Today is my birthday. I will have finished my 66th year of life when I go to bed tonight. I never thought I would end up living to such a ripe old age. I guess it’s time to take stock.
In my life I’ve had half a dozen or more long-term relationships with special people, and dozens of other happy friendships. I’ve gotten married three times and divorced twice. My longest and in many ways closest relationship is with my mother, Mary Allen, who’s now 85. I’ll be flying to North Carolina to see her next week, and my sister Joanna, another long-time friend.
I’ve been lucky to have two very good friendships that started in the mid-1970s with Cheryl and Sue, who came from Illinois but live in California. They, Walt, and I spent many great weekends and holidays in California together over a 15-year period. As you might know, I also have a long-lasting friendship with CHM, a 90-year-old Parisian who has lived in the U.S. for more than 40 years now. We first met and worked together 32 years ago.
And then there is my long-time partner and now spouse, Walt. He and I have been a couple for 32 years, and I’m not sure what would have happened to me if I hadn’t met him back then. I would have been much less happy with my life, that’s for sure. Alone, I wouldn’t have been able to do a lot of the things I’ve done. My existence would have become pretty bleak as the years passed, I think.
Over the course of my 66 years, I’ve lived in at least 15 apartments and 4 houses, counting only those where I spent more than three or four months. The longest times I’ve spent in one house or apartment are the 18 years I spent living in my mother’s house in North Carolina at the beginning of my life, and the 12 years I’ve now spent in this house near Saint-Aignan. Walt and I lived at five or six different addresses between 1982 and 1992. We got really good at packing up and moving our furniture and other belongings from one place to the next — including across the North American continent.
I’ve lived in three major cities over the years — Paris, San Francisco, and Washington DC. I’ve also lived in many smaller cities, including Rouen and Aix-en-Provence in France, and Durham NC and Champaign-Urbana IL in the U.S. And now Saint-Aignan for 12 years.
Speaking of Paris, Rouen, and Saint-Aignan, I have to say that France has been one of the biggest mysteries and joys of my life. I say it’s a mystery because I don’t know how or why it began. It just did. We had some French friends for a few years when I was growing up in North Carolina. I was fascinated by them and the fact that they spoke French to each other.
Then I studied French for four years when I was in high school because I wanted to get a university degree afterward and American universities back then had what was called a language requirement. I ended up majoring in French at Duke U., because it was a good way to justify coming to France to live and study for a while. My first trip was in 1970 when I was 20 years old — six months in Provence and Paris, including my 21st birthday — and the fascination has never ended. I’ve always just been happier in France. I have a master's degree in French literature, though I'm not a literary person. I'm more interested in linguistics. I've been known to say that the greatest accomplishment of my life has been mastering the French language as well as I have.
Since that first trip in 1970, I have flown across the Atlantic Ocean more than 75 times. I haven’t counted recently, but my upcoming trip might bring the total number to 79 or 81. It’s an odd number of crossings because I started in America and have ended up in France. In all, I’ve lived in France for about 20 years out of my 66. Even when I was in the U.S. from 1982 until about 1992, I was working in French (with CHM in DC) and I was was moonlighting as a teacher of French language classes evenings and weekends (at San Francisco City College in California). Starting in the late 1980s, Walt and I came to France at least once a year for vacations and travel.
The way I look at it, I’ve had three distinct careers since I started working for a living at age 22. I was a teacher for more than a dozen years. I taught French in the U.S. and English in France. Then I became a writer, editor, and translator. That lasted a good dozen years, in Washington and in San Francisco. Then I became a manager in a series of software companies in Silicon Valley. After about 10 years of doing that work, which was rewarding but exhausting, I threw in the towel at age 53 and Walt and I moved our life to France.
I’ve never broken a bone, had major surgery, or spent a night in a hospital. I had debilitating pollen allergies when we lived in California. Those have greatly diminished since I moved to France.
I’ve owned 10 cars since I got my first one, a Ford, when I was 22. Two were Japanese, three French, and four German. The car I’ve owned the longest is a French Peugeot. So far, I’m very happy with my ‘new’ Citroën. I’ve had three or four minor car accidents in my life. The worst one happened in Florida when I was 25 years old. Nobody was badly hurt, and the car was repaired.
I've been writing this blog for nearly 10 years now. Blogging is perfect for me, because I love to take photos (a late-in-life hobby) and to write, but I don't have the self-discipline or focus to write long, organized material. Besides, I have made some really good friends through this blog — people I would never have gotten to know otherwise.
Some other highlights: I turned down a teaching fellowship at Harvard when I was nearly 30 years old. I knew I didn’t really want to be a teacher any more. What I wanted to do was live in France, not teach French in America. Similarly, I surprised a lot of people when I suddenly quit my job in Washington DC to move to California, because Walt wanted to go live there. I didn't have any idea what I'd do in California, but I figured things would work out.
When I was 36 years old — 30 years ago this month — I traveled to Africa and Switzerland as part of the press pack covering then Vice President George H.W. Bush on an official trip to visit drought-stricken countries including Sudan, Mali, and Niger. Around that time, I was frequently in the White House and in the U.S. Senate chamber, working as a reporter and writer. I saw Ronald Reagan up close many times, and I even once sneaked into the Oval Office at the White House, pretending to be a photographer, for what they called a “photo op” with Reagan and some visiting foreign dignitary.
I once stepped on French President Jacques Chirac’s foot. He was campaigning on the street where I lived in Paris at the time, and as I pushed through the crowd I didn’t see him until it was too late. I’m not sure he even noticed. I also stepped on Senator Ted Kennedy’s foot once, in a hotel in Geneva. I was unaware that he was standing in line behind me, and I took an unfortunate step backwards for some reason. Kennedy was polite about it.
On a more positive and rewarding level, I once interviewed Coretta Scott King in Washington, and she already knew my name because she had read a magazine article I’d written about the Martin Luther King Center for Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta.
One of the most charismatic personalities I ever met was the late President Samora Machel of Mozambique. He died in a mysterious plane crash in South Africa a few years after that. Walt and I later met and chatted with the king of the West African Asante people when he visited Washington and New York in the mid-1980s. We also were in attendance in the House of Representatives when French President François Mitterrand addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress around that same time.
I'm not musical at all, really, but there are singers who have been important in my life. Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, and Kate and Anna McGarrigle have been among them. Also, many French singers: Georges Brassens, Francis Cabrel, Daniel Balavoine, France Gall, Véronique Sanson, Eddy Mitchell, Alain Souchon, Laurent Voulzy, Patachou... I'll stop there. I like to say that I had two childhoods: one in America up to the age of 20, and a second in France up to the age of 30. French music was a great teacher for me back then, as I was learning the language.
Sometimes I say that I always knew I would meet Walt one day, but of course I didn’t know that. I recognized him as somebody special when I met him, however. It’s funny how a chance encounter or an seeming coincidence can change the course of a person’s existence.
I also think I have long known that I would end up living and probably dying in France one day. I’m enjoying the living part and not dreading the prospect of the dying part. As I heard a French journalist and TV host (the late Jacques Chancel) say in an interview not too long ago, everybody who has ever lived on Earth has also died. Death is an integral part of life. If you don’t ever die, that means you never actually lived.