Landing in Paris to Divorce, Resettle and Become the Ultimate Soccer Mom

Landing in Paris to Divorce, Resettle and Become the Ultimate Soccer Mom

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landing in Paris
Proud mother with her daughter and son Niko with the Gold Cup after he played a significant role in helping the US National team win the championship in Las Vegas in 2021. © Joan Westcarr-Gioacchini

Landing in Paris in the fall of 2016 was a blessing in disguise. After planning our move from America to the City of Light, one week before our departure my husband of 23 years decided that he was not coming. A mistress hidden for five years and a crippling substance abuse problem were the culprits.

It was a shock for the entire family. I had already secured an apartment in the 12th arrondissement for our two 16-year-old boys and ourselves. Plus, I was excited for the development of our small sales company in Paris and even better, the opportunity to watch our son, Niko, play football.

My first question was, do I stay or do I go?

The tickets had been purchased; Chris had been enrolled in school and Niko was excited about his prospects of playing football in Paris. I had no friends, no foundation and no French. But Paris did offer one thing, the opportunity to write a new chapter in my life. The city had no memories, no smells, places or people that would remind me of the person and life I was leaving behind. So, I threw caution to the wind and we boarded the plane.

© Joan Westcarr-Gioacchini

Initially, my daughter, Alexia, remained behind as she had been scheduled to begin her freshman year at university in Maryland. However, the trauma of her favorite parent abandoning her broke her spirit and will. Instead of heading to college, I suggested she take a gap year in Paris to collect herself.

My kids had been the core of my existence since 1998. That’s when I had given up a budding television journalism career in Washington D.C to become a stay-at-home mom. My commitment to my children’s happiness, health and peace of mind became my priority. The unforeseen rupture of the family dynamics fueled my desire to protect them even more. Especially since I had plucked them from their safe and familiar surroundings in Maryland and had replanted them in a new, unfamiliar place. I had to help them find their peace as that was also the key to my tranquility, and thus my ability to thrive.

The first child to settle was my youngest twin boy, Chris. He was still in high school and hated the move to Paris. We had lived in Italy from 2008 to 2012 then landed in Bethesda, Maryland. Chris had carved out his friend group and a rhythm that he enjoyed. Paris had disrupted this. Regardless of his wishes, he was dragged along. Enrolling him at a private English school in the city, I hoped that it would provide a supportive environment and good new friends. One down, two to go.

The author with her three children Niko, Alexia and Chris in Normandy. © Joan Westcarr-Gioacchini

After her gap year, Alexia decided to remain in Paris. Time had helped her flush out her mind and clear away the haze. We’d even grown closer. She had originally been tight with her dad, but days and nights spent together discovering restaurants, shops and galleries had created a bond. At night we shared the same bed, lulling each other to sleep by talking about our fears, dreams, loves and hates. I had never imagined that my daughter and I could be so close.

University was next on the agenda. Alexia did not speak French so we hunted down the one and only English-speaking liberal arts university in Paris: the American University of Paris. Alexia and I visited the campus and chatted with a few parents and faculty. Satisfied with what it offered, she applied and was soon enrolled for the fall of 2017. Two down, one to go.

During this time, I had registered myself for the free French classes at my local city hall. Learning the language was a must and the twice-per-week lessons were a start. I found the classes very difficult because, even though I was an English instructor and fluent in Italian, I struggled to grasp the language. Nothing was explained and we were, ironically, expected to know everything already. I soon quit the group and sought out another teacher. This too proved difficult as I was mentally distracted by my divorce proceedings unfolding thousands of miles away and, of course, Niko’s football.

Son Niko playing against PSG tearing away from Neymar © Joan Westcarr-Gioacchini

By now, Niko’s football skills had landed him at the age of 16 as the starting striker for Paris Football Club’s Under 17’s. This put a little curveball on getting him into schools, however. Unable to attend the specialized soccer high school because he did not speak French, he also lost out on attending anglophone high school because it conflicted with his football practices, I had to be creative in finding him an alternative. The middle ground was hiring English-speaking teachers in five disciplines to personally teach him the required subjects at home. This worked for one year but I had to switch him to an online school to pursue an actual diploma.

During this time, Niko was scoring goals left and right. This caught the eyes of many scouts, agents and coaches; his career was about to begin. My job had always been to make sure he ate well, practiced well, got enough rest and did his schoolwork. After all, I had been handling his football activities since he was six years old so I felt in my groove. But this time it was different.

We were now in the football mecca of the world and there was more at stake. I didn’t speak French, I didn’t know the French football system, and I was a black woman in a European male environment. Minor details, I thought. I showed up at all of Niko’s games, no matter where they were. Once I drove five hours to not see him play. He had been benched. It didn’t matter. I had followed every one of his games and tournaments in the US and I wasn’t going to stop now. Watching his performances was crucial if I wanted to continue to guide him. My presence was also important for his psyche as he was a foreign kid playing in a foreign land.

Signing Niko’s professional soccer contract in Caen in 2019. @Joan Westcarr-Gioacchini

Scouts and agents became my social partners during the games. Although I didn’t understand much French, they all spoke enough English to communicate their thoughts. Niko had potential and many of them wanted him to sign with them, but they all knew that they had to convince me first. I was flattered to be in this situation but it was my son’s career and I didn’t want to make any mistakes.

I had heard horror stories of young players who had signed contracts that had shut down their careers for life or poor decisions that had turned clubs away. I had to learn what to do and learn quickly to move Niko’s career forward.

Although it has been a rough, rocky and trying six years, Niko has gone on to become a professional footballer in France and an international player for the United States Men’s National Team. Alexia has landed a managerial position as a personal stylist in the US, and Chris is a freelance content creator living on his own in Paris. The French language is still a struggle for me, but I continue to push forward.

I am grateful to the City of Light because it gave me the environment to shake off the weight and ugliness of the past while allowing me the time to blossom into a new woman.

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