2016 has arrived and everyone’s looking ahead to new beginnings, fresh starts, and wish lists for the upcoming year. I am too - but I’m a little behind, and I can’t fully move on until I take a long pause and reflect on all that 2015 was before I catch up with the rest of you.
Some years slide by us, and as the calendar flips to January, it just marks the passage of time. Then there are some years that are so life-changing and momentous and exhausting yet exhilarating all the same that as that last digit changes, you try to peer out of the wild haze you are surrounded in, wondering aloud, “Did that just happen?” That was this January 1st for me. And because of that, more than anything I need to recap it all for myself so one day in the future I remember what was built in the tumultuous year of wander that was 2015.
So here it is - the milestones, the highlights, and the heartaches of Simply Sara’s 2015:
Winding up life in Europe --
Last year at about this very same time, the new year jolted me to reality and snapped me (a little) out of denial. 2015 was the year we were moving from Paris.
Leaving was our own decision. We wanted to return to the US and be closer to our families - though we found that even with the change directed by our initiative, the move was no easier emotionally.
The first step of the process was in part some form of realization that this move in fact was going to happen as planned at the beginning of June. That meant the first few months of 2015 were designated to start wrapping up life in Europe. In our case, that called for a frenzy of oh-my-goodness-lets-go-here-and-there-while-theres-still-time trips.
THE TRAVELS -
First up was Lyon. Nestled in a country revered for its cuisine, Lyon carries the reputation as being the gastronomic center of France. Needless to say, it was a fitting thing that we allowed ourselves to live in France for three years as preparation for Lyon. Suddenly we were grabbing for our phones to translate some organs that we hadn’t often come across in Paris. My food love language, if there is one, is eating in down-to-earth, homey bistrots - so being introduced to Lyon’s special take on that, known as the bouchon, spoke right to my heart. If you want to dine well in France and explore a city that’s more manageable in size than Paris, definitely consider Lyon.
February’s adventure was a long weekend trip with friends to Venice during Carnevale, sandwiched between two days in Bologna. We had the realization that A) Why did we wait so long to visit Bologna? The food was amazing. B) Wearing a mask in public is strangely fun. Maybe a little time in Italy is the perfect way to break out of the winter blues. (Although I do love those quiet months that come with winter in Paris - see more in this post that features some of my favorite photos of Paris!)
Above: Venice is possibly the only city that makes a traffic jam utterly romantic! | My favorite set of Carnevale costumes, as displayed in Piazza San Marco.
Our weekend trip to Antwerp marked a new personal travel high, or low, depending on how you look at it.
For some reason still unknown to me, I decided that Antwerp was one of those short weekend trips we needed to squeeze in while still living in Paris. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was I had previously read about the city that lodged it in my “bank of places to go someday,” but Belgium had treated us to some wonderful weekends in the past so...why not?
The out-of-the-ordinary element for me was that on the train ride there, I still only had vague notions of what there was to see in Antwerp. Michael and I used to be so meticulous in our trip planning, with lists in hand on museum opening and closing hours, sample itineraries, planned activities. And while I still am very research-oriented and prepared when I travel, I blame the move and all the craziness that was about to happen after this jaunt was over for the lapse in organization.
So that all sets the scene for what happened next - a weekend that made us look like we were two college study abroad students let loose in Europe. The weekend was complete with questionable accommodations, Belgian beer, and one solo item that we ate for every single meal of the weekend: frites. Belgium once again did not disappoint.
PS. [I should also inform you that Michael is not very fond of potatoes of any kind, even French fries - and he was obsessed with the frites of Antwerp! We both give them the vote for the best fries we’ve ever eaten!!]
PPS. [Please also note that I'm not saying we ate French fries on the side of every meal - the fries alone consisted of our meal...all weekend long.]
Above: A series we like to call food and drink with a view - in the shadows of the towering Cathedral of Our Lady in the center of Antwerp, one can enjoy all the Belgian classics!
THE LAST HURRAH WITH SIBLINGS -
MID MARCH - MID APRIL
I started to realize that moving back to the States meant more than the obvious fact that we would no longer be living in Paris. It also meant that our ability to up and join our families (and friends) for last-minute European vacations would be much more challenging once back in the US.
