FIVE FLIGHTS UP: Sex, Love, and Family, from Paris to Lyon. An openhearted and rollicking memoir of a trailing wife struggling to exert her career independence. By Kristin Louise Duncombe
How can you be sick of living in Paris?
This is my incredulous comment when Tano claims that after eight years, he’s had enough. Enough of the big city life. Enough of the cost of living. Enough of our family of four crammed into a 635-square-feet apartment.
We are sitting in a little café off the place des Vosges. With its elegant covered archways, warm cafés, and trendy art galleries giving out to a tree-lined square, this is one of my very favorite places in Paris. But what I thought was going to be a special after work drink with my husband—a rare indulgence given our family schedule—has instead revealed itself as the chosen stage for his announcement: He has received a job offer, out of the blue, an offer that would force us to change our lives by moving to Lyon, a smaller city in eastern-central France, 293 miles from Paris in the region called the Rhône-Alpes.
“Let’s do it,” he says, waving for the waiter, who has studiously ignored us for the last ten minutes. “Let’s try something new.”
“But I have zero desire to move,” I say, amazed that he could think that I would ever tire of Paris. Aside from being one of the most beautiful places on this planet, the city had provided the answer to my long-standing need to create a fixed home somewhere in the world.
Until Paris, moving dominated my existence. I lived all over the world, changing countries every couple of years as a child and teenager—from the United States to the Ivory Coast to Egypt to India to Indonesia—because of my father’s career with the US Foreign Service. Shortly after returning to the United States as a young adult, I met Tano, a sexy Argentinean doctor, and after a whirlwind romance, followed him to East Africa—first Kenya, then Uganda—where he worked as a doctor with Médecins Sans Frontières.
“First of all,” Tano continues, as though he hasn’t even heard me, “The cost of living in Lyon is much better than Paris…”
His voice fades to a distant hum as I recall how the East-African chapter of our life led to an infidelity that almost destroyed our marriage. I fled to Paris with our toddler, Carmen, where we owned a tiny apartment that we had as yet never lived in.
“…And imagine living in a place where people are not so, so…hostile.” He reaches out and taps the back of the waiter, now clearing an abandoned table. “Is it too much to ask you for two glasses of red, please? This is a restaurant, no?”
Parisians can be, shall we say, difficult, it’s true, but I am in love with this place, and that alone allows me to forgive its flaws.
And Tano should too, as it was my new life in Paris that ultimately fashioned our reconciliation. After a separation that dragged out over months, Carmen took her father back immediately, with the easy unconditionality of a child. At not even three years old, she had no notion of our falling out, much less the difficulty of forgiving and forgetting.
But it was not as easy for me, plagued as I was by the need, fueled by jealousy and hurt, to re-examine every aspect of our life together, not least of which the question: How had I, an ambitious young career woman, ended up totally dependent on a man—and on top of it, one who betrayed me?
When we split up, I had no job. No income. Nothing of my own, save for the small apartment in Paris that Tano and I had invested every last dime in, in the hopes that we would move there one day.
I could have gone running back to the States, to the open arms of my parents and two sisters—not that there was even enough money left over to buy plane tickets. Of course my father made it patently clear that all I had to do was say the word and he would see to it that Carmen and I were on the next plane to Washington, DC.
The fact that I was thirty-two years old, however, when this personal catastrophe struck made running back to my parents’ home feel impossible, like a regression to being a dependent child. The need to stand on my own two feet and be a self-reliant adult was pressing, a developmental task that I had to complete.
But oh, dear Reader, let me tell you how awful it was to be in this situation: totally broke and financially dependent on the husband I just left. With all of our savings invested in the apartment, our only income was Tano’s small paychecks. It was a bleak and formative moment in my life, being confronted with what it really meant to not have a way to support my child and myself.
But I did have the 635 square feet on rue Oberkampf.
And so, to Paris I went, for the first time in my life making a geographic move that I settled on entirely by myself. Until that very moment my path around the world had no logical connection other than the professional obligations of the two most important men in my life: my father and my husband.
With hindsight, this was an electrifying, exhilarating moment in my personal development. I didn’t realize it then, but looking back I see that more than a departure from my unhappy marriage and move from Africa to Europe, the major journey I embarked on was an identity shift: from one who follows to one who leads.
