In the months leading up to her 33rd birthday, Jenny Sundel’s high-paying, but deeply unsatisfying interim job ended. After a decade of working around the clock – and sleeping next to her blackberry! – she knew she needed a break. “That only crystallized further when I attempted to find another job, right smack dab in the middle of a recession no less. ‘Knowing your background as a freelancer, are you sure you could truly be happy in an office,’ asked one interviewer. ‘Um uh um uh um uh um,’ I stammered. Needless to say, they gave the job to someone eIse.”
Jenny was so burnt out that she could no longer imagine returning to her prior freelance life either. “I had lost all motivation to hustle for assignments along with any passion for my work. I felt disillusioned, purpose-less and un-inspired. And all this right as I was turning 33, otherwise known as the Jesus Year. It was the perfect time for a reinvention.” Jenny decided to move to Paris and shares with us how her life is changing
I always dreamed of a year in Europe, having taken several trips abroad from the time I turned 16. And I had been stashing money away for years due to the instability of freelancing. But that should be used for down payments, or riding out a down job market, or…Paris, as would come to me the weekend before my birthday after months of selling off my possessions to people who kept asking me if I was moving from Los Angeles, my home for eleven years. “Yes.” “Where?” “I’m not sure.”
Nearly two months after my birthday, I arrived in Paris in the middle of a snowstorm armed with my rusty high school French (sadly, not much has changed in that department!) and two contacts – an old kindergarten pal whom I had not seen in years and a Facebook “friend” who had written a letter on my behalf so I could secure a visa even though we had never met.
Now, five months and three apartments later, I have made friends from all over – the Philippines, the Czech Republic, and my beloved Italy, which I have already visited twice since my arrival, lucky girl that I am. I have watched the sky change from moody grey to fairytale blue, spent all of my Euros on eye palettes and lipstick from Bourjois in a (failed) attempt to look French (on one particularly good day, I passed for Italian!), and learned to read a map so I can walk around this beautiful city rather than travel underground in the metro.
Not that I haven’t seen some uh-mazing sights on the subway, too, like the time I spotted a girl in heart tights and begged her to tell me where I could get them. (Yes, I bought the tights. No, I still don’t look French. That certain effortlessly chic je ne sais quoi? Turns out it’s not for sale. Trust me, I’ve looked. Plus, I still have a dopey smile plastered on my face – a dead foreigner giveaway.)
But there’s nothing like walking home along the Seine and spotting the sparkling lights of the Eiffel Tower every hour on the hour or looking out at the magical glow of the city perched atop one of the romantic bridges next to some couple making out (yes there is a reason it’s called the City of Light and the City of Love). In moments like these, I stop and think, “Wow, I live in Paris?!!” The surreal amazingness of it all washes over me at least once a week. Still.
But live here I do. I have my routines, my favorite walks, my go-to spots: underneath the bridge in Ile St. Louis where I often see brides posing for photos – turns out I’m not the only one who likes the Notre Dame backdrop; the café in Saint Germain with the best people-watching and the flirtiest waiters; the Aussie-owned coffeehouse in my hood where I order green tea and asparagus soup – tres important after a steady diet of croissants and macarons; the Irish bar where they know how to make my fave hard drink when I tire of my usual kirs and vin rouge (note: vodka-soda-limes are soooo not French); the Apple store at the Louvre, where they have learned to…tolerate my tech tantrums; Le Bon Marche where I drool all over the dessert case in their food hall and the tres chic (but way out-of-my-budget) designer duds in the adjoining department store.
I no longer get chastised daily (just every other day?!) since I have learned to follow the unspoken rules here, or at least knowingly break them. “Bon appetit,” someone will undoubtedly say with a smirk if I choose to eat my pain au chocolat as I walk down the street rather than on a bench or in a café. When I forget to mind my manners and ask the salespeople for what I want as soon as I approach, “Bonjour,” they will remind me before forcing me to repeat my question after a proper greeting. And I still pat myself on the back when I order something in French and actually get what I think I ordered. (Although, after five months, perhaps I should set the language bar a bit higher?!)
I have given French people directions (ok, just the once, but still!); held an entire conversation in (broken) French with a locksmith when I could not open my door despite having my key in my hand; and found escargot totally palatable! There have been plenty of other surprises along the way, too. First, that I don’t actually have to know French to live in France since most people speak English (but I really should); that accomplishing a simple errand can often take all day and require a mound of paperwork; that I cannot subsist on croissants and cigarettes alone (try as I might!); and I will let just about anyone walk me home if they let me practice my French in the process (just ask one persistent stranger who took me the long way on Valentine’s Day).
From the moment I made the decision to spend a year abroad, my life has no longer felt purposeless. Yes, there are new challenges now. Don’t even get me started on this whole double-kissing business. (Is it an air kiss? A real kiss? Just me pressing my cheek gently against someone else’s while making a smacking sound?) But my biggest concern is to make sure to “profit” as the Frenchies say, from every minute I’m here. I mean that’s a lot of pressure! Especially now that half of the year has passed. Have I seen enough? Done enough? Met enough people? Should I move to another country for the second half of the year or stay in Paris now that I have created a life here and actually built friendships?
But these are high-class problems. I no longer feel that emptiness, that void, that lack of balance that came from only focusing on my career and getting ahead. In its place, I feel a passionate desire to discover new things and – cue the cheesy soundtrack – try to live life to the fullest. Not that I’ve figured it out, but I’ve had a helluva good time trying.
My absolute favorite thing to do is just roam around Paris without a plan and see where I end up. Now, after years upon years of worrying about what’s next, that is how I have chosen to navigate life, too.
Jenny Sundel has written for Los Angeles Times, USA Today, People, Women’s Wear Daily, and New York Post, among several other publications. She is currently detailing her 33rd year of life, otherwise known as The Jesus Year, on her blog. You can also follow her on Twitter at @JesusYear.