Luckily though we had opportunities to see both my brother and Michael’s sister, which included 2 trips to London!
Oddly enough, those trips to London marked a significant moment of mourning the move for me. The thing is, if London were personified as a set of people in my life, it would surely be part of my group of high school friends. London and I go back for years. I have a familiarity with it, yet just like my old friends, I’m still discovering new facets of them over time. Suddenly the prospect of being out of reach from easy Eurostar train access to London really started to sink in.
[If you missed it, here’s one of my favorite blog posts of the year, on my Gateway to Europe and why England’s capital holds a special place in my heart.]
London was the first place I visited in Europe, which certainly attributed to my European travel itch that only got fiercer over time. I loved getting to introduce my both my brother and sister-in-law to this special city - and along the way, I got to experience some firsts myself (like at last, a proper British high tea!).
My brother, with his fiancee this time, made another appearance in April. We got to spend a few days in Paris together, and then took a side-trip to - Budapest!! I really promise to write more about Budapest at the possible risk that you might book a trip there immediately - it worked after I relayed our wonderful trip to my parents, when they incorporated it in their travel plans last year. And they were so taken by the city, they keep talking about wanting to visit again!
Above: Here’s one of my favorite activities we did - a street art tour, followed by a workshop where we learned how to make our own street art stencils.
PACKING OUR BAGS
END OF APRIL / MAY
After all that, we needed to be grounded for just a moment to truly wrap up life in Paris. We organized one final fête in our quirky, artsy Parisian flat. Our home had seen countless gatherings and hosted many visitors over the last three years, and it was only fitting that one of the final acts was popping open a 3-liter bottle of champagne to celebrate it (thank you to a generous friend for bringing that Jeroboam!)
The month of May is truly one of the highlights of the year. We set off on a month-long road trip through France. There is still lots more to share, but for now here’s another of my favorite posts from the year that details the highs and lows, or “the peach and the pit”, of our Tour de France.
The month-long adventure was more than just seeing pretty places in France before leaving. It was about further celebrating a country we fell in love with over our years of living abroad. And it was about making time and space for us as a couple to connect and hold on to each other tight in the midst of a big life change. Looking ahead at all that came after May, I think more and more that that month provided such a sweet shelter from the stress of the transition - without the time to reflect, the move back home would have been so much harder mentally to endure.
Destination NYC --
JUNE / JULY
With that, it was time to board a plane to New York where we had housing lined up for three months. The general plan was to get settled and start looking for an apartment in Manhattan. It seemed like a good one-year transition between city life in Paris and the next step, moving out to the suburbs by our families.
The plan sounded fun and logical when it came out of our mouths as we answered the numerous inquiries we got about where we were going to live next. The problem was we found that the words didn’t match our reality. We didn’t enjoy living in Manhattan as much as we anticipated. Maybe it was due to living on 8th Avenue, next to the theater district and a fire station, minutes from crowded Times Square. Maybe it was the relentless pace of the city, the sheer volume - the noise, the amount of space masses of people took up, the tall skyscrapers designed to increase the density of housing and businesses, the hurriedness. Maybe it was just not Paris, and any city besides Paris wouldn’t suffice for us in those early days. We tried to be patient and give it time to settle - and started a simultaneous apartment hunt in Manhattan and a house hunt in New Jersey to explore our options of the direction of the next move.
One month left of temp housing - and we made a somewhat spur-of-the-moment decision to return to Paris for our dear friends’ wedding. We were going to attend their stateside ceremony in October, but the legal marriage and first celebration was going down in Paris.
We hadn’t even been in the US for a full two months before we were running back to France. The trip was brief, a little confusing as our concept of “home” was up in the air, and wonderful (that’s the quick version, for brevity’s sake!).
This one scene is burned into my memory. It was our first full day in Paris on the trip, which meant we had taken a red-eye flight and hadn’t slept in a very long time. We planned a huge picnic that night (in case you missed it, we’re kind of into those - both informal and fancy) with all our friends.
