsor knot and one handed bowline….maybe all that’s kinda true… But a lot of shit is really just luck.
A few images, no particular order, in a futile attempt to capture the slightest glimpse of it all…