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1997: Marrying and emigrating

For the first time this year, we are sending our Christmas wishes with a recap of the year. We feel that, with all our moves and changes, we’re losing touch with too many people that we’d love to keep in contact with. Plus, it has been a crazy year. I personally am too old for all this!

Our pond at La Bellanderie froze over during a cold spell, and the children had a blast slip-sliding around on it. Here’s Tom.

Those were the first words of our first annual update for friends and family, sent at the end of the year. Perhaps the move prompted it: we certainly had cause to feel dislocated. The update is reproduced here, with occasional elaboration.

1997 started at La Bellanderie, the lovely old manor house in the village of Saint Hilarion (50 miles southwest of Paris) that a friend, Martine Varenne-Caillard, rented to us the year before so that we would have the space to lodge our always-expanding family.

Nick (11 in July) and Tom (8 in October), my contributions, Daphné (10 in August) and Alban (8 in September), Marie-Hélène’s contibutions, and Charlie (2 in August), our first joint effort, each had his or her own room, and all had a playroom as well as acres of woodland and stream to romp around in. We didn’t know it when we left, but Alex was likely conceived there!

That house has spoiled us all for life; we may never be able to afford one like it again!

But the writing was on the wall in France. The economy was gurgling happily down the drain; no government seems able or willing to tackle the entrenched set of entitlements and expectations that bleed the country’s coffers and render individual initiative a last resort reserved for those who can’t get what they need from the government. While the French brutally disposed of their monarchy, they never seem to have lost the sense that the government owes them a living. In return, they accept great governmental intrusion in their lives; . . .. Plus, perhaps because I did not chose to remain living there, my own initiatives tended to fall flat.

Yep, I had quite a few initiatives fall flat those last couple of years there. I didn’t understand why really, and so couldn’t fix it. Unsolicited job applications did sometimes bring responses, but somehow nothing quite worked out. Looking back, it was either a dry spell in the game of life or simple French chauvinism: could have been either.

Prompted by Marie-Hélène, we began to look into professional possibilities in California, where I have wanted to return ever since those dream years at U.C. Berkeley. With the livelihood of five kids to consider, it was not a decision to be taken lightly. Each of the older four would end up living a long way from one of their parents, for example, and neither Daphné nor Alban spoke more than a few words of English.

Then again, I have never met an adult who regretted emigrating to California when he or she was a child. And when we finished 1996 accounts and looked at what 1997 seemed to have in store for us in France, we basically had no choice but to move on.

Annie or Russ Hanlon took this one on Capitola Beach during the brief visit to Santa Cruz while we explored California in April 1997.

This is when things started to heat up. We first planned a trip to California for the spring, just Charlie and the parents, to make sure that Marie-Hélène could appreciate the place. Then we realized that we’d need to move in the summer if she did, so that the children could transfer schools between school years. Before moving, there were other important things that we needed to do.

The first step in this required acceleration occurred, appropriately enough, on a roller coaster. I asked Marie-Hélène to marry me on the fabulous roller coaster at Disneyland in Paris that the children call the “train fou”, or runaway train, and think that she replied “oui”, although it could have been “whoeeeeee”! This was on the third anniversary of our first real date, March 19, 1994. Romance is far from my forte, but this worked.

It was all a bit rushed because once we had decided to move, we couldn’t dawdle. It seemed right that she married with her family present, which would have been difficult had we waited until arriving in California. She has never been married before, explaining Daphné and Alban as not one but two immaculate conceptions! Some of you will have observed that it was not my first marriage, to which I can only respond that we all make mistakes, and that having suffered the consequences of prior mistakes makes the consequences of the new commitment more visible. Neither of us is going into this with romantic illusions, but both with a great deal of feeling and heart. It took France to teach this Englishman the meaning of romantic love.

At the reception, which we hosted ourselves in La Bellanderie, with a fitting glass of champagne.

We were married on May 24 in the local village hall, and catered a reception at “La Bellanderie” afterwards. To those of you who were able to make it on such short notice, thank you very much (if you are on this side of the puddle, be prepared for a serious first anniversary celebration here!). We never had that celebration: sorry people. Too much going on. Special thank yous go out to Ronnie and Louise Warrington, who gave my family a presence in the face of all those French people (Marie-Hélène’s family seemed LARGE that day), to Aunt Angela and Veronica Stevens and family (who had car trouble in Leeds, but were still only two weeks late!) and to Kay and Charles Tillion, who helped me feel that mum was with us. She would have been thrilled. . . .

Part of the Colorado portion of our Amtrak trip across America. The front of the train is under the freeway bridge around a bend in the river. Other passengers are reflected in the window.