Summer evenings in Paris are the best. The sun lingers, picnics span for hours, laughter and guitar chords punctuate the banks of the Seine, friends keep showing up with more wine. Michael and I were sitting in the collective “spot” while we re-hashed the house-hunting process with our friends. A new development had recently occurred - we put in an offer on a house a few days prior, and had made a counteroffer minutes before stepping on the plane. Now we were waiting, and endlessly debating how much we wanted the house and how to play our next move.
I tend to approach the prospect of major life decisions with as much emotional disconnect as I can muster up. This had happened so fast, and I had so many questions: Was it crazy to be negotiating on a house so quickly after returning to America? Is this what we wanted? Should we take it more slowly and try the New York thing in the interim? The sky started turning gold, then fiery oranges. I was in the closest place that felt “home” at the time. And in that moment, things came into sharp clarity. I did love that house, could envision us living there for many years, raising a family, hosting holidays, being snowed in, having summer BBQ’s - all of it was before me. This was it. On the Île Saint-Louis, an ocean separating us from the stress of real estate negotiations, I felt a release. I was free from feeling sad about moving away. I felt hope and excitement for the future. I could enjoy the temporal few days of reuniting with my Paris family who had traveled back from all corners of the world for what it was. I didn’t have to try to cling on to that time wildly and suck the life out of every moment, pretending that the move never happened. I was ready for a new home.
Before we knew it, it was time to give up our NYC pad - which meant we would be giving up the convenience of living in Manhattan and gaining some peaceful nights of sleep out at my parents’ house in Jersey.
We hauled our stuff once again out to our hometown, and soon after that transition came another - this handsome guy turned the big 3-0! I am great at being surprised, but am not the best at being able to pull off a big surprise -- and in this case, with our lives in a state of flux, I knew that I certainly would not succeed. Instead we had fun planning Michael’s big birthday bash together and bringing a little piece of France to our loved ones with a French wine pairing-themed party.
And shortly after that milestone came another - we bought the house! We’ve officially made New Jersey our home (and between that, and going back to work part-time, can explain a bit of my online absence as of late).
[Quick recap - in case that flew by you like it did for us: We moved back to the US and less than 4 months later had bought a house, Michael joined a new project at work, and I went back to work part-time. Oh, and over the summer and fall I traveled to: Washington DC, Michigan (with Michael), and Vegas.]
Europe Part #?
Perhaps normal people would buy a house, slow down, settle in, and all that stuff. But we ended the year with one last three-week trip to Europe.
What called us back this time? Well, ironically, an American holiday called Thanksgiving prompted us to return once again to Paris.
Long before we even knew that we would be homeowners by the year’s end, we decided to book a trip back to Paris to be in town for the weekend following Thanksgiving Thursday, when “expat Thanksgiving” is celebrated. It sounds strange, I know, but I have come to LOVE celebrating with my international and American friends in Paris. It had become “my” holiday to host when I lived in Paris (I know, how adult of me to have a stake on a holiday), and I learned to let the constraints of my Parisian apartment become charming (like not having an oven, and cramming 40+ people into the living room that was pictured above). I wrote more about my new-found love for the holiday here, and for some photos from our Paris Thanksgiving 2015, hop over to Expat Edna’s post.
Now coming over from the US, we had to make the most of the trip over. We got to spend a full week in Paris, giving us the opportunity to catch up with friends, frequent some old favorites, and even do a new thing or two (like seeing Cats the musical en français!).
To continue with tradition, we continued into Germany to hit some Christmas markets. When we lived in Paris, we crossed that border closer to December 25th as part of our annual “Christmas-palooza” vacation -- but this time it was earlier so we could be back in the US with our families to celebrate together.
Above: We've found, after three prior years of visiting European Christmas markets, that some towns were holding out on us! Some of our new favorite markets offer fire pits for extra warmth :-)
Leg #3 was the Scandinavian tour - Copenhagen and Sweden. Michael got to incorporate a needed business trip at the end while I ran around as much as I could in the few hours of daytime I had to work with.
And that...about sums up our wild and crazy year! How would your describe your 2015?
I am trying to get back on track with writing more regularly now that things have settled down a little! As you may be able to tell, there are lots of untold stories from last year - anything you want to see more on in the coming weeks?
Wishing you all a fantastic 2016!!!
Linking up with Monday Escapes