It’s been said that Paris should be experienced at different ages in life to appreciate all its alluring aspects. You should visit the City of Light as a young woman seeking new adventures, sojourn here as a more experienced woman carving out a purpose, and enjoy life in France as a mature, older woman understanding how differences can enrich one’s being.
Meet Sumner Hargrove, a proud Texan whose impressions of France during a high school trip inspired her to give up a career in public finance at the age of 30 to move to Paris and reinvent herself not once but several times!
Her latest successful conversion at a time many others are considering early retirement is to pursue her passion as an interior decorator helping clients fulfill their dreams in Paris with her company “Flights-of-Fancy.”
How does she glide through life so gracefully? INSPIRELLE caught up with Sumner to ask how to take on transformation with courage, a plan and panache.
The portrait of you in an evening dress on Paris’ most beautiful bridge, the Pont Alexandre III, is fabulous! What was the inspiration behind this?
Thanks so much, it’s a fun story. While planning for my 60th birthday in early 2020, I knew it would be the perfect occasion to hike the Inca Trail in Peru at last, a lifelong dream (after having earlier trekked in the Sahara Desert in Morocco and explored the Great Wall in China). Then came Covid and I said “ok, I’ll just give a big party in Paris.” But things got worse and finally it was just going to be dinner out with my twins when the restaurants closed.
I came up with the idea for a festive photoshoot last autumn on the Pont Alexandre III to celebrate my inner Parisienne, calling it my “Covid Six-Oh birthday party for one!”
You’ve made France your home for half of your life. What drew you to Paris and convinced you to stay?
I came to France originally on a whirlwind high school trip (six European countries in two weeks!) and fell madly in love with Paris the moment I saw it. Then while looking up at the high ceilings with gorgeous moldings and old parquet floors on the last night in our hotel of faded charm in the Latin Quarter, I had an epiphany. I secretly decided then and there I would live in France one day. So, I went home, did my university and master’s degrees, and began my career.
At the age of 30, I quit my job, put 100 books on the street and moved to Besançon to study French at the Centre Linguistiquée Appliquée. Well, as the months went by, I had so much trouble with the language and everyone in the school was at least 10 years younger than me. I was ready to give up and go back to New York. Then one very cold day, while riding on a city bus, I saw a billboard with a huge photo of a fountain pen and old-style writing which said, “En attendant la gloire, j’ai déjà un Waterman”.
“While waiting for glory, I already have a Waterman.”
And I realized with great emotion, “Oh my gosh, I understand it. Everything is going to be alright. I’m going to stay here and follow my dream. It’s going to work out.”
How many times have you made career switches?
Four! Not planned of course! I started my career in public finance working on Wall Street, and afterward taught marketing, finance and media in English at French universities and grandes écoles in Paris. After my twins were born, I went back to the corporate world with a major French company managing communications for the marketing teams around the world. When my children went off to university, I decided it was time to do what I had always wanted to do from the age of seven or eight…be an interior decorator.
I never dared it earlier, thinking it wasn’t “serious” enough, so I studied finance in New York.
But what I finally understood, much later in life, is anything can be serious if you do it seriously.
I certainly didn’t see that realization coming for many, many years but it was so uplifting when it finally did!
You make transformation look so easy. What is important to embrace when making major life changes?
How kind of you! Well, I’d say start by brainstorming, take the time to think the project through fully, decide if you need further training or a degree, make a detailed business plan, get a handful of close friends to act as a sounding board (but don’t show it to TOO many people or their negativity/fears projected on to you might hold you back) and then just jump in and make a splash! I truly believe and have seen people respond to passion, authenticity and determination. So, it’s never too early and it’s never too late!
Or as Judy Garland once said “always be a first-rate version of yourself instead of a second-rate version of someone else”.
Paris feels like a paradox when it comes to reinvention. Why do you think many people seek out Paris to be invigorated when the city is filled with challenges: language, bureaucracy and cultural differences?
Indeed, France and the French can be maddening, confusing and difficult. But at the same time, the French and French culture are so rich, deep and nuanced. Paris has drawn creative people to it forever and I think its beauty, history, architecture, culture and subtleties hold deep allure for many people. There is also great respect for artists here. And the paradox continues…in such an utterly codified, structured society that wants everyone to fit in and understand their exact place in the hierarchy, in fact, they admire people who truly dare to be themselves. I also like to think we get extra wiggle room as foreigners as they don’t expect us to know all the rules!
Most importantly for me, beauty is simply everywhere and everything is about beauty – l’art de vivre, le savoir-faire, l’art de la table, you name it. And the aesthetic inherent in 18th-century French architecture and furniture (both the extravagance of Louis XV and the sober restraint of Louis XVI) touch me very deeply…the symmetry, refinement, elegance and femininity of it all. It feels very much like my deepest self in a way, as if I were always meant to live here. Well, it’s a bit atavistic really, as some of my ancestors were French.
What advice do you have for new expats starting a new chapter in France? What’s the reality check?
Every single word you learn in French will make your life here that much more extraordinary. One of my secrets in the beginning was to try to speak French to children and elderly people at the grocery store. Both groups were more forgiving and I could build up my confidence and vocabulary over time.
I’d also say don’t expect or try to have the same career as before. It’s going to be different by definition on every level.
Embrace any opportunity to learn something new, meet someone different, go to a small village or discover an out-of-the-way museum.
Finally, be open to life unfolding not necessarily according to plan, which may be the best thing that ever happened to you.
Is France your home? How would you describe yourself today?
Oh, that’s an emotional question. Some of my American friends here would say yes, but I’d have to say I am still a bit torn, even after three decades. This is where I want to live and in certain ways, I think I become just a little more French every day. On the other hand, as a fifth-generation Texan, who started riding horses bareback at our ranch at the age of three, I will always cherish the idea of Texas. Or as the actor Matthew McConaughey once said, “wherever I go, I always keep Texas in my back-hip pocket” and I couldn’t agree more. I love to dress up and go to elegant Parisian events, but every once and a while, I just need to have guacamole and chips too.
At 60, I’m more myself than ever before. I don’t feel that old but at the same time, I know the passage of time is real. I’m so thrilled to be finally doing what I love professionally, daring to be creative every day, which I describe as letting my inner voice and most unexpected ideas come out to play without a censor! Other qualities which resonate more are the power of kindness, curiosity, compassion, empathy and gratitude to utterly change your life.
Finally, I’d have to say from my upbringing I’m still part cowgirl and part Southern debutante. Those job titles offer very different skill sets, both of which have served me well – and continue to do so!