“So you see,” Tano says, his conviction breaking into my reverie. “In Lyon we’ll be able to live in a much bigger space. Even food and transport are cheaper.”
Food? Transport? He acts like we’re planning a vacation. This is my life we’re talking about, and it’s a life I am deeply attached to. Eight years in—longer than I have ever lived anywhere—I have been able to build the things that I now feel an almost murderous sense of protectiveness over: a stable home for our family (that has expanded to include a son, Lorenzo, six years Carmen’s junior), a wonderful network of friends, a fantastic professional life.
Eight years after my tremulous arrival in Paris, I am at the height of my career. I am on contract with the American University of Paris to provide counseling services to their students. I frequently speak in the international school and Embassy circuits about raising “global and mobile” kids, a term I branded to describe the international children I see in my practice, mother in my home, and was myself while growing up. Most significant is my work with trailing spouses, helping them to navigate the identity loss, depression, and anxiety that can erupt by having to move around the world because of someone else’s obligations.
The waiter sets two glasses of wine on our table, with what appears to be a conciliatory smile. Tano and I clink our glasses and the waiter says, “santé”—to health. We sip our wine quietly, lost in our own thoughts, as the sound of a melancholy aria drifts from some distant corner of the plaza, accompanied by the soft strains of a violin. I have heard this musical duo so many times over these years in Paris, and still, those first notes never cease to move me, as though I am discovering something beautiful for the first time.
“So what about it? What about leaving the big city for Lyon?”
“But what about my life?”
“You can start over,” Tano says.
“It’s not so easy to just ‘start over’ when you’re in business for yourself.”
“True, but you’re good at it,” Tano says.
The capacity for reinvention is a hallmark of people who have moved a lot, so I do know that I can start over in Lyon, if I just work hard enough. But the professional scene will never be able to match that of Paris, where there is an enormous community of expats seeking therapy services, and where an American University will hire me to run their counseling program.
“Let me remind you,” he continues, “Lyon is also an international city. There’s the World Health Organization, Interpol’s headquarters, all the big pharmaceuticals…”
From there he starts in on the great pleasures of living in a city that has two rivers running through it—the Rhône and the Saône. When he raves about the Alps being visible from the city center on a clear day, I’m already in a miserable meditation around dismantling my private practice.
“And if you can’t find enough work to go full time, you can do something else,” Tano cajoles, “like write another book.”
This snaps me back to attention. The first and only book I have ever written—Trailing: A Memoir—deals with the exact topic we are haggling over right now: me following him around the world.
“Oh my God,” I gape. “You must really want me to move.”
He snorts, a sort of half laugh, and I know that he is remembering his reaction to me writing about our marriage. In fact, when he finished reading the first draft of Trailing, he took a pen and replaced the title with My Husband is a Jerk.
“How can you write all those horrible things about me?” he had demanded.
“The character in the book is frustrated and angry, Tano.”
“The ‘character’ in the book is you, Querida, and you’re talking about me.”
I re-worked the text, and re-worked it some more, until the story moved away from the critical, blaming stance it had once stood on and focused more squarely on my needy impracticality at the time we lived in East Africa, and the major lesson borne of our marital crisis: That Tano and I needed to have equal shots at pursuing our dreams—professional and personal—if our marriage was going to survive. After everything we’d been through, becoming financially self-sufficient went hand in hand with this for me, and it was only after I was settled in Paris and earning a proper living that I could gauge I was still in the marriage because I wanted to stay. Staying when I didn’t have to because I was able to support myself was all the proof I needed that our relationship had truly healed.
But does one ever fully recover from a spouse’s affair?
That question comes roaring back as Tano’s insistence that I follow him to Lyon causes me to seize up in panic. Leaving my hard-earned professional existence will mean that my earnings will plummet to zero; I will relinquish all of my financial power. I know it isn’t fair to obsess about this now—our marriage has been on the right track for years, and Tano has made more than a heartfelt case for his good intentions. But the body seems to have a mind of its own, because no matter what I know rationally, giving up my professional and financial stability fills me with fear.
Give up my life for ours?
Give up my life for his?