Not a month later, we flew to New York, spent a few days being tourists and then crossed the country from New York to San Francisco by train. Americans will never appreciate as do we Europeans the grandeur and glory of all that land. The trip lasted 3-1/2 days, and through the Rockies we travelled amazing lines with seemingly unlimited looping curves that I first read about as a little boy in a marvellous three-volume work that dad gave me, “Railway Wonders of the World”.

They are indeed wonders! And these wonders came served with a shower on the train, a family room for us to sleep and hang out in, and wide-angle observation seating for jet-lagged travellers watching the dawn come up over the Utah/Nevada border.

The sad part of the trip, the abiding sadness for those of us who are settling into our new home in California, is that French judges who apparently did not appreciate me punished Nick and Tom for my sins, keeping them in France when we left and not interfering when their mother refused even to let them visit us over two school holidays. Against their own expert’s advice, they changed the boys residence to their mother’s home, . . . .

Our family room on the train from Chicago to Oakland. Alban is suspended in the safety harness for the upper bunk. If you look closely, you can see Charlie asleep underneath.

This was in the boys’ best interest, according to these judges and against the boys’ own wishes, uniquely because France is best for them. What logic! . . . (additional ranting omitted!) Of course, we were in a rush. Being moved by an employer which is the easiest way to move abroad with a family, and we were not. So our arrangements did lack a certain rigor, as the court noted. We lodged at a hotel near the beach while we looked for a home and then while we waited to buy it.  I knew that my professional prospects were better in California, but didn’t find the job that proved it until March 1998. The court noted that I went from an uncertain professional situation in France to the same in California. In short, the judgment was more than simply French chauvinism.

It feels so good to be back home after all the years of involuntary exile, and professionally things already look so much more encouraging here, but do we all miss the little guys. We found the house just over a week after arriving in Santa Cruz. It’s on the side of a hill about ten minutes from the ocean and downtown, surrounded by redwood decks and with redwoods growing on the property. Apart from all the leaves that have to be cleared off the steep, 300 yard driveway, it’s a delight. We’re next door to the “Mystery Spot,” “seen in Life Magazine”, and within commuting distance of Silicon Valley.

Daphné and Alban lucked into the best local elementary school, where their English advances at an incredible pace and the headmistress and all the teachers glow with their passion for their charges. It’s called Happy Valley School. They both want skateboards for Christmas, have already made friends with a hippy-looking type on Pacific Avenue, the main street downtown (he’s a Math Professor at U.C. Santa Cruz who hails from Morocco), and are generally making the most of their new world. Alban has fallen in love with kids’ soccer, and both of them are thrilled with the PCs available at school, during class and after.

For her birthday in August 1997, we took Daphne and Cassie, her new-found friend, to the Great America amusement park in Santa Clara.

Marie-Hélène and I are expecting (God willing) our second son at the end of January, which will make four for each of us. We are of course thrilled, as are all the other kids, present and absent. Charlie sticks his tummy out and announces that he has a baby there, not his mum! The mother-to-be is doing well, especially considering that initially (I recently obtained reversal of this refusal) she had to live with being turned down for health insurance on the basis of her pre-existing condition of pregnancy! If you are reading this in the UK or France, this shameful side of the US may shock you; if you are reading it here, let’s not give up on some sort of national health insurance.

Having only left her home country for nine months earlier in her life, Marie-Hélène is doing an incredible job of settling into what is for her an alien world. She has been delighted to discover that café life, coffee on the terrace and watching the world go by, is almost as much a part of life here as it is in Paris, with the added advantage that the patios are warm and sunny enough to sit on for much longer each year than in France.

Visiting the in-laws before Christmas, 1997. Sue and Derek Nash are my sister and brother-in-law. They are not always warmly disposed toward us, but after our arrival in the US they were very kind and helpful. They were also living pretty close to us, and stayed there in Foster City for a few years.

As I say, there has been an awful lot going on!

It’ll take us a couple of years to recover from this one, but in the meantime it’s Christmas. We are decorating the tree today, and now that the French courts have finally insisted on it, we look forward to Nick and Tom’s visiting us for the first time for Christmas (British Airways have never before struck me as a very human enterprise, but this time they have gone out of their way to help us be together). With all of the upheavals that have accompanied the move (did I mention that a crooked French moving company is yet to deliver our furniture?), I still feel as if I have just come out of a dank and murky cave into a bright and colored world.

We are thinking of the friends that we have left behind and friends that we have rediscovered and are hoping to rediscover.  Thank you to those who have gone out of their way to help us return, Michelle and Rick Plescia-Schultz in Los Angeles, and Rory and Jan Nielsen Little up here come immediately to mind. And a very warm thank you to Russ and Annie Hanlon, whose first child Brendan arrived in September but who still found time to go out of their way again and again to help us settle in to their little town.

We wish you all good health and a Happy and Prosperous New Year.

Here are the other diary pages: 1994, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009